About 3500 BCE, Egyptian metalworkers discovered the way to smelt copper ore and cast copper into sizeable and useful metal tools. At first, small adze blades, chisels, and ax heads were cast into open molds made in damp sand. Such metal tools—the chisel (mḏʒt) and the adze (msḫtyw) evolved from earlier stone tools that had been driven by rudimentary mallets; or they were swung by hand in glancing blows against materials. The metal ax (mἰbt) and knife (ds) imitated earlier stone shapes. Sand molds are only used once, but at Illahun, a twelfth dynasty (c.1991–1786 BCE) manufacturing town in the Faiyum of Middle Egypt, workers cast chisels, knives, and ax heads in reusable open pottery molds. Such fired ceramic molds allowed the mass production of metal castings. The use of closed pottery and stone molds, in two halves, plus the lost-wax (ciré pèrdue) process created small, solid castings; large, lost-wax molds, with clay cores, produced hollow castings that consumed relatively less metal. Open wooden molds were used for making mud bricks; pottery molds were for shaping faience cores; and clay and limestone molds were for casting glass in dynastic times.

From Neolithic times or earlier, fire was created by bow-drilling—a long, waisted, hardwood drill-stick was spun by a bow (similar to a hunting bow) in a hole previously drilled into a softwood block by an auger. By the twelfth dynasty, a waisted drill-stock force-fitted with a short replaceable stick superseded the long drill-stick. An ejection hole in the stock let a worker remove worn sticks (Figure 1). Waisted drill-shafts allowed a stretched bowstring to engage on a wider diameter, automatically increasing its grip.

Predynastic and dynastic smelting furnaces were fired up and obtained their air through blowpipes. Between two and six blowpipe workers were illustrated in tomb scenes of the fifth dynasty (c.2513–2374 BCE) to the eighteenth dynasty (c.1569–1315 BCE). The furnace blowpipe, supplied with a nozzle of dried clay, was fashioned from the common marsh reed (Phragmites communis); it measured about 1 meter (3 feet) in length. Jewelers' blowpipes were about half as long. Reed stems were prepared by jabbing a thinner sharpened reed or stick through a reed's leaf-joint partitions, to open all the previously separate hollow sections. Present-day blowpipe experiments determined that four to six workers could supply enough air to melt up to 1.3 kilograms of copper or bronze in one crucible of fired clay and fused ash. Crucibles were also employed for melting the constituents of glass. In the sixth dynasty tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara, workers were shown manipulating crucibles with flat stones or pottery pads, but workers in the eighteenth dynasty tomb of the vizier Rekhmire held crucibles with withies (two freshly cut sticks). Foot-operated bellows were depicted in eighteenth dynasty Theban tombs. These consisted of two adjacently placed, flat-bottomed circular pottery bowls, each tightly fitted at the rim with a loose leather diaphragm. A worker alternately trod on one diaphragm and simultaneously pulled up the other with an attached string. A natural walking rhythm ensured a steady supply of air through attached reed tubes. Such large copper and bronze tools as stone-cutting saws needed the concurrent operation of several furnaces to melt sufficient metal for a single casting. Other cast metals were gold, silver, and lead.

Copper, bronze, gold, and silver plates—probably open cast to the thinnest dimension possible, 5 millimeters—were then beaten when cold into thinner sheets on a stone anvil set on a wooden block that was buried in the earth. The metalworker used a selection of hand-held spherical and hemispherical stone hammers that varied in size and weight. Gold leaf was beaten thin between skins that allowed a flexibility for application; and raised reliefs in metal (repoussé) were achieved with chisels and punches of bone, wood, stone, and metal.


Tools. Figure 1. Kahun bow-driven drill stock, with its wooden drill cap. A tool can be removed by pushing a short stick into the ejection hole. (Drawn from Manchester Museum Catalogue number 23. Courtesy Denys A. Stocks)

Some long flat-edged, copper stone-cutting saws—used with quartz sand abrasive for cutting hard stone statuary, sarcophagi, and blocks—were cast and used at a 5 millimeter thickness, but others were beaten thinner. For cutting wood and soft limestone, the edges of thin copper saws were given serrations, by notching them on a hard, sharp object—probably inspired by the Mesolithic serrated flint sickles for cutting reeds and other stems in use before the introduction of copper casting (reconstructed stone-cutting saws and replica wood-cutting saws efficiently cut these materials). In Middle Kingdom tomb scenes, workers saw planks off timber lashed to sturdy posts that are partially buried in the ground. A metal or stone wedge probably kept a cut open in the wood. Inserted into the lashing is a short wooden rod with a stone counterweight hanging on its free end (tests with reconstructed equipment showed that the rod acts like a tourniquet, quickly tightening or loosening the lashing).

Spherical and hemispherical hammers were also used to shape gold and silver vessels, which were placed upside down on a tripod anvil. Smooth agate burnishers and leather balls were used to polish the finished vessels. The anvil consisted of a forked branch, set at an angle into the ground, with a long wooden or metal rod passing easily through an upward-slanting hole drilled into the upper part of the branch. Such a reconstructed anvil demonstrated that not only did the projecting rod function as the third leg of the tripod but also its length was adjustable for work on both large and small vessels (by sliding it through the hole). Weight on the anvil “locks” it into position.

Cast copper and bronze tools were shaped cold for maximum hardness; however, excessive hammering causes cracking. The Egyptians eventually found that some tools needed to be annealed—by heating and then cooling several times for multiple hammerings. The copper adze was developed from the slim, narrow Predynastic blade to the wider one of dynastic times. Some blades were cast with lugs, to aid their fastening by leather thong to wooden handles; others had a distinctive neck. Adze blades were used for skimming and shaping wood or soft limestone surfaces. Wooden mallets drove flat-tapered and crosscut-tapered chisels, but these were strongest in cross section and were sometimes fitted with wooden handles; they were used with mallets to cut and lever wood from deep mortises. Chisels were often held for carving wooden sculpture, and intricate carving could be achieved by flint as well as by metal tools. The shape of metal ax heads changed with time, but the ax's cutting edge—used by carpenters and boat builders—was rounded in form, for splitting wood along the grain and chopping across the grain. The ax was sometimes supplied with lugs or a hole, for fastening the head to its wooden handle. Tool handles were made from branches that had the bark removed by flint scrapers and the surfaces smoothed by sandstone blocks.


Tools. Figure 2. A reconstructed bow-driven drill shaft, fitted with its copper tube. (Courtesy Denys A. Stocks)

Leatherworkers since Paleolithic times had used flint scrapers and flint knives for preparing and cutting hides; these tools were also used in Egypt for cutting and splitting reeds, papyrus, and other plant stems and were developed into metal scrapers and knives. The New Kingdom semicircular bronze leather-cutting knife was fitted into a wooden handle, and copper and bronze awls, bodkins, and needles were made to stitch leather pieces together (previously, they were made from bone or ivory).

Stone tools—for working calcite and harder stone vessels, for statuary, sarcophagi, palettes, stelae, and the cutting of bas reliefs and incised hieroglyphs—included chisels, punches, and scrapers of flint and hafted stone mauls. Some stones were shaped and smoothed by stone grinders—probably by a paste made from finely ground waste-drilling powders, and possibly a mud polishing medium, applied with leather balls. Picks and axes of granite, quartzite, chert, and flint were use to quarry the softer stones, like limestone and sandstone; dolerite pounders were used for detaching harder stone for construction, statuary, and obelisks. Flint adzes, chisels, and scrapers were used alongside copper and bronze adzes and chisels for smoothing and carving reliefs in soft limestone tomb walls, blocks, and other objects.


Tools. Figure 3. (Left) A reconstructed three-legged New Kingdom drilling table, showing the probable way in which beads were located for drilling. (Right) A reconstructed stick handle and bronze drill rod. (Courtesy Denys A. Stocks)

Egyptian workers possessed five types of bow-driven tools, including (1) the fire drill (ḏʒ); (2) copper and bronze tubular drills (Figure 2); (3) copper and bronze single-bead drills; (4) bronze drill-rods for simultaneously perforating several stone beads; and (5) a wooden drill-stock that drove interchangeable tools, such as the fire stick or the metal auger (used to drill stringing holes in furniture and peg [dowel] holes for furniture joints). The bow-driven augers probably did not drill large holes in ships' timbers; instead, a copper auger attached to a handle was used, which gave great twisting power to its cutting edges.

For drilling the suspension lugs carved on stone vessels, statuary, sarcophagi, and their lids, bow-driven tubes were employed with dry quartz sand abrasive. These were formed from thin sheet copper for small tubes, but the large ones were probably cast in vertical molds. Reed tubes, rotated on sand, were used to drill calcite and hard limestone vessels before about 3500 BCE. After that date, Predynastic workers copied the hollow reed's shape in copper, and later, bronze. A stone vessel's interior was widened by a forked shaft lashed to a weighted shaft that drove circular, figure-eight, and conical-shaped stone borers, employing quartz sand as an a abrasive. For boring soft gypsum, crescent-shaped flints were also driven by forked shafts. The single-bead drill was fitted with a waisted shaft, driven by a small bow; a stone drill-cap exerted pressure. Holes were begun with flint borers, exclusively used for perforation before the metal drills were employed. In Thebes, two-to-five bronze drill-rods were rotated, each in a hole drilled into the bottom of a stick handle; the drills were held in a straight line by an operator's free hand and simultaneously spun by a long bow. The beads were probably set into a mud block that rested in a hollow-topped, three-legged table (Figure 3). (Recon-structed drilling equipment has shown that the change to mass-production drilling decreased perforation times for 10 millimeter-diameter amethyst beads from five hours to about one hour per bead.) Stone beads were polished by rubbing them along grooves in a wooden block filled with abrasive paste. Bow strings—or ropes if driving large-diameter tubes—were manufactured from halfa grass, flax fiber, woven linen, palm fiber, or papyrus.


Tools. Figure 4. A reconstructed surface-testing tool, consisting of two outer rods, taut string, and the third rod for revealing surface inaccuracies. (Courtesy Denys A. Stocks)

For stone architecture, workers employed three vitally important tools for verifying horizontal and vertical planes and surface flatness: (1) An A-shaped wooden frame, for horizontal planes had originally been calibrated by making the bottom of the two legs just touch standing water—the only true horizontal in nature. The horizontal cross-piece was then marked where a plumb line, hung from the A's apex, passed it. (2) A vertical plane was checked by a wooden tool made from two accurately matched short pieces that were fastened at right angles (one above the other) to a longer, vertical piece; a freely hanging plumb line then just touched the end of both horizontal pieces when the plane was truly vertical. Tests with a modern spirit level found replicas of these to be accurate. (3) A stone surface-testing tool consisted of three wooden rods, accurately matched in length; two rods stood upright on the stone surface were joined at the top by a string, pulled taut; the third rod, when held against the string and shifted along the surface showed any unevenness (Figure 4). Replica rods can reveal surface inaccuracies as small as 0.25 millimeter (0.01 inch) along a length of 1.25 meters (4 feet) and therefore over an area of 1.25 meters squared (16 square feet). The joined rods, used as an inside caliper, may have verified parallelism between the end joints of blocks as the fitting progressed but before sliding them into position on gypsum mortar. Other important building tools included the wooden square, the lever, the roller, the plasterer's float, the cubit measure, a sledge for moving blocks, as well as measuring cords and leveling lines.



  • Arnold, Dieter. Building in Egypt: Pharaonic Stone Masonry. New York, 1991. Discusses, in depth, all types of building in stone, together with associated methods of stoneworking.
  • Lucas, Alfred. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries. 4th rev. ed. by J. R. Harris. London, 1962. Offers a comprehensive appraisal of materials, including stone, worked by ancient Egyptians.
  • Petrie, W. M. Flinders. Tools and Weapons. London, 1917. Describes and illustrates a large number of Egyptian tools, many of them first excavated by Petrie.
  • Stocks, Denys A. “Ancient Factory Mass-Production Techniques: Indications of Large-Scale Stone Bead Manufacture during the Egyptian New Kingdom Period.” Antiquity 63 (1989), 526–531. Describes the epigraphic evidence for ancient multiple-bead drilling; presents the results of tests on reconstructed tools.
  • Stocks, Denys A. “Making Stone Vessels in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.” Antiquity 67 (1993), 596–603. Gives the connections between stone-vessel manufacture in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, in addition to a comprehensive description of Egyptian stone-vessel production methods and tools.

Denys A. Stocks