Boards: Shaping

Any detailed historical descriptions of the process which takes the wood from tree to finished book board have yet to be found, but a few accounts from 19th-century travelers in the region and a few modern sources offer us some insight, all pointing to the adze as the primary instrument used. Fig. 1.
Fig. 1. Adze used in the production of parchment, very similar in size and construction to those used in woodwork.

Winslow, The Craft of Ethiopian Scribal Production, Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology (2018, Forthcoming)
Fig. 1. Adze. Courtesy of Sean Winslow

In 1837, Robert Curzon encountered a group of Ethiopian monks at the Syrian Monastery in the Natron Valley region of Egypt; from them he was able to ascertain some aspects of the production of manuscripts, observing “wooden boards, not sawn or planed, but chopped apparently out of a tree or a block of hard wood, a task of patience and difficulty.” Curzon, Visits to Monasteries, 102. Whether Curzon is basing this description on direct observation, conversation with scribes, or inference from examining manuscripts is not stated. Shortly thereafter, a report issued by the French scientific expedition lead through Ethiopia by Theophile Lefebvre in the 1840s, notes that “traditional carpenters would split trees with wedges and then very cleverly plane the pieces into boards with the aid of an adze.” Pankhurst, Old-time Handicrafts, 242 Furthermore, Sir Clements Markham, geographer for the British military expedition in Ethiopia of 1867–68, writes, "the doors and other woodwork are merely worked up with adzes, without the use of planes," and an account, published in 1900 by Augustus Wylde, reinforces the predominant use of the tool, adding that "the adze is the usual tool used for smoothing woodwork, and the carpenters of the country turn out sometimes most excellent work with this instrument." Markham, A History, 238 Wylde, Modern Abyssinia, 229 Although it is not explicitly stated as a practice directly related to book boards, it is not too great of a leap to conclude that a simple method such as this—employing minimal tools and techniques common to woodworkers throughout history—would have been used in the shaping of the raw material. Furthermore, a number of modern sources attest to the use of an adze in shaping book boards. Cockerell, "Ethiopian," 7; Szirmai, Archaeology, 48; Winslow, Correspondence, 16 Oct 2013 A focused study on the end grain structure of wood found on manuscripts with exposed boards of various sizes could yield important clues to determining if there was any historical preference as to the manner with which the pieces of wood were initially split from the felled tree.
Fig. 2. Weiner Codex 22 (EMIP 00113). Front board, interior. Large scoop mark from an adze is visible at the bottom-left corner.

See Fig. 2 of the entry "Boards: Introduction" for another example of adze marks on a board.

Courtesy of Ethiopian Manuscript Imaging Project (Portland, Oregon), Steve Delamarter, director
Fig. 2. Courtesy of Ethiopian Manuscript Imaging Project (Portland, Oregon), Steve Delamarter, director

According to Fekade, for the best quality boards, tradition indicates that the wood is felled and bucked then set aside to cure for a year or longer. To expedite the process, freshly cut wood may be dried by a fire, or stripped of its bark and buried in cow dung for two or three weeks—which is purported to aid in the prevention of cracking and decay—and then dried by a fire. This dried wood will then be split and shaped to the desired size. Fekade, Ancient, 203–204 Historically, if a scribe was unable to find a preferred wood, another type might be treated to increase its decay resistance by soaking it in the milk, urine, or blood of a cow for a full day and then drying it in the shade. Ibid, 205 While the chemical benefit of this process is not fully apparent, there is precedent for using dung and urine as a preservative with wood. Joseph Nagyvary, a biochemist researching historical violin making, learned from violin maker Amos Segesser that “some Swiss woodworkers soaked their lumber in solutions containing bovine dung and urine." Nagyvary, Correspondence, 24 May 2015 Lemonick, "Stradivari’s," 84 Additionally, he describes a traditional method used to produce crack-resistant wood in which wood was placed in the high-humidity, low-ammonia environment of “a smokehouse over a smoldering dung pit.” Nagyvary, "Chemistry, 26 May 2015

Once the wood has been split, the boards are shaped using an axe or adze, and a sharp knife is applied to further level the surfaces of the board. Fig. 2. Segrew, Bookmaking, 24; Fekade, Ancient, 204; Winslow, Correspondence, 9 October 2013 The board may also be soaked in water for several days to ease the work. Afterwards, an adze is used to cut the boards to the size of the manuscript. While not mentioned in any of the literature, examples of boards with lines etched along the trimmed edges, likely made with an awl or knife, have been found that may indicate a practice of demarcating the dimensions of the manuscript on the wood prior to trimming. Figs. 3 & 4. Sanding may then be performed by rubbing a small amount of sand against the surface with the palm of the hand. Winslow, Correspondence, 9 October 2013. Winslow notes that the callused hands of the scribe likely protect them from injury during this process. Many boards will receive a coating of beeswax on both sides and be polished on the outside with a piece of cloth. Segrew, Bookmaking, 24 However, this would only be done in cases where the boards are to be left uncovered as the wax would certainly cause problems with the adhesion of leather. If the book will be covered in leather, great care is taken to make sure the outer face is very smooth, ensuring even adhesion of the leather and provide a level surface for decorative tooling. Fekade, Ancient, 204 Once these steps have been completed, the boards are pierced, along with the endleaves and quires, in preparation for sewing.
Fig. 3. MS Ethiopic 3. Detail of front board, interior. Perpendicular lines etched into the wood, closely aligned with cut edges of the board, perhaps used to delineate desired dimensions during shaping.

Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University; Photo: Author
Fig. 3. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University; Photo: Author
Fig. 4. Weiner Codex 22 (EMIP 00113). Detail of back board, interior. Line etched into the wood along cut edge.

Courtesy of Ethiopian Manuscript Imaging Project (Portland, Oregon), Steve Delamarter, director
Fig. 4. Courtesy of Ethiopian Manuscript Imaging Project (Portland, Oregon), Steve Delamarter, director

Next Entry: Boards: Preparation for Sewing
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