Bringing 17th century technology to life

Shapes that we now may be able to make in 3D printers could be made by the most skilled 17th century craftsmen using lathes, chisels and knives, with the aid of ingenious machines.

Josephine Erckrath Josephine Erckrath with her wave-moulding and rose machines.

Malmstens Linköping University is home to two machines that can be used to manufacture the most amazing items and ornaments from wood, ivory and other hard materials. In the hands of truly skilled craftsmen, it must be added. These machines are reconstructions of machines from the 17th and 18th centuries, and both have been built by cabinet maker and conservator Josephine Erckrath. She has carried out a major undertaking in historical detection within the framework of her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

A wave-moulding machineA wave-moulding machine Photo credit Josephine ErckrathThe first is a wave-moulding machine, developed during her bachelor’s degree at Malmstens, and the second, an ornamental lathe (rose engine) was developed as a master’s degree project at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, with Ulf Brunne, head of division at Malmstens, as external supervisor.

Experience is needed

Not content with investigating the probable mode of action of the machines, she has also, together with Ulf Bengtsson and his colleagues in the metalworking shop at the Department of Management and Engineering, built the machines in order to test them in practice.

“They are not easy to use. The wave-moulding machine works well and can be mastered quite rapidly, but the rose engine needs a lot more practice, experience and skill”, she says.

Wave moulded samplesWave moulded by Josephine Erckrath Photo credit Josephine ErckrathBut they both work, and suggest how it was possible to produce the huge amounts of mouldings, ornaments and decoration, in wood and other hard materials, that were used, long before electricity made its entrance into the workshops.

Inspiration from France

Josephine’s interest in the field was aroused by a meeting with French lathe operator Bernard Romain. “He described the handicraft itself in detail, and I learnt a lot from him. This field of craftsmanship fascinates me.”

It started with the wave-moulding machine. While tracking down written sources, Josephine eventually arrived at Skokloster Castle north of Stockholm, where the workshop of Carl Gustaf Wrangel is the best preserved in the world from that age.

“The aristocracy probably dabbled with what we today would call ‘hobby woodwork’, but a number of skilled craftsmen must also have been employed here. Remember that this was the high-tech of the 17th century”, she says.

The Skokloster collection

“Skokloster has an amazing collection of lathes, but they just stand there and no-one is allowed to touch them. And they can't be used, since some parts are missing. We don’t even know how many lathes there are – it might be five, six, or more. Many of the metal parts remain, but the wooden frames are lost, so I was forced to reconstruct them”, Josephine Erckrath tells us.

Collaboration with the metalworking shop at Campus Valla made the reconstruction possible.

“They were interested and were happy to get deeply involved, but for them it was a question of how much time they could invest in it. A lot of metalwork was needed. For me, it was important to establish a productive collaboration, and hear someone say: ‘OK – let's give it a go’.”

The metalworking shop Ulf Bengtsson and Per Johansson in the metalworking shop. Photo credit Magnus JohanssonUlf Bengtsson imported Josephine’s material into a CAD program and suggested modifications where he thought they were necessary. Together, they first worked out how the wave-moulding machine must have been designed, and how it worked. A few years later, they looked at the rose engine, which is a much more complicated machine with many exchangeable parts, able to function as lathes, chisels and carving tools.

“We were also a bit lucky”, says Ulf Bengtsson. “Josephine mentioned to me that a French monk, Charles Plumier, had written a book about lathes. This book was available in the library in Norrköping, a gift from the De Geer family in Finspång. The library personnel were really happy that we were interested, and digitised the book for us. Then we tried together to understand how the lathe had functioned.”

Trial and error

Josephine Erckrath was working towards several goals. She wanted not only to present a scientific work for her master’s thesis, but also to discover how the machine worked in practice, and the degree of skill required to manage the complicated equipment.

Ivory objectsObjects in Ivory, figure from the master work.“The only place where lathes of this type have been preserved is Skokloster, and thus we don’t know how they were used. The difficulty during the whole project was that I wasn’t at all sure about what I was doing, and there was no-one for me to ask. There’s a lot of literature from the 17th and 18th centuries, but the descriptions are difficult to follow and I wasn’t at all sure that we could get it to work. We had to use a process of trial-and-error.”

And Josephine has used trial-and-error excellently, being awarded the highest grade for her master’s project. Malmstens has gained two beautiful and meticulously crafted machines to exhibit, both of them examples of fully functional technology from the 17th and 18th centuries. The carpentry bears the signature of Josephine Erckrath and the metal parts have been produced by skilled engineers at the LiU metalwork shop.

“I can’t describe how impressed I am by Josephine’s work”, is Ulf Brunne’s enthusiastic comment.

Josephine Erckrath trained initially as cabinet maker in Bornholm and she has returned there, employed as a cabinet maker with a young family at home.

“We’ve just bought a house and are working with that, but I would, of course, like to have my own workshop. We just need to find suitable premises.”

Publications (in Danish and Swedish)

Passig-/rosetdrejning - 1600-tallets drejehåndverk i et håndvaerkshistoriskt perspektiv, Josephine Erckrath, Ulf Brunne och Knud Bo Botfeldt, Konservatorskolen, Det Konglige Danske Kunstakademis Skoler för Arkitektur, Design och Konservering, 2016.

Hopp- och Flamlister - och deras maskinella tillverkning under 1600-1800-talet, Josephine Erckrath, Carl Malmstens Furniture Studies, Linköpings universitet, 2009.

SamplesSamples from the rose engine, made by Josephine Erckrath.

Reconstruction of the rose engine
From 17th century drawings, to computer aided design and reconstruction.

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