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Ohio Saw Works Catalog 1874

Roman Woodworking Book Review

We like to talk about traditional woodworking techniques. The Secrets, Arts & Lore handed down from Master to Apprentice. We pour over 19th Century books attempting to figure out how did they do that? Wayyyy before us, there was the Roman Empire. Unfortunately we can't pick up a Roman Trade School book and read up on dovetails.

Romanwoodworking But we can read Roman Woodworking, by Robert B. Ulrich. Published in 2007 by the Yale University Press. ISBN: 9780300103410. I could write a bunch of stuff to start with, but instead I'll quote from the flyleaf:

"... the art of woodworking in the ancient Roman world. Illustrated with over 200 line drawings and photographs, Roman Woodworking covers such topics as the training and guild memberships of Roman carpenters, woodworking tools and techniques, the role of timber in construction and the availability of trees, and interior woodwork and furniture making."

What could have been one of those dry academic texts that look good from the cover but read like an Introduction to an International Economics text, is instead a fascinating and scholarly review of the world of the wood craftsman during the Roman Empire. I was increasingly surprised to see just how far we have not come. Ok, so maybe they didn't have an IncraJig or whatever it is called. No-one had a bevel gauge to determine the perfect chisel or plane iron bevel. And the micrometer had not yet been invented to enslave us poor unsuspecting craftspeople. A glossary of Roman Woodworking terms will make you the life of the next shop class.

Next time someone asks you what are you making, instead of a bookcase, say you are making an Armarium. And you can tell your Significant Other that you can never have too many Runcinae (planes). Hopefully I got that right. My early Roman dialects are sorta rough.

I know, it's a tad expensive. That's what your local library is for, isn't it?


  1. Introduction
  2. The Roman Woodworker
  3. The Tools of the Trade
  4. Joints
  5. Foundation
  6. Framing and Walls
  7. Wooden Flooring
  8. Roofing and Ceilings
  9. Interior Woodwork
  10. Wheels
  11. Furniture and Veneers
  12. Classification of Trees
  13. The Forests of Italy
  14. Glossary
  15. Appendix: Roman Woodworking Tools

Till next
Gary Roberts

PS: The Toolemera Press website has moved to a new host, WebDynamic LLC, the day job of Jim Esten, he of the Galoot Central. Links and stuff should be pretty much the same. The site needs a little touch up here and there to correct some errant code but that will be taken care of shortly.

PPS: Hop over to the blog of Chris Schwarz, c2006 for a real life honest to goodness Roman Plane made from a kit.