The following is excerpted from “Woodworking in Estonia.” The author, Ants Viires, devoted his life to recording the hand-tool folkways of his country without a shred of romanticism. Viires combined personal interviews and direct observation of work habits with archaeological evidence and a thorough scouring of the literature in his country and surrounding nations.
If all this sounds like a dry treatise, it’s not. “Woodworking in Estonia” is an important piece of evidence in understanding how our ancestors worked wood and understood it more intimately than we do. Viires records in great detail everything from the superstitions surrounding the harvesting of wood (should you whistle in the forest?) to detailed descriptions of how the Estonians dried the wood, bent it, steamed it and even buried it in horse dung to shape it for their needs.
Viires covers, in detail, the hand tools used by the Estonian, including many that will be unfamiliar to moderns (a beehive turner?). He then discusses all the different products Estonians made for their own use and for sale in the markets, including bent-wood boxes, chairs, chests, tables, sleds, carriages, spinning wheels, spoons, tobacco pipes, bowls and beer tankards.
During the Early Middle Ages the hollowing method was at least as important in peasant woodwork as was the process of hollowing the contours of timber. Special tools were used for this process, such as the scooping axe, the hive-scooping blade, the spoon chisel, the draw knife, etc. which, as we have already seen, were used already in the Early Middle Ages. Moreover, their forerunners date as far back as the Stone Age. The Estonian language has many words meaning “hollowing” (“õõnestama, õõnitsema,” southern Estonian “kaivama, kaevama”). Similar words bearing the same meaning are known in other Finno-Ugric languages. The scooping of small objects, such as spoons, cups, etc., are usually described by the words “kõverdama, kööveldama, kõm(m)eldama” (Finnish: “kovertaa”); this also has a bearing on the terms used for the spoon chisel and draw knife.
The common feature of all the above utensils is the quality of the timber from which they were made, which usually had to be green wood. Its softness made it pliant.
Hollowed utensils may be divided roughly into two groups based on the technology of production and outward appearance. The first group contains objects such as are scooped out from the side (spoons, ladles, certain kinds of shovels, cups, troughs, boats, coffins). The second group covers the utensils processed from the top with an inside penetration forming a cylindrical body, such as vats and a number of household containers. In working the former group the main tool applied is the scooping axe (for smaller objects the spoon chisel and draw knife), whereas working the latter group requires the use of the hive-scooping blade as well as the draw knife.
Objects Scooped from the Side. Until the beginning of the century, spoons and ladles for home use were generally produced by the peasants themselves. The preferred timber was that of birch, hard pieces of birch root and sometimes juniper. To prevent these articles from cracking, they were frequently boiled in hot water (they were also known to have been dried in the bread oven) (4). The bowl parts of the Estonian spoons (as well as the Latvian and Finnish ones), are of elongated shape, differing in this respect from the Russian round-bowled spoons. (5)
Often the spoons were covered with carved designs (Fig. 73). The Russian spoon with the round bowl, often pointed, became known in Estonia in the course of the 19th century mainly through being introduced by men returning from military service from Russia. Only toward the end of the century did the Russian spoon appear in the shops, or they were bought from by hawkers. The following is from Räpina: “Later, about 40 years ago [= ca. 1900] then no longer country spoons were made for eating. The Seto people started to bring and sell wooden spoons. The Seto exchanged spoons against grain and rags. There was a factory in Pihkva (Pskov) that made them. It was better to eat with factory spoons than with spoons made by ourselves. There was thick paint on them and there was no need to wash them so thoroughly and the color stuck well. Country spoons remained only for making of butter and cooking. Old people, who had not been accustomed to eat with the other spoons, ate a long time with self-made spoons.” (6) In the first decades of the 20th century metal spoons put a full stop both to country spoons as well as the Russian wooden spoons as tableware. Wooden spoons remained in use only in cooking.
It is worth mentioning that although the Estonian and Russian wooden spoons were quite different, the word “lusikas” (south Estonian “luhits, luits”) is actually an old Russian loanword (Old Russian “льжька,” Russian “лoжка”), as a result of which it has been believed that Russian spoons were spread already quite early as an article of trade among Baltic-Finnic people, and because of it the original old names have been forgotten. (7) One of such old names could be “koost,” which denotes a wooden spoon on the western shore of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa (Karuse and Varbla). That Russian spoons were actually found in the Baltic counties at an early time is confirmed by a find of typical Russian spoons in Riga, in all likelihood from the 13th to the 15th centuries. (8) To a certain extent the previous position is in a certain contradiction with what people have stored in their memories – which, as we have seen, link the appearance of Russian spoons at a rather late date. It is also interesting that the word “lusikas” (spoon) has in its turn spread into the speech of Russians on the other side of Lake Peipsi as “лузик” (9) (it may be to distinguish it from the different spoon with a longish bowl which Avinurme home industry people could have sold on their commercial travels in the 19th century on the other side of Lake Peipsi).
The words used for ladle, “kulp” or “kula” (the latter is a west Estonian term used to describe a ladle with the bowl at an angle, used to scoop milk from the urn), are probably of Baltic–Finnicorigin. (10) On the other hand the south Estonian term “kopp” originates from the Lower German “koppe.” (11) The same word is applied in other parts of Estonia to mean a wooden bowl with a handle. In the Võru dialect and in other eastern parts of the country the wooden bowl with a handle, especially the one for use in the bath, is known as “korets, karits” (Russian “korets”).
Bowls (Fig. 74) were usually made of softwood – linden, aspen, alder, sometimes also from birch. Usually they were made from a stem cut in two, crosswise, although lengthwise was sometimes preferred. The latter were not as durable and had a tendency to crack. Tools used in the manufacture of homemade bowls were the scooping axe, the chisel and the draw knife. However, in the 19th century most bowls were already being produced by turnery, and the bowl ceased to be a homemade article (see the chapter on Turning). There are only a few such bowls in museum collections, as by far the greater number of bowls have been turned. This shows that in the 19th century making of bowls was mostly the duty of turners, and no longer belonged to the circle of the peasant’s home carpentry.
The production of bowls by hollowing was a laborious process often aided by burning. This may be seen from extant bowls such as one from Lüganuse, where “the hollow was burnt out, not hollowed out. After burning it was smoothed over by a rough stone.” (ERM A 395 : 142). Following is a fuller description from Viru-Jaagupi: “The bowl was first hollowed out by a chisel; you then put hot, glowing charcoal inside and blew to keep it glowing. Ever so often you scraped out the burned wood and threw out the ashes. Then you put in more coal and went on burning until the bowl was deep enough.” (12) There are no specific words in the Estonian language to denote a bowl hollowed out by burning. The word “kauss” (bowl) is borrowed from Latvian “kauss,” while the southern Estonian dialect uses the term “liud,” which is closely connected with the Latvian “bļoda” and the Russian “blyudo.” (13) The old northern Estonian terms “ge(n), vaanas” have also been taken from the Russian “vaa-ganki.” (14) In the coastal area and in Hiiumaa the word “tisk, tiski” has its origin in the Estonian-Swedish dialect (< Swedish “disk”), as well as from the Finnish (< Finnish “tiski” < Swedish). (15) All these terms could be found already in 17th century dictionaries. At the same time, none of them are any older than the millennium. It is quite evident that they became popularly known in the Early Middle Ages. We can further deduce that, previous to feudal days, i.e. during the communal primitive society, earthenware bowls were mainly used. With the introduction of turnery, the wooden bowl became the dominant tableware in the peasant home. (16)
In southern Estonia wooden bowls were not commonly used as regular tableware, even in the 19th century. Tubs and firkins were preferred. In fact, not every household owned a bowl; only on festive occasions, such as weddings, were they considered the right tableware to serve food. (
While the bowl remained basically the product of turnery, i.e. of specialized craftsmen, the trough (Fig. 75) was essential in every household, and was produced by each peasant for his own purposes. Pig troughs, draw-well troughs, washing troughs, etc., were generally hollowed out of pine or aspen trunks. Bread troughs (known in the southern Estonian dialect as “mõhk,” and in the islands as “leiva-lõime”) were usually made of oak in the islands or spruce on the mainland. Most of the work of hollowing the trough was with the ordinary axe, and only in the last stages of the job was the scraping axe applied. Animal troughs were mostly made with the axe alone, while bread and washing troughs were finished off with the draw knife. In view of the tendency to crack, especially at the ends, the troughs were mostly coated with tar.
Troughs are the oldest artificially made containers used for agricultural and household purposes. The terms denoting them originate in the primitive communal period (northern Estonian “küna,” southern Estonian “ruhi”). (18) Their use remained widespread right into the 19th century; in addition to the uses already enumerated; the troughs were employed for beer brewing, wine making, corn chaffing, etc. Even small-sized troughs used as tableware were not unknown.
The trough as a water-going vessel is of even older usage on all inland waterways, but especially so in southern Estonia where they may be seen to this day. A similar clumsy conveyance was also used in the Emajõgi, Pärnu and Kasari river basins.
Building river craft is obviously more intricate and difficult than hollowing out a trough, and was therefore taken over by the boat builder rather than being left to home industry. Hollowing out a boat is externally similar to boats constructed of planks. They are generally 16′-20′ (5-6 m) long, up to 3-1/2′ (1 m) wide, very light and easy to sail.
They were made of aspen, which is light, easy to process and shape, green wood being used. Because the sides had to be fairly thin (in some places 3/4″ to 1″ or 2–3 cm), the wood had to be carefully worked so as to not cut through it. There were various means of checking the thickness of the side so as to gauge the correct measurement.
The simple way was by knocking on the side with the axe, the sound produced indicating the extent of hollowing. In the Pärnu and Emajõgi rivers basins a more advanced method was employed. Before the hollowing process was begun, a number of holes were bored along the side of the stem at intervals of about 11-3/4″ (30 cm), the depth of which corresponded to the required thickness of the sides of the boat. When the hole became visible from the inside, this served as an indication that the correct thickness had been reached. When the work was done, the holes were plugged with pieces of wood.
Sometimes the plugging was done before hollowing, in which case wood of a different color was used for plugging. There was a special measuring rod for the plugs whereby they were cut to the correct length, corresponding to the desired thickness of the sides of the boat.
Prior to proceeding with the final curving of the sides of the boat, it was heated by boiling water or, what is simpler, by plunging heated stones into the water in the boat. Planks the length of the desired width were then pressed into the boat, giving it the required width (Fig. 76). If the first sticks were too short, they were replaced with longer ones until a sufficient width was achieved.
For propping up the upended boat, arched wooden ribs were inserted; these were generally made from naturally shaped timber (usually roots). In order to secure the ribs, varying methods were applied. In Pärnu special hooks (known as “nakid, kabad”) were knocked into the inner sides of the boat, the ribs being attached thereto with strips of bast. In Kasari the ribs were secured with pegs or wedged in. In the Emajõgi river basin the ribs were simply knocked into the sides of the boat.
Similar types of boats were known in many lands where man navigated rivers and lakes, throughout northern Eurasia, and as far south as the lands of the South American Indians. In Northern Europe the eastern Baltic coast constitutes the limit of popularity of this type of boat. (19)
Finally, consideration must be given to the trough-shaped coffin hollowed out of pine trunks. In Latvia a few such coffins were still being made in the previous century. (20) In Russian forest areas these coffins were sometimes homemade (in Kostroma in the 19th century). (21)
Research has established the existence of such coffins in eastern Estonia, in what was called “the old days.” (22) Hollowed-out coffins were recently used for the burial of small children (V. Jaagupi, Lutsi). The only eyewitness description in Estonia comes from Hargla by Kusta Lipstok (b. 1866), who remembers seeing such a coffin being made in his boyhood. (23) “The coffin was made in the forest. It was worked like an ordinary trough. First a groove was made with an axe, big enough to get the scooping axe in. Then it was scooped out further. At the bottom it was narrower than at the top. The lid was made from a different log and a cross-bar was secured at one end of the coffin.” Grooves were scooped out along the sides of the coffin and the lid was made to slide inside along those grooves. Some sources believe that the log used was cut half horizontally, so both the coffin and the lid came from the same trunk (Narva region, Jõhvi, Vastseliina). This was also the accepted method for processing hollowed coffins in Latvia.
At any rate, it is clear that in the second half of the 19th century hollowed coffins were rarely used in Estonia. This means that coffins made of boards were already in use in the Estonian village throughout the 19th century and possibly earlier.
4 e.g. KT 101, 9, Räpina.
5 Such spoons with an oval bowl occur in the Slavonic area in Central Europe (Opole) since the 10th to the 12th centuries. (Hołubowicz, Fig. 122:1 p. 277). Wooden spoons used in the 15th to the 16th century are relatively similar in their shape to Russian spoons of the 19th century. (Рабинович. Из иcтoрии быта, Fig. 10:7. p. 51).
6 KT 101.9–10 (Joosep Hermann, b. 1866), cf. also EA 15, 116 Avinurme; KV 78, 124 Jõhvi.
7 Mikkola, p. 45, 66; Kalima, Slaavil, san., p. 120.
8 Šnore, plate II, 5, 8.
9 Kalima, Ostseefinn. lehnwörter, p. 157.
10 Хакулинен I, p. 103; Ariste, Hiiu, p. 176.
11 Saareste p. 245.
12 EA 3, 489. Also the hollow of an ancient tool, the mortar, has been frequently burned by means of hot coals, but unfortunately there is no closer description of that work. The mortar was usually made of spruce or pine. As it was always necessary to hollow it along the timber and conically downward, making of a mortar was rather cumbersome without the help of burning. This has been pointed out in Poland (Moszyński, p. 670), in Finland (Arkisto III. p. 237), among the Chuvash, (Никольский, p. 137), among the Mari (Kрюкова, p. 59) and others. A more thorough description of the hollowing of the mortar in that way is in Hungary (Bátky, p. 316).
13 About these words see Saareste, p. 244.
14 Kalima, Slaavil, san., p. 180.
15 Ariste, Eesti-rts., p. 107.
16 Wooden tableware was quite usual in Europe in the Middle Ages. It had an important place in Russian cities in the 11th to the 17th centuries. (Рабинович. Из истории быта, p. 50-51. In Germany on the Lübeck citizens’ tables it ruled until the 16th century (Neugebauer, p. 190) and on Finnish peasants’ tables as well as in Estonia it dominated as late as the middle of the 18th century (Sahlberg, p. 37).
17 KT 18, 32-33 Rõuge; cf. also EA 35, 761 Sangaste, EA 39, 371 Hargla, EA 37, 182 onward. Saarde.
18 See Saareste, pp. 246-248. Later the Low German mold, moll, loanword (< “kasks molde, molle”) which usually denotes a smaller trough has been added to the names mentioned before. Also the name of the long cattle drinking trough in southwest Estonia is of late origin.
19 See I. Manninen, Zur Ethnologies des Einbaums. – Eurasia Septentrionalis Antiqua I, Helsinki 1927, pp. 4-17 About their manufacture in Finland a well-illustrated overview: Vilkuna-Mäkinen, pp. 302-313.
20 Bielensteil, p. 181; J. Janusems, Bluka zārki. – Senatne un māksla II, Riga 1939 pp. 41-52.
21 Laugaste. p. 77 (79).
22 e.g. EA 38, 157 Narva parish.; KT 76, G–Jõhvi; EA 3. 491 V. Jaagupi; EA 40, 303 Simuna; EA 2, 417 Rõngu; EA 39, 347 and the foll., Hargla; EA 36, 771 Vastseliina; EA 31, 177 Lutsi Estonians.
23 EA 38, 347 and the foll. Figs. pp. 351, 355.