The Nydam quiver

From 1856 when the site was discovered in South Jutland, Denmark and up until now, the find at Nydam has been providing archaeologists and researchers with plenty to sort through and discuss. Efforts were intense from 1989-1997 and 1999. Amongst other things, fragments of two 4th century wooden quivers were discovered. As mentioned in an earlier blog post, I am making a replica version of one of these quivers.

(Note: I dislike the term “replica”. It introduces unreasonable demands and opens oneself up to criticism by folks with nothing better to do with their time. Perhaps I’ll go with “version” instead)

I officially began this aspect of my “quiver project” in November of 2016, when I split a cherry log into a billet for this quiver. The original quiver was made of (some form) of maple but since I did not have a maple log lying around, I used black cherry (which I did have in log form…like everyone does).

Half of the log being quartered into a billet. A heavier hammer would have been nice.
Axing down the quartered piece in order to round it a little bit before turning.
On the lathe, ready to be made round.

The original quiver was turned on a lathe. It is only reasonable to assume that it was done on either a pole lathe or some other form of reciprocal lathe, driven by an assistant. These are the types of lathes we know were available to people in the 4th century. Standing here in the 21st century, I possess 600 pounds of Australian made cast iron with enough torque to turn a small planet. I dislike my pole lathe, I am not very good at using it, it was cold outside and I am generally lazy. I used the cast iron behemoth. This is my big reliance on modern tools for this project.

Hollowing tools l-r: elbow adze, firmer gouge, curved gouge.

Rau (2007) said that the original quiver was turned, split along its length and then, the two halves were hollowed out (and reassembled later with a disc attached to the bottom, but that’s for later). Adzes and gouges have been available to carpenters since Egyptian times and continue to see extensive use today. I had great visions of my completing most of the hollowing using my curved adze. Reality had other plans.

Using an adze is bloody hard work! I am fortunate that my version doesn’t weight very much (certainly less than any of my axes). Despite this and being beyond razor-sharp, my wrists did not enjoy this experience. But that was not the hard part. The hard part was in delivering accurate blows with the adze. I know experience bowl carvers who can hit the same mark countless time in a row and do so for hours at a stretch. I am not those carvers. I was all over the place and it got worse the longer I was at it, whether my arm was sore or not.

I know of two basic methods of using an adze. #1,  Small bites are taken into the wood, once behind the other and then, longer strikes are made to clean up the raised chips. If the piece you are working is standing up and you used this technique, you would start at the bottom of the piece, work your way up and finally long cuts clean it all up. #2, A chip is “chased” along the surface being worked on, forming a long shaving of waste wood. Using the previous example, you would start at the top of the workpiece and slowly work you way down creating a long channel. I have used both methods and here are my less-than-extensive observations…

Method #1 is suitable for hogging of a lot of material, fairly quickly. If you are working on something large and accuracy isn’t too important, method #1 will get you where you want to be. On the other hand, method #2 leaves behind a much nicer surface, all other things being equal. Working slower and focusing on accuracy of blows offers more control. I found myself delivering approximately double the blows using #2 and this led to fatigue and my accuracy suffered. Time and building the required muscle memory is not something I have invested in enough.

Held in place by my tail vise on my workbench.

Eventually, I had to switch to a gouge to continue the hollowing. This was partially due to the work nearing finished dimensions, partly my frustration with the adze and largely because my adze is too wide to get deep into the groove I was cutting. I already owned the curved gouge seen in the above picture (far right) so I started with that. This proved to be sloooooow work and hard on my hands, wrists and arms. The design of this tool does not lend it to being struck with a mallet so it was muscle power or nothing. So, I did what woodworkers of any time period would do if the option was readily available to them… I bought a new tool.

In this case, the tool was a firmer gouge (the middle one in the above picture). The difference between this and the curved gouge is that with the blade being straight and its handle having a metal hoop around the top, this tool is meant to be struck with a mallet. There are other factors involved such as the thickness if the steel, how the steel is attached to the handle  but here is a pretty general guideline to go by… If the steel is straight in line with the handle and there is a hoop at the end of the handle, it is meant to be struck. This made my work faster and easier on my body however, I ran into an issue I should have foreseen…

I figured that since both gouges had fairly low cutting angles that they would have little trouble in cutting where I directed them. What I found was that despite being insanely sharp, the grain of the wood often had its own ideas about how it wanted to come away. I wound up with a mess of split and torn grain. I tried cutting downhill and uphill and this helped some . The result of this was that I now have several areas where the grain has lifted very close to the edges. That means that the end product will be very thin in those areas. I do not believe I am at the point of having major structural issues but time will tell.

Cutting across the grain. What is this glory which I have I discovered?

I brought the work home in order to make some progress while away from the shop. Naturally I set up my portable workbench in my kitchen, like all wood carvers have done at some point (or desperately wanted to do if they were married). Not wanting to make a lot of noise, I put away the mallet and firmer gouge in favour of the curved one. Now, I need to make something abundantly clear… I am NOT a wood carver. I have made more than a few spoons but I really consider that to be more of a whittling thing than anything else. In my mind, a lot of spoon carving techniques did not transfer over to this project. I was very wrong.

I began cutting down the walls of the quiver, across the grain, instead of along the length (following the grain). I learned that I could take a serious of short, small cuts down into the workpiece fairly easily. Once I had made a series of these overlapping cuts, I could turn to go down the length to clean put the chips and smooth the torn grain.This is still hard on my hands and I can only work for stretches of about 10 minutes but here’s the beauty…the results were very predictable. I have found that by working like this, it is very easy to control how much wood I was removing and from where. I have had no unexpected grain being lifted and little risk of going through the side walls (so far). It is still slow going but generally,  I am content with this development. Time will tell.

As things set right now, I’m about 3/4 of the way through hollowing out the first half of the quiver. I have about 5 hours of work into it with a tool in my hand, spaced out over a long period of time. One thing I have determined is that if Roman-era woodworkers had access to modern grinders with carving blades attached, they would have used them. I am seriously considering picking up one of those blades but if I do, there is no way I will truly appreciate the work of those that have come before me. I would also lose renewed understanding of wood structure and how it works.

Still, bloody tempted.


2 thoughts on “The Nydam quiver

  1. Thanks for the pointers, I’m yet to start mine. I have the Australian-grown field maple log and New Zealand (we think of them as Australia’s annoying little brother) built lump of cast steel with sufficient torque to turn at least a minor a Kuiper-belt object sitting ready.

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