A Brief History of Woodworking

From the day we first stood on two feet, all the way to current times, wood and the tradesmen who perfected its manipulation have likely had the biggest impact on the shaping of the human race. Not just a tool, but also fuel, wood has provided for our species in ways nothing else has come close to.

Without wood tools and structures, where would we be as a society? Would we still be capable of the things we are today? Certainly not. So, what is this storied history? Where did it all begin? How did woodworking develop over the millennia and which societies are responsible for creating the techniques we still use today? 

Some of the earliest evidence of advanced woodworking (beyond simply using a sharpened stick to hunt) dates back as far as 3000BC in ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptians are credited with numerous advances in woodworking, such as building wooden ships by joining boards into boat hulls. They used mortise and tenon joints strengthened by either pegs, dowels, or leather. They were also the first society evidenced to use veneer and other finishes, as seen in the Tomb of Semekhet. 

The common tools of the ancient Egyptian carpenter include: 

  • Axes
  • Adzes
  • Chisels
  • Pull saws
  • Bow drills

Another ancient society credited with the most advances in woodworking is China. Early Chinese woodworking techniques have a heavy focus on precision. Much like other countries in Asia, their craftsmen preferred fitted joints over all other joining methods. Ancient Chinese structures often include beautifully joined board floors, walls, and roofs. The Chinese were also the first society to put forward published dimensions for creating items such as furniture or other basic home accessories. 

Ancient China is credited with the invention of the plane, chalk-line, the saw (though Egypt made use of saws as well, these societies were not in communication with each other), and the frame saw. They also made use of chisels, shovels, axes, and bow drills. 

Japan was no slouch in the woodworking department either. Developing similar techniques, Feudal Japanese woodworking also favors fitted joints over the use of other binding methods. Some of the tools used by craftsmen of the time include some unique takes on existing concepts. 

The Japanese saw was designed to cut on the pull stroke, rather than the push. This made room for thinner blades and finer attention to detail. The Japanese plane was also designed to cut on the pull stroke, over the push, and the blades are pushed into place with a wedge over a convex support bed. There are many more Japanese tools, but these are just a few examples. 

We cannot overlook the use of woodworking in ancient Rome, one of the greatest ancient societies in human history. Ancient Romans made use of a tool called the try square – known now as a carpenter’s square, they used plumblines and chalk lines, frame saws, bow drills, and more. Ancient Rome is also credited with the invention of the auger for heavy drilling and forged iron nails.

Moving into modern times, we have such a wealth of tools, techniques, and machines to help us do our work. From bench planers and table saws to lathes and even something as simple as the quick-grip clamp, we have access to things that would stun the woodworkers of the ancient world. 

As we walk through history it becomes clear we owe a lot of credit to the ancient woodworkers of the planet. The men and women (in ancient China, a husband-and-wife team was considered the original creators of modern woodworking) who toiled, thanklessly in many cases, under extreme conditions and pressures to create and develop techniques to manipulate wood, the material that delivered us from the stone age to modern times. 

Carpentry has certainly come a long way through the course of our history, and the members of this sacred brotherhood can proudly say it is one of the few careers that has evolved alongside the human race, for thousands of years.