Tudor Trenchers

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Tudor Trenchers:
Chris Grace makes some replica Tudor trenchers for a community museum.

Chris Grace makes some replica Tudor trenchers for a community museum

A history society that runs a Tudor Cottage in Southwick, Sussex asked me to turn them a set of Tudor trenchers for a display. Research showed there are few surviving wooden trenchers from that period, except those found on the Mary Rose in Portsmouth – obviously we needed a field trip. Mary Rose trenchers varied in size, shape and decoration; many having the mark of their owners. Therefore a ‘set’ of trenchers, as we would understand a set of plates, would probably not have existed. Rather, such items would likely have been acquired over a period of time from different sources. I decided to make the trenchers with different designs to reflect this. These needed to be historically accurate, therefore I chose a wood likely to have been available, sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), and I used a ring-type tool to simulate the tool marks of the hook tool that would have inevitably been used with a pole lathe to make the original items.
When I make similar bowls intended for daily food use, I typically use beech (Fagus sylvatica). These are fully sanded and I am careful to not create any food traps or areas that would be difficult to clean when adding decoration. This makes them more practical, though a little less ‘authentic’.

The finished trenchers on display

EQUIPMENT AND MATERIALS
Tools
• Saw
• Bowl gouge
• Dovetail scraper
• Ring tool or equivalent
• Point tool
• Carving gouge and/or knife
Materials
• 220 x 220 x 50mm for each trencher in sycamore
• Dark wax

1. When selecting material from a larger slab of wood, you may find it preferable to cut it into pieces that are easier to handle initially with a chainsaw. When cutting wood with a chainsaw, use a suitable platform to prevent the saw touching the ground, like an old pallet. Clamp smaller work for sawing. Always use the necessary PPE and ensure there are no distractions

Round trenchers

2. First, determine the centre of your blank, taking into account any defects and whether they can be turned away. I used a home-made centre finder template, but you could use a compass, ruler or a tape measure

3. Mark the maximum circle obtainable on the blank with a compass; this double checks that the centre is marked correctly

4. Chop the corners off the blanks to ease the initial stage of turning. I find this much quicker and easier than cutting circles; the additional waste turns away very quickly

TOP TIP: Make a centre finder from a piece of polycarbonate with a hole drilled in the middle and concentric rings scribed with the point of a compass; colour every third ring for easy reference when centring blanks.

5. When using a blank with one flat-ish face, drive it with friction by pressing it against a cork faceplate with a revolving centre for initial truing up and shaping. Form a chucking spigot initially using a bowl gouge. Make sure the surface that the chuck jaws will bear on is flat and it is sized for your chuck

TOP TIP: A cork faceplate is a great way to drive a turning with a flat face. You can make one from a scrap of planed hardwood, add a chucking spigot, true it up and stick on cork. Press the work firmly against the cork faceplate with a live (rotating) centre.

6. Next, cut an accurate dovetail on the spigot using a specially ground scraper – most dovetail chucks use 75°. Do the initial shaping with a medium sized bowl gouge

7. Use appropriate eye/face protection, which is essential and makes the turning process more comfortable. A home-made air-fed helmet is lightweight, comfortable and provides fresh air; also, it never gets fogged-up

8. Reverse the bowl and grip it in your chuck to turn the inside. As I’m most comfortable using my modern bowl gouge, I started the hollowing process with that tool

9. Check periodically to determine depth using a gouge and thumb sighting across the front of the bowl. Transfer the gouge to the outside of the bowl and line your thumb up with the top to judge how much further there is to go

10. Having formed a hollow, I then switched to my modern ring tool, which is the closest approximation I had to the hook tool that would have been used on the originals. We want to leave some tool marks similar to original examples, like the ones I had seen on Mary Rose trenchers

11. Before cutting away too much of the inside, shape the edge of the bowl by the rim to ensure there is still sufficient stability to enable chatter free cuts. Having confirmed I could achieve the effect I had visualised, I did most of the hollowing with my bowl gouge, before taking finish cuts with the ring tool

12. As the bowls were intended to be historically accurate as well as practical, they need to have features similar to those that would have been found on trenchers from the Tudor period. Create some decorative grooves on some of the platters with a point tool, similar to those on the Mary Rose platters

TOP TIP: When making trenchers for modern daily use, ensure the wood is not spalted at all; typically I use beech. Also ensure that any decoration will not become a food trap.

13. The chucking spigot can be reduced at this point, down to a small nub, then remove the remaining nub with a small flexible fine-toothed pullsaw and finish off with a carving gouge

14. To colour the wood and simulate aging, use a solution of Van Dyck Crystals in water. Depth of colour is easily controlled with this method, so you can build it up and stop when you have reached the desired result

15. As many of the bowls found on the Mary Rose had identifying marks from their owners, I took the platters to my carving group and asked them to add something unique to each, reminding them that they were likely to be illiterate, so a pictorial mark will be fine

DID YOU KNOW? While most of the marks were complex (like pictograms), one of the Mary Rose trenchers had a name and the word ‘cook’ on it.

16. Finally for these bowls, apply a coat of sanding sealer and some wax to preserve their look and feel as they would inevitably be handled regularly

Square trenchers

17. The process for creating the square trenchers starts a little differently; create one flat edge perpendicular to the face of the blank with your chopsaw

18. Then use this ‘squared’ edge to enable you to re-saw the blank into two equal halves on the bandsaw

TOP TIP: When re-sawing a large blank on your bandsaw it’s essential it has a flat face or two adjacent faces for stability. Press the blank against the fence with a push block for safety.

19. As there will be a salt recess in one corner, the blank needs to be laid out carefully. Draw on the ‘bowl’ and salt recess to ensure the proportions will look right when turned and carved

20. Having determined the centre of the bowl, press it against a cork faceplate with a live centre. This has the benefit that there will be no chucking marks to remove later. Check that it spins true, clear of the toolrest and is lined up accurately to cut the central ‘bowl’

21. Although the tailstock restricts access, you can use a combination of pull and push cuts to remove most of the waste. First use pull cuts towards the outside of the ‘bowl’, followed by a series of push cuts to flatten the middle

22. A quick skim of the outside edge of the top with a large radiused scraper smooths it sufficiently for this trencher and removes my modern bandsaw marks

23. Hold a small square against the cut surface so you can ensure the bottom of the ‘bowl’ portion is flat, as required for this style of trencher. Having turned the ‘bowl’, pare the cone used to press the trencher to the cork faceplate to a minimum

24. Carve away the nub with a long bent carving gouge that is almost flat

25. Then, carve the salt recess using a curved short bent gouge. Just keep going round, starting near the centre and moving towards the outside of the recess until the appropriate depth has been achieved. Clean up any tool marks as best you can with the same tool, but not to completely eradicate them. Finally colour, wax and mark the trencher as before

The finished trenchers

26. The ‘set’ of trenchers were delivered to a small heritage centre in Southwick to be part of their permanent display. Since completing these I have received further similar commissions, together with requests for trenchers in this style for daily food use

TOP TIP: If you need to try a different technique to achieve a particular finish, try it out while you have plenty of wood to play with.

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