Waxed Tablets - why you want one, and how to build one. - Ulf

Why

Ever been at an event and wanted to write down something you don't want to forget? How many times have you wished that the words to a poem or suchlike weren't written on an obviously modern piece of paper. (Well, knowing some of you, probably not often). The answer to these problems is the waxed tablet.

A waxed tablet is a way of preserving temporary writings until they can be written down on something more permanent, or used as a medium for shopping lists that you aren't going to keep.

Waxed tablets were used throughout the SCA period. They are a convenient erasable notepad that is reasonably cheap, and are very useful. The British Museum holds 2 tablets from Egyptian tombs that use clear wax rather than coloured wax. 2 Kings xxi, 13 describes the destruction of Jerusalem by refering to the obliteration of a waxed tablet. A box of more than a hundred tablets was found in the ruins of Pompeii. Pictures can be seen on vases from classial period Greece. Julius Caesar wounded some of his lethal assailants with his stylus. In the 6th Century St Benedict set in the rules of his order that the abbot should provide each monk with a stylus and tablets. In 878 a Monk by the name of John Erigenes was murdered by his unruly students who stabbed him to death with their styli. St Augustine himself used them to rough out his letters before the final draft was written out by his scribes. There was a guild of tabletiers in paris in the 13th century, who were forbidden by their charter to mix tallow or other inferior material with their wax. Tablets are also mentioned in Chaucers "Somonours Tale" in the 14th century. Paintings from the late 15th century depict geometry problems being worked out on large waxed tablets. Although less common tablets were still in use in France up to the 17th Century. As you can see wax tablets in some form are known and used throughout all of the SCA's timeframe(1).

At their simplest waxed tablets are pieces of flat wood or bone (or ivory if you are being really keen) with a section carved out on one or both sides. The carved out section is filled with beeswax dyed with lampblack, to give it a dark hue.

Period examples average 7.5cm by 6cm, but vary from 32mm by 56mm(2), to 35cm by 30cm, more commonly on the small side, about fist sized, which gave them one of their common names of "pugillare" for fist. (Note that some small tags of about an inch by an inch and a half may have been used as luggage tags for marketed goods in sacks.)

Other names for them include Diptycha, ceracula and tabellae.

Tablets usually come in at least a set of two panels, each carved on one side, so that the wood might provide some protection to the writing thereon. More commonly they had 3 panels with the middle panel carved on both sides, but there are examples with at least 8 panels where all the internal ones were carved on both sides.

As well as the panels there is a stylus that is usually wood or bone or ivory, often with an iron or steel point inset in the end to give a clean crisp indent in the wax, and a rounded end for smoothing out the wax.

You can erase the writing in the wax by rubbing the wax reasonably gently with the reverse end of the stylus. (This works a lot better during warm weather than it does during the dead of winter.) I find that writing on wax tablets is easier to read out of doors than it is under modern multiple source lights, as the shadows are less distinct indoors.

Making them.

The Tablet.

You need to start with some flat, thinish wood. I bought mine from a hardware store for about $10 for 2 metres. It was about 10cm wide and about 10mm thick. Although some period examples are often only 5-6mm thick, it pays to start with a thicker wood until you get the hang of the carving. Generally I think it is better to have a harder wood, as this carves with a crisper, cleaner edge.

Period examples have been found in box, beech, sycamore, maple, lime, lemon, pine, cedar, ivory, or even of metal.

Cut (at least) two tablet sized lumps of wood. At this stage it is a good idea to smooth them down and make sure they are the same size. Mark on them the limits of where you are going to cut. Generally I leave at least 5mm gap to the edge of the wood. Any less and it is too easy to accidentally chip the edge off, making the tablet less than perfect. Along one long edge, leave a bigger margin (or gutter), as in the simpler format the tablets are held together with string or thong, and we want to drill some holes in the tablet on one side. At this point I clamp together the tablets and drill the binding holes to make sure they match!

Start carving. I use some carving chisels of the sort that my teachers tried unsuccessfully to teach me to use back when I was 11. The three I found most useful were the straight edged chisel I used for forming the edges, the gentley curved chisel for scooping out the wood, and the angled chisle for defining the edges of the cut out.

Be careful when chiselling. Chisels can be sharp. I used a mallet and gently tapped the chisels a lot. It is much better to tap it 5 times and take a little bit of wood off, than to try and get a lot off with one hit and accidentally chip the edge clean off. Do not bother yourself about making the floor of the hole too smooth, as the wax needs some roughness to stick properly to the wood. The hole needs to be about 2-3mm deep.

After the holes have been finished, smooth up the tablets with files and sandpaper. I have been told to rub them with boiled linseed oil, and I find that gives a pleasing smell as well as looking nice and protecting the wood. You don't need to oil the wood before the wax is poured, but you definitely need to get the sawdust and sanding dust off the tablets, as these will be bad for your wax.

DO NOT oil the inside of the hole as this will make it harder for the wax to stick properly.

The Wax

Take some beeswax: I put in a good handful of beeswax lumps per tablet that I'm going to pour. You also need some lampblack or activated charcoal. If you are using charcoal, grind it up until it is powder. You can use a mortar and pestle for this, although I ended up using a hammer and chopping board, since that was what I had. On the whole I found making lampblack easier.

(Take a smoky candle, put a smooth surface (the bottom of a ceramic cup) when it's suitably black, scrape it off with a knife... hey presto! lampblack!)

You want about a flat tablespoon of powder per tablet, depending on how dark you want your wax. Using a double boiler or water bath, heat the wax until it melts. Remember that wax is flammable, so don't apply heat directly to the wax. Wait until the wax is molten -- this can take a while -- then slowly add the lampblack until you like the colour. Pour some wax into a hollow of a piece of aluminium foil, and let it cool. It will start off with a much lighter colour than it eventually gets when it is cold. Although most references are to black wax in the tablets, there are also references to people using green wax in their tablets because it is easier on the eyes. The more carbon you add, the blacker it gets.

When you are happy with the colour of your wax, you need to make the tablets ready to pour into. Put the tablets on something flat, like a chopping board with the charcoal wiped off, and shim it up so that it is flat. Check this with a level, as it will affect how good your tablets are. If you don't have a level, try a Coke glass with some water in it. If the water level appears to be level compared to the lines on the glass, then the board is probably flat. (remember to check both axes!) Wedge old butter knives under the board if necessary to make it level (or shims if you're feeling technical).

Then (assuming the wax is still molten) pour the wax into the tablets. Do them one at a time, with a reheat between them so the wax doesn't cool too far. Use a chopstick or similar implement to guide the wax into the corners and up to the edges. It is better to pour slightly too little wax into your tablet than too much, since you don't want the wax rubbing against the wax on the opposite tablet.

Now that you have poured the wax, let it cool a little and then scrape it all out with a spoon, and put it back in the double boiler. You may have noticed that there are quite a few bubbles under the wax, these are caused by the wood releasing gas as it is heated by the wax, or so I am told. They do make writing on the tablet more difficult. Reheat the wax, and when it is all melted again, pour it again, and let the tablet sit to cool gently. If there are still major bubbles you may want to scrape it out and repour it again. One tablet I scraped and repoured 6 times, and still didn't get all the bubbles out. Sigh.

The Stylus

Styli were made in a variety of different styles and patterns. I've made simple ones out of wood, but you could also make them out of bone. There are a number of patterns available, varying in complexity, and one day there may well be pictures associated with this article (but no promises). Start with a broken arrow or similar bit of wood. Cut it to length. This should be a bit shorter than your tablets so that you carry them together you don't stick yourself. Carve it so it resembles one of the patterns (generally a blunt end and a sharp end). The blunt end should be as smooth as you can make it since you will be using it to smooth the wax when you are erasing writing (an early example of rubbing something out?), while the pointy end should leave a flat bit at the end for the meantime, as you will need to insert the "iron" tip. I have used a tapestry needle to make the nib. Using a pair of pliers, break off the eye of the needle, and then insert it into the pointy end of the piece of wood. By holding the needle with the pliers near the broken end you can push the needle into the wood without bending it. Leave about 3 or 4 mm of needle sticking out. I have used normal needles, and a couple of different sized tapestry needles, and I find that a number 24 tapestry needle is about right. Much thicker and the writing needs to be quite big to be legible, much thiner and it is difficult to write without digging too deeply. Give the stylus a good rub down with boiled linseed oil.

Now you need to tie the tablets together. There are a couple of ways I've seen. the first way is to run a thong through the holes drilled in the tablet, with enough slack that you can wrap it around the tablet and hold your stylus in place with it. Another I have seen(3) appears to have been bound somewhat like a book, with a leather spine holding 8 plates together, and still other examples are just placed in a small leather bag to protect them without being bound together at all. Leather bags do seem to be popular to store them in.

Writing on your new tablets does not require much pressure. If you press too hard it becomes quite difficult to erase properly. Enjoy writing on your tablets the first time - unless you re-pour them they will never be quite that smooth again.

When you write, often you will find that curls of wax stick to your stylus as you scrape them out of the wax. Rub them off in one corner of the tablet, and keep them for when you want to rub the writing out, to help fill in the deeper furrows made by your writing. This is another reason not to be too worried if there's a little bit less wax than would fill the tablet completely.

Ulf

Throughout this article I have drawn extensively on some articles published in the AS XXVII edition of the Arts PikeStaff of the Kingdom of the East, and private conversation with some of the authors, Mistress Thora Sharptooth, and most particularly Master Dofinn Hallr-Morrison, without whose encouragement I might never have got my act together enough to complete one.

  1. On some Waxed Tablets said to have been found at Cambridge, by TMcKenny Hughes Esq (1895) describes a set of 6 tablets, the middle 4 of which were carved on both sides. Measuring 2 and a quarter inches by 1 and a quarter inches, and each leaf being 1/4 inch thick (about 6mm). The handwriting appeared to be cursive. [ return]
  2. Ibid [ return]
  3. Medieval Archaeology XXXIV (1990) Plates XIII, A and B [ return]