Amazing Insight

Recently, dozens of coopered vessels from three museums in Austria were analyzed for their growth-ring secrets. Wooden vessels, ubiquitous items a century ago, were often fashioned from staves rived from a single tree. Even though each individual stave might be small, featuring just a few growth rings, researchers found that they could visualize a model of the original chunk of wood by virtually plotting out the growth rings – kind of like putting together a complex puzzle. About half of the vessels studied were successfully dated (ranging from 1612-1940), but even more information was gathered on the methods of early coopers. Especially notable was the lack of wasted material when the craftsman split out staves – even after shaping with a drawknife, only a few growth rings per piece were lost. It was even possible to discern the order in which the cooper split and shaped each stave – amazing insight into the practices of the past. 

At the other end of the woodworking spectrum is the fascinating case of a Burgundian Renaissance cabinet that had been lingering for decades in storage at the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. Long thought to be a 19th-century reproduction of an ornate 16th-century piece, research done in France suggested the possibility that the cabinet was genuine, made by renowned cabinetmaker Hugues Sambin in 1581. It was decided that a dendrochronological study was warranted, despite the somewhat invasive nature of the procedure. Because the cabinet features walnut as its primary wood (not a reliable species for growth-ring dating), the focus was on the oak secondary wood. Parts of the cabinet were carefully disassembled to gain access to end grain, and even X-ray imaging was employed. A total of 17 different oak members were measured and had their growth curves plotted. Fortunately for the research team, one of the blocks of wood analyzed from the interior of the cabinet contained wane, allowing for a precise ring count to the year that the tree was felled. Amazingly, the growth chronology of the cabinet matched established oak master chronologies from Burgundy, France, and showed that the secondary wood came from a tree that had been felled in the autumn or winter of 1574-1575. The cabinet is now considered one of the most important and well-preserved examples of 16th-century Burgundian cabinetmaking in the world – a long way from basement storage! 

–Michael Updegraff, excerpt from “Scribes of Nature: Dendrochronology & the Deeper Story of Wooden Objects,” in Issue Nine


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