New Year, Completed Project- making Roman-style wax tablets

This project was technically not a 2014 one, but it came after the fall semester ended, so it felt like a not-last-year kind of activity. Over the years I’ve done a lot of different book projects, including a summer as an intern at the conservation lab at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. For some reason, recently I got it into my head that the next thing I wanted to do was make a set of Roman-style wax writing tablets.

The internet is a wonderful thing, and so is having parents with odd and diverse interests. The internet turned up a couple of very detailed instructions on how to make wax tablets, one from Australia (I think), and one from the U.S. (locations relevant for units of measurement and currency of price estimates). The parents turned up two sets of wood chisels, a knowledge of different types of wood, a carving mallet, and a box of drawing charcoal scrap ends.

The wood mallet and some of the chisels. Along with some wood chips.

The parents also produced a miter saw, a vibrating sander, and a drill press. The basement contains multitudes, apparently.

To add, however, to the existing descriptions, here’s mine.

-1 1/2″x4″ length of poplar (mine was 3 feet, but I also made two sets of tablets)
-charcoal dust (made in my case by rubbing the stub ends of pieces of drawing charcoal on sandpaper and then pouring the result into a small container)
-thin leather strips (two per set of tablets)

-at least one chisel (I used 1/2″ wide straight and 1″ straight chisels)
-a hammer or mallet
-a saw of some kind
-fine-grain sandpaper for finishing
-a drill or drill press
-a pot with sides that aren’t too high
-a small glass container
-something to grab the small container with once it’s hot

First, I marked off the size of the tablets on my piece of wood, leaving a couple inches between them. Then I marked the size of the well that I was going to cut. I actually did two sizes, two tablets that had 3/8″ to the edge on three sides and 5/8″ on one of the longer sides, that I was going to make an 1/8″ well in, and two tablets with 1/2″ on three sides and 5/8″ on one of the longer sides that I was going to carve to 1/4″ deep. I figured that the deeper one could do with a slightly thicker wall.


Carving: Clamp the wood down or brace it against something immobile (I used clamps). I used two different methods for chiseling out the space. For the first one, I marked in pen on my chisel 1/8″ from the edge, and then went over the outline (straight side of the chisel facing out) of the well. Then I made a grid inside where the well would be, of cuts 1/8″ deep (or as close as I could get). I then used the chisel to peel off the wood from the well, with the grid helping to keep me from accidentally taking too much off at once. It worked OK, but it was pretty hard getting to 1/8″ deep against the grain, and I was worried that in getting to 1/8″ with the grain, I would split the wood further than I wanted.

For the deeper wells, I tried a different method. I took out wedges around the edge until the edge was as deep as I wanted it, leaving a sort of island in the middle that was still the full thickness. Then I worked on the middle to get it to the depth of the edges. That worked better.

Method 2- the far well is finished, the near one has just the wedge around the edge taken out.

Once the wells were done, it was time to cut the tablets. Miter saws are lovely. It wouldn’t be hard to do this with a hand saw either, though. Then I marked and drilled the holes in the wider edges that I would use to tie the two sets of tablets together. Again, drill presses are pretty cool, but an electric drill would work fine too, and a hand drill might be an even better story, especially if you’re going for authenticity. (For those really mechanically inclined, I also beveled the drill hole edges.) Then comes the sanding. DON’T SAND THE INSIDE OF THE WELL. You need the roughness to catch and hold onto the wax. But make everything else as pretty and smooth as you want to. You can also, apparently, at this point oil the wood or treat it otherwise, with the same caveat (that you don’t oil the well). I didn’t. I regret nothing.

Now comes the nice-smelling part. You can use either ¬†double-boiler or a water bath to melt your wax. I chipped was off a 1 pound block of beeswax from a beekeeper at our local farmer’s market and put it in a little glass jar on a steel rack inside a pan filled with water. I took no notes and didn’t pay very close attention, so I can’t tell you how much wax to use, but it was more than I had guessed and far less than a whole pound. That’s helpful, right? Once it melted, I added a little bit of the powdered charcoal to make it black- maybe a 1/4 teaspoon total. I did a little bit at a time and stopped when I was happy (tested the color by pouring a little wax onto a piece of tin foil then hardening it quickly in the freezer to see what color it was when cooled).


Now comes the patience. No matter how smoothly you pour, you’ll probably get bubbles in the wax. One of the other people who wrote instructions suggests that it’s from the air trapped in the wood (or against the wood?). Wherever they come from, they’re a huge nuisance, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist. The best results I got were from pouring the wax, scraping the very top layer off, and then pouring again a new top layer. The problem with this is that it has pretty high surface tension, so it doesn’t like to spread thinly and evenly. In fact, it tends not to get into the corners no matter how well encouraged. And a skin starts forming pretty quickly, so you’re sort of limited in how you can encourage it to cover the surface. You can also pour as thin a layer as you can and then another over it. My wells just weren’t really deep enough to do that properly. Next time.

Pouring the wax. Quickly, but without burning oneself on the molten wax.

Trying to get the wax into all the corners with a chopstick. I don’t recommend this method, largely because it didn’t actually work all that well. I got better results just tipping the tablet right after pouring the wax in.

I did try one other thing, to see if it would work. I took one of the tablets and put it on a tray in the oven, with the temperature set to about 180F. The wax melted, eventually, and set quite smoothly and without bubbles. It didn’t even pull away from the edge as it cooled like some of the other tablets did. The only problem was that heating the wood encouraged whatever cracks or stresses were there and so the wax traveled down the grain in the corners and made it look a little messy. So it goes.

Finally, once the wax has cooled (I gave it a long time), tie the leather thongs through the holes in the tablets and ta-da! diptych wax tablets.

The finished products.

The other product.

You write in a wax tablet with a stylus, which you can make if you so choose (details and suggestions on both of those other sites). I instead decided to turn to an odd business outside of Sheffield, England, called Daegrad Tools, who make hand-forged metal objects from the late Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, mostly (they say) for historical reenactment and living history displays (who knows how many objects are sold to people like me, though). They’ve got a couple different styli that they sell. I actually got two because I couldn’t help myself, and I had two sets of tablets, so I really needed two styli, one for each. They’re quite nice. Arrived pretty quickly. I haven’t taken pictures of them, but here are pictures from Daegrad’s website.


And thus we reach the end of this particular project. I have two little wax tablet diptychs on my shelf, with appropriate writing utensils for them. So there’s one project brought to a close, at least until I decide that I want to make some that are larger. I still have probably at least 3/4 pound of beeswax, after all.

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