Noah'S Ark

History of Ancient Woodworking Techniques

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Would you believe that most of the modern wooden structures we admire today are inspired by ancient woodworking techniques? Take the Metropol Parasol in Seville, Spain described as a giant canopy of clouds hovering over one of the squares in Andalusia.

Metropol Parasol In Seville Spain
Metropol Parasol in Seville, SpainSource

This is known as the largest wooden object in the world. Obviously ancient joinery techniques and meticulous design and talent have conceived this 175 meter-high breathtaking piece. From a pedestrian’s view, this wooden structure looks like a dazzling artistic piece but from above, you can see how majestic this giant structure is!

The Cathedral of Christ the Light in Auckland, New Zealand is another shining example of modern wooden and glass architectural design. Inspired by the designs of quaint wooden rural churches of old, this majestic church looks like a fantastic beam of light from afar.

Cathedral Of Christ The Light In Auckland New Zealand
Cathedral of Christ the Light in Auckland, New ZealandSource

From the church’s glorious interiors to its stunning exterior, it truly is fitting to be called the Cathedral of Christ the Light.

These two amazing modern marvels were obviously inspired by ancient techniques. The designs are not just pleasing to the eye but are also very strong, very durable; guaranteed to last for a long, long time.

These structures also prove that wood is one of the most versatile materials. And despite being used since the dawn of time, wood will continue to stay as a strong and efficient building material for any kind of structure.

Woodworking history

They say, to learn about the present and to find out what could happen in the future, you need to revisit the past. Woodworking has a rich and colorful history. Learning about this can help you understand why most ancient woodworking techniques are still being used today.

It is said that throughout history until today, every ancient and modern civilization in the world has used wood. This versatile and strong material has been used to create useful and beautiful structures as well as decorative objects.

Amazing woodworking techniques found in all cultures

Classic examples of woodworking structures and décor were seen in the works of ancient civilizations like the Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, and Romans. Many ancient cultures practiced woodworking which has created a variety of styles and techniques.

Wood was used as primitive weapons for hunting and defense. Wood was also used to build tools to make all kinds of structures and decorative pieces. It was tools made of wood that allowed an ancient man to build strong and durable shelters in different parts of the world.

As man developed his skills in woodworking, he was able to create more intricate weapons to hunt animals for food, to clear land to grow crops and to build furniture for his home.

With his newfound techniques, he was able to make larger, stronger boats to fish and to travel. He was no longer confined to an area; he could now travel and search farther for food.

Woodworking techniques of Ancient Egyptians

Woodworking Techniques Of Ancient Egyptians
Woodworking techniques of Ancient Egyptians – Source

The Ancient Egyptians were not just popular for the pyramids. There is proof that they were also experts in using wood to make different kinds of furniture. The Egyptians used wood to make beds, stools, tables, and chairs.

Egyptians used wood to make intricate chests, interior décor, and special wooden ornaments. Ancient Egyptian paintings were discovered which dates back to 2000 BC showing how these people used wood for various furniture as well as for constructing sarcophagi or coffins.

The Ancient Egyptians had woodworkers who did not just make wooden furniture and ornaments but regularly practiced their talents and skills in creating new techniques. The Egyptians invented the art of veneering or the process of gluing thin slices of wood together.

The earliest examples of veneering date back 5000 years old in the tomb of Semerkhet.  Egyptologists say that most pharaohs were buried along with objects made from wood especially African ebony veneer and ivory inlays.

The Egyptians were also the first peoples who finished their work with varnish. Finishing a wooden project is applying a protective sealant on the surface of the wood to preserve these.

It was also the Egyptians who used different kinds of wooden tools including chisels, pull saws, axes, bow drills, and adzes. Historians say that it was during the time of the first Egyptian pharaoh in the pre-dynastic period that the first mortise and tenon joints were used.

The Egyptians were the first to use pegs, leather lashings and dowels which improved the strength and resilience of these joints. It was in the New Kingdom Period when animal glue was used to further strengthen the connections of joints and wooden pieces.

Egyptian Wooden Tools
Source

Just proof that the Egyptians were the first to use pegs to construct wooden objects; Egyptologists found the oldest piece of plywood in a coffin from the third dynasty. The coffin was made from six layers of wood which were four millimeters thick. Wooden pegs were used to hold the wooden pieces together.

What kind of wood was used by the Ancient Egyptians? A variety of wood was used to make different furniture and objects. Because of the abundance of wood in the region at that time, Egyptians used different wood species. They loved wood from sycamore, acacia and tamarisk trees.  

Massive deforestation happened along the Nile Valley during the Second Dynasty and this led to the importation of cedar, boxwood, oak and Aleppo pine from surrounding areas. Ebony was also imported from different Egyptian colonies and this was used to make coffins and chests for tombs.

Ancient woodworking techniques from the Bible

The Bible holds the story of the first ever major wooden construction in the world. The Book of Genesis narrates how Noah was able to construct the wooden ark under God’s command. Noah followed God’s plan of making a wooden ark made from cypress wood coated with pitch.

God was going to destroy humanity with a flood and Noah, his family and pairs of all the animals of the world were the only ones to be saved.

Ancient Woodworking Techniques From The Bible
Noah’s Ark – Source

God provided Noah and his son’s detailed instructions on how the ark was to be constructed. He told Noah that the ark was to be 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits tall or 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet tall.

He also told Noah to take pairs of animals inside the ark, therefore, Noah had to build different sections inside the vessel where animals were to be placed. All-in-all, Noah and his sons finished the ark just in time for a huge flood to hit the earth and kill all wicked men.

As the flood ceased, the ark came to rest on top of the mountains of Ararat which is known today as Turkey. How on earth did Noah and his sons build such as a majestic ship?

No doubt that they had exceptional woodworking skills to complete this project on time. But this was not the only wooden project that showed remarkable ancient building techniques.

Old Testament Most Skilled Woodworkers
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It was during the Old Testament when the most skilled woodworkers were only available for royalties. King Solomon imported Phoenician artisans from the city of Tyre to construct his temple. The Phoenicians were known to be excellent artisans and woodworkers and excelled in making furniture and using inlays to do so.

As years went by, the Israelites also started to excel as intricate woodworkers. Isaiah narrates the carpenter and his tools saying that it was during that time when the Israelites were becoming more skilled in woodworking.

The Israelites became more adept in creating different wooden projects that they were among the first to be exiled to Babylon after the Babylonians seized Jerusalem in 597 BC. These events were narrated in the book of Jeremiah 24: 1; 29:2.

What was the material of choice for building wooden structures and furniture during Biblical times? Lebanese cedar was the most popular because of its strength, lovely natural appearance, and its enticing scent.

Cedar
Lebanese cedar – Source

Cedar is also resistant to insects and rot which is why most cedar structures built during that time would still be alive today including Solomon’s Temple, boats and furniture.

Jesus was the adopted son of Joseph, a carpenter. Woodworkers during this time passed on their skills and talents to their children and this is what Joseph did. He taught Jesus how to become a good carpenter at a young age of 12.

At this time, carpenters were not builders of homes and structures. Carpenters constructed sleds, plows, roofs, yokes, and doors. They made storage chests, cabinets and various wooden parts of a home like balconies and ceilings.

Wood species that were in demand during the New Testament were cypress, oak, olive, sycamore, ash and more. If the wooden project was extra-special, carpenters would use imported cedar from Lebanon. For tools, woodworkers during this time used ancient forms of saws, plummet, line, chisel, mallets, adze, rule, squares, planes, and sticks.

Woodworkers of today used special types of saws to create intricate designs with wood. But during the Biblical times, the bow lathe was the tool of choice. This tool, despite crude, allowed a woodworker to produce decorative spindles and bowls. A leather strap was moved back and forth to turn wood.

It was believed that using these basic tools, Biblical woodworkers were able to create dovetails, mitered and dowelled joints. And not only did these woodworkers possessed the skills to work on these projects but they also had the patience to do so. 

Ancient Chinese woodworking techniques

Ancient Chinese Woodworking Techniques
Ancient Chinese woodworking techniques – Source

Ancient Chinese people were also prized woodworkers. It was believed that woodworking flourished in the region around 720 BC. During this time, the Chinese used wood to create not just homes, boats and other structures but also in making precise measuring tools, tables and furniture pieces.

The Chinese were popular in making furniture with glue-less and nail-less joineries. Lu Ban, a well-known woodworker during that time was known to be one of the founders of woodworking in China.

Lu Ban was the one who brought basic woodworking tools like the chalk line, plane, and other tools in the country. When the master died, his teachings were compiled in a book titled “Lu Ban Jing” or “Manuscript of Lu Ban.”

Manuscript Of Lu Ban
Manuscript of Lu Ban – Source

This manuscript contained all his works including plans on how to construct different wooden objects. He combined the process of woodworking with Feng Shui making his work tremendously popular over the years till modern times.

Feng Shui is the practice of positioning different physical objects in strategic locations to trigger optimal health, wellness, and happiness.

Ancient Japanese woodworking techniques

Ancient Japanese Woodworking Techniques
Ancient Japanese woodworking techniques – Source

Ancient Japanese craftsmen pride themselves in making different wooden structures and objects without the use of electrical equipment. Unlike their Western counterparts who use handheld battery-operated tools and power tools to cut, join and finish wooden projects, the Japanese believed in using hand tools like carbon steel tools like blades and knives.

The Japanese don’t use glue or nails in joining wood as well and this is a technique that most people continue to adapt even today. Expert woodworkers use only blades and lathes to create different projects including very difficult round and curved objects.

Barrel and cask making and bentwood works were very popular in Japan since ancient times until today. Japanese sculptors and artists also use wood in making outdoor decorative pieces. They used wood to make scenery and garden designs and their techniques spread not just in Asia but also the rest of the world.

Ancient woodworking techniques from the Middle East

Ancient people from the Near East did not just build homes and objects made from wood but they used their skills and materials to construct massive boats. They used timber from the Anatolian plateau which is now known as the Asian region of Turkey and near the Levantine coast.

The wood used to make these boats was so popular and highly-valued that invaders demanded the wood as a tribute. Evidence that Near East civilizations were able to craft lovely items from wood. One example is wood inlaid with bone, ivory, and metal which was found by archaeologists which dated as far as 800 BC.

Woodworking experts during the Near East used a wide variety of tools. They used wedges, chisels, mallets, compasses, drills, plumb bobs and other tools for different projects. It was because of their skill in handling these tools that they were able to make intricate wooden carvings, exquisite wooden panels for mosques and homes and lovely decorations for ceilings, walls, altars, pulpits and more.     

Ancient Roman woodworking techniques

Ancient Roman Woodworking Techniques
Ancient Roman woodworking techniques – Source

Ancient Romans have their fair share of woodworking contributions. They constructed structures like aqueducts and waterworks using wood as the primary material. They used wood to construct warships,  battering rams, and barges to attack their enemies and claim lands.

It was the Romans that introduced wooden furniture that had carved arms of animals and various mythological creatures. This style of woodworking is still used today in making inspiring decorative pieces.

Romans had access to strong and durable wood during that time. They used beech, maple, olive, ash and elm trees mainly for their projects. Well, off Romans used African wood called Tthyine in making different furniture and decorative items.

This type of wood was believed to have mystical powers, therefore, it has become very popular among Romans and Greeks. 

Woodworking techniques during the Middle Ages

Woodworkers and carpenters during this time were among the most prosperous. Their skills were needed in making homes, fences, tools, boats, carriages, and furniture.

Carpenters belonged to certain groups called guilds; these were established to protect the interests of different occupations. Apprenticeships on how to become a carpenter started during this time.

It was not enough for carpenters to be skilled and talented but they also have to possess basic trade skills like math and woodworking. Wood was used almost everywhere during the Middle Ages.

From constructing homes, buildings, and structures, wood was considerably used in the interior and exterior areas. It was mainly used for constructing doors, window frames, roof beams, floors and more.

Woodworkers at this time were also skilled in creating statues and lovely figurines. The techniques to make these lovely ornamental items are still being studied and followed until today.

These were also used to create Byzantine or Gothic-inspired furniture and structure themes. Woodworkers at this time were not just talented but were also very patient in perfecting and sharing their techniques.

Woodworking techniques throughout history

Most notable when it comes to woodworking techniques are the Japanese. Not only are their ancient techniques still being used till today but these techniques represent simplicity in design and patience of the woodworker.

Joineries

Japanese joineries are among the most popular and are the foundations of great structures, temples, homes, and furniture. Joineries made by Japanese people were constructed without the use of nails and power tools.

Traditional Japanese aesthetics used wood as a building material of choice. This is because of its many uses and is lightweight compared to other building material. Japan is blessed to have a number of natural sources of wood so most craftsmen use wood for their projects.

Joineries made using ancient Japanese techniques were known to be very durable and can withstand earthquakes compared to rigid building materials.  These joints were perfect for the Japanese minimal aesthetic inspired by early Taoism. Along with the perceived simplicity of a design, Japanese architecture was never too far from nature.

These many ancient woodworking processes and secrets are now easier to understand. Learning how to make these advanced techniques are also accessible for even non-professionals because of the web.

Mortise and tenon joints

Mortise And Tenon Joints
Mortise and tenon joints – Source

The Mortise and Tenon Joint is possibly one of the most popular and heavily used types of joinery in modern woodworking. This joint works like a jigsaw puzzle that needs to be connected to join the two wooden pieces. The term mortise means hole while tenon means the thing that will fill the hole.

A mortise and tenon joint makes projects more aesthetically pleasing instead of using nails and screws. There are many types of mortise and tenon and these are available in a variety of sizes.

You will be able to find double and twin tenon joints in most Japanese woodworking projects. These joineries are exactly what they sound to be: these connect two tenons side by side ready to connect. These types of joineries will improve the strength of a single tenon joint and can take heavier weights as well.

Dovetail Joints

Dovetail Joints
Dovetail Joints – Source

Dovetails are more complicated than other types of joineries and because of these, these are more difficult to make. The Dovetail also offers a firm locking structure on wood and aesthetic appeal to different furniture designs.

This joint is divided by pins and tails. The two parts are designed to come together and interlock, making the design another alternative to nails, screws, and bolts. A dovetail joint has been used by many cannabis users because of their sophisticated and clean look.

Sampo-Zashi

Sampo Zashi
Sampo-Zashi – Source

The Sampo-Zashi is a unique type of joint used by early Japanese. The Sampo-Zashi is known as the culminating type of joint techniques, combining the simple Dovetail and the Mortise and Tenon to create very precise and elaborate joints.

The two wooden pieces will be joined using exact millimeter measurements. The joint will be pinned and held together by wooden pegs.

The Sampo-Zashi is not for first-time woodworkers because you need to be very precise especially when cutting wood. This is a skill seen only inexperienced carpenters and are mastered over time.

The complexity of this design and how it was used to support temples and houses, it remains as a tribute to the greatness of traditional Japanese woodworkers. This type of joint also showed the Japanese complete understanding of wood and its importance in nature.

To sum it up

Ancient woodworking techniques are evidence that we have to learn and preserve the past to be able to create amazing things in the future. Wood is a living and breathing building material that should be cherished and understood no matter where you are and no matter what kind of woodworker you are.

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