Architecture in Wood

Joinery Apprenticeship in Saxony c. 1700


Nele Lüttmann

9th October 2020

Joiner’s woodworking tools. Photo: Free-Photos via Pixabay.
Checklist for becoming a master joiner in early 18th century Dresden:
  • father or other family member is master joiner (not mandatory, sons of masters are however favoured)
  • legitimate birth
  • respectable warrantor
  • minimum age: 17 years
  • capital (e.g. for paying admission charge, apprentice’s due, entrance fee for the guild, a “Meisteressen”, i.e. hosting a dinner for the masters after the master craftsman examination)
  • willing to travel to different towns and countries for at least five years
  • capable of doing hard work efficiently
  • unconcerned about long working hours and exploitation
  • successful manufacture of a Meisterstück (=piece of furniture to qualify as master joiner), including drawing up two elaborate sketches of an architectural wardrobe
  • command of the architectural principles, such as the order of the columns, perspective etc.

The young man Johann Gottlieb Borlach (b. 1691) fulfilled those criteria – at least we can assume this as it is noted in the records of the Dresden guild that on June 25, 1708 he was taken up as apprentice by his stepfather Georg Hübner. To be accepted, he had to pay 1 thaler and 12 pence admission charge and apprentice’s due (Stadtarchiv Dresden, 11.2.64 Tischler [1523-1922]).

Even though Borlach’s further career is seemingly not further documented in the Saxon joinery guild records, we can roughly reconstruct his professional development according to the usual proceedings of a joinery apprenticeship in Germany at that time.

A joiner’s workshop in the 18th century. Tab. 21 from Kupfersammlung zu J. B. Basedows Elementarwerke für die Jugend und ihre Freunde: Erste Lieferung in 53 Tafeln. Zweyte Lieferung in 47 Tafeln von L bis XCVI (1774).

The usual period of apprenticeship was three to four years. However, given that masters mostly trained only one apprentice at a time and Borlach’s brothers were also apprentices to Hübner (his older brother started in 1703, his younger brother in 1713), it appears that Hübner had five years to train each brother. At the end of the apprenticeship, the soon-to-be joiners likely had to manufacture a test piece after which they were acquitted from apprentice to journeyman. The dean of the guild then issued the certificate of apprenticeship.

Assuming that Borlach fully served his apprenticeship, he would have probably become journeyman around 1713. Journeymen mainly travelled to the countries whose art currently influenced the European or German taste. Given that French and English styles prevailed in Dresden in the first half of the 18th century, it is possible that Borlach travelled to both countries. It is recorded that Dresden journeymen also favoured Hamburg, Stettin, Wroclaw, Kiel, Gdansk, Erfurt, Frankfurt (Main), Nuremberg, Bautzen, Brandenburg, Berlin, Leipzig, Görlitz and Prague as well as places in Denmark, Poland, Italy and Hungary. Often, the journeymen stayed for several weeks at a master’s workshop, whereas the minimum period of stay was 14 days to guarantee productive workshop operations. After journeying for at least five years, which was the requirement in Dresden, but was generally exceeded up to 15 (!) years, the journeymen could return and report to the guild to formally request issuance of the rank of master craftsman and the admittance to the guild. Often the applicants then had to wait for one year (the so-called “Muthungsjahr”) until their request was granted and they were given the measurements after which they had to manufacture their Meisterstück.

Left: “Meisterstückriss” (drawing) of a wardrobe, anonymous, 1711, Bautzen Museum. Right: “Meisterstück”, anonymous, early 18th century, 238 x 224 x 65 cm, Rittergut Ermlitz. Rudolf von Arps-Aubert, Sächsische Barockmöbel 1700-1770 (Berlin: Deutscher Verein für Kunstwissenschaft: 1939), pl. 41.

In Saxony, besides some traditional formalities like delivering a speech at guild meetings, the guilds required the manufacture of a large wardrobe including the drawing up of two elaborate sketches (Ger. “Risse“). Lessons in (architectural) drawing therefore must have been a vital element of the training of apprentices and journeymen in Dresden and in Germany in general. Furthermore, the piece of furniture was to be made following the architectural orders; the Dresden guild strongly recommended joiner Georg Caspar Erasmus’s Seülen-Buch from 1667 and Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola’s Regola delli cinque ordini d’architettura from 1562 as theoretical principles and exemplars. At that time, architecture generally served as a model for furniture making and joiners were expected to have mastery of the depiction of architecture and of reproducing it in the form of furniture and interior decoration: the entire environment was to be designed following architectural norms.

Left: Plate from Georg Caspar Erasmus’s Seülen-Buch (1690). Right: Frontispiece of Vignola’s Regola delli cinque ordini d’architettura (1562).

In fact, the architectural orders were so important that journeyman joiners in some German towns they were incorporated in organised festive processions, as for example documented in Braunschweig, Frankfurt and Hamburg. Central to those parades were columns of the five orders, which were presented to the crowds in the form of gold-plated models and drawings. Journeymen dressed up accordingly accompanied these processions: a country-like costume represented the Tuscan order, a suit of armour the Doric order, the costume of a gentlewoman the Ionic order, that of damsel the Corinthian and Roman orders.

Joiners regarded the study of architecture, i.e. knowledge of the architectural orders, as the science of their profession which were studied during the period of apprenticeship in the workshops of their masters. During the 17th century architectural treatises and pattern books by architects and mathematicians acted as conveyors of knowledge in terms of the five orders and their application to craftsmanship. Engravings by Hans Vredeman de Vries, Johann Indau, Friedrich Unteusch and many more influenced styles of furniture making for a long time.

Plate from Hans Vredeman de Vries’s, Perspective (1604).

From the mid-17th century onwards, craftsmen and especially joiners increasingly started developing models for the application of the orders and became authors of books on architecture. There were even special books for joiners, which focused particularly on the order of the columns and their practical realisation, for example Marcus Nonnenmacher’s, Der Architectonische Tischler, oder, Pragerisches Säulen-Buch (“The Architectural Joiner; or Prague Column Book”) from 1710.

Left: Marcus Nonnenmacher, Der Architectonische Tischler, oder, Pragerisches Säulen-Buch, 1710. Right: Architectural wardrobe, oak, 2.1 x 2.4 x 0.8 m, c. 1700. Photo: Niederlausitzer Heidemuseum / Dietmar Fuhrmann.

The preface of this publication clearly spells out that architecture and perspective are highly important skills and inherent part of a joiner: “The theory of the orders of the columns is the chief work both for his profession as well as for that of others / especially for that of the Baumeister […]; a joiner cannot claim his art to be glorious / has he not deeply devoted himself to the bedrock of architecture.” The Dresden engineer-architect and instructor at the engineer corps Johann Rudolph Fäsch also re-issued Vignola’s book in an edited version in 1720, focusing on a more comprehensible description especially for joiners.

The architectural books of the 17th and 18th centuries, which influenced the structure and general appearance of the large wardrobes provide an insight into the demanding course of education of master joiners and the high level of master craftsmen examinations in 18th century Germany. A joiner can therefore not only be regarded as craftsman but also as a designer, as his work mirrors that of an architect on a micro level.

In the case of Borlach, it seems that the draughting skills acquired as a joinery apprentice equipped him for employment in the office of Gibbs, where he had further training in architecture and draughtsmanship. We might even speculate that he never returned to Dresden to become master, but that he rather decided to stay in London as Gibbs’s long-term draughtsman.

Der Zimmermann (The carpenter), Christoph Weigel, 1698, copper engraving.

Further Reading

Arps-Aubert, Rudolf von. Sächsische Barockmöbel 1700-1770. Berlin: Deutscher Verein für Kunstwissenschaft: 1939.

Baarsen, Reinier. “Acquisitions: European Drawings for Domestic Furniture 1625-1810.” The Rijksmuseum Bulletin 68, no. 2 (2020), 166-199.

Haase, Gisela. Dresdener Möbel des 18. Jahrhunderts. Leipzig: Seemann, 1983.

Hellwag, Fritz. Die Geschichte des deutschen Tischlerhandwerks vom 12. bis zum 20. Jahrhundert. Berlin: Verlagsanstalt des Deutschen Holzarbeiter-Verbandes, 1924.

Kreisel, Heinrich. Die Kunst des Deutschen Möbels. München: Beck, 1970.

Stiegel, Achim. “Berlin Furniture Drawings by Carl Wilhelm Marckworth (1798-1875).” The Rijksmuseum Bulletin 68, no. 2 (2020), 126-145.

Stürmer, Michael. Herbst des Alten Handwerks: Quellen zur Sozialgeschichte des 18. Jahrhundert. München: dtv, 1979.

Winter, Andrea. “Meisterstücke der Braunschweiger Tischlergilde: Die großen Braunschweiger Schränke von 1685-1789. Gildegeschichtliche Voraussetzungen und Kunstgeschichtliche Aspekte.” PhD diss., Braunschweig University of Art, 1960.

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