A Good Deal of Fir and Pine

I just read Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for the 31st of January wherein he wrote “This morning with Mr. Coventry at Whitehall about getting a ship to carry my Lord’s deals to Lynne…” Basically, Pepys was organising the delivery of pine planks to King’s Lynn, and from there via the River Ouse to Hinchingbrooke House, the seat of Edward Mountagu, the Earl of Sandwich (1625-72), who was carrying out some alterations there.

I previously wrote about deal, but I thought the annotations from Pepys’ Diary were of interest:

A slice sawn from a log of timber (now always of fir or pine), and usually understood to be more than seven inches wide, and not more than three thick; a plank or board of pine or fir-wood.

In the timber trade, in Great Britain, a deal is understood to be 9 inches wide, not more than 3 inches thick, and at least 6 feet long. If shorter, it is a deal-end; if not more than 7 inches wide, it is a BATTEN. In N. America, the standard deal (to which other sizes are reduced in computation) is 12 feet long, 11 inches wide, and 2 inches thick. By carpenters, deal of half this thickness (1 inches) is called whole deal; of half the latter ( inch) slit deal.

The word was introduced with the importation of sawn boards from some Low German district, and, as these consisted usually of fir or pine, the word was from the first associated with these kinds of wood.

1402 in C. Frost Early Hist. Hull (1827) App. 6 Mari Knyght de Dansk..xvj deles, iijm waynscots. Ibid. 18, iij dusen deles. a1450 Rature (in Hull Trin. House Records), Item for euerie hundreth of firre deales, xijd. 1558 Wills & Inv. N.C. (Surtees) I. 183 Ffyrdells of the biggest sorte..litle firdells..doble firr sparrs. 1583-4 Bk. Accts. Hull Charterhouse in N. & Q. 6th Ser. VIII. 217/1, 7 deals to seale the windows. 1595 A. DUNCAN Appendix Etymol., Asser, a deele or planke. 1604 Vestry Bks. (Surt.) 283 For fortie firre dales, xxiijs. iiijd. 1641 BEST Farm. Bks. (Surtees) 111 Robert Bonwicke of Wansworth demanded for everie deale a pennie, for bringing them from Hull to Parsonpooles, alledging that everie deale weighed three stone. 1762 STERNE Tr. Shandy VI. xxiii, A little model of a town..to be run up together of slit deals. 1820 SCORESBY Acc. Arctic Reg. I. 141 These huts, some constructed of logs, others of deals two inches in thickness. 1886 Law Times LXXX. 212/1 To there load a cargo of deals.
b. (Without a or pl.) Wood in the form of deals. a1618 RALEIGH Obs. in Rem. (1661) 180 The huge piles of Wainscot, Clapboard, Firdeal, Masts, and Timber..in the Low-countries. 1627 CAPT. SMITH Seaman’s Gram. ii. 14 Laying that Decke with spruce Deale of thirty foot long, the sap cut off. 1667 PRIMATT City & C. Builder 85, A handsom Door, lyned with Slit-deal. 1794 Builder’s Price-Bk. 41 Whole deal dove-tailed dado. 1876 GWILT Encycl. Archit.

In maritime matters, the expression “deal” had a specific meaning in the great days of sail and that might illuminate Sam’s entry. Some readers will have seen 19th century photographs of square riggers being loaded. Those moored bows on to the shore will often be seen with some of the bow planking removed. Such vessels are not undergoing maintenance. The reason for the bows being opened up was that stevedores were loading the vessel with “deal” or off loading the same.

“Deal” was, as least for mariners in square rig, cargo that consisted of long planks about 10 inches by about two inches or a bit more and intended for resaw at the destination. My aged informant of many years ago said that the dimensions were selected for convenient, waste free resaw into the then standard sizes of lumber in Great Britain (he tapped his astonishing memory anew and reeled off what those had been and showed how they fitted into the deal dimensions!). Unsaid but obvious to us both was that such planks constituted a compact cargo, one quickly loaded by stevedores and one free of unusable material as would be the case with the alternative, raw logs. (The latter were, by the way, sometimes loaded and shipped in like manner.)

Jack Plane


About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Furniture Timbers. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Good Deal of Fir and Pine

  1. hughjengine says:

    The classification certainly stuck. From the 1910 book , Carpentry & Joinery (thank you, Great Grandpa):
    “Fir timber, when sawn into convenient sizes available for joiner’s work, is called deal. It is brought into the market sawn into different widths, which are often classed as deals, or distinguished as battens, deals, and planks. They vary from 2 in. to 4 in. thick, but are mostly 3 in. thick, and from 8 ft. to over 20 ft. in length. All that are under 8 ft. in length are classed as ends, and are sold at a cheaper rate. When 7 in. wide and under they are termed battens; deals, from 8 in. to 9 in.; and planks when above 9 in.”


I welcome your comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s