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.