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Bog wood in history...?


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Since I've started working on Scottish dirks I've been paying attention to the types of wood that one finds for the grips on these weapons. It's obvious when you look at my work that I've had my own romantic love affair with woods salvaged from bogs... but now I'm wondering if this notion was shared by our ancestors. Was there anything magical or wonderful to the folks who found an old log when cutting turf for their fires? The reason I've been thinking of this is because I keep seeing historical dirks with handles that say 'bog oak' but don't really look anything at all like it in terms of grain structure. Many of these black/dark woods are completely smooth suggesting ebony perhaps... or there is damage in which you can see the underlying color of the wood. For example.. In the case of an early 18th century dirk that I'm working on right now.. the auction listing says 'bog oak' but there is a chip taken out of the grip that is yellow. And the grain is simply too smooth as well. I also have a copy of 'Scottish Arms and Armour' in which there are two dirks called 'bog oak'.. one actually has the type of grain in which you would see in oak (although it appears to be a red oak variety and my understanding is that the red oak species assemblage does not survive bog conditions). The other is so smooth and black it could almost be made of plastic! Yet it clearly says 'bog oak handle'.

 

Another thing that occurs to me is that oak is not wonderful carving wood.. whether it's been in a bog or not. Sure.. you can get some knot work in it.. but it will never hold the detail of the many other alternatives one would have found in the Scottish Highlands.

 

I've spoken to a few forum members about this and I won't share their names .. but if you read this.. please feel free to add to my comments. One of these folks mentioned the large number of light or yellow colored dirk handles in period art.... it didn't take me long to start observing that myself.

 

Anyway... I'm not saying we should all stop using bog wood if it does turn out to be overplayed in historical work....after all we are all carrying the torch and creating new traditions. But.. I have a general interest in truth and sometimes I wonder if the auction companies throw the 'bog oak' around to generate interest and bids.

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Wood varieties vary as well as color depending on type of wood.Not sure if you have read this article.............. http://www.irishuniqueart.com/about/history-of-bog-oak/

yes I've seen that and it could account for some disparity. But.... even light colored bog wood turns pretty dark with oil and use. And yes... there are woods other than oak.. yew and scotch pine for example.

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I am very far from knowledgeable in Scottish weapons, so please take that into account when reading my words.

The use of bog oak seems to me to me a modern phenomena and not something that would have been terribly common in earlier periods.

Staining and ebonizing would have been an option to produce dark colour in wooden grips. In "Knives and Scabbards, finds from London" there is a quote from a (14th C?) guild rule stating that it is forbidden to darken or stain knife grips. This is supposedly to stem any attempts to make the wood look like a more exotic and expensive sort than it really was.

 

Light wood was popular in medieval times, often burl or root wood. Also fruit wood. Boxwood or Dudgeon was so common for ballock daggers that the 17th century Scottish offspring of this dagger is named "Dudgeon dagger".

 

Ebonizing light but tight grained wood with vinegaroon would have been an option stretching back in time at least a few centuries. I do not know how old this method is.

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I am very far from knowledgeable in Scottish weapons, so please take that into account when reading my words.

 

The use of bog oak seems to me to me a modern phenomena and not something that would have been terribly common in earlier periods.

Staining and ebonizing would have been an option to produce dark colour in wooden grips. In "Knives and Scabbards, finds from London" there is a quote from a (14th C?) guild rule stating that it is forbidden to darken or stain knife grips. This is supposedly to stem any attempts to make the wood look like a more exotic and expensive sort than it really was.

 

Light wood was popular in medieval times, often burl or root wood. Also fruit wood. Boxwood or Dudgeon was so common for ballock daggers that the 17th century Scottish offspring of this dagger is named "Dudgeon dagger".

 

Ebonizing light but tight grained wood with vinegaroon would have been an option stretching back in time at least a few centuries. I do not know how old this method is.

 

 

Thank you Peter.. everything you've written conforms to what I've been learning. And Jake Cleland mentioned to me of a Scottish sumptuary law just as you say. He added the interesting fact that it was allowed to stain boxwood due to it's very nice characteristics. And this would make sense in terms of the present dirk that I'm working on... a dark stain over yellow wood.

 

Anyway... I'm probably making more of this than there is.. but I do wonder about the suspicious looking auction items that say 'bog oak'. I personally will continue to use it as the whole concept is just fascinating to me. I actually have some 'bog yew' coming from Great Britain.... anxiously watching for the post man.

 

As to how early Europeans regarded bog oak... I recall something, somewhere in faery folklore regarding the use of bog oak for some magical purpose.. and along with that there was some indication as to how to find it by looking at the way dew formed on the peat. But I have no idea if this was rooted in actual documented mythology.... possible I read it in a novel.

Edited by Scott A. Roush
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Don't know about the historic use of bog wood, but several earlier dirks (pre- 1800) I got to examine years ago had blackthorn wood for the handles. This is the same type wood often used for walking sticks back when

Edited by Wild Rose
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Don't know about the historic use of bog wood, but several earlier dirks (pre- 1800) I got to examine years ago had blackthorn wood for the handles. This is the same type wood often used for walking sticks back when

Ah! Blackthorn!

 

Now I want to get hold of some blackthorn to try out.

Thank you for that bug on my mind ;-)

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That sounds fun. I wonder if there is a North American equivalent? Don't know much about black thorn.

 

I like the smack of Scotch pine root wood too. Seems that could have been used commonly and is also one of the 'bog wood' species.

 

Boxwood is the wood for me though..... even though my current dirk is my own 'bog oak'.. the Lake Superior stuff. :-( The customer and I decided to use that in the beginning because of the right-up on the historic piece (A Fraser clan dirk... early 18th c)... and I discovered the yellow wood under the stain after we developed our plan.. and the customer decided to keep it as is. It's a more simple knot-work layout than others.. so it should go well in oak.

 

As an aside... I've been calling my Lake Superior diver salvaged oak 'black oak' because that is what the diving company calls it. And since there IS a local black oak species I didn't think much about it. But it turns out that my 'black oak' is actually white oak that has darkened due to it's burial in mud. I guess black oak is in the red oak species assemblage and would not lost long in the water.

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hmmm.. I wonder if the piece in my Scottish Arms and Armour book is horn. It does have that plasticky, no grain feel. But ebony can as well depending on how it's polished. I don't know? I've never tried to do complex carving in it myself.

 

I also wonder if pieces could have been heavily oiled and varnished to the point that they just don't show grain anymore? Years of linseed oil build up?

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  • 4 weeks later...

I have a 1740's French saber in my custody that has a handle made of slabs of horn lashed together as scales, maybe 15 of them around the handle core. Looks like it may be cow horn? Dunno if that helps any!

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Might bog oak have been introduced as cheap alternative to ebony perhaps? I always find the fascination for dark wood a bit odd. That's not how wood looks in general at all. That's how old wood looks, when it's been aging for centuries (and then just the top surface). Or how exotic wood looks, including ebony. The reason why ebony was so popular when it started being imported (16th century AFAIK) is that it was so different from what people were accustomed to. I've been working with quite a lot of different native woods, and they are at the darkest medium brown, such as f.e. apple wood. But most are much lighter, even including woods as oak or walnut. Being used to that, dark (stained) wood just looks wrong in my eyes in any historic reproductions.

 

Horn has been used for handles throughout history, from the bronze age upwards. On saxes also for example. Also with horn, mind that a lot of native cow horns are not black in color. The color ranges from white to honey colored (my favorite) up to black. But most black horn available now is buffalo horn, which is much darker.

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Might bog oak have been introduced as cheap alternative to ebony perhaps? I always find the fascination for dark wood a bit odd. That's not how wood looks in general at all. That's how old wood looks, when it's been aging for centuries (and then just the top surface). Or how exotic wood looks, including ebony. The reason why ebony was so popular when it started being imported (16th century AFAIK) is that it was so different from what people were accustomed to. I've been working with quite a lot of different native woods, and they are at the darkest medium brown, such as f.e. apple wood. But most are much lighter, even including woods as oak or walnut. Being used to that, dark (stained) wood just looks wrong in my eyes in any historic reproductions.

 

Horn has been used for handles throughout history, from the bronze age upwards. On saxes also for example. Also with horn, mind that a lot of native cow horns are not black in color. The color ranges from white to honey colored (my favorite) up to black. But most black horn available now is buffalo horn, which is much darker.

Yes Jeroen... I can sure see the possibility of the ebony imitation at least in terms of color. But... the oak would still be left with relatively poor carving characteristics and heavy grain. The opposite of ebony.

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Going off at a tangent. Root wood? How was this harvested and processed? I've seen large trees that have blown down with wide girths but the roots were similar to the upper branches.

The internal structure of roots is different from everything above ground but I don't know in what way?

Has any one used root wood? How does it differ from real wood of the same species?

Andrew

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I have read alot of bog oak over the last few years. My theory is that any bog wood was valued for it's darkness and hardness. I've seen museum pieces of knives, combs, jewelry and even beds made of bog wood. I believe it's value was due to it's durability and the fact that it took a skilled craftsman to shape and carve; just like our serious craftsmen in knifemaking make and use damascus instead of something 'easier'.

 

Ebony came about in the Victorian era due to the travels and conquest of the British Empire and because bog wood became harder to come by. Ebony soon replaced bog wood.

 

True 'celtic' bog oak is a rare and wonderful thing to come across. There was a recent article in which a whole oak tree was discovered in a moor in England. There was a scramble to get even the smallest piece of it. Most the sources of bog oak I have found come from Russia, complete with a radio-carbon dating form in Russian.

 

Still, to have in your hand something that fell in a bog during the time that the Egyptians just starting stacking stones...

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Just think about it for a second.

 

Who the hell is going diving, and then lifting some old oak log, from the bottom of some swamp in the 12c??????? Or if you find some old log in the peat, you very likely feel it was rotting, and would very quickly after you uncovered it.
No one. What would be the point!!

Even in the 17c.
Very likely, no one. What would be the point.

 

I think it's use started in the 18-19c, Mostly modern.


 

Why is it, that EVERYONE's bog oak is 5000 yrs. old ?? I always wondered about that, ;)

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One of the reasons for the use of bog oak was due to the general deforestation of Europe during the Medieval period, in some areas it was the only wood available. I think we would cringe to learn just how much was burned over the years as firewood.... much was also used for furniture, lumber, and gained popularity with the well-to-do apparently.

 

The first article is quite interesting, but all are worth reading.

http://royaloakglobal.com/BogOakHistory.aspx

http://www.pensink.com/Bog_Oak.php

http://antiques.about.com/od/victorianandedwardian/a/BogOak083010.htm

http://www.greatfen.org.uk/heritage/bog-oak

http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/20209

 

 

The famous round table of King Arthur was made of solid black oak upon his request. James I, son of Mary Stuart, wished to have a bog oak throne “…for its healing power to facilitate righteous government…” and received it as a gift from Westminster after the official coronation. Bog oak was used for decoration of the most expensive furniture and parquet in royal palaces.

 

Edited by GEzell
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  • 3 weeks later...

I agree that it would make sense that bog oak was used in areas where trees were scarce due to climate conditions and deforestation. But from what I can see.. there isn't much evidence of it being used in knife handles... at least in terms of the Scottish dirk. I have yet to find a convincing argument that it was used in a significant manner. I think this is especially true due to the importance of the quality of carving. You just can't get it with oak. I've recently worked with UK bog yew ..and that wasn't so bad. But still.. nothing like boxwood and the fruit woods. It seems that sycamore was a common dirk handle wood and from what I understand it's lovely to carve.

Going off at a tangent. Root wood? How was this harvested and processed? I've seen large trees that have blown down with wide girths but the roots were similar to the upper branches.
The internal structure of roots is different from everything above ground but I don't know in what way?
Has any one used root wood? How does it differ from real wood of the same species?
Andrew

 

Scotch pine root wood was apparently used. And I see lots of references to the use of root woods in dirks.

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  • 2 months later...

Just a little information on rootwood from my gunstock knowledge. To fully harvest a large walnut tree, you can do it two ways...

 

1. Cut all the limbs. Stabilize the trunk with cables/chains/ropes. Dig up the root ball, and cut branching roots. End log looks something like a "dog bone".

 

2. Cut the tree about shoulder height or higher, and proceed to dig up the stump as a second smaller log.

 

No idea if any of this was done before modern times. However, I imagine pulling stumps was needed to clear farmland. This could have been a source for shorter lengths of highly figured wood desireable for some uses.

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