Wooden Pillow

China & Egypt used wooden pillows; my recreations fail
personal, experiments
2008-09-262016-12-22 finished certainty: log importance: 2

My ma­jor ex­per­i­ment the sum­mer of 2009 was ex­per­i­ment­ing with var­i­ous polypha­sic sleep sched­ules. I am per­fectly aware that the sci­en­tific ev­i­dence by Dr. Stampi and oth­ers for polypha­sic sleep as a work­able sleep sched­ule is weak, and that a re­duced bipha­sic sleep sched­ule is prob­a­bly the only work­able al­ter­na­tive. But my sched­ule per­mit­ted it and I’ve long been cu­ri­ous—so I tried.

One of the is­sues with polypha­sic sleep was that I be­gan with the Uber­man Sched­ule, which per­mits only 20 min­utes. I timed my­self. To put on pa­ja­mas, fluff my pil­low, re­move my ac­cou­ter­ments, wrap my scarf around my eyes, and painstak­ingly arrange my blan­kets so that I could com­fort­ably sleep on my side—it all took the bet­ter part of 10 min­utes even when I did not daw­dle. This was un­ac­cept­able. The lure of Uber­man was that the 6 naps of 20 min­utes a piece meant you only spent 2 hours a day on sleep­ing, not 8 or 9. At 10 min­utes to ac­tu­ally close my eyes, I would ei­ther be forced to have only 1 hour of sleep (and not even the most en­thu­si­as­tic ad­vo­cates claim 1 hour is sus­tain­able) or I would be forced to spend a full hour a day just in dress­ing up and dress­ing down—bloat­ing the sleep por­tion of my sched­ule by 50%.

Un­ac­cept­able. Just un­ac­cept­able. I had to op­ti­mize this process.


My first step was to aban­don pa­ja­mas. If I’m sleep­ing for 20 or 30 min­utes, it’s not worth the effort. That brings the rou­tine is down to about a minute. I lie down, set the alarm, take off my glass­es, and wrap the scarf around my head. Much more sat­is­fac­to­ry.


The sec­ond thing to go was sleep­ing on my side. I’ve side-slept all my life, but not for any par­tic­u­lar rea­son. I have come to ap­pre­ci­ate that there are dis­ad­van­tages to side-sleep­ing. (Sleep­ing on my stom­ach is right out; I have yet to fig­ure out how to breathe.) For ex­am­ple, to side sleep com­fort­ably I re­quire a num­ber of blan­kets and a soft pil­low; oth­er­wise I am not propped up. These blan­kets then im­pose a cost which is acute in the sum­mer: they keep one warm, very warm in­deed, and one can wake up smelly and with mussed-up hair. Nor can side-sleep­ing be done any­where, while a back­-sleeper can sim­ply lie down & use a book as a pil­low or some­thing.

So I de­ter­mined to break my habit of side-sleep­ing and be­come a back­-sleep­er. It was not easy, but I per­sisted and now I lapse only oc­ca­sion­al­ly.

The in­ter­est­ing as­pect of back­-sleep­ing from this sum­mer’s per­spec­tive is my last point: you do not al­ways need a soft pil­low. The back of your head is hard bone and cush­ioned by hair in a way the side of your head (with its squishy ears) is not. So you can get away with a pil­low which is not soft, or in­deed a pil­low which is quite hard. Here was an op­por­tu­nity to re­move not just the elab­o­rate arrange­ment of blan­kets, but also the ad­just­ment of the pil­low. I de­cid­ed: I would in­ves­ti­gate wooden pil­lows!

Wooden pillows

Wooden pil­lows are an un­usual top­ic. As widely read as I am, I have seen few ex­am­ples: in a few Bud­dhist con­texts (used by monks), as relics of the an­cient Egyp­tians, as de­vices em­ployed by Japan­ese women to pre­serve their elab­o­rate coifs, and cu­ri­ous­ly, in a Chi­nese con­text, where porce­lain pil­lows were com­mon—­for ex­am­ple, here is a very nice ce­ramic pil­low in the form of a tiger, and in my 2011 trip to San Fran­cisco I spot­ted 2 differ­ent porce­lain pil­lows at the Asian Art Mu­se­um:

“Pil­low in the form of a re­clin­ing girl, North­ern Chi­na, Jin dy­nasty (1115-1234), Cizhou ware, high­-fired ce­ramic with over­glazed dec­o­ra­tion, The Av­ery Brundage Col­lec­tion, B60P422. The rep­re­sen­ta­tion of girls on a Song pil­low, rare in con­trast to the fre­quent rep­re­sen­ta­tions of boys, sug­gests a piece made for fe­male use. This finely sculpted pil­low fea­tures a young girl, her ex­pres­sion well de­tailed, ac­com­pa­nied by chrysan­the­mum and plum blos­soms.”

(See also Michelle Maa­belle’s su­pe­rior pho­to­graph.) I also pho­tographed a lo­tus leaf pil­low, but Mary Harrsch did it much bet­ter than I did. The in Ox­ford, Eng­land, in­cludes a ‘pil­low’ sec­tion among its house­hold goods col­lec­tions on the sec­ond floor, col­lect­ing wooden & ce­ramic pil­lows of all va­ri­eties from Asia and Africa es­pe­cial­ly, not­ing the usual sum­mary that they can be cooler in hot cli­mates & pre­serve elab­o­rate hair­styles (not­ing that one African hair­style took ~50 hours to cre­ate) and some may’ve been used with cloth pil­lows/­filler.

But my pre­lim­i­nary searches turned out very few con­tem­po­rary sources. This is a lit­tle odd; in­tu­itively I would ex­pect that such pil­lows be well-s­tud­ied as they are durable enough to sur­vive cen­turies and they have clear prac­ti­cal util­ity as far as porta­bil­ity and clean­li­ness go – what pil­low could be eas­ier to clean than a porce­lain one?

Hav­ing be­come a back­-sleep­er, I be­gan look­ing for some man­ner of ‘hard’ pil­low that I would not have to wash or ad­just. But the lack of pop­u­lar­ity meant that in­for­ma­tion, much less plans or prod­ucts, was scarce in­deed. I found a few links, and one or two offer­ings of wooden or­tho­pe­dic pil­lows. But naught else.


Mark 1

I had no choice but to make my own. My first pro­to­type was very sim­ple. I took a long wooden pole left over from my fam­i­ly’s tree house and I cut off a half-me­ter seg­ment. The pole was roughly cir­cu­lar with a planed top and bot­tom (so it was a hexa­gon), with a ra­dius of ap­prox­i­mately 12 cen­time­ters. I then slept on it as usu­al, with my head wrapped in a scarf.

Those naps were ter­ri­ble! I could­n’t fig­ure out how to sleep on it. The few pic­tures I’d seen did not in­di­cate any spe­cial well or bump for the back of the head to ac­tu­ally rest on, so I just left the top flat. I could­n’t put the back of my head flat down be­cause my head would loll to the side, or my mus­cle ten­sion would keep me awake, or my head lain side­ways would crush my ear. I tried mov­ing the pil­low down my neck. Per­haps the pil­low was sup­posed to fit in the gap be­tween shoul­der and low­er-back­-head? That did not work ei­ther. The edges abraded both my shoul­ders and my head still lolled from side to side.

Mark 2

The Mark 2 wooden pil­low, paint-s­pat­tered years later after use in ran­dom projects

I be­gan sand­ing this block down, push­ing into the cen­ter so as to form a dip (when seen from the side) or a de­pres­sion (seen from above) for my head to nat­u­rally be in. After sev­eral weeks, this had worked bet­ter—I was at least get­ting de­cent sleep­—but it still was less sat­is­fac­tory than a nor­mal pil­low.

I also tried the neck ap­proach again, but the same lolling is­sue man­i­fest­ed.

Mark 3

Fi­nal­ly, I de­cided to re­vamp the de­sign com­plete­ly. For my third pro­to­type, I took a sec­ond sec­tion from the pole, and I lashed it to the first sec­tion length­wise. These two seg­ments left be­tween them a con­sid­er­able de­pres­sion, a void, V-shaped from the side. I be­gan sand­ing vig­or­ous­ly, and be­gan ap­prox­i­mat­ing two quar­ter-cir­cles in­stead of two pointy lines. The lash­ing I mod­i­fied and added some wraps length­wise along the gap, form­ing a sort of net or ham­mock be­tween the two seg­ments.

This arrange­ment has proven to be much bet­ter.

Mark 4

The 3rd pro­to­type also worked fairly well with side-sleep­ing. One’s chin and tem­ple are flat on the two logs, and one’s del­i­cate ear is loose in the hol­low. But the pres­sure on the top and bot­tom are a bit dis­tress­ing; if one tries to just put a scarf over it as padding, this merely dooms one to un­com­fort­able early morn­ings (when the padding has been pushed off and one is rest­ing on the naked wood).

Mark 5

My cur­rent de­sign takes the view­point that if one could push the pres­sure fur­ther up and down the head, and one re­moved the rope wrap­pings, then it might work. To do this I in­serted a small rec­tan­gle of wood—a spac­er—­be­tween the two main blocks and then lashed just the ends to­geth­er. It was tricky, but it holds to­geth­er. With­out the rope chafing, it seems to work bet­ter. Even bet­ter, I’ve dis­cov­ered that I can tuck the otiose cor­ner of my blan­ket un­der my head, in­stead of re­ly­ing on the scarf.

In the fu­ture, I think I’d like the third ver­sion to be a sin­gle piece of wood as the lash­ing loosens every cou­ple of weeks. This was­n’t a big deal when I was un­do­ing it every day to sand the blocks, but is more an­noy­ing when I’m not mod­i­fy­ing it. The pur­pose was to do less main­te­nance, not more!


Even the mark 5 did not re­store my ac­cus­tomed rest, and in some re­spects was worse than the oth­ers. At that point, I con­sid­ered my sunk costs and de­cided to call it quits. There may be ac­cept­able de­sign­s—­such as a mini-ham­mock­—but there are other things to spend my time on.