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Wax Tablets

Wax tablet made of beech with stylus With a nice long visit with my parents for Christmas, I thought it would be nice to have my father make me the Medieval version of the PDA: A wax tablet. Step the first, is to research, for which I found first one site by Randy Asplund which depicts some of his replica tablet as well as a history of tablets and instructions for making your own. I read that and we were set to go with making the tablet itself, waiting with the wax pouring for more information and also material.

The raw tablet The tablet itself is made from beech, my original idea was to make a tablet the size and shape of the "cut-outs" in the sides of my scribal desk (see above), so that meant beech wood, and an arched top. The dimensions found on my desk were a little harder to replicate with the wood that my father had. After finishing a second scribal desk there was some triangular pieces of the glued beech left, which were the only available material. Going with what we had, we decided on a half-sided design, so that when the leaves of the finished tablet folded out it would form the arch at the top.

The stylus Having a tablet is all well and good, but I also needed something to write with: a stylus. Randy Asplund's site also mentioned different kinds of styli, which we looked at, and my father, having good memory suggested a birch handle with antler-tip for writing. The birch is a curly-grained wood, in Swedish called masurbjörk, and it has a wonderful swirling pattern and a magnificent glow after polishing and oiling.

The lock, open
The lock, closed
As for the closing mechanism of my tablet, I did another search and found the site of the blacksmith Haakon, mundanely known as Harri Ryynänen. His listing of clothes and accessories contained a few links to wax tablets he has made, one in particular (website no longer online) showed a method of closing that I thought was genious. My father being the creative mind improved on this method by inserting the leather into the side of the tablet to hide their attachment points entirely, making a practical "lock" which keeps the tablet closed as well as keeps track of the stylus!

First pouring of wax Now we needed information on how to produce a writing surface. I asked on my Principality's homepage forums for help and got directed to this excellent article by Greg Priest-Dorman and Carolyn Priest-Dorman through Anna's Craft Link Page. Armed with this information we purchased materials (beeswax and charcoal) and melted the wax in a water-bath. It was quite simple really, and with the powdered charcoal it produced a pouring which was quite black. Unfortunately, I was not happy with the result on my first attempt so I scraped the wax off, put it back in the water-bath and melted it again. A second pouring was better, I did not get any strange white swirling pattern nor as many large bubbles marring the surface. The bubbles came up as a result of the wax heating the wood and gases being released in the heat. You will often have to pour, scrape off and re-pour your wax on a fresh tablet.

Marking the tablet With that done, all that was left was to mark the tablet as mine, and date it. Not until after I had already signed my name to the back of the tablet did I think about my scribal mark. I have one, but I had yet to put it to proper use.

The Two Tablets
The tiny tablet
Accompanying my large tablet, some time afterwards was a little one, this one in oak. I was asked at an event if my father could make them smaller, in which case I could sell one more tablet. I talked to the carpenter and he sent me a test of the new size, this time in oak, with much thinner leaves, and much smaller. The stylus that came with it was also similarly scaled down and it is all so adorable I just want to cuddle it. Of course, though it is tiny, fits in my hand very nicely, it is still not as tiny as a recent find from York which is an eight leaf book of boxwood wax tablets 1.5 mm thick, with the middle four leaves have wax on both sides, dated to 1375-1400.

Further developments

November, 2012: Having had my three-leaf wax tablet for a while and used it, I was not entirely happy that I did not myself make it. It is a beautiful piece of curly-grained birch, but I have since the start of this particular research subject in 2005 been to many museums in which medieval waxed tablets have been on display. The main take-home lesson is that the ones we produced were much too thick, and the wrong proportions. They were designed to fit the perfect proportions (as in the golden ratio) but the period examples were not. So, with the museum images in mind, and another interesting link showing the extant wax tablet codices of a Polish town, I decided to do it all by hand, and add some decorative carving as well. Unfortunately, the website is now (November 2012) completely re-made and I can no longer find the links, but on the end tablets the outside wood face was carved with intricate patterns in outline form, using typical style-elements that you see in manuscript illuminations and other decorative arts at around the year 1350-1450.

TabletThe first example I made, I gave away as a Laurelling present to Mistress Helena von Eltz at Aarnimetsä Academy in November 2010. On one side I copied the leafy pattern as exactly as I could, and my wood-carving skill would allow.
On there you see two basic heart shapes entwine with a seven-leaved flowering in each. The outlines are carved with a sharp knife in two passes to make a shallow "V" gouge into the wood. The backgrounds are then further picked out by a criss cross grid of gouges.
On the other leaf of the waxed tablet I adapted another pattern which was two roundels with some typical beastiary creatures inside. But instead of the creatures I did the arms of Nordmark. I also used this piece as an experiment, so the first carving is sealed with beeswax, and the second with linseed oil, and I like the finish and surface on the oiled wood better than the waxed, even if that one smells nicer.

Tablet carving tools The insides of the first tablet was picked out by deeply scoring the outlines of the depression for the wax, and then the wood on the inside carefully pared away with a small sharp clay-carving tool, as can be seen in the photo to the left. On the second set I started for myself I did two compartments of writing wax, with a narrow edge around. I also tried to undercut the edges, so that when I pour in the wax it will set with the base a little wider than the opening so there is less chance of it falling out or coming off accidentally. On the first set, I accidentally cut too far on one of the leaves, and had to make a single writing surface on that one. Since I had learned quite a bit from the first attempt I re-did the leafy pattern on the outside, and the results are pleasingly improved. On the other leaf I wanted something to mark it as mine entirely so I would not be tempted to give it away, so on one half I did my registered arms, and on the other half I repeated the charge, a seeblatt, in a four part circle. My device has three colours, black, white and green, and I wanted the carving to represent that, so the white is represented by the raised surface of the wood, black is the depressions, and green is the gridded area.

Lias second attempt


Here, I also tried to repeat the way that the Polish waxed tablets were bound together. They were high stacks of leaves, made into codices, and each wooden leaf was laced together with the next to enable a person to leaf through them easily. There were three holes drilled in each, and I tried to replicate that on my set. It looks almost right, but not quite, but it does enable me to open and close the tablet very easily. And also provides a handy way to tie on a stylus which I bought at the Visby market.

>> More images from the manufacture of these wax tablets in my gallery.

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