Monday, August 24, 2009

Egyptian Woodworking

We've sure come a long way since ancient Egyptian woodworkers. Or have we?

Ancient Egypt dates back to 5500 BC, and while few wooden relics remain intact, tomb reliefs, paintings, and remnants of furniture provide examples and clues regarding style, construction techniques, and the types of tools that were used to make them.

As far back as the First Dynasty (3050-2686 BC), evidence shows that beds with rectangular frames and short legs shaped like bull's feet were made. Fragments of wooden stools and chairs were found in royal tombs.

By the time the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BC) rolls around, 2 types of seats were made: stools with square legs and arched bentwood braces, some with backs; and stools with decorated frames and carved bull's feet. Beds with canopies and long columns carved in the form of papyrus culms were typical. Some had carved, inlaid, and gilded foot boards, and carved bull's feet gave way to lion's paws. Ornate toilet (toiletry?) boxes were found in the tomb of Hetepheres. A low arm chair with straight back and high arms, an inlaid arm chair and chest, and a gilded jewelry box from this time period are on display at the the Cairo Museum. Other important discoveries include the use of animal-based glue, mouldings, and plywood.

At the time of the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BC), folding stools with high backs (which were sometimes sloped for comfort) were common; better proportions were developed for the back and arms; folding stools with slung leather seats became a staple of interior design; sophisticated paneling and joinery methods developed; and some workshops specialized in complex intarsia consisting of tiny slivers of the most valuable woods.

From the New Kingdom (1570-1070 BC), many more pieces and fragments have been uncovered in tombs of well-to-do officials: beds with headrests and bedding, chairs, various stool designs, small tables, numerous boxes, some of which were elaborately painted, and baskets. Tables were small and were used as stands, rather than surfaces on which to eat. Stools with 4 slender legs and stretchers were either painted white, left plain, inlaid, or constructed with thicker, carved legs. Folding stools with leather seats were typical, some with legs terminating into duck's heads or lion's claws. 3-legged stools and those with 4 legs and corded seats were found in less wealthy homes.

Solid wood seats were sometimes shaped with an easy curve; small tables were plentiful; gaming boards with stands or with legs attached; and cupboards with drawers were built. Boxes with internal dividers to hold jewelry, wigs, and toilet items, had flat, gabled, barrel-shaped, or sloped lids that were often detachable. Some lids on smaller boxes pivoted sideways on a single peg. Larger boxes sometimes opened upwards on pivots fastened into the sides of the box. Metal hinges, including barrel hinges, and sliding bolts developed during this time period.

Among the findings in King Tut's tomb were a folding bed with bronze hinges; a folding stool of ebony inlaid with ivory and gold, the legs of which terminate into duck's heads; and an ebony stool with ivory and inlaid ornaments and red leather seat, which is housed at the British Museum in London.

By this time, woodworkers were making veneer, marquetry, arched/coopered box lids, and were using metal pins and nails.

Throughout ancient Egypt, woodworkers used handtools, including adze, axe, straight edge, try and miter square, bow-drill, mortise and firmer chisel, awl, mallet, glue, sandstone rubbers (I'm not touching that one), pull-saws with wood handles and with blades of copper and later, bronze. Missing from their tool cache were planes and lathes, which were introduced in the Roman Period (332 BC-323 AD).

The Egyptians mainly used native woods—acacia, sycamore-fig, tamarisk, and sidder—and imported woods—cedar, cypress, juniper, and ebony.

For joinery they used dowels, tongue and groove, pegged mortise and tenon, dovetail, miter, scarf joint with butterfly insert, and butt joints. Evidence exists that Egyptians used clear varnish made from resin and oil; natural finishes; black varnish made from pitch and oil; and beeswax.

Traditional woodworking in the 21st century doesn't seem to be all that different from ancient Egyptian woodworking. It's an interesting concept to sense a connection to people who lived 7,500 years ago.

And to think that ancient carpenters carved way better than I do, makes me wonder if perhaps I should adopt some of their customs in order to improve my skills. (That's me at right, in full Egyptian regalia. Might be a little too cumbersome in the workshop, but we'll give it a go.)


Reference material and photos are from: World Furniture, An Illustrated History, edited by Helena Hayward; Furniture, World Styles from Classical to Contemporary, by Judith Miller; Egyptian Woodworking and Furniture, by Geoffrey Killen;and Ancient Egyptian Furniture and Woodworking.