Ancient woodworking in Egypt, Greece, and Rome remains recognisable and understandable to the modern eye in both the techniques and materials used. It may be said that in some areas of furniture making and design things have changed little from antiquity.
Ancient Woodworking Materials
While straw, the typical material of very primitive furniture was used in ancient times, wood was the material usually used in ancient furniture making.
Ancient Egyptian woodworkers and furniture craftsman, as well as their Greek and Roman counterparts, employed many different kinds of wood including from the acacia, fig, almond, date palm, tamarisk, willow, and poplar trees and also exotic timber like cedar, ash, beech, oak, yew, elm, and cypress.
Metal, Bronze, Stone
While ancient wooden furniture and crafts has decayed and perished to this day there exists in fair quantities examples of anceint furniture in bronze and stone.
Thucydides mentions that concluding a battle of 427 B.C. beds were made of bronze and iron and dedicated to Hera. However in general some wood was always used alongside metal, the metal was normally hollow cast and the various components joined together.
Techniques & Tools
Ancient Woodworking Tools
From about the time of 3000 BC most of the common furniture making techniques we know today were already in use in ancient Egypt including the mortise and tenon joint, the dowel, carving, as well as tools such as the adze, chisel, saw, awl, and bow drill. By 2000 BC we can also add the dovetail joint, halving joints, and shoulder mitres.
In early ancinet times the techniques of wood panelling came to be developed to overcome the problem of the size of a piece of wood being dependent on the size of the tree it came from. Panelling enabled much heftier pieces to be made and also helped reduce splitting caused when wood is joined in an "unnatural" way, a way that restricts the necessary movement occasioned by humidity changes.
The basics of the art of wood turning came to be employed by about 2000 BC. As much a method of decoration as construction wood turning in the ancient world could involve shallow receding, gentle convexities, large superimposed globes, wave moulding, and twists whether single or double. The wood turning lathe is mentioned by Plato and the ancient Greeks were very skilled in the turning of couches.
The shaping of wood by heat or moisture, known as bentwood, was invented at an unknown time. Ancient Egyptian stools and tables depicted in paintings give the appearance of having been braced by bentwood and it seems likely that the klismos chair was made with bentwood techniques.
Ancient Furniture Decoration
We can turn to evidence given in ancient texts and tablets for the supposition that metals were used in ancient woodworking at an early era.
Ancient cuneiform tablets from circa 1400 BC tell of furniture sent to the king of Babylon as a present by the king of Egypt as being beds, chairs, and footstools overlaid with gold. Another inscription refers to bedsteads of silver.
In the tent of Ptolemy Philadelphus (third century BC) we hear of "golden Delphian tripods, having pedestals of their own", along with "golden couches, with feet made like sphinxes .....a hundred in number and they rested on silver pedestals".
Athenaeus of about 230 A.D. tells of a "table of solid silver twelve cubits round" although baser metals were of course more likely to have been used in less wealthy Homeshomes in ancient times.
Covering a base material with a thin sheet of gold, called gilding, was a cheaper way of achieving a golden appearance. Ancient Egyptian furniture makers were skilled in beating precious metals to exceptional thinness, and gold leaf can be beaten to the point of disappearing.
In addition to this method of making of gold gilt furniture there was also used a thicker gold foil of sheeting. Evidence of this can be found in the tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamun.
In antiquity ivory was at times more expensive than gold and highly prized. Furniture in the homes of ancient wealthy Greeks was very often decorated with ivory.
Evidence for this can be seen in the couches discovered in the tomb of Philip of Macedon. The old roman X-frame chair became later called the "ivory chair".
The combination of ivory and gold, a stunning, brightly powerful combination, was very precious.
At least before 3000 BC the decorative method of veneering, involving the overlaying, and often gluing, of high grade wood over run of the mill wood, was in use among the ancients. Materials used for ancient veneer included ivory and bone, tortoise shell (used as a veneer on couches by 100 BC), ebony, and maple.
The Bed of Yuia, an official during the 18th Dynasty, in the Cairo Museum, dated to circa 1400 BC has a 6mm thick veneer. Cicero of ancient Rome was said to have bought a colosally expensive citron table with "the veins arranged in waving lines to form spirals like small whirlpools".
As we have seen many of the techniques of woodworking and furniture making that we know today were already in use in ancient Egypt by circa 3000 BC. Over the ensuing centuries in Greek furniture and Roman furniture ancient pioneers of woodworking refined and developed these skills further.