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The carpenters and their tools: The axe, saw, vice, adze, drill, lathe, hammer and chisel, rule and set-square, sanding stone, glue and plaster.
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Carpenters and their tools

Carpenters' shop

Carpenter's workshop
Middle Kingdom
Source: G. Foley [1]

    The images below are line drawings mostly after pictures from the tomb of Rekhmire. They show carpenters plying their craft. They had a good array of tools and the most expert among them had great knowledge of wood and of wood-working techniques. Metal parts during this time, the New Kingdom, were generally made of bronze, which is significantly harder than the previously used fire-hardened copper.
    According to the Satire of the Trades
Every carpenter who picks up the adze is more tired than a peasant. His field is the wood, his hoe is the axe. There is no end to his labour. He has to work more than his arms are capable of. At night he lights a lamp (to be able to continue working).
The instructions of Kheti

The axe

The use of the axe     The primary tool for roughly working wood was the axe. Sawing, while resulting in a smoother cut, was very hard work and time consuming with the kind of saws that were available.
    Splitting a log along its grain could result, depending on the sort of wood and its condition, in planks or beams that could easily be planed with adzes.


The saw

Saw     An indispensable implement for shaping wood when the cut is not in the direction of the grain. Saws were probably among the first new tools to be made of metal. Still, copper, even if hardened, is soft, and bronze brittle. It was with the advent of iron that the wood saw came into its own [2].
    The ancient Egyptian saw was a difficult tool to use. It was a pull-saw, cutting when pulled. Its teeth were not bent slightly out of the blade's plane as is the case with modern saws, which results in a cut a bit wider than the saw blade, making it easier for the saw to move: In the tomb of Ti a carpenter remarks to another: Take another. It is burning [3]. When sawing with this kind of saw cutting vertically is easiest.


The vice

sawing with a primitive vice

The use of a primitive vice
Tomb of Ti, Old Kingdom
Source: Montet, Scènes de la vie privée dans les tombeaux égyptiens de l'ancien empire
On Mouseover: Photograph of the scene

    When a piece of wood could not be sawed one-handed, the carpenter tied it to a pole rammed firmly into the ground. To make sawing easier a wedge was possibly inserted into the cut in order to widen the gap or to prevent the tying ropes from closing it. The work piece had to be repositioned occasionally which required tying afresh. To prevent it from moving during the sawing wedges were driven between the rope and the wood. In the scene from the tomb of Ti a weight is tied to a staff to keep the rope taut.

The cane bender

Carpenters forming branch Removing bark     Branches, which nowadays are often considered waste products, were used extensively. They are stronger and more pliable than sawed pieces of wood of the same girth, but generally they do not have the form the craftsman needs. Javelins, spears and arrows have to be straightened [4], while parts of furniture are often curved and wheels preferably rounded. The ancient Egyptian wheelwrights, fletchers, and joiners formed branches by first heating the section which had to be bent or straightened while it was still covered by the bark to prevent scorching, removing the bark (drawing on the left) and then exerting pressure on the workpiece with a lever until it had cooled down (drawing on the right) and accepted its new form. In the tombs of Meri and Ti the depictions were accompanied by remarks such as Heat the wood!, Debark the branch! and Form the staff! [3].

The adze

Adze     The adze was used for planing and carving. It was made of a wooden handle, often fashioned from a branch cut at its ramification, to which a blade was fitted. These were made of stone to begin with and later of metal. The stone used was often diorite or basalt, which was ground rather than knapped in order to create a sharp, lasting edge. Meteoric iron was also sharpened by grinding.
    Adzes of various sizes were used. The bigger adzes were employed for removing bark and branches, and in boat and house construction, smaller adzes for delicate carving and planing.

The drill

Drill     Drills were bows, the strings of which were wound around a shaft to which a drill bit had been fastened. The top of this shaft was held steady with a little upside turned bowl of stone or the shell of the fruit of the doum palm.
    Drills were indispensable for making proper connections between two pieces of wood. Wooden dowels were inserted into the drill holes and the workpieces glued together. The Egyptians even made a sort of ply-wood in this fashion.

The lathe

Lathe,after a picture in the tomb of Petosiris     This tool came into use during the Persian period (ca 500 BCE). Two planks were connected forming a frame into which the workpiece was inserted. A piece of cord was wound around the shaft. One worker pulled at it, spinning the shaft backwards and forwards. The other held some kind of blade cutting the wood.

Hammer and chisel

mallet and chisel    Mallets and chisels were chosen according to the task at hand: big and heavy mallets and sizable chisels for coarse work, carving and inlay work required more delicate implements.
    The mallets were made of either wood or stone.


Rule and set-square

rule and set-square     With a ruler they checked the straightness of their workpieces. A set-square served to achieve right angles. There is a further rule on the right with an angle of about 110 degrees the purpose of which is unknown.
    The block of wood at the carpenter's feet has a indentation against which a piece of wood could be wedged to keep it steady.



sanding     The final smoothing of the wood was done with stones. (This method of scouring wood continued until the 19th century CE, when wooden ship decks were still holystoned.)


The file

Roman Period file, Source: Petrie Museum website     The first files made of bronze date from the Old Kingdom. The oldest iron file found in Egypt was an Assyrian import, dating from 666 BCE. [5].

Bronze file, Roman or Coptic period
Length about 11 cm
Source: Petrie Museum website


Glue and plaster

glue and plaster     The receptacle being warmed quite possibly contains glue, made from bones, sinews and cartilage. What the two workers are doing is less clear. The one on the right is spreading something on a workpiece. This could be glue used to stick veneer on some inferior kind of wood or gesso which was extensively applied as a kind of glue putty to smooth the surface. Gesso was made by mixing whiting with glue. Harder than plaster, it also sticks better to the wood and makes a good underground for painting or gilding.
    The other carpenter may be preparing plaster by grinding chalk.


[2] The softer copper was quite useful for cutting stone, as in this case the cutting action was due to sand used as abrasive which got embedded in the metal.
Arrow maker [3] P. Montet, Les scènes de la vie privée dans les tombeaux égyptiens de l'ancien empire, p.311 ff
[4] In a Saqqara tomb there is an image of an arrow maker checking the quality of his products. The shafts of arrows were often made from reeds chosen for their straightness, but wood was also used. (cf Petrie Museum website, search for "Object type:arrow", and "Material: cane" or "wood".)
[5] Robert James Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, Brill 1971, ISBN 9004026525, p.136

Bibliography for this and related pages

- -Wood
-Trades and crafts
-Index of Topics
-Main Index and Search Page
Links(Opening in a new window)
-[1] Photographs taken by G. Foley at the Egyptian Museum, among them a picture of a model carpenters workshop
-Group of bronze tools for woodworking, New Kingdom (British Museum)
-Wooden mallet used in all types of craft activities, New Kingdom (British Museum)
-Wooden adze with bronze blade, 18th dynasty (British Museum)
-Woodworking by Geoffrey Killen
-La tombe "des deux sculpteurs" Nebamon et Ipouky: vue 33

Feedback: Please report broken links, mistakes - factual or otherwise, etc. to me. Thanks.

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