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Sixteenth Century Nürnberg Tools

Updated: May 4, 2023

cemetery plaque showing tools

Figure 1. One of a few bronze cast plaques removed from the Nürnberg cemeteries. It is now in the Germanische National Museum, Nürnberg. It shows sixteenth and early seventeenth century woodworking tools.

The following is excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. 54 No. 2, June 2001

by Drs. Hans Richard Mackenstein & Theodore R. Crom

Do you have a sixteenth century tool in your collection? Are you sure you don’t, or do? The basic tools changed very little from the time of Christ until the Industrial Revolution and there was almost no change from the fourteenth to the mid-eighteenth century. Hammers, files and rasps, different types of anvils, blacksmiths’ and other tongs, simple lathes, punches, weavers’ looms, pump drills, scrapers and draw knives, simple knives, planes, vises, scissors, wiredrawing tools, frame saws, and balance scales are among the tools that have remained the same over the centuries. There is simple proof of this in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century drawings, sculptures, paintings, and artifacts. The book Das Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung zu Nürnberg (1) shows many contemporary drawings of the craftsmen and their tools in medieval Nürnberg, Germany. The book illustrates, often in color, many craftsmen, their trades, and their tools. The Zwölfbrüderstiftung zu Nürnberg, translated as The Twelve Brothers’ Charitable Home for Older People, was founded in the fifteenth century. It was a brotherhood or association that catered to elderly craftsmen. Most of the illustrations depict the workers of the fifteenth and sixteenth century and their tools pursuing their craft. The crafts include agriculture, weaving, woodworking, metalworking, leatherworking, candlemaking, barrelmaking and many others. Tools illustrated are very similar to those in many collections today, and a few modern tools are almost exactly like those of a thousand years ago.

St. Johannis Church and cemetery

Figure 2. The St. Johannis Church and cemetery in Nürnberg. Look closely to see the plaques attached to the gravestones.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, sculptors and craftsmen were permitted on occasion to incorporate into their work depictions of their crafts. These appear in the stained glass windows, stone column capitals, decorated ends of pews, or even the misericords carved on the bottom of hinged church seats. Trade signs, trade association emblems and furniture also depicted the craftsmen at work, or their tools.

Many such sculptures, paintings, and drawings appear in modern literature on Medieval and Renaissance art. The sixteenth-century Elector August of Saxony had a love of science and crafts. He was personally involved and enjoyed working in the shops himself, some-thing not unusual for royalty of state and church throughout the centuries. In 1565 Leonhard Danner of Nürnberg created for August an elaborately decorated wire-drawing bench. Along with the bench were many decorated accessory tools. The equipment was installed in the cabinet of works of art at the Elector’s palace in Dresden and remained there until at least 1887. (2)

So, there is a clear record of tools of the period, although scarce, in printed sources and art work. In addition, some tombstones and other monuments to dead craftsman of all ages throughout Europe, and sometimes America, illustrate their tools. In the excel-lent modern Germanische National Museum, Nürnberg, Germany, are displayed several bronze plaques from two sixteenth-century Nürnberg cemeteries. The plaques, measuring roughly 40 to 60 centimeters, are rectangular, oval, circular, or shield-shaped and were cast to serve as epitaphs. Many depict the trade of the tomb occupant by showing some of the tools used in the trade (Figure 1). The epitaphs were fixed upon the top of tombs. Wars of the past 450 years have spared the dead.

Johannis Friedhöf 2001

Figure 3. The St. Johannis Friedhöf as it appears today—well-cared-for and graced with many beautiful flowers and shrubs. Author Ted Crom (right) and Frank Gary Crom are preparing to photograph one of the tombstones.

Located a few blocks outside the old Nürnberg city walls are the St. Johannis and St. Rochus Friedhöfe. The two cemeteries, friedhöfe in German, survive in much the original appearance. Almost all of the hundreds of tombs have their original sixteenth- or early seventeenth century bronze plaques. The St. Rochus Friedhöf contains more than seventeen hundred tombs with nearly as many epitaphs.(Figures 2 and 3). The cemeteries had been established by 1395 to bury victims of the plagues outside the city walls. They surround the two churches for which they are named. By the fifteenth century the two cemeteries were reserved for the more notable of the city, including skilled artists and craftsmen. From the point of view of epitaphs showing ancient tools, the St. Rochus Friedhöf is the more interesting of the two. Leonhard Danner, the widely acclaimed master craftsman of Nürnberg in the sixteenth century, died in 1585, and his decorated tomb is located in the St. Rochus Friedhöf. The tomb of Albrecht Dürer, the great fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century engraver and artist, is located in the St. Johannis Friedhöf. The cemeteries are guarded and well cared for, with many flowers and shrubs.

The Nürnberg area has been occupied for thousands of years. No doubt it was chosen for settlement because of its location, terrain, and the Pegnitz River. The earliest written record of the city is of 1050. The second Salian emperor, Henry III, apparently founded a castle on the sandstone rock. As early as 1062 the settlement was granted market rights, the prerogative of coinage, and the right to levy tolls. During the next three hundred years Nürnberg bloomed. Massive stone walls were built around the settlements during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In the fourteenth century and un-til 1806, Nürnberg was a Free Imperial City. The arts and crafts were a primary source of income for the city that owned little agricultural land.

The skill and inventiveness of the Nürnberg merchants, who opened up new areas thanks to customs privileges, resulted in the rise of an equally strong and able class of craftsmen. In a register from 1363, fifty different crafts are mentioned, along with the names of over twelve hundred masters. A visit to the Nürnberg cemeteries provides evidence of this history of the city as a crafts center as well as insight into the tools the craftsmen used.

wire drawer epitaph

Figure 4. An epitaph for a wire drawer dated 1575.

One speciality of Nürnberg craftsmen was metal-working. Figure 4 shows the 1575 tomb of a wiredrawer, der drahtzieher. This bronze plaque pictures two spools of wire, one for playing out a continuous strand of wire to the draw plate, and the second applying the drawing force and winding up the drawn wire. At the top of each spool of wire is a crank handle for turning the spools. The spools would be mounted on a bench and a firm vertical arbor (not shown). Above the draw plate is a wrapped packet of wire ready to go to market. Below appear pliers, a pin for punching and sizing the draw plate holes, and a small hammer.

To qualify as a master toolmaker, craftsmen had to make three or four specified tools in a set period of time. Some of the epitaphs relate to the performance of this task. The four tools shown in Figure 5, which appear on several of the Nürnberg tombs, are those required to be made in fourteen days for qualification as a master iron toolmaker. The largest is the screw compass, the item in the lower middle is a hand vice with a separate wrench, and there are two multi-purpose combination tools. Note that the separate wrench on the small vise is hexagonal and fitted onto a hexagonal nut for tightening the vice. The question sometimes arises as to when hexagonal nuts were first employed on screws. Here is an example of use in the sixteenth century. During the many years that the requirement for making these three or four specific tools existed, hundreds of examples must have been made, accounting for the appearance of such tools in fine collections. The Germanische National Mu-seum has some of the survivors on display. Excellent large color photographs of the screw compass and the multi-purpose pinchers are illustrated in Velter’s Le Livre de l’Outil.

epitaph iron tool maker

Figure 5. The epitaph of a master iron tool-maker.

A Neberschmied was a maker of wood cutting and boring tools, including planes. Eucharius Voytt, a Neberschmied, died the 20th of July 1566 (Figure 6). The tools pictured on his plaque, beginning at the left, are a nicely carved breast auger, a small hand awl, two bolstered chisel blades, a small pointed file, a plane blade, a large saw blade with end fittings for mounting into a sturdy frame, a coping saw with its horned tightening nut shown within the metal frame, four plane irons, a fancy carved large auger, a steady pin, and finally a wide-bolstered chisel blade. The woodworking toolmakers had their own guild or brotherhood. To qualify as a master, the craftsman had to make three specified tools in fourteen days within the workshop of a certified master. The tools were a saw, a pipe borer or tube drills for wine reduction, and a carpenter’s drill or brace with a tightening screw.

Eucharius Voytt tomb

Figure 6. The tomb of Eucharius Voytt, a Neberschmied, a maker of woodcutting and boring tools. The coping saw just to the right at the top of the plaque is almost identical to one in the author’s shop and to some available from John Wyke’s catalog of 1760.

Nürnberg was also know for its instrument makers. Epitaphs of more than one Zirkelschmidt, or compass maker (and perhaps chisel maker), are found in the cemeteries. The plaque shown in Figure 7 must have been cast in 1599. The year 1591 appears on the plaque, and two dates of 1600, with the final two digits left blank, anticipating the future deaths of others. Perhaps they were never entombed as the digits are still blank. This epitaph indicates members of his family, as do many other plaques, with one including eighteen children. The large screw compass would indicate the maker was a master. Beneath the compass are two hammer heads and a long pin (a drift pin?). To the right appear three bolstered chisels and to the left another chisel and an unknown device. In the book Zwölfbrüderstiftung, Brother Lienhard Drechel, a Drechsler (lathe turner) of 1425, is shown using chisels which look substantially the same as those shown on this plaque. Lienhard is working with a pole lathe, but the artist has not shown a tool rest to support the chisel. (3)

compass maker epitaph

Figure 7. The epitaph of a Zirkelschmidt or compass maker. Note his family members arranged in bas-relief at the mid-point.

One bronze tomb plaque recognizes a hammermaker of 1685 (Figure 8). Hammers similar to those shown on the epitaph can be found in many collections and working shops. To date such items without signatures of one kind or another is impossible. The same problem exists with small pliers. They are often the same whether made in the eighteenth or twentieth century, as a review of tool catalogs and literature from those periods will prove.

tomb plaque hammer maker

Figure 8. The tomb plaque of a hammermaker.

Book printing was also a major enterprise in Nürnberg. Wolfgang Endter, Der Buchdrucker, Setzer und Schriftgiesser (printer, compositor, and type founder), was entombed in 1651 (Figure 9). Visible on the left side in the background are compositors or typesetters working. In the foreground, the printer is inking the type beside a screw press of the period. Two gentlemen at the table on the right side of the plaque are busy, while what appears to be a typecutter is working at a table in the background.

tomb plaque printer

Figure 9. The tomb plaque of Der Buchdrucker, Setzer und Schriftgiesser (printer, compositor, and type founder).

The bronze tomb plaque (Figure 10) of an unidentified brother Schreiner, a cabinetmaker, dated 1622, illustrates a spherical-hinged compass, a framing square, a gouge and a skew chisel. A mallet, a block plane with front horn, and a small hatchet are located below the framing square.

cabinetmaker tomb plaque

Figure 10. A plaque from the tomb of a cabinetmaker.

From 1609 to 1610, turning was declared a free craft or art, open to any skilled worker. The emblem or sign of the turner was a ball. On the epitaph in Figure 11 is shown two turner’s chisels above which seems to be a turned object. At the bottom of the shield is a crescent moon with a face. This is the individual sign or symbol of Jacob Flaschman and his house.

epitaph turner

Figure 11. Epitaph of Jacob Flaschman, drechsler or lathe turner, entombed in 1576.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the period when the St. Rochus and St. Johannis Friedhöf were established and actively utilized, Nürnberg was at its peak. The dates given with the pictures of epitaphs are the years the craftsmen died. Hence their tools could be somewhat older than the date of death, and certainly in most cases hundreds of years earlier in style.

If you are a tool collector and ever travel to Ger-many, do not miss a visit to these two Nürnberg cemeteries and the modern museum with its many ancient tools. You may find examples of tools from your collection within the walls of the cemetery.

Notes 1. Treue, DasHausbuch der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung zu Nürnberg. 2. The draw bench and some of the tools are now prominently displayed in the Château d’Ecouen, a museum a few miles north of Paris. 3. Zwölfbrüderstiftung, p. 33.

Authors Dr. Hans Richard Mackenstein is a retired south Ger-man medical doctor with an interest in clocks and watches. He is an excellent photographer and records history with his camera. Dr. Theodore R. Crom is a re-tired Florida structural engineer-contractor with an unabated interest in clocks, watches, antique tools, and history concerned therewith. He enjoys researching and writing on the subject.


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