Woodworking materials

A surprisingly complete record of carpentry in ancient Egypt can be pieced together through examining tomb scenes, archaeological excavations and discovered materials. From the earliest times basic ideas were turned into tangible products, setting the design principles that are still followed thousands of years later.

The properties of timber were understood and tools were developed to work it. At first these were basic hand tools, but then specialised tools and cutting aids were produced. Later, simple machine work increased output and enabled furniture to be provided for many homes. For example, by rotating the work in front of a stationary cutter, the lathe, a basic machine which has influenced many lives, was invented.

Sources of wood: native and imported

Large-scale timber production from indigenous trees was rare in Egypt. The scarcity of wood, which is generally poor in quality, created supply problems even during Predynastic times. It would have been possible only to convert wood into boards of short lengths with a small cross-sectional area.

The acacia was probably the most widely used of the native trees. Evidence of its use by woodworkers can be traced throughout the Dynastic Period. It was used not only in the making of furniture but also in boatbuilding and large constructional projects. A number of tomb and temple scenes showing the acacia survive. A piece of wood from W. M. Flinders Petrie's excavations at Kahun in 1895 is preserved in the museum of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where botanists have confirmed its identification as acacia.

The tamarisk was also available. It is a smaller tree and was probably not extensively used for timber production. This species has many defects such as knots and is usually found protecting desert villages from drifting and wind-blown sand. Willow, Salix safsaf, is also found in Egypt and was used in a limited way to make furniture. A fragment of a Ninth Dynasty coffin made from sidder, Zizyphus spina-christi, has also been identified at Kew, as have a number of pieces of sycamore fig, Ficus sycomorus, which date from the Eleventh Dynasty through to the Graeco-Roman Period.

With the problems of increasing demands for better-quality timber it is not surprising that the importing of wood began as early as the First Dynasty. The coast of the eastern Mediterranean proved to be the most popular source of Egyptian timber imports. As increased quantities of these new timbers reached Egypt during the Old Kingdom, the quality of woodworking improved.

Probably the earliest imported timber to be used was cedar, Cedrus libani. Large quantities were imported into Egypt from the Lebanon. The Palermo Stone, which records the royal annals of the early kings of Egypt, provides some important evidence of this. During the reign of the Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh Sneferu forty great ships sailed to the Syrian coast, where Egyptians felled trees and towed the logs back to Egypt. Egyptian carpenters and joiners exploited this excellent timber throughout the Dynastic Period: much of the funerary furniture discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun was made from cedar.

Ash, Fraxinus excelsior, occurs naturally in North Africa and a beautiful compound bow discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun was made from this wood. The shafts of axes and adzes were also carved from ash for it has tremendous elastic properties as well as being tough. The timber can also be bent artificially: in a scene from Beni Hasan, Middle Kingdom carpenters are shown steaming and bending wooden sticks (figure 1). The carpenter holds the wood over a pot of hot water, allowing the hot vapour to penetrate and soften the timber's cellular tissue. Another timber which can be steam-bent is elm, Ulmus campestris, and this would have been used by Egyptian wheelwrights during the New Kingdom.

1. Carpenters steam-bending lengths of timber, from the tomb of Baqt IH, No. 15, Beni Hasan. (After Newberry, Beni Hasan II, London, 1893, plate VII.)

Oak, Quercus cerris, was also used and was probably imported from Turkey. Unfortunately it decays, unlike ebony, Diospyros, which is a black or dark brown wood of high durability with a very dense grain. Ebony would have been shipped from regions south of Egypt, such as Ethiopia. During the earliest dynasties only small supplies appear to have been available. However, in the tomb of Tutankhamun a splendid

1. Carpenters steam-bending lengths of timber, from the tomb of Baqt IH, No. 15, Beni Hasan. (After Newberry, Beni Hasan II, London, 1893, plate VII.)

ebony bed-frame was discovered. A scene in the New Kingdom temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri shows Egyptians cutting branches from ebony trees in the land of Punt and African slaves carrying them to ships for transport back to Egypt. Ebony is very hard to work and furniture made from it was valued highly throughout the east Mediterranean region. Gifts of ebony furniture were made by the later kings of Egypt to the rulers of other countries.


The technique of laminating thin sheets of timber, with the grain of one sheet being at right angles to the next, was known to Egyptian carpenters. An example of this early 'plywood' was discovered in a passage within the Step Pyramid complex of Djoser at Saqqara. This piece dates to the Third Dynasty and possibly forms part of the side panel of a coffin. It is an example of six-ply wood that is held together with wooden pegs. Egyptian carpenters obviously realised that this was a way in which they could produce a stable sheet of material with dimensions larger than the log from which it was fabricated.


Ivory was used from as early as the Neolithic period, its close grain making it an ideal medium to carve. Many small legs of bovine shape, carved in hippopotamus ivory, have been discovered in the First Dynasty royal tombs at Abydos and at other Early Dynastic sites, such as Tarkhan. In the First Dynasty tomb of Djer many short legs, which were probably used to support small caskets, were found (figure 2). Preserved in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, is a particularly fine example which is delicately carved with vein and tendon detail. There are examples

2. Ivoiy bovine-shaped leg which would have supported either a small caskct or a stool; Tomb of Djer, Abydos, First Dynasty. (After Petrie, The Royal Tombs of the Earliest q Dynasties, Part II, London, 1901, plate _ XXXI V[17].) '


of such bulls' legs in museums around the world, notably in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, although many are unprovenanced. Ivory from both the elephant and the hippopotamus was used to make a variety of artefacts and ceremonial objects.

Wood Working for Amateur Craftsman

Wood Working for Amateur Craftsman

THIS book is one of the series of Handbooks on industrial subjects being published by the Popular Mechanics Company. Like Popular Mechanics Magazine, and like the other books in this series, it is written so you can understand it. The purpose of Popular Mechanics Handbooks is to supply a growing demand for high-class, up-to-date and accurate text-books, suitable for home study as well as for class use, on all mechanical subjects. The textand illustrations, in each instance, have been prepared expressly for this series by well known experts, and revised by the editor of Popular Mechanics.

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