Egyptians exploited all the products of the tree, its leaves for fodder, basketry and matting with bark being used as a decorative finish to objects made as grave goods. During ancient times an extensive charcoal-burning industry flourished in the Sinai desert, while forests of acacia, tamarisk and sycomore fig grew in the Nile delta until the Medieval period. These indigenous timbers were used during the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods to manufacture simple pieces of furniture and crudely constructed burial boxes made from cleaved planks of timber. The quality of these timbers were very poor, and having a coarse grain, they were difficult to work and could only be obtained in short lengths. Scenes showing woodcutters are occasionally found in tomb relief and paintings of the Old Kingdom. They show woodcutters felling small trees using copper axes.
With demands for better quality timber, the coniferous wood trade from regions north of Egypt was well established by the 4th dynasty (2613-2492 BC). The Palermo Stone records that during the reign of Sneferu (2613-2589 BC), the husband of Queen Hetepheres, forty ships sailed to the Syrian coast where trees such as cedar were felled. These trees would have been rafted and towed across the Mediterranean to be stored in timber yards in the Delta. The Lebanese cedar is a very large tree, which is straight-grained making it a very good timber to work. It has a pinkish-brown colour, is durable, aromatic and takes a polish well. The care in which the timber was felled, so preventing the possibility of splits being impacted into the grain. is seen in a relief found on the northern exterior wall of the hypostyle hall in the great Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak. Woodcutters are shown felling a tall Lebanese cedar. One man is using an axe at the base of the trunk while two others are holding the tree with ropes which have been tied to the uppermost branches. This allowed more control over the speed and direction of the tree's fall. Egyptians also ventured to lands south of Egypt where they felled hardwood timbers such as African ebony.
Ship yard records show that planks of cedar could measure up to an impressive 55 feet in length. To obtain planks of this length perhaps indicates that the tree would have been converted by horizontal sawing. However, there is no visual or textual evidence to suggest that this process was used in Ancient Egypt and is considered to be a Roman development. We do have visual evidence that long planks were cleaved from the trunk in a scene from Iteti's tomb at Dishasha. An experienced craftsman could split a trunk of straight grain growth following the grain, usually down the trees rays, through its weaknesses and irregularities. However, the majority of tomb scenes, such as in Rekhmira's tomb, show that timber conversion was achieved by saw with the log being bound with rope to a vertical post. Therefore, accurately sawn planks were normally not greater in length than the height of the sawyer. During the Middle Kingdom, carpenters squatted in the shade of their workshop walls. However, New Kingdom carpenters were allowed to sit on three legged stools and work at a wooden bench with a specially rebated front edge which acted as his vice.
Early Dynastic carpenters used a wide range of copper woodworking tools; a fine collection was discovered by Professor W.B. Emery in S 3471 at Saqqara. He discovered a number of copper saws, adze blades, awls, mortise and firmer chisels. Saws developed from the knife and were between 251 mm and 400 mm in length. In profile they have curved edges with a round blunt nose and a rib along the centre of the blade which extends into a tang which locates in a wooden handle. Along one edge are closely spaced teeth which are nibbled out and are irregular in both shape and pitch. Each tooth was pressed over in the same direction which provides an unusual "set" not like that on a modern saw where each tooth is "set" alternatively to the left and right of the blade. The conversion of timber from the trunk would have been very difficult to achieve with these short saws. By the end of the Old Kingdom we see carpenters using a new type of saw. The pull saw was used exclusively to convert "green" timber by ripping down the long grain. It was a longer saw, its teeth pointed towards its integral metal handle. It has a straight back with a pointed nose and was used with both hands, the sawyer pulled it down through the timber which had been tied to a vertical post. The size of the teeth were larger and the pitch greater which made it an efficient saw to rip down timber.
The adze was a very versatile tools being used to true and shape timber, its modern counterpart is the plane which was a Roman invention. The shape of the adze's metal blade slowly developed throughout the dynastic period. The blade was ground on one surface like that of the modern plane blade. It was attached to a wooden shaft with leather thongs which would have been soaked in water so as they dried they tightened and fastened the blade firmly to the shaft. Adzes were manufactured in a variety of sizes, small examples were used to shape timber while large adzes were used to dress timber after the plank had been converted. Egyptian carpenters also used mortise chisels which had stout square blades which were fixed into large cylindrical handles that had a flat top. This indicates that they were struck with a wooden mallet. The chips of wood could be prised out of the mortise without fear of bending or breaking the blade. The firmer chisel was smaller, with a rectangular blade and a flared cutting edge. The top of the wooden handle was rounded to suggest that it was designed to fit the carpenters hand allowing it to be used for handwork and carving. Awls were also used to bore holes in timber during the Early Dynastic Period. However, by the Old Kingdom we have illustrations which show carpenters were using bowdrills to bore holes in timber. Made from a conveniently shaped branch, which had a slight elbow, the bow string was attached to each end. This string was wrapped about the drill and as the bow was drawn back and forth the drill rotated and bore a hole.
From an early period the concept of constructing timber elements into one of three forms, that is the box, frame and stool or a combination of them using joints, was established. These constructional systems were found to exploit the timber's physical properties. Firstly, in that a timber's strength is along the grain and not across it, and secondly, that shrinkage of timber is negligible along the grain. Those bed frames made in the Early Dynastic period were connected using the mortise and tenon joint. This joint was widely used throughout the Dynastic period and was adapted to suit various construction needs. We also see the use of the butt, rebated butt, halving, bridle, dovetail, mitre, coopered and scarf joint. It became possible to cut some of the more sophisticated joints with the introduction of bronze tools during the Middle Kingdom.
Veneer was used either as a constructional material or a decorative layer to disguise poor quality timber. Flitches of African ebony were cut with a thin blade saw and were attached to furniture with a hot adhesive made from boiling down animal bone and skin. Ivory veneer, which was either stained red or incised with hieroglyphs or patterns, was also widely used as a decorative finish and was pegged to the wooden frame. The technique of inlaying, that is embedding a variety of materials such as semi-precious stone and faience, was also used. On a number of pieces of furniture discovered in the Tomb of Tutankhamun (1336-1327 BC) we see the techniques of marquetry and parquetry have been employed. Some pieces of furniture were painted with offering scenes or patterns which imitated inlay or veneer work. In preparing a piece of furniture for painting it would have been applied with a foundation of gesso which sealed the grain and gave a flat surface to paint upon. Gilding on a wet gesso foundation is also seen, while thicker gold or silver sheet were beaten, pressed and punched on to royal furniture and then attached with small precious metal nails.
The New Kingdom carpenter used an extensive range of tools which he stored in a basket type holdall. The quality of his work was very fine and he was highly skilled. The processes and techniques which were developed in antiquity are still used by today's carpenter some fifty centuries later.
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© Geoffrey Killen 2003