Woodenware | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Woodenware, or treen, simple, small objects made entirely of wood, usually by home craftsmen who were their own carpenters, joiners, carvers and turners. Normally, woodenware was made from a single piece of wood (block or plank, rough or milled), cut, hollowed or turned but rarely joined.


Woodenware, or treen, simple, small objects made entirely of wood, usually by home craftsmen who were their own carpenters, joiners, carvers and turners. Normally, woodenware was made from a single piece of wood (block or plank, rough or milled), cut, hollowed or turned but rarely joined. Treen is always functional and utilitarian, of good form, made with simple techniques and easy to use. Wooden utensils, especially those associated with the preparation, serving and storage of food, are considered to be treen; ornamental objects (eg, carved figures, panels) are not.

In early Canada, treen items replaced costly and often unobtainable domestic objects normally made in Europe of glass, earthenware, stoneware, porcelain, china, silver or pewter. Even a pitchfork could be made of hardwood, the tines formed by making 2 parallel cuts and by using steam to bend the pieces. Wood was used because of its many practical qualities: it was durable, easily worked, recyclable and, most important, always available. The objects, worked one at a time during the long pioneer evenings, were made in the same useful shapes for hundreds of years. The familiar forms were copied from European models that remained unchanged from generation to generation. Great care was taken in selecting wood suitable for the purpose at hand, in order to provide the desired shape, colour, grain, strength or ornament. It was also very important to select the appropriate woodworking technique.

Canadian forests provided a good variety of hardwoods (eg, ash, birch, cherry, walnut, maple) and softwoods (eg, cedar, basswood, spruce, pine, poplar). New-felled timber, cut in planks, was usually left to season for at least one year before being used.

Hardwoods were used for objects in which weight and durability were important. For example, the hard, dense grain of maple, which can be lathe turned, was ideal for ladles, stirrers, breadboards, butter prints, spoons, mashers and rolling pins. Maple was often used in mallets because it could withstand constant pounding. Ash and hickory, exceptionally resilient hardwoods which can be bent without breaking, were steamed into hoops, box and wheel rims, and even bootjacks. The springiness of ash was extremely useful in the handles of mashers, mallets, hammers and axes because it was able to absorb the shock of each blow. Small bundles of fine birch twiglets or smooth hickory rods could be used as an eggbeater.

The bowls were made using a variety of techniques and methods. An adze or chisel could be used to hollow out the shape of a bowl; some bowls had handles carved right into the body of the piece. Bowls might also be made by lathe turning, using well-seasoned wood. Maple and ash were commonly used for turned bowls, but burls, abnormal protruding growths found on many hardwood species, were prized for use for carved or lathe-turned bowls. Although the attractive, erratic, dense grain of the burl was hard to work, it seldom split, and its resistance to water was useful. Their rarity is one reason why burl bowls have survived and are still prized.

Softwoods were employed in lightly used utensils. Pine, a lightweight, odourless and tasteless wood, was often selected for kitchen utensils. Maple sugar molds, introduced in Québec in the 18th century, were sometimes made of pine because its softness allowed it to be carved. A spoon or stirring rod could easily be whittled out of softwood and was easily replaced.

Carving was rarely done, because embellished decorating would be secondary to the utilitarian purpose of a treen item, although wood with an unusually figured grain was sometimes selected particularly for its decorative qualities. Pieces such as butter prints or maple sugar molds were exceptions; their carved decoration helped identify the product and make it more attractive to the user. "Print butter" was much sought after.

It is easy to detect the touch of the maker in a piece of treen. The variety of rolling pins, for example, shows that there was no single style; there would be as many variations of an object as makers. The rough-hewn rolling pin could be as functional as the smoothly sanded lathe-turned rolling pin. Each piece had small individual details; a handle might be grooved around its edge, or the knobs might be of varying shapes. It is easy to see these details as unselfconscious additions, produced quickly by the tool at hand, just before the rolling pin came off the lathe.

The maker of a woodenware object was also its user and the objects often reflect this close relationship. The maker could create an object according to his needs without taking any shortcuts in technique or material. Thus, beauty of form and love of craftsmanship were never divided from the utility of an object of treen. The work would express the craftsman's pride and reveal his cultural tradition. The object would be used until it was worn out, at which point it would be discarded and a new one made. Surviving examples of treen found today are thus among the most recent made and date only from the later 19th century. Human irreverence for objects of treen is not the only reason there are so few surviving examples. Wood is a vulnerable material which rots and warps, burns readily and wears with use. The use of woodenware began to diminish with the coming of industrialization in the 19th century. It became impractical to produce commonplace objects in wood when these items were so readily and cheaply available in other, hardier materials.

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