Chippies fight for their right to woodwork

Image: A wall panel from Carpenter’s Hall, London.

I am sometimes asked about the differences between carpentry, joinery and cabinet making.  The origins of the demarcations go a long way back.

Back in the day, if I was a carpenter, I would be making timber frame work on a building. In the medieval era the term was synonymous with ‘builder’.  If I was a joiner, I would be inside, out of the weather, making doors, stairs or windows at a wood bench using joints without nails or screws. If I was a cabinet maker, I would be making ‘fine’ cupboards and interior fittings and if I was a chair maker, I would be in a wood by a fire with the bodgers and barkers.

We use the word ‘woodwork’ or ‘carpentry’ as a catch all for our workshops at The Goodlife Centre as the terms ‘Carpenter’, ‘Joiner’, ‘Furniture maker’ get thrown around a lot and the confusion can be off putting to people who are trying to select a suitable course.

The debate isn’t new. There were demarcation disputes all over England from the 14th century onwards. In some counties, the ‘companies’ included Carpenters and Joiners, but in larger towns and especially London, there were separate guilds for many trades of woodworkers. The companies were protective of their skills and defended their territories.  From 1431, there were guilds formed by carvers, cofferers, wheelwrights, trunk makers, chairmakers, box makers and inlayers  in addition to the carpenter and joiner.

There was often demarcation tribunals. In York, the carpenters and joiners got into a dispute in 1530, not over work, but about protocol in a civic procession. They were told to “ Goe jointly and lovingly together as one occupation” However, the fights continued until  all the woodcrafts united in a ’unity of the Crafts’ in 1546.

In Norwich, a new company of ‘Joyners, Carvers, Turners and Chayer-makers’ was founded in 1671 as a result of competition with the upholsterers and basketmakers.- this time- not the carpenters.

In thriving towns like London, old jealousies remained. There was a court case in the 1650s in the Westminster Court of common Pleas against Mr Carter, a London joiner, for contravening the conditions set by the Statute of Artificers in 1563 by practicing as a carpenter. Judge Oliver St john couldn’t establish legal grounds for barring anyone brought up in the country as a carpenter/joiner from practicing either of the crafts in London.

One of the outcomes of having rigidly bound guilds or  companies as opposed to a degree of flexibility within the trades was seen in contrast after two famous town fires. After the great fire of London, when is was decreed that houses had be rebuilt with brick, there was only limited support for the woodworkers who could not diversify as they were tied to their trades, so it allowed foreign ’unfree’ workers to carry out illegal work.  French Huguenots were offered sanctuary in 1681 and around 25,000 moved to London where they lived in Spitalfields which was outside the bounds of the City. London was a big enough town to absorb a lot of the specialised skills they brought with them, but smaller towns were less accommodating.

in 1694, a fire destroyed a large part of the town of Warwick. The Fire Act of 1694 ensured  not only that foreign workers could perform only prescribed work, but also that woodworkers could shift to bricklaying as the town was rebuilt with the new regulations forbidding timber frames. It was this need for sudden change that enabled the lively to evolve and the staid to become extinct.

The rise and fall of trades continued and when the Renaissance came to England, it was the joiners who benefited as the fashion for interiors and gracious living demanded ornamental wood panelling. The wood carvers, who had previously guilded themselves with the ceilers (ceiling work) now aligned themselves with the joiners who enjoyed appreciation of their skills with the new middle classes.

All the trades above use a similar skill set.

Drawings of tool kits from the middle ages look very familiar to us today. We use wood joints what would have been very familiar to the medieval craftsman.

We still need to learn how to measure, mark and cut wood with accuracy and order.Chisels and planes can shape wood to form joints used for centuries. Only planes have moved from wood to metal in the last hundred years. All workshops use a crossover of a lot of the same tools and techniques need to be practiced repeatedly to become competent.

And even more repeated practice grows skill.

And now you don’t have to fight for the right to woodwork.


A lot of the facts came from H.J.Louw.