hist-games: Tafl Boards -- How to Make

David KUIJT kuijt at umiacs.umd.edu
Sun Feb 24 06:21:54 PST 2002

On Sat, 23 Feb 2002, Jane & Mark Waks wrote:

> I have the sources that tell me what the extant boards (and fragments)
> *look* like, but there are a couple of open questions that I haven't yet
> found the answers to, relating to the construction details. Most
> importantly: does anyone know how the board would most likely have been
> *drawn*? Would it be painted? Carved? Burned? Also, any ideas what sort
> of wood would be most appropriate for the period?

Hi Justin,

The vikings (by which I mean pre 12th-century Scandinavians, for brevity)
decorated a lot of wooden objects (boxes, stave churches, beds, chairs)
with simple incised carving, possibly picked out with paint.  Relief
carving is much less common but also possible.  Burning (using a hot metal
stylus) is a VERY uncommon decorative technique in period -- of the many
hundreds of Medieval chests, boxes, and other wooden doodads I've seen and
photographed in various museums in England, France, Italy, Germany, and
across the Eastern half of the USA, I've found exactly three examples (all
15th century Italian cassone, using burning to distinguish the background
of a design carved in low relief).  Negative evidence is difficult, but I
haven't seen any evidence that this technique was used by the vikings.

If you search on the net for stave churches, vikings, or the Oseberg ship
burial, you should be able to find a number of examples of Viking incised
carving designs to guide you in choosing a design for decorative patterns. 
If you don't have any luck with this, send me a private note (with your
address, since I'm certain I've lost it) and I'll xerox 10 or 15 pages of
stuff and mail it to you. 

As some other commentator said, pine is your best bet.  Oak is also a good
choice -- although oak stands in Scandinavia wouldn't be common, it was
the favorite wood for most purposes in England and N. Germany, and the
vikings did so much trading that Chinese, Arabic, and Byzantine objects
are sometimes found in Viking archaelogical sites.  If I remember
correctly, the Mastermyr chest was oak, too.

So if I was making it, I'd take a nice clean pine board (rough cut, if I
could find it), cut it to size, hand plane it on the front and edges (and
maybe enough on the back that it didn't catch on clothing).  "Clean"  here
means no knots -- they're a bitch to carve, and more likely to cause your
board to warp.  I'd sketch on the design, carve it in with simple incised
lines (you can buy a perfectly adequate chip-carving knife at any good
woodworker store for $15 or so), and maybe pick out the design with one or
two colours of paint.  Slap on some reduced linseed oil (boiled, not raw;
cut 50/50 with turpentine) and let it soak in (15 minutes), then wipe any
non-absorbed linseed oil clean with a soft cloth and let dry six hours. 
Repeat the linseed oil thing several times, then put on a layer or three
of butcher's block wax (also called bowling-ally wax).  Rub on an excess,
let sit for 15-30 min, then rub in with a soft cloth and elbow grease.  Do
a couple of layers of that. 

Hope this is useful,

Dafydd ap Gwystl

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