Wax Tablets: Period and Modern Constructions

By Sir Odde ap Tam

I first encountered wax tablets at an event in Atlantia where there was a merchant selling them.  I became enamored of the idea and after a very brief amount of research, realized how useful, practical, and prevalent they were throughout history.  I’ve made several wax tablets over the years, usually with varying amounts of modern vs. period practices, but chose to make two side by side versions for this project: one as authentically as possible and one with completely modern tools and methods.  I wanted to see how difficult the process would be using historical methods and how authentically I would be able to complete the project as well as how practical it would be for me to make them for utilitarian purposes as well as quickly for gifts or largesse.  The end result of the modern diptych is that they can be made very quickly with very little expense.


Wax tablets have been used to write temporary messages, keep ledgers and accounts, and general correspondence.  They are simple, durable, relatively waterproof, and as long as the weather isn’t too hot nor is it left in direct sunlight, the message is never erased or damaged.  It can be used in the rain, for example, with no running ink, no loss of legibility, and no risk of spilled ink destroying the message.

When made with two ‘pages’ of wax tablets together the tablets are called a diptych.  More sheets could be added and there are extant examples of eight ‘pages’ (Writing tablet: Scenes of the Life of Christ). Fig 1 -3 

You can write with the stylus and then scrape away writing no longer needed with the flattened end of the stylus.  If you want to clear the entire tablet, it can be heated until the wax melts then allowed to cool to reharden.  This is the origin of the phrase “starting with a clean slate.”

A brief history of wax tablets

Wax tablets have a long history, dating back to the Bronze Age.  The first extant wax tablet dates back to the 14th century BCE in Turkey and is made from boxwood with an ivory hinge (Payton).  Moving forward in time from there, tablets were used extensively by the Roman Empire and thus everywhere the Roman Empire traveled.  One of the most notable finds of wax tablets is the Bloomberg tablets, a collection of 405 preserved wooden tablets dating from 50 to 80 CE, which are the earliest written documents ever found in Britain (Museum of London Archaeology).  Fig 4

Wax tablets were used for note-taking, accounting, legal documents, and correspondence.  They were used continuously throughout antiquity and the medieval period and even on through the 19th century.  There are many beautiful wax tablets that are carved from ivory with magnificent scenes depicted, showing that these were not just utilitarian tools for the laborer, but also used by the church and the wealthy (Writing tablet: Scenes from the Life of Christ).


-Historical woods / materials used

Wood was the primary material for wax tablature, although many exquisitely carved ivory examples are housed in museums around the world.  There does not appear to be a preference throughout history of specific variety of woods that were used to create the tablets but more it was used with whatever woods were most readily available (Murray).

-Historical wax / wax sources

The wax used in wax tablets is primarily beeswax with pigments sometimes added to darken or blacken the wax (Murray).


It’s difficult to determine the exact tools used, but based on the number of tablets created it would have been a relatively quick process.  The most expedient method that makes logical sense would be a tool resembling a froe (an L shaped ax like tool used for carving wood) to make the slab and a set of chisels to gouge out the trough in the wood.


Modern ConstructionPeriod Construction
WoodI purchased a 2×4 from a home improvement store.For this project, I used a piece of firewood that I grabbed from a firewood order I had placed.  The only requirements I was looking for were that it be relatively straight-grained and without knots in the wood.
WaxI used beeswax from a craft store and added a black Crayola crayon for the color.At the time I started this project, I had a small apiary (bee hive).  The wax used for these tablets was harvested from my bees.  The coloring was made by grinding up charcoal from my firepit into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle.  
ToolsCompound mitre saw Table sawRouter table DrillFroe and mallet Hand sawChisels Hand DrillMortar & pestle


There are sometimes chips and scratches on historical wax tablets indicating how they may have been carved.  Alternatively, the chip marks could be from use or from the edge of the stylus (Museum of London Archaeology).  The slabs of wood would have been cut with a tool resembling a froe and then the recess carved out with the use of chisels.

fterwards, melted wax would have been poured into the recess and allowed to cool.  The stylus were either pointed wooden sticks or metal rods with flattened ends (Murray).


Modern ConstructionPeriod Construction
I used a variety of power tools to get the project completed quickly.  I used a compound mitre saw to cut the 2×4 into an eight-inch long block then ran the block through my table saw, cutting the block into 5/16th-inch thick slabs.  Once that was completed, I set up my router table to cut the trough out part way through the slabs.  I heated the wax, melted the crayon, and poured the darkened wax mixture into the troughs.  I then rubbed the excess wax in all over the tablets, to give a darkened coat as well as a measure of waterproofing to the tablets.Starting with my piece of firewood, I used the froe and mallet to cut the two slabs.  Using chisels, I cleaned up the wood as best I could, removing excess materials, and thinning the wood slightly from the original froe cut.  I then marked the trough lines and cut the troughs out using a set of small chisels and wood carving hand tools.   Once that was accomplished, I heated up the wax and added the powdered charcoal.  I then poured the mixture into the troughs.  Lastly, I drilled small holes using a hand drill to tie the diptych together with string.


Modern ConstructionPeriod Construction
I enjoy making wax tablets and they are delightful gifts that take little time to complete when made completely with powered methods.  In period, they were used for utility as well as as a show of wealth.  This particular diptych is much more on the utility side of that spectrum, but is smooth, pleasant to hold, and would function extremely well in any environment.This project was highly enjoyable to see how close I could get the process to being historically accurate.  I don’t have the skill at this point to make it as pristine as I would like but the end result is something that I’m very pleased with.  I think in the future, if I were to undergo this process again, I would only make minor changes.  The time investment isn’t overly long although it would be sped up greatly with the use of modern construction methods.  

Works Cited

Murray, John. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London, 1875, Web.

Museum of London Archaeology. Archaeological research into Britain’s oldest hand-written 

documents released. 6 1 2016.  Web.  12 February 2018

Payton, Robert.  “The Ulu Burun Writing-Board Set.” Anatolian Studies 23 December 1991: 

99-106.  Web

Writing tablet: Scenes of the Life of Christ. The Victoria and Albert Museum.  Web.  London, 

1380-1400.  Elephant ivory

A highly decorative writing tablet made out of ivory with scenes from the Life of Christ, laid flat with both covers in view.
A highly decorative writing tablet made out of ivory with scenes from the Life of Christ, propped up to show the several "sheets" of wax it holds.
A highly decorative writing tablet made out of ivory with scenes from the Life of Christ, viewed from the "sheets" of wax looking in.

Fig 1-3:  “Scenes of the Life of Christ”    Highly decorated wax tablet

A simple wood tablet missing its wax, show with the holes where the binding once was.

Fig 4:  One of the Bloomberg tablets

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