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Joseph Moxon Lathe: Seventeenth Century Wood Turning

Venues for Wood Turning Demonstrations

Some dates are now pencilled in but only Beeston is confirmed as a venue for period wood turning demonstrations and this event will be around easter time. There should be some firm dates to show early Spring. In the mean time, please go to http://www.goingbang.co.uk

Engineering and the Guilds

Isaac Newton (1643-1727) said he was 'standing on the shoulders of giants'. Many believe he was referring to the engineers of the day who flocked to London from all over Europe to become excellent watchmakers and mechanics. We only have to look at the 1642 calculator, known as the Pascaline and used for more than two hundred years. King Charles, on the scaffold, handed over his alarum watch clock made by Edward East. Watches, though expensive, were produced on a large scale from as early as 1618 in London. The engineering skills and knowledge would amaze our pampered twenty first century minds. The experts were gathered in to guilds which were themselves structured into a hierarchy from goldsmiths to potters, but regardless of the position in this league, each master or freeman of his trade served a long apprenticeship and was protected by monopolies so that itinerant workers could not practise a skilled man's trade. This ensured the highest of standards, since income, social status and personal pride rested on the quality of the items made. The guilds also provided revenue, and because taxes were gathered from the guild treasurers who paid part of the membership fees to the government, goods made outside the guilds undermined the revenue.

Guilds appeared all over England, with the most prominent in London. These formed powerful lobbying corporations that can be equated to Microsoft now. This system, based on individual craftsmen, remained virtually untouched until the Great Fire of London and was finally overcome by the Industrial Revolution. Items could however be bought on an industrial scale. An arms dealer could fulfil orders for thousands of different items in times of war and written evidence of them can still be seen all the way from the guilds to the individual wood turner's workshop for bandolier boxes. A typical large order might be for 3000 muskets, each with lock, match, rest and pair of bandoliers. At the other end of the scale we can read a wood turner's diary where he complains of making nothing but bandolier boxes ('box' was the term used for all wooden containers). Henry VIII is thought to have bound wood turners to a guild because dried goods were often measured in wooden boxes. Since nutmeg was more valuable than gold, the measure had to be reliable.

Life as a Seventeenth Century Wood Turner

In recent times there has been a fashion for green woodworking and it is great fun to get into the woods with an axe and a draw knife before turning something on a pole lathe. But in the 17th century this was not the case, and the master turner would not waste his time foraging, instead buying from a lumber merchant (sawn and seasoned wood) to use in his well-equipped workshop. The master turner earned between 400 to 600 pounds per year, at a time when a small house cost about 18 pounds. He would have a servant to assist his wife and an apprentice. In his wood turner's diary, Nehemiah Wallington writes of long working hours. The wood turner would be paid to take on an apprentice - a boy of 14 years of age, who once he had served his time (about seven years) would leave to become a journeyman, working for others until he got his own workshop.

English Civil War Bandolier Boxes

Bandolier boxes are still being excavated and many museums display well preserved examples. Across Europe and even at the early American settler sites, these boxes are remarkably similar. Some years ago I inspected many of those in the Tower of London collection, now contained in the Leeds Armouries. Measuring, weighing and feeling the original items provides clues about how they were made by the experts of the day. The poor quality of some in the collection may explain why they had never contained powder and may well have been rejects. However the errors in manufacture can actually help in understanding the methods of production. One thing we know for certain is they should be 'thrice layed in oyle' (dowsed in thinned linseed oil to protect from rain) and 'turned and not bored'. This latter means that the centre of the box is hollowed and not simply drilled, thus giving a greater capacity for the black powder needed to fire the muskets, whilst still keeping the boxes a neat size.

Flasks had been used in earlier periods for delivering smaller quantities of powder for less powerful weapons such as arquebuses, but from the 1620s onwards we see orders only for bandoliers. The brief period instructions imply there was a pattern (a sample) bandolier box sent out to commissioned wood turners. This also explains the similarity of boxes throughout the western world.

The C17th Joseph Moxon Lathe

Prints and engravings from the 1600s show wood turners' workshops, with many variations in lathe design and an array of impressive chisels. Joseph Moxon's Mechanick Exercises of 1703 described in detail how to be a wood turner ( first published just after the Great Fire of London). Moxon wrote and illustrated all aspects of his lathe in detail. The lathe needs something to turn the work - Moxon made the point that the 'great wheel' was so common that he need say little about it - he does though give a diameter measurement of between 5-6ft. For one turn of the wheel I get 15 revolutions of the pulley on the lathe - an impressive amount of power necessary for turning large pieces, such as wide plates and bedsteads. The great wheel was operated by the apprentice, and sometimes by two as there could be handles on both sides.

So that the turner could work independently, the Moxon lathe had a solid oak treadle wheel, with a diameter of two and a half feet, and a bow for when he needed to do alternate rotation, as is necessary to operate a foot powered drill and a 17th century screw thread device.

The Journey to Recreating Bandolier Powder Boxes on a 17th Century Lathe

Passion for history and 'getting things right' has previously meant that I have hand stitched all my own 17th century clothes. Observing different styles and sizes of bandolier boxes piqued my interest and set me off on this journey, starting with my visit to the Tower of London collection with a need to see some originals. More questions than answers were raised and I decided that there was no better way to learn than to make my own powder boxes on a reproduction 17th Century lathe - my own 'experimental archaeology'. After turning nearly 1,000 powder boxes, I am still discovering more about the methods of the day and the tools and equipment which will further enhance the authenticity of all items I turn.

So my first challenge was the lathe itself, recreating a 17th century one with Derbyshire quarter sawn oak and using period jointing and pegging techniques to allow it to be 'flat packed' for transportation. For the Great Wheel itself, I was very fortunate to spark the curiosity of Greg Roland, wheelwright to the Queen. He worked with me on the design and he has faithfully reproduced an impressive wheel with ash rims, oak spokes and an elm hub.

Wood for the Powder Boxes

After measuring the original collections, the next step in recreating a bandolier was to identify the wood. The most likely is beech - a close grain hardwood and easily obtainable. Boxes made from softer woods such as poplar, sycamore and birch would probably be the ones covered in leather for added protection. The weakest point of the box is the collar around the string holes, which is vulnerable to splitting and a wider grain such as ash would therefore be unsuitable. The collections show perfect round spouts and lids, which indicate that greenwood was not used (greenwood shrinks and distorts as it dries).

Turning the Boxes

My next challenge was how to attach the piece of wood to be turned so that it can be held securely and turned. Working between centres doesn't allow the requisite hollowing of the powder boxes. A clue to this came from one of the Tower collection boxes, which had a round 1/4 inch indent at its base. I have concluded that this was caused by a pin mandrel - a type of pin chuck which cleverly secures the wood firmly enough to be hollowed using a hollowing tool. I have found it necessary to use the steady, which Moxon described, on the neck of the box. I must give all the credit to a wonderful retired engineer, Peter Trett, who made the precision metal parts for me.

I initially created the oval collars of the powder boxes using off-centre turning. However I wasn't satisfied with this and re-examined the originals - not all were completely equal on both sides, which suggests that they were hand finished. Riflers (a special kind of rasp) are mentioned in 17th century writings. Not liking to use a mass produced one from China and wanting to keep all my tools as authentic as possible, I now have a hand-stitched (the punching of the metal teeth) rifler, entirely made by hand, using traditional forging techniques. It cuts beautifully, leaving a smooth finish and the correct shape. Sandpaper was not used in the 17th century and I do not use it either - the rest of the powder box is finished with a very sharp skew chisel.

The powder boxes I make are attached with tarred linen string to a hand-stitched belt, with a hand-stitched leather bullet bag, both of which have measurements and construction techniques based on the examples seen in the Tower collection. As you will have gathered, I have a passion for learning through doing, and when an original seventeenth century American metal top fitted perfectly one of my reproduction boxes, it was a very proud moment!

Please come and see me at Sealed Knot musters on living history or at other traditional historical craft shows and bring along your teenagers as they make excellent great wheel slaves - err, I mean I offer promising internships!


Arms and Armour of the English Civil Wars, 1990 by David Blackmore.

Dealing in Death: The Arms Trade and the British Civil Wars, 1638-52, 2000 by Peter Edwards.

A History of Mechanical Inventions, 1929 by Abbott Payson Usher.

Mechanick Exercises: Or, The Doctrine of Handy-works; 3rd edition 1703 by Joseph Moxon. (Available free on-line through Google Books).

Wallington's World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London, 1985 by Paul Seaver.

WWW pictures of my reproductions at GoingBANG.com and GoingBANG.co.uk.

You Tube Channel 'Master Webbe' to see Tower of London box examinations.