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The Coming of Treen

Mark Rees

Many people think that Edward Pinto made up the word ‘treen” as a convenient description for the wooden objects that he collected so passionately, and in such quantity. The small handbook produced in 1956 for visitors to his somewhat private (well, only 3000 visitors in one year!) museum which occupied the ground floor of his house is titled “The Pinto Collection of Wooden Bygones.” There is but a passing mention of treen.

By 1969, when the first edition of his great 450 page book in which he described in some detail the objects in his, by now immense, collection was published, the title had become “Treen’; with “other wooden bygones” now only a sub-title.

In fact treen is a very old word (the meaning is “of a tree”) and according to my 1930s Shorter Oxford Dictionary was obsolete. Perhaps Pinto’s greatest gift to the collecting world was to resurrect the word to a new life as a noun. Today it is sprinkled about the literature of antiques and is a mainstay of the auction catalogue.

What is treen?

But is the term always used properly? Just what is treen today? Of course the material must be wood but a small subsidiary amount of other materials, maybe metal or bone, is permissible. Generally the article should be of limited size and not of joined construction – this excludes furniture and large boxes. To me perhaps the most important part of any definition is that the item must have a functional purpose; so carvings are not treen -unless they are decoration to a functional object. Again, so what is treen? Well just about any small object turned, or shaped by other means, and made of a relatively small number of parts. So Tunbridgeware with its many thousands of minute parts isn’t treen? Most collectors would say definitely, yes it is; it displays one of the most important characteristics, a celebration of the material and of craftsmanship but to me the central intention is decorative so in my terms, it fails on the functional test.

But however the boundaries are drawn, the lover of wood and true craftsmanship will always find things he admires that are on the other side of the fence. Pinto certainly didn’t set himself rigid confines. Amongst the 7,000 objects in his collection (now in the City ofBirmingham Museum) is at least one large Joiner’s chest. Pinto’s great book on Treen has been out of print for many years and it seems unlikely that it will now be re-printed. Some parts have been superseded by other more specialist works (there can hardly be a more obvious area than tools and rules) and a proportion of the information is now seen to be inadequate or wrong, but such is the demand for the book that it now commands a substantial price in the second-hand market.

Appeared 1997 – Toolshop Auctions Catalogue

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