Marriage Marks and Apotropaios

imageIn Chris’ recent post, “We Are Equally Crappy,” a few readers asked about marriage marks, also known as a cabinetmaker’s triangle. Above is Monsieur Roubo’s version. Why have boring straight edges on your triangle when you can have curvy, sexy and French?

(Editor’s note: Roubo offers up about 10 of these useful marks in Plate 5. The full translation will be in the forthcoming “Roubo on Furniture.”)

Timber framers used a different marking and matching system. Roman numerals were most often used but there are other variations.

Timber framer marks.


As European carpenters found their way to the New World they brought these marking systems with them. Examples can be seen in 17th and 18th century roof timbers, especially along the East Coast. The top example (right) is from Delaware, the bottom one is from England. I found only one example from South America.

Beasties threatening a home.

Beasties threatening a home.

The third kind of marking that might be found up in the rafters, around doors, windows and fireplaces is an apotropaios (meaning to turn away), also known as a witches mark.

In 17th centry Britain witchcraft was a real concern. In 1604 King James I wrote, “…for some they sayeth that being transformed in the likeness of a beast or fowl, they will come and pierce through whatsoever house or church, though all ordinary passages be closed, by whatsoever open air may enter in at.” I’m leaving out the bit about women being more frail and more susceptible to…nevermind.

Typical marks to ward off witches were two overlapped Vs (Virgin of Virgins), M (Virgin Mary), MR (Maria Regina), daisy circles, a series of circles and circles attached to letters. You might see all of these letters and symbols combined.


Misericord with overlapping Vs.

Misericord with overlapping Vs.

Researchers in Britain are cataloging these symbols in churches. Both the overlapping V and the M symbols have been found integrated into carvings on pews, choir stalls and misericords.

The next time you find yourself in an old building look closely and you might see some of these signatures of past woodworkers.

Suzanne Ellison

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15 Responses to Marriage Marks and Apotropaios

  1. I added this to the entry above:

    (Editor’s note: Roubo offers up about 10 of these useful marks in Plate 5. The full translation will be in the forthcoming “Roubo on Furniture.”)

    • flatironjoe says:

      The set of boards with the large mark (sans crow) is on Plate 18, for those who might have been looking. Can’t wait for the text to come along so we can see how all the illustrations relate.

  2. I recently restored a mid 19th C card table – who’s legs were very loose. On taking it apart it was obvious that it had been repaired at least twice previously – the first repairer (based on teh finish overlaying the marks) used roman numerals . but the second restorer simply drilled holes about 2mm deep. I simple stamped letters into the mating legs. A future restorer no doubt will laser etch them or use some other 21st century device.

  3. The Daisy Wheel was often used in the design of timber frame structures — laying out pleasing proportions etc. There are lots of good posts in the Timber Framer’s Guild Forums and in their publications that talk about it a bit. If I recall correctly it was often used as a reference for layout, right on the frame. A wheel would be carved into a principal timber and carpenters could accurately set up their compass based on the carved one and use that setting to walk off dimensions on timbers that needed to be cut.
    And here as well

  4. Richard O. Byrne says:

    One often sees “witness marks” on timbers in timber frame buildings that indicate where all the pieces go once they are completed and ready to be assembled. One also sees them on window frames and the matching sash and shutters that go with each unit. Lines across boards in cabinet work are also used to keep track of what goes where. Why call them “witness marks? The origin would be worth exploring…perhaps religious.
    Richard O. Byrne

    • Saucyindexer says:

      After a quick check I found it *may* have started as a surveying term to mark out the boundries of a property. Sometimes a tree at a corner mark was the witness tree. Witness lines are still used in CAD.

      • OED sez:

        d. Technical uses (see quots.; cf. French témoin).
        1802 C. James New Mil. Dict. Witnesses. In fortification. (See Temoins.) [Temoins, Fr. In civil and military architecture, are pieces of earth left standing as marks or witnesses in the fosses or places which the workmen are emptying, that they may many cubical fathoms of earth have been carried.]
        1825 ‘J. Nicholson’ Operative Mechanic 763 If any silver be produced it must be deducted from the assay. This is called the witness.
        1880 J. W. Zaehnsdorf Art of Bookbinding Gloss., Witness, when a volume is cut so as to show that it has not been so cut down, but that some of the leaves have still rough edges. These uncut leaves are called ‘Witness’.

  5. jbgcr says:

    As a boy I worked with a old carpenter that had finished his apprentiship in 1930 Germany. He used a circle clock dial mark. 2 pieces meeting at 90 were marked 12 and 3 or 12 and 9. A butt joint was 1 and 6 or 3 and 9. Many varieties of the clock numbers could be used for relative positions of parts and to indicate angles. Hardest working man I ever worked with.

  6. Eric R says:

    Very interesting article Suzanne.
    Thanks you.

  7. TheCreativeHand says:

    On my recent trip to France, I came across an unusual looking tool used by the charpentiers called rouannes which was used to create the different marks.

    I would add a photo but I’m not sure how to put it in the post other than posting it somewhere else and then putting the link here.

  8. Alvin says:

    I wish I knew how to post photos. I took some of the painted numbers on the posts of the old mill in Animas Forks, CO. (ghost town) this past monday. They seem to have been all painted by the same person

  9. David Traugot says:

    I recently read in Archaeology magazine about the study of the witches’ marks and other symbols in churches; they called it medieval graffiti, tolerated by the priests.

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