The Pinner’s Bone – Pinmakers Guild Redux

If you feel like we’ve done this all before, you’re right. The Pinmakers and Wiredrawers guilds are where we began this journey and I’ve learned so much since then that I wanted to take another whack at it with more knowledge and better tools.

Mistakes I made the first time (or allowances I made for time and available resources)

  1. I did not draw my own wire. This, I believe, was a big part of why the resulting pins, though serviceable, were weak and the brass too soft to hold up over time.
  2. I used a ‘make do’ bone. Also, I bleached it with hydrogen peroxide in the modern manner. Though I don’t really think the bone makes that big of a difference, it may have and I can’t discount it until I’ve tried this with a fresh, greasy, unbleached bone. Also, aesthetically it always bothered me that my pinner’s bone never looked like the ones we see in the museums.
  3. I knew nothing about soldering or brazing and made a bit of a hash of that part of the process.
  4. I have some thoughts on using stones instead of files to sharpen the pins. While files were certainly available and appear in the hausbuchs, I believe that those images depict monks or other ascetics, and their tools may not translate directly to the working poor who fed England’s pin obsession.

The Bone

If you recall, the pinmakers were poor as churchmice and much abused by those who supplied them with wire (the wiredrawers) and those who held monopoly on selling their wares (the haberdashers).

The trade was recommended as a good one for the poor and disabled (many of them veterans) and, according to the Museum of London, children were often employed for their small, dextrous, fingers and sharp eyes.

The pinners of London (and probably elsewhere) congregated around areas where there were butchers (abattoirs). In part this was because trades like butchery, dying, and leather tanning were forced to the outskirts of cities owing to the stench of their crafts. This means those areas were also by default the least desirable districts, and so the poor could find cheap rooms while they scrounged bones for their craft.

For my bone, I just went to the pet store.

Step one: Find a bone.

Any old bone will do, but the dense structure of a cow’s shank bone (the elusive bovine metatarsus as you may recall) is ideal for this. This is a leg bone with a lot of good, solid, structure ideal for cutting into and supporting your pins as you sharpen them.

Now I just have to pursuade the kitten to let me have it back…

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Step two: Facet the bone

As neatly as you can manage, cut flat faces at right angles into the solid ends of the bone. This will both aid in making it sit flat while you’re working and provide work surfaces for your pinmaking.

Make sure you are using a sharp saw (and/or a saw you don’t care about) to cut the bone. If you don’t mind your workshop smelling like a dentist’s office, you can use a bandsaw. The shank bone is almost solid at the ends, but even so, I still managed to cut into the void space on one side.

It’s definitely true that the fresher the bone is, the more annoying it will be to cut. Drying and bleaching processes also degrease the bone. If the poor pinner made soup first, that too would probably pull some of that grease out of there. But care must be taken with all of these approaches. Boiling too long will de-calcify the bone (as will bleaching), making it pretty and white, but also brittle and decreasing its usable life.

Greasy is how the Tudor pinner received their bones, though, so I muddle ever onward.

Note: It occurred to me that a handsaw was a tool even less likely for a destitute pinner to have lying around than even a metal file. Out of curiosity, I tried axes and knives and for their sake I hope they had a saw. Certainly the tool marks on these bones look more like a saw to my eye. I can’t find anyone published who has talked about this, but butchers have saws and I am of the opinion that the butchers did some of the cutting.


More later this weekend.


Postscript: It seems the Museum of London has taken almost all of their many pinner’s bones out of their online-accessible collections, so many of the links in those old posts are dead. There are some lingering on Pinterest (also now dead links) but at least the images are preserved.

Reference Material

Four early modern pinners bones made from what appears to be bovine shanks
Pinners bones from London, at the Museum of Applied Sciences (MAAS), a gift to the city of Syndey, Australia on the occasion of their 150th birthday.

Image shared under Creative Commons License, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0


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