Ancient Roman Woodworkers

By Bill Esler | Posted: 11/24/2010 2:00AM


While traveling last month, I chanced upon two museums near Arles, in southern France, that included examples of woodworking tools and techniques used by the ancient Romans. It was really intriguing. (I've placed some photos of a Unesco World Heritage site at the aqueduct Pont du Gard in this blog.)

Excavations have preserved and restored much in the way of Roman metalwork, tools, pottery, stonework, frescoes. . .even glass. Examples of woodwork are limited - mostly wooden galleys (the ones with the big oars rowed by banks of slaves), freighters and barges, preserved under muddy riverbeds. Along with these, records of Roman woodworking are captured in bas relief - carved frescoes showing woodworkers measuring, drilling, cutting and joining. Depictions of Roman wood furnishings and wooden chariots with wood spoked wheels are captured in mosaics and paintings.

This got me reading up, and I've learned since that excellence in wood furnishing and finishes were highly valued by the Romans. Like us, Romans distinguished between rough carpentry and and woodworking as fine craftsmanship (ars). Roman engineers also recorded construction methods, documenting their woodcraft and techniques for planning and tool work. (Many pages of a comprehensive book, Roman Woodworking by Roger Ulrich, can be viewed at

Wood craft capabilities among the ancient Romans were amazingly refined and sophisticated  - and their customers paid handsomely for quality in craftsmanship, fine lumber selection and veneers. The hand tools they used - augers, planes, adzes, hammers, chisels, drills etc. - would be familiar to any custom woodworker today.

Trusses supported Roman
arch  construction
In Southern France there are numerous surviving ancient Roman ruins (water-bearing aqueducts, coliseums, theaters, baths, temples, etc.) some still in use and built, naturally of stone, not wood. But evidenced in the complex engineering of Roman public construction was sophisticated woodworking and carpentry. The ubiquitous Roman arch, where gravity keeps the heavy angled blocks together, was only possible with the construction of a wooden truss that held the stones in position until the capstone locked them in place.

Water systems also show off Roman woodworking. Aqueducts ran 50 miles in length or more, designed with a steady gradient of 5 degrees to carry water from plentiful rural springs to cities. Once there, iron, clay and wooden water mains (wood mains are still in use in major U.S. cities) distributed the water to the population. Rome, for example, 1 million population in 1 A.D., was fed by nine aqueducts providing per capita water supply of 400 liters - quadruple today's level.
Romans established true line of sight,
 with splines adjusting to reach level
The construction methods of these and dozens of other aqueducts around their empire, provides further evidence of Roman woodworking skills.

Precision woodworking was involved in Roman construction projects: wood levels employing up to five pendulums for measuring grades and surveying. Rulers were engraved with precision measures. (See more photos, a Roman ruler, and units of measure below.)

Here's additional background from on Roman furnishings from Amish Direct Furniture>> :

"Tables were made of marble, gold, silver, and bronze, and were engraved, damascened, plated, and enriched with precious stones.

The chief woods used were cedar, pine, elm, olive, ash, ilex, beech, and maple. Ivory was much used, and not only were the arms and legs of couches and chairs carved to represent the limbs of animals, as has been noted in the Assyrian, Egyptian, and Greek designs, but other parts of furniture were ornamented by carvings in bas relief of subjects taken from Greek mythology and legend.

Veneers were cut and applied, not as some have supposed for the purpose of economy, but because by this means the most beautifully marked or figured specimens of the woods could be chosen, and a much richer and more decorative effect produced than would be possible when only solid timber was used. As a prominent instance of the extent to which the Romans carried the costliness of some special pieces of furniture, we have it recorded on good authority (Mr. Pollen) that the table made for Cicero cost a million sesterces, a sum equal to about £18,000, and that one belonging to King Juba was sold by auction for the equivalent of £20,000.

Cicero's table was made of a wood called Thyine—wood which was brought from Africa and held in the highest esteem.Thyine resembles the woods which we know as tuyere and amboyna

 A Roman navy carpenter's level and rule.

Reproduction of a Roman ruler used by a naval woodworker.
Roman unit Latin name Feet
one digit digitus 1/16
one inch uncia 1/12
one palm palmus 1/4
one foot pes 1
one cubit cubitus 1 1/2
one step gradus 2 1/2
one pace passus 5
one perch pertica 10
one arpent actus 120

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About the Author

Bill Esler, Woodworking Network, WMS

Bill Esler

Bill Esler, Editorial Director, Woodworking Network Bill is responsible for overall content at Woodworking Network magazine, and related newsletters. Bill also manages event programs for Woodworking Network Live conferences at the Woodworking Machinery & Supplies Expo in Toronto and Cabinets & Closets Expo. He developing audience engagement programs using custom digital printing, live lead-generating events, custom websites, and custom digital and print content. Read Bill Esler's woodworking blogs. He can be reached at or follow him on Google+.

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