Sunday, April 28, 2013

What the Romans did for us

Well, the Romans did a lot of different things that still has some influence on the society of today. Aqueducts, roads, the Latin language, and not the least: The Roman numbering system.

Whenever I finish a project, I like to mark it, to remember myself of when I made this particular piece of work.
For some reason I have become a fan of the Roman figures. Possibly because I have seen them being used on some old timber framing, and because they are fairly easy to make using a chisel and a mallet. At least for the next 77 years, after which you are going to need a hollow chisel to continue with this numbering system.
In my opinion it looks equally well in a small size on e.g. a chest, or large and bold on some timber framing.

It is difficult to describe the feeling when a build is finished. If it was in a movie there would be some nice music and perhaps a special light setting. In the workshop there is usually silence. But you feel it is a special moment.
After a long period of dreaming of your project, pulling yourself together to actually start the project, carrying on with the project and finally finishing it. You and the project deserves some type of formal ceremony. In my shop this is the moment when I find the mallet and the chisel of the appropriate size. I pause and then I mark the piece. When the figures (letters actually) have been added the project is really finished.

The idea of the Roman system is that you add the single figures. If a smaller figure is in front of a larger one, you subtract it from the larger one, and add the remaining figure to the others.

M = 1000
D = 500
C = 100
L = 50
X = 10
V = 5
I = 1

2013 = MMXIII = 1000 + 1000 + 10 + 1 + 1 +1

2014 = MMXIV = 1000 + 1000 + 10 + (5 - 1)

So until the year 2090 = MMXC, you are able to write the year using only a normal chisel and a mallet or a hammer.

Timber framing in the stable, 2011
The inside of a tool chest (2012)

The front of the workbench (2013)


  1. I like Roman numerals, too. The question I have, is why are Arabic numerals different than numerals in Arabic?

  2. It must be that all woodworkers think alike, because not only do I love the Roman Numeral system, but I've also chiseled it into some things that I've made, but admittedly not everything. In grade school we were taught the Roman Numeral system. I'm not really sure if it's still being taught today. But there is something much more elegant about it than a carving of a date in Arabic. Maybe the Romans felt the same way 2000 years ago, not that they knew of Arabic numerals then, but their system sure does fit well into the theme of building. I always like to think of them as the fathers of modern western architecture and building, with apologies to the Greeks.

  3. The arabs used place value for the first time, thats why they are arab(ic) numerals. Arabic numbers are different, but use place value. It simplified maths.

  4. I was taught the system in the grade school years ago, so it always comes to a surprise when people are puzzled about the marking in the stable.
    Who knows, maybe when we are in 2038 MMXXVIII, I would wish that I had stayed with the Arab system.

  5. I do like the idea of putting Roman numerals on a project. I might carve some into the leg vise on my bench. Technically speaking, though, I think we have to credit the Etruscans for the Roman numerals. :-)

  6. Hi Brandon.
    Thanks for the information, I always believed that it was the Romans that invented them.
    I guess they absorbed so much of the World at that time, and given the fact that they wrote their own history, it was probably a little too easy to claim discoveries and inventions as their own.
    One of the things I like about them is that not everybody gets the idea right away, but once in a while some people take a look and know exactly what the meaning is.
    If you are going to carve them, you can make some really beautiful letters with serifs and all. I have had good success using "Clarendon Bold" as font when I have carved something.
    Have a nice weekend