Medieval Joinery

Joinery evolved most substantially between the 12 and 15th centuries, in response to the problem of constructing joints that would resist any wood movement.

The technical problems were that medieval glues were weak and did a poor job of holding two pieces of wood together. Metal was expensive and therefore nails were often out of the question. Working with wood has always been characteristically difficult. Due to woods properties of absorption, its shape can easily change as it sucks in water, or more commonly rain, and then dries out in the sun. This can result in bowing, misshaping and even cracking.

Earlier joints could easily change shape and size due to these constant processes of absorption and release of water meaning that structures could quickly become less secure and eventually unstable. A series of joints were developed to be mechanically strong despite these factors.

The evolution in joinery techniques were part of the greater general evolution in woodwork and knowledge. The trade would change dramatically from the, often crude, and utilitarian wooden objects of the early Middle Ages, to the extremely decorative furniture and staircases which featured at the dawn of the Renaissance throughout Europe.

The butt joint was widely used but not the strongest by any means. Due to its lack of strength it required nails to give it any security. Even though it has these characteristics, the joint is still in use today as it is simple and quick to mass produce. 

A great early solution in progressing joinery was the mortise & tenon joint and was adopted for use from the timber framing used in large buildings. It is reasonably basic - in essence a peg slotted inside a hole, but this joint offered much mechanical strength whilst also allowing the wood to expand and contract as it wanted. This technique was widely used on pieces of furniture from the 11th century onwards.

For larger pieces of woodwork and joinery there was a need for a better, more efficient way of adjoining wooden structures. The dovetail joint did just this. By cutting corresponding or exact opposite joints, the wood would fit together snuggly in an extremely solid manner. Whilst being quite demanding to cut, a dovetail joint is unaffected by wood movement and has since been used in a plethora of different ways including Edwardian furniture and in the construction of doors.

Frame and panel is another alternative joint developed in this era. Once again, like the dovetail, it allowed craftsmen to create larger structures in a secure manner. By using this method, the panels ‘float’ within the grooves of a frame; this once again enables the wood to expand and contract. Sometimes, after a joint has gone through the process multiple times, these joints become even stronger.

With the development of these joints, artists, designers, craftsmen and builders could evolve their skills and push the limits of their creations and the materials used. Without the progression of these solid techniques we wouldn’t have all of the beautiful examples of joinery from the past or the industry of the present.

In the world of Joinery today many of these methods are still used, however materials and tools used have greatly improved over the years and now joiners are able to make stylish pieces of bespoke joinery work such as the table shown above which was made by Jardines Joinery Cheshire, a popular joinery company covering the whole of the Wirral and Cheshire.