Updated: Mar 19, 2022
The resilient people of Scandinavia have always been craftsmen, working with wood has always been a staple trade skill of our Norse ancestors. In this article, I will go over some of the different tools and ways woodworking was done and used in day to day life of the Norsemen!
It’s important to know first that the softer woods of northern Scandinavia, along with counterpart hardwoods of neighboring countries like Denmark and Sweden, provided a much needed, and inexhaustible source of, raw material for “carpentry " and woodworking artisans. Woodworking was a common skill amongst most Scandinavian people on a basic level of being able to build homes, tools and complete simple repairs, like woodworking craftsmen today. There were however more skilled craftsmen, as with the Mästermyr artisan. There would have been like the "handyman" of today and perhaps were the intern craftsmen if need be. We know this from the historical Old Norse literature and records that the Norse were very well versed and even specialized in boat-building as well as expert home builders and carpenters.
The art forms span a variety of disciplines. In the Viking Age, wood was used for homes, for ships, for barns and other buildings, as well as for farming implements and household objects, and many other day to day things. Some woodwork was very plain, while others enormously elaborate with decorations carved and painted on them.
Tools - Types of Tools - A Look at the Mästermyr Wood Crafting Tools
The nature of any type of handicraft was like today affected by the tools the craftsman has available. To start off our deeper look into Viking Age woodworking, let us take a gander at the evidence we have of the results of those tools of the Viking age wood crafter.
Evidence for the tools of the Viking Age woodcrafter come from a variety of sources. The best source of evidence comes from archeological finds of the actual tools themselves. A few examples of this type of find comes from Gotland, Sweden, where an entire tool chest was found at Mästermyr, containing both blacksmith's tools and tools for woodwork. The Mästermyr find is important, because it’s the only example of a wide collection of tools found in a single find from Viking Age Scandinavia. It is not rare to find a few tools in an individual grave on the Occasional but far less often, home or farm sites will have a large amount of examples over an individual tool.
In 1936, on an island off the coast of Sweden, a farmer plowing a recently drained swampland was stopped by something buried in the ground. He found his plowshare entangled in an old chain. As he dug deeper he found the chain wrapped around a chest that contained many old tools. Subsequent investigation by Sweden's archeologists revealed that it was a tool chest from the Viking Age and, though a millennium old, these tools would not have been out of place in any modern smith's forge or carpenter's workshop.
Evidence for Viking Age woodworking comes from examination of surviving wooden items, especially close attention to tool marks, ornamentation, and construction details. The items themselves are not the only good source, however, since waste and scraps produced by the crafter in making a wooden item often give extremely valuable insights into woodworking technique and the tools in use. We also find evidence that comes from artistic representations showing woodworking tools in use in early northern Europe. The most notable of these is perhaps the Bayeux Tapestry, which shows shipbuilders at their work, utilizing a range of tools that are identical to the ones found in Viking Age Scandinavia, particularly the tool assemblage from Mästermyr.
There are a few different Species of trees that are native to Norway and even fewer that were used in their day to day wood crafts. The species of trees are:
We see in grave digs, the most commonly used woods for homes and ships were alder, aspen and spruce for their flexibility, buoyancy and accessibility; and, as well as sheer size of the trees themselves. Yes there are also ash trees in Norway but they are not as common.. And one reason for this I believe is the reason ash is so sacred to our people and spiritual beliefs. The long process of harvesting a tree for its timber is a long standing tradition with very strapped. Spiritual connections. In the Codex Regis, it is said that we were shaped from the stumps of trees and given life and flesh by the Gods themselves.
This leads me to look at the Sami animist beliefs and practices to see how the simple ideas on connecting with the spirits of the forest, when choosing the right materials to harvest for our craft, or need, is as important down to letting the spirit of the wood speak to you when you are shaping it and carving it into the useful material- that it is giving a new life. This is a meditative practice, and a meditative state of mind, to focus on letting the energies of nature flow from the life of the tree. And the life that you take from yourself and put into the tree as you would work it into shape for whatever your craft is. Trees hold old wisdom and knowledge about the world. Trees live longer than we do and see more errors than we do within their life spans. From them we can learn and grow with the landvetter.
Written by “Liam Seidman Meader “
Oathingothi of the Northern American Nordic Society