Wood was already an important raw material for the first humans. Wood’s adaptability for many uses without much processing led to mankind discovering its many applications, as fuel, tools and its usability for making homes, objects and vehicles. Over the centuries, people discovered even more ways to use wood, and they became better at working and processing it.
Many craftsmen in the Kempen region made wooden items. What did the carpenters, joiners, cartwrights, coopers, cabinetmakers and clog makers each do?
Carpenter and joiner
A woodworker in rural areas performed a wide variety of assignments. There was more or less defined division of labour between carpenters and joiners in the cities. The carpenter usually did the coarser and bigger work while the joiner worked in a finer way. The carpenter was closely involved in house building. He not only implemented the construction, often he also provided the necessary resources to the builder. Usually the joiner did the finer work. He not only made furniture but also wall panelling, doors, windows, stairs, chests, coffins, winnowing machines (machines for separating grain from chaff), etc. In rural areas, the carpenter was often a ‘Jack of all trades’. In addition to houses, he made windmill sails, a variety of stables, stores and sheds, furniture, spinning wheels, toys, etc.
The carpenter's importance in society reduced as an increasing number of constructions were built of stone. His role became less prominent. As soon as building in stone gained popularity, he only made the roof trusses, window frames and doorframes.
Cartwright and wheelwright
The cartwright made a variety of wheelbarrows, three-wheeled carts, handcarts, carts, etc. Sometimes, there was a separate wheelwright. In smaller villages, one skilled craftsman might combine both jobs. The cartwright not only manufactured various means of transport, but also had to check, lubricate and repair the carts.
For the wheels, the wheelwright used mostly elm or oak and sometimes ash or willow. The cartwright or wheelwright started by making the hub, the central cylindrical part of the wheel that rotates around shaft or axle. Then he sawed the spokes, using a template. He had one for each wheel size. Once the wheel was assembled and finished, it went to the smith for an iron strap that encircled the wheel and kept it together. The stronger the cart had to be, the more important the smith's role. The cartwright and the smith had to work together closely, and therefore often lived in the same neighbourhood.
There were coopers in both the cities and most rural communities. They made beer barrels, vats, buckets and tubs. The smith made the hoops (metal bracing bands) that hold the wood together but the cooper fitted them onto the barrel. The hoops were not always metal. Sometimes, coopers also used wooden hoops, which they bought from a hoop cutter.
Some coopers had specific specialities, such as dry or wet barrels (for dry substances or liquids) or produced very specific types of barrels. Additional treatments were sometimes required, depending on the vessel’s function. For example, beer vessels had to be swelled and treated on the inside because beer should not be exposed to raw wood due to the risk of mould formation.
The profession of cabinetmaker only arose in the nineteenth century. Before that time, carpenters or joiners made furniture. People often regarded chair making as a separate speciality. In the nineteenth century, there were several chair makers' centres. Around 1900, the largest centre, in Mechelen, produced about 100,000 chairs every year. But even the Kempen region had two chair makers’ villages: Zandhoven and Sint-Huibrechts-Lille (Neerpelt). However, specialized carpenters and furniture makers disappeared quite quickly with the arrival of mechanization in the twentieth century.
The clog maker also worked with wood. In Flanders clog makers usually used willow and poplar wood. Willow clogs were better quality, but twice as expensive as the poplar clog. The clog maker used all kinds of tools and accessories, which he often made himself. The types of tools and their names were very regional.
A clog maker tried to produce fifty pairs from a cubic meter of wood. They wanted to waste as little wood as possible. The first processes, sawing the wood in blocks of the desired length for the clog and splitting them into pieces from which he could make many clogs usually occurred outdoors, perhaps because they were large pieces and the work involved a lot of mess. The clog maker made the uppers, sawed out the heel, the foot arch and did the final finishing work under a roof or in a workshop. Then the clogs had to dry, in open air during sunny weather or in the attic during winter. The clog maker often hung the clogs on the façades, where there was a lot of wind, which also made it possible for people to see from far where the clog maker lived.
Self- built properties
Those who could afford it took on a carpenter to build their home. Others built their own homes, often with help from neighbours. Tenants and big farmers mainly used the carpenter. Many smaller farmers could not afford a carpenter and did as many things as possible themselves, e.g. repair work.
People also made many tools and implements themselves. Farmers and other craftsmen made their tools (partly) because they needed very specialized ones, which they designed themselves. Children often made their own wooden toys, such as spinning tops, made of willow, poplar or lime tree (linden) wood. They shot unripe elder berries, peas or balls of flax fibre with their wooden peashooters. They usually made their shooter of elder or ash wood. Other toys that children often made of wood included catapults, bows and arrows, a kind of Mikado, etc.