Article written by Graham Webb, member of Newcastle's Regiment
Life as a Seventeenth Century Woodturner
Woodturners belonged to a guild - guilds were 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. 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.
The master turner would buy his wood from a lumber merchant and turn in his workshop – he did not go out into the woods and turn on a pole lathe as is popular in modern times. 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.
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
English Civil War Bandolier Boxes
My special interest is in turning bandolier boxes- these 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. In the period, thousands were made to supply the musketeers in the English Civil War. I have 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 Journey to Recreating Bandolier Powder Boxes on a 17th Century Lathe
Having viewed the Tower of London collection original sets of bandoliers, 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'.
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 sparked the curiosity of Greg Roland, wheelwright to the Quee and he worked with me on the design, faithfully reproducing an impressive wheel with ash rims, oak spokes and an elm hub.
Wood for the Powder Boxes
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.
One of the Tower collection boxes had a round 1/4 inch indent at its base and this may have been 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 metal parts for me. Often mentioned in period writings is the cup chuck, which Peter later made for me and this method too can leave a small mark, so I now have the option of using either.
I shaped the oval collars of the powder boxes using off-centre turning. However, not all of the originals were completely equal on both sides, which suggests that some were hand finished. Riflers (a special kind of rasp) are mentioned in 17th century writings. Wanting to keep all my tools as authentic as possible, I now have a hand-stitched (the punching of the metal teeth) rifler, made 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.
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. (Also 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.