Alter Eagle

Master Carpenter



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History of Carpentry - 1 of 2 pages - Prehistoric to Early Middle Age


History of general carpenters following the North American roots.
In English the word "carpenter" goes back to the 1300's and the Anglo-Normans (Norman Conquest 1066) most likely from the Latin carpentarius "wagon" and in Gaelic carbad which replaced the Old English word treowwyrhta (tree-wright). Wright (wyrcan) in Old English just meant "to work". Typically until recent generations carpenters here would have done everything from setting up to mill the wood into lumber to making the cabinets.

Website design by owner © Alter Eagle

Prehistoric Carpentry homes and tools

Mousterian - Upper Paleolithic - Saws, tool handles

Analysis of the Mousterian stone blade technology 200,000 to 40,000 years ago show that many were used to work wood. The whole process of making tools had standardized into explicit stages a basic core stone, then a rough blank, before striking off wedge shaped flakes for a refined final tool. The process was more labor intensive, but the edges of the tools could be reshaped or sharpened as they dulled, so that each tool lasted longer.
Upper Paleolithic from 40,000 to 12,000 years ago, now we have a wide range of specialized shapes even the development of ribbon-flint knives into saws by making their edges serrated. Elegant tool designs made possible by heating and suddenly cooling flint stones to shatter them in carefully controlled ways. In both periods some including a tang or stub at the base that allowed the point to be tied into the notched end of a stick for a handle.

The first reliable traces of human dwellings, found from as early as 30,000 years ago, follow logical principles. There is often a circular or oval ring of stones, with evidence of local materials being used for a tent-like roof.

Neolithic - homes, math, writing & the wheel

The Neolithic 10,000 years ago that changed temporary stone circles by hunter-gatherers into homes began with the agricultural revolution by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. The carpenters, usually the inhabitant, made houses with same materials as those used there today. Mud brick, mud plaster and wooden doors with wood locks small wooden window frames with fretwork for light. The tools were polished not chipped except for specialty items. More advanced counting system emerges, writing and the development of the potters wheel.

Neanderthal man was replaced by Homo sapiens and you should take into account that they were just as intelligent as us. They were dealing with a climate change where the ice caps went down into Southern Europe so survival not architecture would have been the focus. Also they evolved at different but similar rates geographically and exchanged technology, a good idea after all is still a good idea.
A great example is the iceman they found in the Alps, (3300 BC) he was found carrying a copper axe.
So when you hear anthropologist talk specifics you need to take it with a grain of salt remember wood decayed and they surely would have had more advanced tools and homes made from easier to work with materials.

Ancient Egypt

The arch, mathematics & wooden planks

Climatic change about 7,000 years ago turned most of Egypt to desert except for along the Nile where farming began similar to the Sumerians (3150 BC) and developed over the next three millennia (pyramids 2500 BC) basically to the death of Alexander the Great (332 BC). Although the use of the arch was developed during the fourth dynasty (2613 BC), all monumental buildings are post and lintel construction with flat roofs of stone blocks supported by the external walls and closely spaced columns. Mathematics based on a system of counting by tens had no zeros, but the oldest surviving work the "Rhind Mathematical Papyrus", by the scribe Ahmes (circa 1650 BC) was quite advanced. Around 3000 B.C. with copper the carpenters started to use wooden planks made by pull sawing down some stock that would have been lashed in an up-right position.

Skilled carpenters, workshops - plywood and veneer

Capenters in ancient Egypt were usually trained and skilled labourers, well-respected in the community and had a comfortable lifestyle. Most worked 8 hrs per day, 8 days out of 10 in workshops or craftsman sections and some were permanent employees of the pharaoh. I got a kick out of this The Satire of Trades (1950 BC).
As early as the Third Dynasty (2686-2613 BC) coffins were made with plywood using six thin pieces of cypress and veneers as thin as 1/32 of an inch. A carpenter's most important work would have been tomb items but also doors, window fretwork, chests, boxes, cabinets for storage, beds, small tables, and chairs some quite ornate with ivory inlays and carvings. Although there were several useful native woods most would have been imported, like cypress and cedar form Lebanon and ebony from Somalia for furniture for the wealthy.

The master carpenter at this time would have worked for the Pharaoh and ran a section of carpenters, apprentices and slaves with a name like the "Drunkards of Menkaure". The idea being that the pharaoh was a god and held together the very order of the world so you worked for the good of everyone. Carpenters were not "free" in the modern sense of the word, but rather were in various ways bound to and dependent upon the king and other divine powers. An example of this system would have been similar to the tomb-builders of Deir el-Medina where an official scribe worked with the master carpenter registering what was given to each man and oversaw the distribution of tools and materials from the royal stores.

Read tape measure.
Compute architectural dimensions.
Use basic hand and power tools.
Determine dimensions from a blueprint.
Interpret building specifications.
Apply knowledge of local building codes.
Apply basic knowledge of other trades.
Create a safe working environment
(includes knowledge of OSHA).
Make minor repairs to maintain equipment.
Select materials for installation.
Cut stock to size.
Crosscut dimensioned lumber to size.
Rip-saw dimensioned lumber to size.
Bore holes.
Fasten framing stock with nails.
Fasten stock with screws.
Construct a square frame.
Cut holes and patterns in stock.
Estimate interior underlayment.
Estimate rough framing materials.
Select windows.
Select doors and jambs.
Determine proper use of materials.
Cull out unsuitable materials.
Inspect foundation.
Square foundation.
Level foundation.
Select steel beams.
Check condition of foundation.
Install sill plate.
Install wood post.
Install solid and composite wood beam.
Install built-up wood girder.
Install steel beam.
Install Lally column.
Lay out floor framing detail on sill plate.
Cut floor joists.
Frame floor opening, to include fireplace/hearth box, etc.
(include stripping of forms installed by carpenter).
Install floor joists.
Install cantilevered floor joists.
Install bridging and blocking.
Install subfloor sheathing.
Install prefabricated stair unit.
Lay out walls on floor deck.
Cut wall plates.
Lay out wall framing detail on wall plates.
Cut studs, headers, jacks, rough sills, and cripples.
Assemble corner and tee posts.
Assemble header.
Frame door opening.
Frame window opening.
Assemble wall section.
Install double top plate (cap plate).
Install wall blocking (backing).
Install fire stops.
Install corner brace.
Install exterior wall sheathing.
Raise and anchor wall section.
Plumb, align, and brace wall section.
Lay out ceiling framing detail on top wall plate.
Cut ceiling joists.
Install ceiling joists.
Frame ceiling opening.
Install ribband (balloon framing).
Install strongback (stiffener or catwalk).
Install ceiling backing (deadwood or nailers).
Fasten ceiling joists to partition walls.
Frame interior bulkhead.
Install disappearing stair unit.
Lay out roof framing detail on cap plate.
Lay out common, header, and cripple rafters.
Cut rafters.
Install ridgeboard.
Frame roof opening.
Install rafters.
Install sub-fascia.
Frame gable end overhang.
Frame blind valley (overlay valley).
Frame gable dormer.
Frame shed dormer.
Install collar beams (rafter ties).
Install rafter support purlins.
Install roof sheathing.
Frame chimney saddle (cricket).
Lay out for truss installation.
Set trusses by hand.
Set trusses with light crane (includes helping set
up/break down crane).
Brace trussed roof assembly according to manufacturer's specifications.
Frame opening in roof assembly
Repair trusses according to engineering instructions.
Select trusses per plans.
Identify sound engineering practices.
Lay out straight run stair stringer.
Cut basement stair components.
Construct basement stair unit.
Install prehung window according to
manufacturer's specifications.
Install prehung exterior door according to manufacturer's specifications.
Install sidelight.
Install transom.
Assemble and install sliding glass or French patio door.
Install inside jamb for garage door.
Plumb and square doors and windows.
Install ledger board, fasteners, and flashing.
Install wood support posts.
Install solid wood beam.
Install built-up wood girder.
Install deck joists.
Install decking (planking).
Install railing.
Install footings.
Identify superstructure of attachment.
Lay out, cut, construct, and install stairs.
Construct box cornice.
Construct rake cornice.
Case exterior opening.
Install wood jamb window unit.
Install prehung exterior door unit.
Hang exterior door.
Install exterior door jamb.
Install corner board for wood siding.
Install wood fascia.
Install wood soffit.
Install prefabricated column.
Install bevel siding.
Install fixed exterior features.
Install wall paneling.
Install closet accessories
(includes selection of closet accessories).
Install shelving.
Install baseboards.
Install ceiling molding.
Case interior opening.
Install interior door jamb.
Hang interior door.
Install prehung interior door unit.
Install folding (accordion) door.
Install sliding door.
Install bi-fold door.
Install pocket door.
Install cylinder lockset.
Install mortise lockset.
Install door holder.
Install flush bolt.
Install door plate.
Install weatherstripping.
Construct open shelving.
Install wall cabinet and hardware
(includes selection of hardware).
Install base cabinet and hardware
(includes selection of hardware).
Install recessed medicine cabinet.
Select prefabricated cabinets.
Install prefabricated counter tops.

See the finish carpenter page for the history of architectural design elements.

5000 years ago - Land of the Pharaohs - carpenters become craftsmen

Excert from "The Satire of Trades" by Khety for his son Pepy

For the carpenter with his chisel (life) is utterly vile
covering the roof in a chamber, measuring ten cubits by six.
to cover the roof in a month after laying the boards with cord of the weaving-house
All the work on it is done,
but the food given for it
couldn't stretch to his children.

After working hard for a month framing a 10X17 foot roof with timber from the lumber yard the carpenter could still end up not getting paid enough to be able to feed his children.
Sound familiar?

He's telling his son why it's better to be a scribe

So, "If, though, you know how to write that is better life for you than these professions I show you"... "A day in the school chamber is more useful for you than an eternity of its toil in the mountains. It is the fast way, I show you."

He goes on to say, "Look, no scribe will ever be lacking in food or the things of the House of the King, may he live, prosper and be well! Meskhenet is the prosperity of the scribe"... "Thank god for the father, and for your mother, you who are placed on the path of the living. See what I have set out before you"

The more things change the more they stay the same.
3,000 years and here you have a Mom and Dad knows best, do what I say stay in school get a good education.

2 million years ago - Tools the begining of carpentry

Oldowan - Acheulean - Knives and Axes

Oldowan tools are the oldest known 2.4 million years ago from Ethiopia made with a single blow of one rock against another to create an edge. The innovation is the technique of chipping stones to create a chopping or cutting edge, our first knife, and Oldowan deposits include pieces of bone or horn showing scratch marks that indicate they were used as shovels. This shows we were finally able to select different rock like quartz and basalt to get the best flakes.
Acheulean tools first appeared around 1.5 million years ago in East Central Africa, the inovation here is edges on both faces and shaping the entire stone then careful flaking and refining the edge with bone or antlers. About 1 million years ago we get the teardrop, lanceolate shapes, our first axe and milling trees for fire. By 500,000 years it reaches Europe.

What happened to drive the explosion of culture in the Upper Paleolithic? Some anthropologists think that there may have been a kind of arms race that drove cultural evolution and brain evolution. There was strong selection in favor of the ability to think in more complex ways that ultimately resulted in the kind of abstract thinking necessary for art and invention. That selection may have been the result of deadly competition between hominin groups. When the stakes are really high (life or death), then the cost of stupidity and the advantage of being relatively more intelligent are tremendous. My theory is that if you give a carpenter decent tools he'll change the world.

Copper tools, average homes improve

Tools would have typically been made of copper the most often refined metal. Arsenic, a hardening alloy, is natural in some of Egypt's ore so produced poisonous clouds which is why it was later replaced it with tin to make bronze. The tools were generally cast which is difficult because of the formation of bubbles and shrinking when it cooled down then hammered cold to give them their final form. Hammering also increased the metal's hardness comparable to that of very soft modern steel. A water plumbing system from the Pyramid of Cheops (2540 BC) was recovered and the copper tubing was still in serviceable condition.

Classical, Hellenistic Greece and Early Roman

3000 years ago - The cradle of Western civilization - carpentry becomes an art

Refined Elements and Classical Orders

Ancient Greece is considered to be the cradle of Western civilization. The birthplace of Western philosophy, scientific and mathematical principles, literature and democracy (700-30 BC). Hellenic colonies existed throughout the Mediterranean and coast of Asia Minor in Italy, Sicily, France, Spain, Libya, and all around the Black Sea. Alexander expanded the Greek empire from Egypt to modern India and Pakistan (334 BC). A time of City-states and warfare still Greek architecture refined the elements of ancient Egypt with man becoming the focus or “measure of all things” in daily life, art and building design. Carpenters made the earliest temple structures of wood which were later rebuilt in stone known as "petrification". Important to carpentry they codified the three great styles or orders of architecture Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.

The Orders of Greek Architecture

The Doric was the earliest and the one in which the noblest monuments were erected. Theories of the origin of the Doric order are numerous. The great remaining examples are found chiefly in Sicily and at Paestum in Italy. After 500BC the archaic features of the Doric disappeared; harmonious proportions were achieved; and the final exquisitely adjusted type took form at Athens, in the Hephaesteum (465BC), the Parthenon (447-432BC ), and the Propylaea (437-432BC).

The Greek colonies of the Asia Minor coast had evolved their own special order, the Ionic order, stamped with Asian influences. This style appeared in temples in Greece proper after 500 BC, challenging with its slenderly proportioned columns and carved enrichments the supremacy of the simple, sturdy Doric. The most magnificent Ionic temples were those at Miletus. In Greece proper the Ionic appeared in only one temple of major importance, the Erechtheum at Athens, and otherwise the form was restricted to minor buildings, as the temple of Nike Apteros, Athens (438 BC ), and to interiors as in the Propylaea, Athens.

The third Greek order, the still more ornate Corinthian order, appeared in this period, reached its fullest development (450 BC) but was comparatively little used. The chief examples, both at Athens, are the choragic monument of Lysicrates (335 BC) and the Tower of the Winds (100-35 BC). Later, the Romans used the Corinthian order extensively and adapted it into their widely used composite order.

Homes are still the adobe style but now you have two and three stories and quite diverse. Average homes in the cities would have been two story with storage cellars most with a roof top terrace to cool off and sleep in the evenings. Small windows were placed high in the walls to help keep out the sun and they spread wet mats on the floors to help cool the air inside. Modest furniture such as stools, chairs, beds, and chests. Rich Egyptians had country estates with as many as 70 rooms including orchards, pools, and large gardens.

Arhitekton originally signified a master carpenter. It was attributed not only to ship-builders who were responsible for the construction of the Greek triremes, or to the later "master craftsman" of a temple; but all sorts of craftsmen working with wood. As Greek society developed to be democratic during Classical times they were divided into the three classes nobles, common freemen, and slaves. Nobles did not consider it derogatory to their dignity to acquire skill in the manual arts. Carpenters could have been a class of poor freemen, called Thetes, but with public buildings and many of the important private buildings erected by contract they would more likely have been slaves. Slaves also had classes, the upper class such as police officials or the carpenter who may have paid rent and profits from a workshop and had laborers of their own. They could even buy their freedom from the master carpenter but freed slaves did not become citizens, instead they mixed into the population of resident foreigners (the metics) and continued to help out their former masters when called upon.


Under Pericles the arhitektons Ictinos and Callicrates supervised the practical work of the construction of the Parthenon (438 BC) in Athens in the Doric order at the Acropolis (upper city) and considered the most perfect production of Grecian architecture. Under public contract the Parthenon and the propylaia alone easily cost more than the equivalent of a billion dollars in contemporary terms, a phenomenal sum for an ancient Greek city-state. Since perfect rectilinear architecture appears curved they ingeniously designed subtle curves and inclines to produce an optical illusion of straight lines. The columns were given a slight bulge in the middle, the corner columns were installed at a slight incline and closer together, even the platform was made slightly convex. These technical refinements overcame the distortions of nature.

Iron tools, cement, tile roofing, geometry, lever & pulley,
spoked wheels, cranes, plumbing, gears, trigonometry...

Builders in Greek cities on the coast of Turkey, in particular Pergamum, evolve cement (200 BC) in place of weaker mortars. The secret of the new material is the lime which binds sand, water and clay. Development of the terracotta tile roof, the Temple of Poseidon at Isthmia (700 BC). The harmonious proportional relationship of each element of buildings to the whole was determined through mathematical formulas. Euclid of Alexandria (300 BC) is the father of geometry his "Elements" is still in use today. The lever and pulley was invented along with a force pump which eventually evolved into a steam engine. Iron eventually replaced bronze in many uses, above all in the production of tools, lower cost meant more people could afford them, and with iron being harder than bronze the implements kept their sharp edges longer. The Archimedes screw, a device for raising water still used today. Extensive plumbing systems for baths and fountains as well as for personal use. The crane and winches (515 BC), further develpment of gears and the spoked wheel. Trigonometry of Hipparchus and amazingly analog computers (150 BC). Just to mention a few of the Hellenic innovations that aided in the advancement of carpentry technology.

Average homes and the open-air courtyard

The homes begin with simple houses and culminates in the monumental temples and the elaborately planned cities. As in any time or place, the raw materials available largely determined the nature of the architecture. The principal materials carpenters would have used to build private houses were wood, used for support columns and roof beams, unbaked brick used for walls, terracotta (baked clay), used for roof tiles, and tiled floors some quite elaborate. The common people would have rented no more space than a room or two and the apartments only two story. The upper class would have owned their own homes but an interesting development is most followed the same basic design of bedrooms, storerooms, and dining rooms grouped around open-air courtyards, all were generally modest in size. The women and men of the household usually had rooms set apart for their separate use, and included the slaves and renters, but the men were rarely home. Wall paintings or works of art unlike the later Romans were as yet uncommon as decoration in private homes and sparse furnishings and simple furniture were the rule. Water for household needs had to be fetched from public wells and sanitary facilities usually consisted of a pit dug just outside the front door. The pits were emptied by collectors paid to dump manure outside the city at a distance set by law. Of course the rich would had to have a country villa we'll look at those more later with Palladio's designs.

They also developed a wooden timber truss similar to a kings truss but only used it on a few temples.
An interesting detail I found is the doors on common homes were exactly like those of modern times, except the hinges, they had hinges like ours but didn't use them on their doors. The door-support was a cylinder of hard wood a little longer and larger diameter than the thickness of the door with pivots and holes bored into the threshold the lintel. Then they mortised the door into that cylinder. A later copy was a metal pivot with a bracket.
An example (right) of an ancient carpenters beautifully carved chair from the Tomb of Eurydike 340 BC.

The Roman Empire

The Roman Civilization

The Roman period is rich with history, but is a very common term which can encompass a wide area, administrations and as they assimilated refer to a variety of cultures. Although they became a highly distinctive civilisation on their own, there is no denying the influence of the Greeks. They had a collective view of themselves as a single people is perhaps most evident in the popular "SPQR" which was stamped on publicly owned assets – "Senatus Populusque Romanus" – Belonging to the Senate and the People of Rome. As it relates to carpentry I'll refer to the ancient Roman Republic (509 BC) to the fall of the Western Empire (476 AD) with the extinguishing of the "light of Rome" in the dark ages.

2500 years ago - The Light of Rome - carpenters & monumental construction

Patrician and Plebeian

For over 200 years Rome was a Kingdom, 500 years a Republic and 500 years an Empire. Really Rome is about the small upper percentage of upper class called the patricians, the nobility and wealthy land owners. The lower class plebeians who included everyone from well-to-do tradesmen all the way down to the very poor both classes had slaves if they could afford it to do the work. Purchasing a slave or two to assist in the shops or even work in your back yard as a prostitute was seen as quite acceptable, so long as you paid the taxes.
Citizens were adult freemen - freedmen, women, children and slaves were not.

Romans made no distinction between the professions and trades. A master carpenter/architect would have typically been the designer, responsible for all construction of the project and administering the engineers, trades and labor for the contracts. Aside from the employment of soldiers from the Legion, and government slaves, which were common in the ancient states, the main construction force behind the building of large projects, excluding the many military roads, bridges and fortifications, were contractors... in fact they possessed the same basic function of our modern contractors. The Romans employed highly sophisticated oral and written contracts that were explicit in assigning detailed responsibilities for all parts of the job, including labor and materials - and there were even arbitration clauses.
Numa, the early second Roman king organized the construction guilds which existed in most towns and cities. These associations of artisans, known as collegia, were occasionally regulated by the state but largely left alone. They were organized along trade lines and possessed a strong social base, since their members shared religious observances and fraternal dinners. Most of these organizations disappeared during the Dark Ages.

Roman Technology - Arch, dome and pozzolanic concrete

In over 1200 years you would think there would have been more invention but politically it wasn't in the best interest to change the status quo of the patricians, and really there was no personal incentive for the plebeians. Later in early Christian times scientific thought or an invention actually might get you killed for heresy. Greek colonies in southern Italy were completely overrun by the Romans by 264 BC so that and other technologies were assimilated. They had a tendancy to vastly improve what they worked with especially when it came to building. Their cranes and mills like the water-powered stone sawmill at Hierapolis were also very impressive.                              

The change from other civilizations

If you had more money, you got more voting power. Consuls, Senators, and Governors only came from the rich aristocracy. This may sound unfair, but it was a big change from other civilizations where the average person had no say at all. In Rome, the regular people could band together and have considerable power through the Assembly and their Tribunes. Much of Roman politics, particularly during the republican age, was to do with the struggle for rights and the sharing of power between the Plebeians and Patricians. They were rather like two political parties. Julius Caesar for example stood for the Plebeians (the people's party) although it is important to note that he himself was a Patrician. So even a master carpenter/architect would have had very little in the way of political power.

An interesting note to give you an idea of class structure is something as simple as water use. The upper patrician class would have spacious villas, rather than live in the "insulae" tenements. Lead pipes brought water to the houses and were taxed according to size, they were constantly bribing water officials to tap (a problem called puncturing) into aqueducts. Archaeologists can usually tell the wealth of an owner of a Roman house by simply looking at the size of the pipes.

Slave labor became one of Rome's greatest sources of economic wealth. Buildings were contracted by the Repubulic for public use or by wealthy individuals for the community. Slaves and soldiers were used to do the actual construction. The aqueducts supplied many Romans with water outlets, including public fountains from which most people fetched their water. In the city of Rome alone there were 11 aqueducts, almost 500 miles in length which delivered 150 to 200 gallons per person per day to over a million people. They built over 900 Bridges and 250,000 miles of roads which were very important because they were built mainly to allow soldiers to move quickly in war time encouraged trading and helped the spread of Roman culture.

Recap and summation of pre-history carpentry

Hunter-gather human ancestors start stone tool technology 2.4 millions years ago in central Africa with hammers and axes. By the time they migrate to Europe you see a specialization of tools and that become more refined. There Neanderthal man is eventually replaced by modern Homo Sapiens. 10,000 years ago in what is called the Neolithic age temporary stone circles become homes as man settles into villages and start to grow crops. That is the begining of civilization when an explosion of invention, tool improvement and advancement at an accelerated rate begins.

Early development was excruciatingly slow but in the upper Paleolithic there was some kind of genetic mutation that triggered a change in the way we thought as Homo Sapiens, apes copy but don't teach kind of thing so this was very different. Carpenters arrive on the scene and develop quite amazing tools from flint that can work wood and immediatly figure out how to build homes so man can start farming. Once settled into villages man begins improving math to keep track of livestock and writing symbols in clay for bartering.

The gods of carpentry

Man has an oral history and with death always close at hand they began beliefs in gods that explained the events from before time tribal traditions and bonds. There is a fascinating similaraty in those events, the first god of carpentry was Enki in Summaria, then Neith in Egypt later Ptah, Athena in Greece, Minerva in Roman, Lugh in Celtic, Lu-Pan in China, Vishwakarma in India, Kulla in Babylon, Taoki-Ho-Oi-No-Kami in Japan, Belisama in Gaul, Dian Cecht in Irish, Kothar u Khasis in Canaan, Marunogere in New Guinea, Musdamma in Mesopotamia, Nang Lha in Tibet, Solang in Micronesian, Xochiquetzal for Aztec, Hastsehogan in Navajo, Master-Carpenter of Haida Legend to name a few and with Chistianity you have Joseph as the Patron Saint of carpenters, the father of Jesus who was a carpenter that made yokes for oxen.

Recap and summation of ancient Egyptian carpentry

5,000 years ago the Egyptian civilization develop many of the methods and tools that make carpenters the craftsmen we would recognize today. They used basic post and lintel designs for their monuments even though arch was invented and had a rudementary mathematical system (with no zero) for building layout.

The tools used were mostly copper but worked to be as hard as a soft modern steel. Many of the tool designs such as the adze were used for centuries. The saws were draw only but did use off set teeth and allowed them to make the first planks, plywood and Veneer as thin as 1/32 of an inch. Basic hammers, mallets, chisels, bow drills and an up right lathe allowed the carpenters to make quite ornate pieces.

Not ‘free’ in the modern sense carpenters are usually trained and skilled labourers and well-respected in the community. They work in sections on large projects and in specialized workshops. Most would have had a home that have now become more comfortable and deverse in their architectural design.

Quick review of ancient Greek carpentry

3,000 years ago ancient Greece was a time of enlightenment as well as war. They refined the elements of Egypt with the three great architectural orders focusing on the natural balance and symmetry of the human body. Philosophy the beginning of the sciences, advances in mathematics and applied physics allowed the harmonious proportional relationship of each element of buildings to the whole.

Lower cost production of iron tools and metal working that rival todays standards along with the classic artistic balance have the carpenters producing quality work that was copied and reproduced through out history. Carpenters could have been a class of poor freemen, called Thetes, but with public buildings and many of the important private buildings erected by contract they would more likely have been slaves.

The homes begin with simple houses and culminates in the monumental temples and the elaborately planned cities. The common people would have rented no more space than a room or two and the apartments typically two story. An interesting development is most followed the same basic open courtyard design copied by the upper class Romans, then in turn in the renaissance by Andrea Palladio, one of the most influential architects in Western architecture.

The average home was one room with most of their daily living spent outside. Generally there were no floors just hard packed earth. The roofs were made by laying beams from wall to wall a mat of reeds or thorn bushes with a coating of clay with a sand and pebble finish coat. A stone roller was used to make it smooth and able to shed rain. Archaeologist found rollers that were left on the roofs so they were maintained by re-rolling the gravel top coat.

The greatest achievement of Roman architecture as it relates to carpentry are the arch, dome, pozzolanic concrete and their engineering applications. The arch has far greater capabilities than the lintel and the dome is in effect a collection of arches all sharing the same center, they used these in remarkable new ways. Gigantic aqueduct structures like the one located at Segovia (above) with a one percent slope over 10 miles using single and double arches almost 10 stories high 93 ft (Trajan 98–117 AD), or Alcántara Bridge (right) that bears the inscription
"I have built a bridge which will last forever" (104 AD) both still standing today imagine, almost 2000 years!

Roman Pozzolanic Concrete - Lost for over a thousand years

Concrete is a combination of aggregates, typically sand and gravel mixed with a cement, which is basically lime-based mortar. To make a simple lime mortar, get your hands on some limestone and heat it in a kiln. The limestone will undergo a chemical reaction leaving a highly reactive product known as quicklime, place that in water, and you get a bubbling, heat- producing chemical reaction, which will yield a white paste called hydrated lime or slaked lime (which the Romans stored in large clay jars known as amphorae). Mix that paste with clean river sand and presto: mortar. Limestone is very common, the Great Pyramid in Giza was made with it, it's from ancient shells and remains of marine organisms like coral.

Lost for over a thousand years until Joseph Aspdin, the British stone mason credited with the invention of Portland cement in 1824, literally whipped up the first batch in his kitchen, but he took it one step further. He heated finely ground limestone and clay when cooled and ground it into a fine powder. Which can be stored dry and activated by adding water, a luxury the Romans did not enjoy. There were other advantages in Portland cement, the silica in the clay bonds with the calcium in the lime through the application of heat, which creates a far more durable concrete than that which can be made from a simple lime mortar paste the Romans used.

Although the Romans never stumbled onto this scientific breakthrough, they nonetheless created a durable, high-strength concrete with the same properties, thanks to the help of Mother Nature. The Romans had two distinct types of concrete mortar. One was made with simple lime and river sand, mixed at a ratio of three parts sand to one part lime. The other type used pozzolan instead of river sand and was mixed at a ratio of two parts pozzolan to one part lime. Pozzolan took its name from the Pozzouli region by the Bay of Naples, where it was found. By using volcanic ash in the place of river sand in their concrete, the Romans were able to mimic the process by which Portland cement chemically bonds lime to clay through the application of heat.

One thing I need to add is the Romans had high quality control. They knew how to distinguish a good quality (pure white) lime and came to understand a low water to cementitious materials ratio, exacting placement, and compaction are also critical to attaining maximum concrete strength.The Romans even used a special tool called a beetle to tamp it and pound it into place. The Roman carpenters also used wooden forms, much like those used today.

Opus incertum "rubble"

Irregularly shapes in random patterns around the core.
Opus reticulatum "net"

Diamond-shaped blocks with the pointed ends into the core.
Opus testaceum "brick"

Triangular baked bricks facing the core.

Carpenter Collegia

Carpenters for the most part fell into the slave class or if skilled a guild (collegia). The Roman construction labor force consisted of slaves, freedmen, poor citizens, soldiers from the Legions, and skilled labor or guild persons. It was the guilds that provided the skilled labor needed to fasten timber pieces into the scaffolding trusswork that spanned large openings in the construction of arches and domes. The guilds were not collective bargaining devices but almost akin to distinct social classes much like the caste system of India. Once born into a guild, you picked up the trade and practiced it throughout your lifetime. Guilds had their own meeting halls and even their own goddess, Minerva, the deity of handiwork.

Vitruvius - De architectura

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio the chief engineer of the Roman world is the author of De architectura, known today as The Ten Books on Architecture. Written in approximately 20-30 BC it is the only text on the subject of architecture to survive antiquity. Without him who knows, we may have lost the classic architecture of the ancients. He was an historian as much as an engineer/architect, his books look longingly to a time before imperial Rome back to classical Greece. It's in Vitruvius that we first see the classical orders of Greek architecture, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian. He believed that an architect should focus on three central themes when preparing a design for a building: firmitas strength, utilitas functionality, and venustas beauty. His were the first texts in history to draw the Greek connection between the architecture of the body and that of the building, that a timeless notion of beauty could be learnt from the 'truth of nature', that nature's designs were based on universal laws of proportion and symmetry, (Vitruvian Man in the top banner).

De architectura deeply influenced the Renaissance artists, thinkers, and architects Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519),
Michelangelo (1475-1564), Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), and Inigo Jones (1573-1652).
The next major book on architecture, Leon Battista Alberti's De re aedificatoria largely dependent on the Ten Books, was not written until 1452.

You could easily fill a book on the history of carpentry. To keep this on two web pages I've had to condense the timeline and subjects,
select only a few of the important buildings and people that made the difference for carpenters.
Thank-you to all of the references and university resources there are just far too many to mention.
I'm a carpenter that thought our story should at least be told somewhere... -Gordon-

An interesting note about the Parthenon. The name means the "temple of the virgin goddess" and refers to Athena, goddess of Wisdom, Warfare, Divine intelligence, Architecture and Crafts so she was the goddess of carpentry. The Greeks adopted her from Egypt, Neith a sky-dwelling goddess of creation and war first recorded in the 1st Dynasty. Romans basically adopted the Greek gods and renamed her Minerva, the goddess of the ancient Roman carpenter guilds. So the Parthenon has close ties to carpenters.

Vitruvius compares the origins of the classical orders to the symmetry (Greek:"measure together") of men and women.

"On finding that, in a man, the foot was one sixth of the height, they applied the same principle to the column, and reared the shaft, including the capital, to a height six times its thickness at the base. Thus the Doric column, as used in buildings, began to exhibit the proportion, strength, and beauty of a man.

"Just so afterwards, when they desired to construct a temple to Diana in a new style of beauty [Ionic], they translated these footprints into terms characteristic of the slenderness of women, and thus first made a column the thickness of which was only one eighth of its height, so that it might have a taller look. At the foot, they substituted the base in place of a shoe; in the capital they placed the volutes, hanging down at the right and left like curly ringlets, and ornamented its front with cymatia and wide festoons of fruit arranged in place of hair, while they brought the flutes down the whole shaft, falling like the folds in the robes worn by matrons. Thus in the invention of the two different kinds of columns, they borrowed manly beauty, naked and unadorned, for the one, and for the other the delicacy, adornment, and proportions characteristic of women....

"The third order, called Corinthian, is an imitation of the slenderness of a maiden; for the outlines and limbs of maidens, being more slender on account of their tender years, admit of prettier effects in the way of adornment."

The Pantheon

The Pantheon, most likely designed by Greek builder Apollodorus is of the highest architectural excellence. When Michelangelo saw it he proclaimed it was of “angelic and not human design.” No one knows the original Pantheons exact age, legend says that the ancients built it on this same site where Romulus ascended to heaven in 716 BC. This reconstruction was under Hadrian in 123 AD who dedicated it to pan theos, all the gods. On the summer equinox the rays of the sun from the Pantheons only light, the oculus, shines through the front door. In 609 AD the Pantheon was stripped of all pagan deities when it became a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs.

The pediment would have been a sculpture that acted out the battle of the Titans called Titanomachy a 10 year battle said to have taken place long before the existence of mankind. The 40 ton bronze doors would have been covered in gold and the exterior stucco with white marble paneling. The once bronze-tiled roof and bronze portico beams were melted down for cannons and Bernini's baldachin in St. Peter's. The Greek colonnade is the original 16 columns with Corinthian capitals. They are 46 feet high, 5 feet in diameter, each a 60 ton masterpiece of carved Egyptian granite. The interior was redesigned in the Roman style when converted but the floor is the original marbles from the four corners of the Roman Empire and can be understood as spolia expressing conquest of Egypt, Asia, Carthage and Gaul in a squared circle as in the geography of Ptolemy. The interior space could fit perfectly either in a cube or in a sphere.

The dome 19'-8 thick at the base which reduces to 5 feet thick at the top has an oculus that is 27 feet in diameter and open to the sky with the floor gently sloped to allow for runoff of rainwater. It is still the largest un-reinforced dome in the world and was the largest of any dome for 1313 years until Brunelleschi completed the Duomo of Florence in 1436. It is 142 feet in diameter, for comparison the White House dome is 96 feet. The Pantheon has been called a “perfect” space because the diameter of the dome is equal to that of its height, think a circle in a cyliner in a square. The dome was probably constructed by carpenters using an elaborate setup of wooden scaffolding, which is an interesting story in itself. It was built on marshy, unstable earth and the foundation cracked during the build under the 7 story 20'-4 thick walls. The domes engineering is a feat that wouldn't be attempted today without rebar. Unbelievable as it is two bell towers were added in the 1500s under Pope Urban VIII called “the ass-ears of Bernini” by the Romans, both were removed in 1883.

Average homes, city tenements and the Roman open-air courtyard villas

The empire covered such a vast area and lasted such a long time that the housing, as in any time or place, was varied and largely determined by the materials available. In Italy however two main types of housing emerge. In the cities like Rome or Ostia the average person would have lived in a new development called insulae. These were often four or five story high rise tenement blocks with the poorest families crammed into just one or two rooms located in the highest apartments. Most would have a shop like a bakery on the first floor and you would have used communal facilities for essential services such as cooking and bathing or one of the fountains for water. Which created the problem of chamber pots being dumped out the upper floors even though there were laws against it. They were death traps often hastily and shoddily built and terrible fire-hazards, though some emperors tried to restrict the height and materials used.

The classical portico and domed roof of the Pantheon influenced Western architecture and inspired the design of many buildings around the world. Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia (1822), Antonio Canova's Temple in Possagno (1819), Palladio's famous Villa Capra (1550),
Cass Gilbert's US Supreme Court Building (1932), Thorton's US Capitol Building (Begun in 1793),
and John Russell Pope's Thomas Jefferson Memorial (1939) as a few examples.

Wealthier Romans generally lived in villas or domus (dominus meaning lord) of one or two levels with a country estate often even more ornate. The villas varied in plan but similar to the original Greek houses. They usually comprised of an entrance area or atrium, onto which opened several rooms, including bedrooms. Beyond the atrium was an open, colonnaded courtyard, often containing an ornamental garden with plants, water features and sculpture. Rooms opening onto the courtyard included the triclinium three couches or dining room, and tablinum or office-records room. The back had service areas such as the kitchen, store rooms and latrines. Well-appointed houses were decorated with mosaic floors, painted walls and ceilings, and bronze and marble statuary of gods and ancestors.

Medieval Kingdoms - The Early Middle Age

1500 years ago - Darkness & Anarchy - carpenters build from the chaos


Medieval medium aevum Latin for "Middle Ages" between the decline of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. Neolithic villages became the earlier city-states, those became the empires of which Roman was the most successful in Europe in ancient times. The Middle ages began with the extinguishing of the light of Rome around 500 AD and lasts to 1500 AD with the fall of Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire to the Turks in 1453, brings a time of new enlightenment we call the Renaissance that will take us into our "modern" era. The bridge we call the middle ages are full of romantic tales of knights and castles, brutal torture, chaos and epidemics like the Black Death but also the beginning of higher education for all people and what I consider the golden age for carpenters with the guilds.
The 1000 year Medieval period had three basic ages Early, High Middle and Late.

Early Dark Age

The breakdown was fast and dramatic. The first 300 years carpentry technology and engineering advances were lost, education collapsed (saved by monks and priests) with Christians seeing books other than their Bible as heathen, great libraries like at Alexandria burned and a rise of illiteracy among the leadership. In the early anarchy of the dark age you see the Roman cities like London abandoned, Rome seiged and sacked for it's riches. A migration of tribes into the Empire, which were hunting bands of clans descended from a common ancestor who felt that they were related by blood. Each tribe would worship gods which acted to affirm their community solidarity. Warlords of Huns like Attila (central Asian tribes), Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Franks (Germanic tribes) desimated safe trading and manufacturing in Europe. An epidemic we know little about in 541 wiped out a high percentage of the population. Also there was a period of rapid cooling, and with the loss of the Roman slave plantation system, farming yields declined to subsistance levels. England was invaded in 500 by Jutes and Angles from what today is Denmark, and Saxons from northern Germany. By 600 most of the Anglo-Saxon kings were converted to Christianity by Celtic Irish Missionaries. The kings were inclined to welcome a religion whose scriptures supported monarchy and in 669 appointment of an archbishop over the whole of England and a larger role by the Church in state affairs. In 700 the Moors move into Spain.

The Vikings

From 800 to 1100 the Vikings warriors from Denmark, Norway and Sweden were known for their naval power and as fierce fighters. Their carpenters built ships that were perhaps the greatest technical achievement of the European dark ages. With the low draft longships some ventured out with swords and battle axes and raided along shorelines or up rivers and quickly returned to the sea, with little or no resistance. The Scandinavians had increased their trade and were aware that treasury was being stored at monasteries and churches, and these were their usual targets. The Norse were excellent craftsmen, explorers and believers in democracy who founded the world's oldest surviving parliament. For an unknown reason more were willing to venture to distant areas for the purpose of settling down. They ventured as far as Iceland, Greenland and North America 500 years before Columbus. The Viking chieftain Rollo raided Paris, and was granted by treaty an area of land at the mouth of the Seine in return for preventing other Vikings from attacking. Through consolidation of power in time domnated what later became Normandy. They made settlements in Scotland, Ireland where they founded Dublin, and after 1066 with most turning to Christianity the raids ceased and the northmen assimilated.

Charlemagne - Carolingian Empire

In 768 Charlemagne Charles the Great united the nobles in Gaul (France) and gave brief rise to the Carolingian Empire and foundation of the Holy Roman Empire. The revolutionary reforms under Charlemagne changed the craftsmanship of carpentry forever with the flowering of scholarship, literature, art, and architecture and the revival of religion and culture through the church. He gathered the leading intellectual lights of his age at his court in Aachen, which was a rise above when no one believed in change or progress. The surviving works of classical Latin were copied and preserved by Carolingian scholars and many of the monastic students went on to have a strong influence on medieval intellectual life. He standardized weights, measures, and coinage which fixed taxes from corrupt local tax collectors that had assigned a value through barter. He replaced amateurs in local courts with two itinerant (travelling) judges one for the church one for the state who had a better understanding of law which were now organized and some made into statutes for the empire. He changed Trial by Ordeal (where if you were a noble, you could prove your innocence by hiring someone to fight for you. If the person you hired lived, you were found innocent) to Trial by Jury. He standardized tolls and customs fees so that everyone paid the same price for the certain goods or services, which improved business. He reformed the clergy, to be ordained a priest one had to take an examination. Though split up upon his death, Charlemagne encouraged the formation of a common European identity, French and German monarchies considered their kingdoms to be descendants of his empire.

Quick review of ancient Roman carpentry

2500 years ago - We've looked at the Neolithic villages and how those became city-states which expanded and became empires like Egypt and Greece. Now we have the rise of Rome and a 1000 year empire that was the most successful in history. Rome was highly organized and started as a kingdom then as a republic with a two party system. Basically it never changed the upper percentage always ruled with absolute power but they also had a people's party. As with all civilizations of the time they had a slave class but also a free lower class that were made to feel as if they contributed which led to their great success.

They didn't invent much of anything new like the Greeks, but they did assimilate and usually made construction techniques much better especially again through their orginization. Massive building projects by excellent craftsmen that lasted for centuries. So you see a bit of a stall as far as the world advancing but still it didn't get worse like the devistasion you see when it falls.

Carpentry does advance though, we become better at what we do making peoples lives more comfortable. We develop beautiful achitecture based on what we learned from the Greeks and techniques that will take a 1000 years to re-discover. Our tools get better from our brother metal workers and the Roman Empire allows us to start small orginisations that take care of ourselves called Collegia. We educate one another and take care of our sick and retired, these guilds of ours will later save the Medieval world. Despite what is happening around us we build monuments of the highest architectural excellence, that we pass down to future generations.

Notes about Roman period that become important to carpenters during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Roman plantations were similar to the American South with a slaves and also free farmers with a tax and market system that brought food into the cities. Roman towns and cities were relatively safe with the Legions and most of the time had complex septic systems keeping them free of waste. Christianity promised life after death where in Roman religion, only gods (emperors) went to heaven and Paul in Rome wrote most of the New Testament books. Constantine around 300 legalized Christianity which played a huge role protecting the Christian "West" during the middle ages and he split the empire in two. That Eastern Byzantine Empire lasted until 1453 and saved the ancients architecture and knowledge for the Renaissance.

Most Anglo-Saxon buildings were constructed of wood with wattle and daub walls similar to Viking longhouses. Even the halls of nobles were simple, with a central fire and a hole in the roof to let the smoke escape rarely more than one floor, and one room. Heavy post and beam framing set directly into the ground, supporting the roof. Packed earth floors, though planks were sometimes used over shallow pits for storage. Thatched stick roofing being the most common, though turf and wooden shingles were also used. If there were windows they would have been covered with thin animal skins or wood shutters for defense.The only buildings they tended to build in stone were small scale churches with Celtic influences and very few decorative elements, typically from re-used Roman stone and brick. More defensive they put a lot of energy into tower building to gain a high lookout point for the villages and often these are the earliest surviving part of English parish churches.

Important to carpentry the west had to remake itself. In the wake of the demise of the Roman Empire, European peasants, nobles and clergyman had to literally remake their lives. As the urban life of Rome gave way to the countryside, people became more closely attached to the land. Their very survival depended upon it. These people needed security and protection which best express the common needs of the general population of Europe. Serfdom and feudalism promised security and protection, however, feudalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. What began as an attempt to restore social, political, military and economic order, ended up producing nothing less than anarchy.

This page last modified on Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Quick review of early middle age carpentry

1500 years ago - Talk about your bad luck, not the best of times. The decline of the Roman Empire brings on the Early Middle Ages with the social stucture in total choas so nothing much gets recorded for history, where "dark" comes from. No protection for the people who abandon the cities under attack by roaming tribes of warriors and begin banding together in small villages. The Roman plantation system and trading falls apart and a bizarre cooling trend in the climate desimates what little food is left. If that wasn't enough in 541 an epidemic we know very little about piles on even higher death tolls to the madness and destruction.

No wonder the people turn to religous fanaticism looking for a way out, maybe the next life. So perfect timing for the rise of Christianity but this does bring more good than bad in the high middle age. The peoples eventually gather around the churches, warlord fortresses and into villages where the Roman carpentry guilds become even more important with the carpenters protecting the encampments and building what will turn into castles. Their knowlege, though much is lost, is handed down and coveted by King and country and the carpentry guilds eventually become even more powerful.

The Germanic and Norse turn south and bring with them their tribal democracy and earliest known parliments. Raidng Norse factions, the Vikings, make a huge impact in our line of carpentry with most Norse (Northmen) Angles and Saxons assimilating and melding into the settlements with their craftsmanship and what is left of the Roman carpenter guilds. This though gives opportunity to the strong and the "Church" who convert many of the tribes which take advantage with serfdom and fuedalism taking us into the high middle age.