Belfast, Co. Antrim
Before mass-production and the dominance of plastic, many of the objects found around your house would have been made of wood. Learn about the heritage skill of carpentry through the objects and stories of the Ulster Folk Museum.
Prior to the advent of plastic in the 1900s, wood was a favourable material to use for building construction and everyday objects because of its abundance in the Ulster landscape. Wood is also a regenerative source material. An object made from wood can be sturdy and last for very a long time. It is also easier to repair than objects made of materials such as plastic or ceramic.
Carpentry is a very broad discipline that encompasses many specialisms and skillsets. A local carpenter, such as one that would have worked in Gillespie's at the Ulster Folk Museum, would have been able to make and repair furniture and potentially some agricultural equipment. A cooper is someone who specialises in making wooden vessels, including barrels, buckets, and butter churns. An ordinary carpenter may not have had the skills to create these vessels, as it took particular expertise to make them watertight.
Hardwoods such as ash, oak, and beech were used in carpentry due to their flexibility and tight grain. Oak was probably the most widely available of all Irish hardwoods. Ash was commonly used for tool handles, some agricultural equipment, and hurling sticks. Bog wood was very strong, and so was used in house-building and was readily available. Birch was used for some kitchen items like cutting boards. Elm was common in boat-making or coffin-making. Typically, pine was used for tables and dressers. A carpenter could have also worked with a blacksmith to create any metal parts necessary for their work.
Some common tools of carpentry include a saw, chisel, square, level, plane, hammer, and mallet. These all come in different shapes, sizes, and styles depending on the kind of work that needs to be carried out.
Creating small wooden household objects would have been a skill of most carpenters throughout Ulster. Our Heritage Carpenter Peter Sloan gave us an insight in how one might have gone about making a traditional Irish 'hedge' or 'famine' chair.
The process of making a traditional Irish “Hedge” or “Famine” chair began with harvesting and preparing timber.
Ash, elm and oak were used and sometimes a mix of either.
Carpenters used axes, mallets, saws and chisels as well as tools like the adze to shape the seat, a draw knife whilst seated on a shave horse to shape the legs and sticks, and hand turned augers to bore holes in the seat and back rest for the legs and stick supports.
Hedge Chairs were so called because they were made by “hedge carpenters”. A hedge carpenter didn’t serve as long an apprenticeship as a carpenter, but was capable of selecting material to put together a chair.
The name Famine Chair came from the high level of poverty at the time of An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger) where tenant farmers constructed their own furniture, hence why both Hedge and Famine chairs were often on the crude side.
No glue was used in the making of these chairs. The legs and sticks were held in place by wedged tenons and often protruded above the seat and back rests.
Though crude in their construction, these chairs served a purpose and have great character.