The Melencolia I Square, Part 1

Melancholia_I_detail

For building furniture, I prefer wooden layout tools. They’re lightweight, easy to maintain and easy to make. Even more important than those three qualities is that their accuracy is perfect for woodworking.

Machinist tools in the woodshop can make you chase your tail at times, trying to fix problems that aren’t there and working to levels of precision that are are unnecessary for even the fussiest furniture.

So when I see a wooden layout tool in an old print that I’ve never encountered, it’s only a matter of time before I make one to try out in the shop.

A couple of years ago, Jeff Burks sent me a series of images, many of which I’d seen before. But what I hadn’t seen is what the images all had in common: an extinct square with a long and decorative blade, a short stock (or handle) that was heavily moulded and a hang hole.

The square seems most common to Northern Europe, especially the Netherlands and Germany. And most of the images of it (so far) are circa 16th and 17th century. The square – and I don’t even know if that’s the correct word to describe the tool – was common enough that it was used as a symbol for a joiner or cabinetmaker in shop signage and heraldry.

This week I’ve built four versions of this square, and I have put them into use in my shop. They do two things really well: They are an excellent straightedge, and they are a compact square that is effective when dealing with dressed (not rough) boards.

I have a lot of notes on this tool that have accumulated during the last two years. I considered pitching this as a story to Popular Woodworking Magazine, but I have too much material to cover it effectively in a magazine article. So instead, I’m going to post it all here on the blog in several parts.

Let’s first look at some historical images that have this straightedge/square and discuss what is shown there.

Melancholia_I

My favorite image of the square is in Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia I,” a 1514 engraving that shows the tool next to a wooden smoothing plane at the bottom left of the image. Dürer, who is perhaps the most important artist of the Northern Renaissance, traveled all over Europe. He was based in Nuremberg but traveled to (and was influenced by) Italy and the Netherlands.

The straightedge/square is shown in the same plane as the handplane, so if we assume the plane is about 9” long, here are the roughish dimensions of the layout tool: The stock of the square is 1” thick and 2” wide. The blade is 1/4” and extends out of the stock about 7”.

Jost_amman_1

This German woodcut from the mid 16th century by Jost Amman has been copied a number of times. It’s from a series of engravings representing the different crafts and was made in Nuremberg. The straightedge/square is shown upright and next to a try square. What is notable about this version is that its moulding profile is quite different. The stock is widest at the end and narrows toward the blade.

Also, the blade of the tool has a different profile – the tapering and decoration are confined more to the end of the tool. It’s difficult to scale this tool from its surroundings, but I think it’s fair to say its stock is thicker than the Melencolia I square, but the blade is about the same length.

tischblatt

This 1561 piece of marquetry is a tabletop from a guild table that is now owned by the Stadtmuseum in Bolzano, in Northern Italy. When it comes to representations of woodworking tools, I think it’s best to trust woodworkers. So this one has particular merit.

The straightedge/square is shown in the bottom right of the image – and the blade of the tool is crossed with the blade of another similar tool. Proportionally, this tool has a stock that is similar to the Nuremberg image above, but the blade has a shape that is more like the Dürer illustration.

What I think is important about this marquetry illustration of the tool is that it is shown in a grouping with a try square, so it’s possible the tools were distinct from one another – both are as important to the work as a bowsaw, glue pot or workbench.

Wierix_life_of_the_infant_2 Wierix_life_of_the_infant_1

These images from before 1619 by Hieronymus Wierix are held by the British Museum and are considered “Netherlandish.” Both of these images depict scenes from the life of Christ and show a different form of this straightedge/square that looks more like a SpeedSquare than the forms shown elsewhere. The stock is longer and thinner. And the blade is notably wider.

Yes, but what about England? Did the English use this tool?

Kinda. Sorta. Maybe.

— Christopher Schwarz

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18 Responses to The Melencolia I Square, Part 1

  1. jimnjulia says:

    Looks similar to the Paolini Lumber Rule that Woodpeckers is manufacturing.

  2. jdcook72 says:

    It reminds me a little of a plane stop or bench hook or may a cross between the two.

  3. mcdara says:

    Is it possible that the molded portion (or at least part of it) could move along the blade? The steps shown on the blade could be a form of measuring guide. I was wondering if it could have been a form of depth gage? The illustration showing it “crossing” almost looks like it goes into a hole in the other piece.

    • LostArtPress says:

      Dan,

      With the wooden versions I’ve seen so far, the stock is fixed. There is one with a metal stock and wooden blade (which I’ll show later) that *might* allow movement.

      The marquetry panel is a bit puzzling because of the way the two tools cross. I wonder if the other tool it is crossed with has a slot. Or if we are just seeing artistic license.

      • mcdara says:

        The inlay version could very well be artistic licence. I would almost hate to connect the two, but is it possible it has a kindship to this? http://www.incrementaltools.com/INCRA_Precision_Rule_Set_6_p/irset06.htm

        Used as a form of sliding marking tool?

      • Yes, it would almost have to imply that the pale tool passes through the dark tool. There is no similar fanciful artistic license in any of the otter tools. But it makes no sense, and I can’t see the utility of it.

      • smbarnha says:

        The perspective doesn’t look right to me for illustrating a slot and one tool passing through the other. It seems like it would enter behind and exit on top. Still, the perspective might have looked right to them – or maybe it was a mistake, though I’m guessing not. It looks like these two tools are also illustrated (together) on the workbench.

        Maybe the stepped gradation of the blade could be used for quick layout of standard tenons and a fit check for through mortices.

        What would have been the purpose of a table like this? To illustrate the competency of that woodworker or group of woodworkers?

        Not a nabob, checking the natter (does it matter if just the latter?)

  4. gman3555 says:

    I think it’s interesting that this layout tool is pictured along with the more familiar square. The craftsman of these eras obviously felt that it was beneficial to have both versions. I look forward to part two.

    Have you seen this blog. I’m slowly working through it. Apparently he is working on his PhD in traditional crafts. In this post there is a version of this square that includes a miter tongue.
    http://skottbenk.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/hovelmaking/

    Greg

  5. toolnut says:

    The one in the German woodcut (pic3) with the wide base looks like it would be used vertically. For example, when you are drilling a hole and need a reference to ensure you are drilling perpendicular to your stock.

    • LostArtPress says:

      Good point. It could be used both ways. Vertical and pressed against the work.

      • This occurred to me too, thinking how handy it could be to just stand your square up on the work. Regular wood stock squares are too tippy.

      • toolnut says:

        Just thinking out loud here, but given the width of the base, I’m not sure how useful it would be to use it pressed against the wood unless it was a very thick piece or you registered it with the stock hanging over the workbench. Maybe it died out for that reason. I guess we won’t know for sure until “somebody” builds and tests it in his never ending quest for the the truth.

  6. sablebadger says:

    I’d seen the first two images before, but the others are fantastic. The marquetry table is fascinating. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to your other posts.

  7. rudemechanic says:

    looks like it could be for laying out paralel lines in standard distances, i.e ripping standard size pieces?
    kinda like a modern speed square http://pad1.whstatic.com/images/thumb/8/83/Use-a-Speed-Square-Step-5.jpg/670px-Use-a-Speed-Square-Step-5.jpg

  8. Krishen Kota says:

    It may just be artistic license in the 1561 marquetry piece, but here is what comes to mind when looking at the crossed squares; If the m-square passes through the other one, perhaps the m-square passes through the other square which is positioned vertically and could be used to visually test a piece of work for 90 and 180 degrees at the same time. Think of the concepts of winding sticks and try square mixed together. Continuing that random thought, perhaps the m-square could also be positioned to rest on sets of points where the curves on the handle meet to test for specific angles 22.5, 30, 45 degrees. I’m not sure how likely this use was, but all the most likely answers have been taken already 🙂

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