Quelle gourde!

“J’ai galopé partout à travers le pays, mais jamais ma bouteille ne s’est trouvée à sec, cette missive, ô fous, est écrite pour vous” Sébastien Brant quoted by Mille (1999)

Brant by Durer

This weekend was my first back in my shed after 4 weeks of travelling over the christmas holiday. I was very clear on what I wanted to work on, just before christmas I had begun translating a short catalogue in French from an exhibition of flasks published in 1999 “Quelles gourdes! Hama, les gourdes au Moyen Age”.

One thing I have come to enjoy in particular about the wood work I do is the research that goes into it. Although I have an academic background being a lecturer at a university, trawling through archaeological literature is not my area. Sometimes I get completely lost searching for tiny nuggets of information relating to ancient wooden artefacts or tools, other times I trawl the internet for images to help guide what I am doing. Sometimes the exact thing I want or need is just beyond reach. This was the case with the flasks – almost all the published literature relating to them is in either French or German (having said that I haven’t even tried searching Romanian, Hungarian etc. so there is probably much more out there in different languages). So not only did I have to purchase the little 45 page publication Quelle Gourde, but also had to translate it from French.

For a pole lathe turner it is an inspiring publication charting the story of the object through material finds and art representations of flasks. Here are a few old images that have inspired me.

So the translation I completed after work Friday, crouched over my computer and notebooks to the early hours. A mixture of google translate, dictionaries, and my secondary school french helped me piece together the whole thing. Google translate is rendered useless by words such as “porteur”, like the english word porter, as in a carrier. In the context of pole lathe turned wooden flasks it means the mandrel, the piece of wood with iron spikes driven into the blank around which the drive strap is looped.

Often when you get your hands on a good resource like this it is not only the content that is useful but also the bibliography, which can open up many new avenues. In this case Quelle Gourde has about 100 references… This led in particular to a couple of German research papers (more translating) in which finds from the 6th century are detailed, and a couple of books, which I will either have to buy or view in the British Library on my next trip to London.

A few random technical details emerged, that can be added to what I already knew or confirm what I suspected:

  1. From what I can gather many flasks were only turned on only one axis.
  2. The porteur was always driven into the “back” of the blank, not the face that is to be excavated. This I already pretty much knew having seen the mandrel tang marks on flasks in pictures, but I couldn’t be sure. It is logical as it allows the stump of wood left inside the hollowed portion to be as small as possible, and thus the opening to be plugged as small as possible. A photo in my last post shows the difficulty in accessing the inside of a bowl when the opening is small and the mandrel tangs are in the way. Flasks from archaeological finds had opening as small as 6 or 7cm diameter.
  3. Flasks were made from large diameter logs orientated in such a way that their openings faced in the radial plane, or outwards towards to bark (clearly to minimise movement during drying and wetting). The shape of the Oberflacht flasks makes a lot of sense considering this http://www.landesmuseum-stuttgart.de/sammlungen/archaeologie/fruehes-mittelalter/holzbeigaben-oberflacht/.
  4. The Oberflacht flasks (6th century) openings were sealed with pitch (Paulsen, 1992)
  5. The Romanian turners sealed their flasks with beeswax if they could afford it, but most often paraffin wax. They also used these waxes to seal the inside and outside.
  6. The Romanian turners scalded their flasks in water after they were made, purportedly to improve the seasoning of the wood (Mille, 1999).
  7. The wall thickness of of old flasks was as little as 6mm (Marti, 1995).
  8. The Romanian turners preferred maple, but used linden or willow if they had to.
  9. The old flasks I have studies were made from ash, birch, maple, and poplar. (Mille opines that maple was preferred by turners due to its diffuse porous grain dealing better with liquids but in practice I don’t think it makes much difference. Expert archaeologists and master craftspeople alike tend to pontificate about the best wood for this or that. It’s often irrelevant, and more down to factors such as availability).
One of my favourite images of a medieval woodturner at work, with no less than 3 wooden flasks in the foreground. Das Standebuch (1568) – Holzdrechsler

The recent work on locking lid boxes prepared me very well for flasks. In fact when I started turning the boxes in November Deborah said “they almost look like those flasks you promised to make me 4 years ago, does that mean you’re getting closer to making me one?” The single most technically difficult aspect of making flasks on a pole lathe is the same challenge faced making the boxes – how to hollow a form with such a deeply undercut rim and small opening, while maintaining a thin, even wall thickness throughout. It has been a slow process getting to this point.

The turning on the first axis almost complete. The neck of the flask is on the left, feet on the right.
View of the base. You can jsut make out the scribed marks on the front that act as a guide for turning this axis.
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 15.15.50
The second axis hollowing the inside. This opening is in the radial plane so the medullary rays form concentric rings around the opening.
Before hammering the cap in forcefully to make the flask watertight I took a picture, just in case the cap was too tight and split the whole thing. Diagrams of the flasks this one is based on are on the front of the booklet visible.
The cap inserted and holed bored in the upper lugs for a leather carrying strap to be fitted.




Capelle, T. 1976. Holzgefäße Vom Neolithikum Bis Zum Späten Mittelalter, Hildesheim, Munster.

Mart, R. 1995. Das Grab eines wohlhabenden Alamannen in Altdorf UR, Pfarrkirche St. Martin, Jahrbuch der Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für Ur- und Frühgeschichte 78, 83-130.

Mille, P. 1999. Quelles gourdes! Hama, les gourdes au Moyen Age, Centre Jurassien du Patrimonie, Lons-le-Saunier.

Paulsen, P., 1992. Die Holzfunde aus dem Gräberfeld bei Oberflacht, Verlag, Stuttgart.

Schiek, S. 1992. Das Gräberfeld der Merowingerzeit bei Oberflacht, Verlag, Stuttgart.


3 thoughts on “Quelle gourde!

  1. Hi Ter,

    I can’t get over your dedication and perseverance – I was looking for a good book to read and your blog has satisfied me today. Its really interesting and I know I am going to read it again

    Here was I satisfied with having made and hung a bedroom door during the last couple of weeks – your blog is raising the bar for me – keep it up, I really love what you are writing and making



  2. I was saying the other day, that “I might be the only person in the world turning one of these on a pole lathe right now” My apprentice said “how does it feel?” I replied…..”lonely”. I’m really happy to see you doing this work. I hope we can chat about it sometime. Keep it up!


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