Thursday, March 13, 2008

Roman Woodworking

My mom surprised me last week with a book I've been wanting to read for a long time (thanks, Mom!), but for which I was reluctant to part with $85. Roman Woodworking, by Roger B. Ulrich, is according to the back cover, "...the standard reference for students and scholars seeking a broad understanding of ancient woodworking." In other words, it's a text book.

As Mom handed the book to my wide-eyed, Oh-my-God-you're-the-best-Mom-ever self, a short verbal exchange ensued.
Mom: Are you actually going to read that book?
Me: Well, of course.
Mom: But it has all those WORDS in it!

Following are some of the words. I've only read a few pages and skimmed others, but was very surprised to see the list of tools Romans used, including: chisels with ferrules, hollow sockets, and tangs, paring and mortising chisels, gouges and knives, bow and drill, mallets, bench planes, frame saws, lathes, drawknives, spokeshaves, saws, hammers, iron wedges, calipers, compasses, plumb bobs, rulers, framing squares, axes, adzes, and clamps with threaded handles.

Types of joinery: miter, butt, half-lap, tongue and groove, dovetail, blind dovetail, half dovetail, mortise and tenon, rabbets (rebates), and finger joints.

And glue! They used glue made from fish, bull-hide—the choicest parts being ears and genitals (TMI, Dr. Ulrich)—and boiled cow horns and hooves.

Sounds like a mid-19th c. shop, doesn't it? Surprisingly, an illustration in the book of a sliding lid, dovetailed box, looks identical to one I built. Seems like woodworking didn't change all that much until the Industrial Revolution. In fact, I have many of the same tools in my shop and use most of the same joinery techniques as the Romans. Hmmm...maybe I should check the label on my Titebond III wood glue. If I see any ingredient that resembles "bull", I'm throwing it out.

For a more scholarly write-up on this book, head over to Gary Robert's Toolemera site for his post on Roman Woodworking.


Brandoch52 said...

I always wondered why my bottle of Titebond seemed to gravitate towards that dish of Ben & Jerry;s...

Anonymous said...


You said

"Hmmm...maybe I should check the label on my Titebond III wood glue. If I see any ingredient that resembles "bull", I'm throwing it out..."

What DOES it say? I bet that bull was more than a little upset about having all his body parts mixed with others'... :-)

Enjoy the book, VC. It sounds like it will be wonderful reading. I have a good feeling it is a good candidate for a book review (hint).

Shazza said...

So...when they used too much glue on their wood someone would exclaim: that's a lotta bull!

Anonymous said...

I keep trying not to think about this book, and now you put it in my face! And I don't imagine it'll be coming out in cheaper paperback, either!

As to the glue formula - like most guys I cringe, and assume a defensive posture. I don't know what it is - and it's so even if not a matter for any great pride - but like most men faced with the notion of an animals 'genital' contribution (even in death), or gelding a horse, neutering a male dog etc, whatever, I tend to feel instant solidarity with the animal... sad to say, actually, a much stronger 'get it in the gut' then that felt during non-stressed, ordinary day to day interaction or observation of human females, who remain in the normal course of events, a constant mystery, almost a breed apart. It must be something in the hard wiring!

Now if you would do a more extensive review of the book - and pan it - I could save a few bucks... take care.

Kari Hultman said...

Anon—you are correct. Women and men are entirely two different species!

will said...

Years ago I visited the King Tut when it was at the LA Country Art Museum... and the chairs had standard mortise and tenons. It would be interesting to know when technical joinery was first figured out.

About glues, back in the 80s I spent some time attempting to understand some of the factors of traditional Japanese woodworking and a Japanese craftsman made the point of telling me, not all rices are the same when used as a glue ingredient. Which told me that we as Westerners will never really get the subtle aspects of ancient woodworking. But it's fun trying.

Kari Hultman said...

Bill, you hit the nail on the head (sorry, couldn't resist): it would be fascinating to find out the origin of joinery. I was hoping this book would unlock some of the mystery.

XTL said...

Sounds like a great gift. Last book my mother bought me was a Lewis Carroll collection and I had to hint at that, too.

There were a few slight surprises on the list but Romans did have excellent blacksmiths and good engineering. It was probably easy to pick the best things they found among the barbarians all around. I wonder what their lumber business was like, though.

Japanese joinery also makes very interesting reading.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't the bull a symbol of Zeus?

Anyway, I would sure like to see Dr. Ulrich's documentation on that particular one...