Woodturning And The Vikings

By Alan Lacer

Dick Enstad at the bow lathe
Dick Enstad turns at the bow lathe equiped with a mandrel, two-points, and a rest. Similar lathes were the portable Viking version of mini-lathes for turning small objects. On the lathes shown, cutting is performed when work moves towards the turner.

When one thinks of the Vikings one hardly thinks of woodturning. Thanks to Hollywood and popular literature, about all that comes to mind are tusked helmets, raids of destruction and plunder, and ships with dragonhead prowls. However, did you know that the helmets were a myth, and that the Vikings were also colonists, incredible boat builders, accomplished sailors and navigators, skilled traders and artisans-maybe that carved dragonhead points to their prowess as woodworkers. And woodturning appears to be one of their significant activities, based on finds at several Viking era sites.

9th-Century woodshop

In conjunction with the Smithsonian's touring exhibition, Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, a Viking era village was constructed at the Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul. In this village visitors viewed an active wood shop (with two types of lathes), textile production, examples of metal work, period kitchen, and a large replica of a Viking ship. Much of the information for the lathes is based on the excavations in York, England of Viking era settlements. Essentially these were thriving communities in the 9th through 11th centuries.

Perhaps most astounding from these excavations is that turning was a dominant trade. Of more than 1500 wooden artifacts found at the York locations, more than half were related to woodturning. At York's Coppergate site-the name itself may be translated "street of the cup makers"-there may have been more than 22 turners active at the height of the trade. And I do mean, "trade." This was not recreational turning or making objects at home from necessity, but represented a true trade of skilled craftsman, making objects for everyday use as well as possible trade goods. By one estimate (extrapolated from archeological turning evidence) there may have been as many as two million bowls turned in this area over a 200-year period.

Roger Abrahamson Operates a foot-powered pole lathe
Roger Abrahamson operates a foot-powered pole lathe. Carbon-steel bent gouges or hook tools were common.

What sorts of objects did the Vikings turn? From this one site there are examples of bowls, cups, lidded boxes, lids for ceramic pieces, tool handles, spinning tops, game pieces, bobbins, yarn spinning whorls, musical instruments, and small jewelry items. Clearly though bowls and cups dominate. An interesting note: of 94 bowls found at this site there were 65 variations in profiles and 51 different rim treatments. This indicates to me that the majority of these bowls were definitely not banged out, production pieces with no regard for quality or form; much of the work shows signs of thought and design. Some of the rim treatments could adorn contemporary turning or pottery and be considered quite elegant. Also, beads and grooves as well as paint were incorporated to add a decorative quality to many of the pieces.

There were a variety of woods used for turned objects at Coppergate. Certainly local woods dominated, but also the turning quality of a wood figured highly also. Alder and maple dominated, and there were also examples in yew, hazel, willow, boxwood, birch, beech, apple, oak, holly, and ash. Alder was the principle wood for face-worked bowls, while maple was the most common for spindle and end-grain hollowed objects such as cups. The Vikings also turned bone, walrus ivory, antler, amber, jet (a velvety black mineralized wood), and probably non-ferrous metals.

Lathes used by the Vikings were probably close to what you see in the photographs. As the original lathes were primarily made from wood, very little evidence has been found other than metal centers, mandrels used to drive the work, and one notched tool rest from Coppergate. Probably the Vikings used the bow lathe for small objects such as game pieces, jewelry, small and shallow bowls and cups, handles and the like. The spring-pole lathe was well suited for larger work, especially bowl work.

Bowls turned between centers.
Bowls turned between centers, with a spiked mandrel providing the transfer of power from the rope. The nothced tool rest was patterend after a similar one found at the Coppergate archeological site. It required a strong leg to power a pole lathe.

Viking bowl turning had some dominate features. The bowl would usually be from a green half log, shaped roughly with an axe, then turned on the face-grain, with the center of the tree at the rim and with the pith removed. Other than the axe work (their version of the bandsaw), this all sounds too contemporary does it not? The average size of such bowls was around 7 to 8 inches in diameter (with one example coming in at 14 inches in diameter). In contrast, most of the cups-which could have been done on either type of lathe, but somewhat more efficient on the spring-pole lathe-averaged around 4 to 5 inches in diameter.

Tools were in some way much as they are today: flat chisels and straight gouges for spindle work, gouges for the outside and inside of bowls. There were some important differences, especially for spring-pole turning: the tools were bent gouges or hooked tools, with long handles that approached the turner's shoulder, and cutting was below center. From metal analysis testing of tools from the site, we know the Vikings used steel edged tools. However, the carbon content was about half of a modern day high carbon steel tool-which meant more time spent sharpening and honing, but yet the Vikings still had reasonably good tools for woodworking. And one side note: many honing stones were found at the York site.

Next time you hear of the Vikings, don't just think of them as raiders from the North, but as serious woodworkers and turners.

To discover more about Viking woodturning and woodworking see Wood and Woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York by Carole A. Morris.

Special thanks to the Science Museum of Minnesota for access to the exhibit and to the two Viking woodturners, Dick Enstad (bow turner) and Roger Abrahamson (pole-lathe turner) for their demonstrations and assistance in writing this story.

A similar version of this article appeared in American Woodturner in the Summer 2003 edition.