We see examples of woodworking by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese. Many other ancient cultures around the world also practiced woodworking, employing many different styles and techniques.
Primitive weapons used for defense and hunting and simple tools used for building shelters have been used throughout the ages. Archaeologists discovered a wooden club and digging sticks at the Kalambo Falls on the Kalambo River on the border of Zambia and Tanzania.
As man developed his woodworking skills, he became better able to kill animals for food, clear land with his axe to grow crops, and build boats, buildings, and furniture. Woodworking thus became an important process that led to the advancement of civilizations.
Because of the vast amount of material to cover related to the history of woodworking, this article will focus on woodworking from ancient times to the Middle Ages, focusing on some of the more prominent civilizations. Woodworking conducted in other civilizations will be omitted – not because they are less important but again, due to the sheer volume of material. We will, however, briefly review some of the more prominent tools woodworkers used throughout history.
Many ancient Egyptian drawings going back to 2000 B.C. depict wood furniture, such as beds, chairs, stools, tables, beds, and chests. There’s also physical evidence of these wooden objects, as many were found well-preserved in tombs due to the country’s dry climate. Even some sarcophagi (coffins) found in the tombs were crafted from wood.
Ancient Egyptian woodworkers were noted for regularly practicing their craft and for developing techniques that advanced the craft for future generations. For instance, they invented the art of veneering, which is the practice of gluing thin slices of wood together.
The earliest examples of veneering are over 5,000 years old, found in the tomb of Semerkhet. Many of the pharaohs were buried with objects that had African ebony veneer and ivory inlays.
According to some scholars, Egyptians were the first to varnish, or “finish” their woodwork, though no one knows the composition of these “finishes”. Finishing is the art of placing some kind of protective sealant on wood materials in order to preserve them.
Ancient Egyptian woodworkers used a variety of tools, including axes, adzes, chisels, pull saws, and bow drills. During the earliest pre-dynastic period (circa 3100 B.C., about the time of the first pharaoh), they also used mortise and tenon joints to join pieces of wood. Pegs, dowels, and leather or cord lashings strengthened these joints. Animal glue was used during the New Kingdom period (1570 – 1069 B.C.).
Egyptologists found the world’s oldest piece of plywood in a third dynasty coffin. It was made of six layers of wood four millimeters thick held together by wooden pegs.
The Egyptians used a variety of wood to build their furniture and other objects. The wood came from native acacias, local sycamore and tamarisk trees. However, when deforestation occurred in the Nile Valley starting from the Second Dynasty, they began importing cedar, Aleppo pine, boxwood, and oak from various parts of the Middle East. They also imported ebony from Egyptian colonies and used it to construct items that went into tombs such as inlaid wooden chests.
Noah and the Ark
In the Book of Genesis, we encounter one of the Bible’s first woodworkers – Noah. After God revealed his plan to destroy a corrupt humanity by flooding the earth, He gave Noah a 120-year project – build an ark of cypress wood coated with pitch inside and out.
God furnished him and his three sons with precise instructions and dimensions. The ark was to be 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high. If we convert cubits into feet based on the common cubit of 17.5 inches used by the Hebrews, we get an ark that is at least 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet tall (about the size of a 4-story building).
The sheer size of the ark staggers the imagination and seems an impossible task for Noah and his sons. The Scriptures, however, do not suggest that Noah had to build the ark without the help of hired men. After all, the size of the timbers for such a huge vessel would likely have been beyond the powers of four men to handle.
After the flood, the ark came to rest upon the mountains of Ararat. The mountains of Ararat are in present-day Turkey.1