Wood is a material that holds a fascination for many people. Woodworkers are a respected community of people in society. Woodworking has always been around since ancient times.
The history of woodworking is something that holds an attraction to everyone. Wood is a material that has passed through many eras since ancient times. Woodworking has developed tremendously, especially from the 19th Century onwards. It is interesting to trace the origin of woodworking from its humble roots to the present day.
Woodworking: General Background
Wood was used since the times of the ancient Egyptians, and even earlier if you consider Noah’s ark. He made this ark during the Great Flood in Biblical times. So, to cut a long story short, we see wood used by Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and a multitude of other cultures throughout the world’s history.
The techniques used by each culture vary as much as the different varieties of wood that they used.
When the early humans began to use wood, it was more used to craft weapons to hunt animals and for self-defense. Later on, humans moved out of their caves. They created wooden dwellings made of wood and other materials.
With the development of agriculture, means of transportation became the need of the hour. Dwellings became more sophisticated. There was an increase in the demand for wood and woodworkers.
Let us now move on to look at the evolution of woodworking from ancient times:
Drawings have been recovered from archeological sites in Egypt which feature wooden furniture. Some wooden objects have also been found in Egyptian tombs. Archaeologists recovered wooden sarcophagi, the Egyptian version of coffins from excavation sites.
Another interesting fact about the Egyptian era is that there is evidence of the process of veneering. Some objects made of ebony veneer were recovered in Egypt. They reflect the high woodworking technology developed by the Egyptians.
There is also documentation of the ancient Egyptians using a sort of varnish to finish the wood. However, the nature of the varnish is unknown. Various woodworking tools of various sizes and shapes surfaced.
Woodworkers of the Biblical Times
Roughly overlapping the period of the ancient Egyptians is the biblical era. Those who worked on wood during that era was around 600 B.C.
There are records in The Bible of intricate woodworking with inlays and ivory carvings. Temples also sprang up during that time. They made extensive use of wood as a construction material. One of the commonest types of wood used during the biblical era was Lebanese cedar.
Woodworkers also made extensive use of wood for making boats. When the water level of the Sea of Galilee reduced drastically, two brothers discovered a boat from those times. The boat was dated between 100 B.C. to 100 A.D. It bore similarity to the boats that Jesus and his disciples used when He told them He would make them “fishers of men.”
There is much documentation about Noah’s ark. However, there is a lot of controversy as to its existence. Many theories refute the possibility of making an ark that could contain every living species in the world.
However, if we go by the biblical account, then Noah’s built his ark more than 7,000 years ago. For reference in this article, we could consider it to be the first and one of the biggest woodworking projects in the world.
The Chinese Era
The Chinese also take the credit of greatly contributing to the art of woodworking. The art is believed to have originated around 720 B.C. According to the documented history, Lu Ban and his wife Lady Yun initiated the woodworking movement in ancient China.
Around 720 B.C. they are believed to have imported a chalk line and a plane among other tools into China. Lu Ban’s teachings appear in a book entitled Lu Ban Jing. But someone wrote this book about 1,500 years after Lu Ban died.
The book is a treatise on how to make various wooden items like tables, chairs, flower pots, and so on. The book also deals with various aspects of Feng Shui.
Woodworking in Ancient Japan
Japan holds the prestige of having developed its proprietary style of woodworking. Although adopted later in other countries the originator was Japan. The system of Japanese woodworking today is not much changed from the ancient times,
Like the ancient art of Sumo wrestling or the Japanese tea ceremony, Japanese woodworking has been passed down from ancient times over centuries.
The specialty of Japanese woodworking is that they do not use electrical equipment or metallic fasteners like screws and nails. They do not even use glue to join the different sections of wood together. The joints fit together so firmly that any effort to separate the joined sections would surely damage the wood.
The tools that Japanese woodworkers use are of course made from steel. They contain very high-quality carbon steel that for which the Japanese are so famous.
Ancient Japan has contributed beautiful wooden sculptures. Another offshoot of intricate Japanese sculptures is blocked prints. The process of block printing originated in Japan and spread to other countries where they use it to this day.
Japan also takes the credit for having originated the process of lacquering. Even today this technique is very prominent in Japan, Korea, and China.
Woodworking played a prominent role during the ancient Roman Era. The Romans used wood for building, making tools, household items, and for making vehicles.
They also used wood to make pipes, and to manufacture dye and waterproofing material. Of course, they also burned wood for fuel. Unfortunately, most of the evidence of woodworking in Rome did not survive in the course of history but much documentation exists to prove the role of woodworking in ancient Rome.
Woodworking in Other Countries
As we go more and more into the details about the history of woodworking it would take us on a trip around the globe. There is scarcely a country in the world that has not had woodworking as a major activity in their economies.
For example, wooden tools and woodworking items appeared in various places like Kalambo falls in Africa, Clacton-on-Sea in England, and Lehringen in Germany.
There have been some carved wooden structures worked into coffins recovered from northern Germany and Denmark and even wooden folding chairs from ancient times.
Woodworking in the Medieval Era
In medieval times, Europe was the most developed region in the world. During the period between 1515 A.D., the material used for building castles, ships, and furniture was wood. Woodworkers used a significant quantity of wood to create sculptures.
A significant development in woodworking during the Medieval Era was making musical instruments which flourished during that era. Woodworkers used mostly oak, particularly in England, the Netherlands, and the Flanders (a region in Belgium, Europe). Oak also played a prominent role in France until oak and beech became a popular variety of wood.
The popularity of oak was mainly because of the medieval forests where the trees grew. Later on, overharvesting caused a scarcity of oak, resulting in a search for other varieties of wood like beech and elm.
Another interesting deviation from oak came in the form of Lindenwood or lime wood. It was a softer and lighter species of wood, thereby easier to deal with than oak.
We can see the popularity and high value of this wood in some of the intricate sculptures of those times, exhibited in museums today.
Woodworking in the 19th and 20th Centuries
From the 19th Century onwards, woodworking became a more sophisticated art. It used more complex tools to make detailed woodworking items. Tools like calipers, compasses, and a variety of planes, files, and rasps appeared on the scene.
You can find some of the elaborate woodworking tools and improvised machinery of the 18th and 19th centuries on display in museums today.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, most of the woodworking tools were very basic. There was a mallet that also worked as a hammer, basic calipers, chisels, and boring tools to create holes.
During this period, one of the more significant changes was the replacement of wooden pegs with metal braces to hold workpieces. Also, during this era, basic planes helped to smoothen the surfaces of wood.
It was the Industrial Revolution that ushered in several drastic changes in woodworking practices from the 19th Century onwards. Regular drill machines replaced tools like the gimlet pointed auger.
Many other developments like rachet braces did not come in wood anymore. Lathes and circular saws made an appearance for faster and smoother wood cutting. The spring measuring tape also evolved during this era.
With the development of these woodworking tools, the 19th Century saw a revolution in the way of doing woodworking. It became possible to mass-produce woodworking items in factories and workshops.
History of Woodworking in America
In the late 1500s, the British recommended colonization of North America for employment purposes and also as a means to acquire natural resources from America.
The English considered trees as highly marketable goods. There were plans for exporting lumber from America to Europe. It resulted in early housing in America. Homes began to appear throughout the American landscape.
Wood consumption became common. The earliest homes were very basic but the wood was the prime building material. With increased housing came, the need for furniture and the trade of woodworking began to flourish during the colonial era.
Wood trade between Britain and America dwindled in the 1600s. But it was various types of wood like cedar, hickory, ash, and hornbeam that rose into prominence in America during the Colonial era.
The early settlers in America who arrived from Europe came almost empty-handed with some precious belongings in boxes and chests. American lumber was abundant which allowed them to build their dwellings from scratch.
Some very elaborate homes drew influence from various parts of Europe. You can still see some of these homes as heritage structures across the United States as well as in the form of some elaborate furniture that was produced.
The furniture produced exhibits complex jointing methods like dovetailing, mortise, tenon joints, and so on.
Post-American Civil War
Post the American Civil War by 1900 there began to be a shortage of lumber. Lumber became a regulated item and wood became expensive and scarce. Today in the United States, woodworking is a highly flourishing industry.
People take up woodworking as a hobby or professionally. There is a great demand for woodworking products in the United States today.
We can trace the history of woodworking along with human history. Ever since human beings existed on the planet, they used wood in some form or the other. They used it to perform basic functions and create wooden structures.
Initially what began as tools for hunting and self-defense soon became a material to build dwellings. Woodworking became a more complex activity.
Here, we have seen how woodworking evolved from the very basic operations tools and equipment that we have today. A CNC machine can produce highly precise wooden objects within seconds and duplicate them in thousands.
But unless we know something about the history of woodworking, we may never fully appreciate the value of how far woodworking has come to be what it is today.