Tools & Trades History Society


The Debate of the Carpenter's Tools Revisited

Reprinted from Newsletter 118,  Winter 2012

 You can see Roy Underhill's article on the poem itself, published in Newsletter 118 here

John Clark

I was pleased to see that NL 118 reprinted Roy Underhill’s version of the anonymous poem of about 1500 known as “The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools”, accompanied by his fascinating little drawings of the tools.

His article was also included in Eighteenth-Century Woodworking Tools: Papers Presented at a Tool Symposium, May 19-22, 1994 edited by Jay Gaynor for Colonial Williamsburg in 1997, together with an introduction and comments on the identifications of some the tools. And those who want to try their hand at reading the original Middle English version (from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) will find it on-line at

L. F. Salzman drew on this poem in his chapter on ‘Tools’ in his book Building in England Down to 1540: A Documentary History, first published in 1952 – and there he expressed some doubts about the identity of some of the tools referred to only by their Middle English names in the poem. Since then Edward Wilson has published the text with a discussion of its context and detailed notes in Review of English Studies new series 38 (no 152) (Nov 1987) pp 445-70. And now that the great Middle English Dictionary (the MED) is available on-line ( alongside the Oxford English Dictionary (the OED: on-line at, it is perhaps worth reviewing the evidence for the identity of some of the more puzzling tools. (In the following I give the names in their original spelling, rather than Roy Underhill’s modernised version.)

Shype-Ax: is still problematical. Saltzman’s view that it might be an axe of a type originally used by a shipwright is unlikely given other spellings in medieval documents like “chip ax” and “chippynge axe”. Wilson suggested that it was simply an axe used for chipping or trimming. The MED defines it as either “small axe for shaping timbers” or “adze”, but the few quotations it cites do not support this latter identification (and of course the adze “Adys” appears separately later in the poem). The most helpful quotation cited is one from about 1425 that refers to “Hewerrys of wode with axe and squarerys of tymbyr with chippynge axe” – “Hewers of wood with axe and squarers of timber with chipping axe” (an interesting distinction made here between “wood” and “timber”!). Thus, perhaps, an axe with a broad blade for squaring timbers – but the “Brode-Ax” makes a later appearance, and we are left uncertain whether these are two names for the same or very similar tools.

Belte: Salzman considered this was a type of axe, as Roy Underhill shows it. The OED agrees, citing an English-Latin dictionary of 1499 for the translation “belt or axe: securis” – and Latin securis certainly means axe or hatchet. The MED on the other hand takes it to be a variant of “betel”, a mallet or maul (glossed in Latin as malleus) – and gives examples of similar transposition of consonants in spelling. Wilson agreed with this identification, pointing out another quotation in MED, from a mid-15th-century inventory, which lists “Item ij beltys et iiij weggis de ferro” – “2 belts and 4 iron wedges”. As Wilson notes, the contiguity of the wedges and mallets to strike them with makes good sense. He also points out that there is otherwise no hammer (the medieval English word “hamer” is quite common) or striking tool in this carpenter’s tool-kit. (Sadly the verb “to belt”, to strike or beat, is not found in Middle English, and offers no clue – according to the OED it appeared first in the 17th century, and originally meant to hit with a leather strap or belt!)

Twybyl: Salzman identified this with the later “twibil” or “mortising axe” illustrated and discussed in Henry Mercer’s Ancient Carpentry Tools (1929) and W. L. Goodman’s The History of Woodworking Tools (1964) – and this is the tool that Roy Underhill portrays. The MED concurs, though none of the medieval quotations are extensive enough to confirm the tool’s appearance – it is simply glossed in Latin as bisacuta, “having two sharp edges”. The OED however quotes from 1548: “Bipennis, a twybill, wherwith carpenters doo make their mortayses”.

Wymbyll: was identified by Salzman as a gimlet, and appears as such in Roy Underhill’s drawing. The MED however allows for both auger and gimlet as meanings, and it is possible that the term refers to something larger than the one-handed gimlet of modern form illustrated by Underhill. Indeed in one MED quotation it seems to occur as an alternative term for “nauger” (the modern auger). Since no auger appears under that name in the poem, it may be that this “wymbyll” is a larger, two-handed tool. Its self-description in the poem as “round as a thimble” seems to have no excuse except for the rhyme!

Groping-Iren: identified by the MED as a “grooving-iron” – “a carpenter's tool used in grooving”. Roy Underhill’s illustration includes a series of planks grooved along the edge to slot together; the form of tool he assumes to have been responsible is unclear in his drawing. Salzman likens the grooving-iron to a gouge, a concave-bladed chisel. However, a Latin vocabulary of 1440 equates “growynge or gravynge yryn” with Latin runcina (which usually means a plane), or scrophina otherwise strophnia (a rare medieval Latin word that a modern dictionary of medieval Latin, in a nice example of circular reference, defines as “grooping-iron, cooper’s gouge”!). Underhill, in his introductory notes, suggests it may have been the ancestor of the cooper’s “groze”; perhaps we should allow the possibility that it was a grooving plane like that from the Mary Rose.

Prykyng Knyfe: is identified by the MED merely as “a kind of knife used in carpentry”. As was suggested by Salzman, Roy Underhill identifies and illustrates it as a “scratch awl”, used for marking lines on the surface of the wood, but the term “knife” suggests we are dealing with something with a blade. Both the MED and OED give examples of the verb “to prick” meaning to mark or score, not simply to puncture, and it is perhaps in this sense we should read the compound “pricking-knife”.

Persore: Salzman identified this as the simplest of boring tools, as its name implies, and considered it was “awl-like”. The MED defines it as “A pointed tool, used for piercing or boring; an awl, a gimlet, an auger”. A quotation from 1440 glosses both “wymbyl” and “persowre” as Latin terebellum, drill (or strictly, with its diminutive ending, “small drill”), leaving us uncertain as to the difference between our carpenter’s Wymbyll and his Persore. However the Persore of the poem claims to have a “mouth” and to “bite” into the wood – it sounds more effective than a simple pointed awl, perhaps more like an auger with a spoon bit. Roy Underhill, however, goes further, identifying the Persore of “The Debate” as a brace and bit. There seems to be no evidence to support this view – unless we assume that this tool, common enough from the 15th century onwards, must appear somewhere in the list. The inventory of a London wheelwright from 1454 that I published in volume 2 of Tools & Trades in 1984 (reprinted in The 25th Anniversary Collection in 2009) included two percers valued together at one penny. Even at medieval prices, this is a low valuation, suggesting that they were small and simple tools. By comparison, a paryn (paring) axe was valued at 8 pence, and 4 augers and a “bruzz” together at 12 pence. A complex tool like a brace would surely have fetched a higher price than a halfpenny. Notably the MED gives no medieval occurrence of the word brace in this modern sense (leaving uncertain what this tool was then called!). The OED cites from an inventory of 1567 the entry: “v wombles, iij percers bittes and a brace xxd” – the “percers bittes” being presumably what we would call “drill bits” today.

Skantyllyon: Salzman identified this as “a kind of gauge”, and in his introduction Roy Underhill rightly related it to the modern term “scantling”, a prescribed measurement, often of the thickness of timber. Salzman printed a number of medieval building contracts in which the word appeared in this sense. The MED gives various occurrences of the word “scantiloun” – for both abstract measurement, and for some form of measuring rule, pattern, or template; Salzman also recognised this last meaning. From 1400 comes the verse “Son the tre was heun dun, And squir on-laid and scantliun” – “Soon the tree was hewn down, And square and scantling laid on”; the phrase “with square and scantling” recurs in other sources as a “set” of essential measuring tools. What form the “scantling” took as a tool remains uncertain; the name was presumably not limited to the type of mortise gauge illustrated by Roy Underhill, although one of these was among the carpenter’s tools from the Mary Rose.

Brode-ax: is evidently the type of broad-bladed, short-handled axe, probably by this date a “side axe” sharpened to a chisel edge, shown by Roy Underhill. Unusually in the poem, the axe’s self-description tells us something of its function. It likens itself to the plane (“my brother”) – the two “cleanse” the timber and make it plain (smooth). But as we have noted, its relationship to the chipping axe is unclear.

Twyvete: is a problem. Underhill discussed it in his introduction, and considered it to be a smaller version of the Twybyl, lacking the long handle of the latter, and draws it as such. Salzman surmised it might be the same as “twybitle” – a large mallet; but Wilson noted that this was “etymologically unacceptable”. The MED considers it a scribe’s error for “twybit”, which it defines as a two-edged axe, as does the OED. The MED quotes a glossary of around 1500 which equates “twybyte” with Latin bipennis, a double-axe, and one of about 1400 which defines it as bisacuta (double-edged) – although the lack of double-headed axes among medieval archaeological finds and in medieval illustrations suggests that the glossary makers were simply attempting to translate “twybit” (that is, “two-bit”) literally, with no knowledge of what a twybit actually looked like!

Wyndas-Rewle: Roy Underhill provides a clever solution to this puzzling compound noun, which appears hyphenated in the original manuscript of the poem. He splits it into two, and makes the Wyndas (windlass), which is speaking, address its remarks to the Rewle (rule), which we have met earlier in the poem. This does not seem acceptable; the previous speaker, to which the Wyndas is replying, was actually the Polyff (pulley) not the Rewle. Wilson and the MED interpret the compound as “windlass-roll” (since “rewle” here rhymes with “fole” and so may be a scribal error for “rowle”, a variant spelling of “roll”) – “some part of a windlass” according to the MED, or specifically the windlass axle surmises Wilson. The identification remains unsatisfactory.

Rewle-Stone: is apparently a unique occurrence of a word otherwise unrecorded. Literally a “rule-stone” or “stone for ruling”, Salzman suggested it was a plummet or plumb-bob, and thus Roy Underhill portrays it. However, Wilson pointed out that the terms “plummet” and “plumb” were well-known in Middle English, and readily available to the poet if this was what he meant; and, as the name suggests, they were generally made of lead. The MED suggests “stone ruler or straightedge” – but given that this poem is the only evidence there seems no particular reason to favour this unlikely interpretation.

Draught Nayle: is another term unrecorded elsewhere. Salzman identified it with “drift pin”, a punch used to drive nails beneath the surface of the wood; the MED follows Salzman. However, Wilson pointed out that whereas the form “drift” derives from the verb “to drive”, “draught” comes from “to draw” and implies a tool used for pulling, not driving or punching. After discussing “draw-pins” and “draw bore pins”, used to draw together or tighten a mortise and tenon joint (as illustrated by Roy Underhill), he noted a suggestion from Margaret Rule (excavator of the Mary Rose) that it might be a tool for extracting nails, but concluded that the form of the word suggested it was a type of nail. The identity remains uncertain.

One must admit that the poem gives little information about the functions of each tool, and one wonders whether the poet had any more than a layman’s knowledge of the names of tools – although Wilson suggested it might have been written as part of the entertainment for a carpenters’ guild feast, at which the audience may have been critical if it strayed too far from reality. And unfortunately the authors of our other sources, whether medieval writers of English-Latin glossaries or modern compilers of dictionaries, are also laymen when it comes to the craft of the carpenter!