A rolling pin is a simple tool used to flatten dough.
The first civilization known to have used the rolling pin was the Etruscans. These people may have migrated from Asia Minor to Northern Italy or may have originated in Italy. They established a group of city states (called Etruria) and were a dominant society by about the ninth century b.c., but their civilization was cut short after attacks from the Greeks, the growing Roman Empire, and the Gauls (tribes that lived in modern day France). The Etruscans' advanced farming ability, along with a tendency to cultivate many plants and animals never before used as food and turn them into sophisticated recipes, were passed to invading Greeks, Romans, and Western Europeans. Thanks to the Etruscans, these cultures are associated with gourmet cooking.
To prepare their inventive foods, the Etruscans also developed a wide range of cooking tools, including the rolling pin. Although written recipes did not exist until the fourth century b.c., the Etruscans documented their love of food and its preparation in murals, on vases, and on the walls of their tombs. Cooking wares are displayed with pride; rolling pins appear to have been used first to thin-roll pasta that was shaped with cutting wheels. They also used rolling pins to make bread (which they called puls) from the large number of grains they grew.
Natives of the Americas used more primitive bread-making tools that are favored and unchanged in many villages. Chefs who try to use genuine methods to preserve recipes are also interested in both materials and tools. Hands are used as "rolling pins" for flattening dough against a surface, but also for tossing soft dough between the cook's two hands until it enlarges and thins by handling and gravity. Tortillas are probably the most familiar bread made this way.
Over the centuries, rolling pins have been made of many different materials, including long cylinders of baked clay, smooth branches with the bark removed, and glass bottles. As the development of breads and pastries spread from Southern to Western and Northern Europe, wood from local forests was cut and finished for use as rolling pins. The French perfected the solid hardwood pin with tapered ends to roll pastry that is thick in the middle; its weight makes rolling easier. The French also use marble rolling pins for buttery dough worked on a marble slab.
Glass is still popular; in Italy, full wine bottles that have been chilled make ideal rolling pins because they are heavy and cool the dough. Countries known for their ceramics make porcelain rolling pins with beautiful decorations painted on the rolling surface; their hollow centers can be filled with cold water (the same principle as the wine bottle), and cork or plastic stoppers cap the ends.
Wood has always been the material preferred by cooks and craftsmen in the United States. Pine was probably the wood of choice from colonization to the mid-1800s, but the pine forests in the northern states were already being depleted by this time. Rolling pin manufacturers started using other hardwoods like cherry and maple for their wooden kitchenware, which also included ladles and butter molds. Late in the nineteenth century, J. W. Reed invented the rolling pin with handles connected to a center rod; this is similar to the tool we know today, and it prevents cooks from putting their hands on the rolling surface while shaping pastry. Reed invented new versions of the dough kneader and dough roller; his contributions are notable, not only because he eased the cook's tasks, but also because Reed was one of many African-Americans who developed and patented improvements to household items.
Some 600,000-750,000 rolling pins are manufactured and sold in the United States every year. By far, the majority of these are made of wood with handles to rotate them around central spools. Wood from maple or ash trees is the most common raw material, depending on availability and customer preference. Hard woods like rock maple are the high-end materials found in bakeries, cooking schools, and retail stores selling fine cookware. Less desirable and softer woods are ash or soft maple. Soft maple and birch form the rolling pins for sale in discount and other mass-marketing stores. Matching woods are used to produce handles.
Rolling pins turn on stainless steel center rods and ball bearings; these are held in place with nylon bushings. Specialty suppliers provide these parts to the rolling pin manufacturers based on their requirements. Handles used to be painted or lacquered, but this practice is out of fashion. Manufacturers no longer use paints or other applied finishes.
Designs for most rolling pins follow long-established practices, although some unusual styles and materials are made and used. Within the family of wooden rolling pins, long and short versions are made as well as those that are solid cylinders (one-piece rolling pins) instead of the familiar style with handles. Very short pins called mini rolling pins make use of short lengths of wood and are useful for one-handed rolling and popular with children and collectors.
Mini pins ranging from 5 to 7 in (12.7-17.8 cm) in length are called texturing tools and are produced to create steam holes and decorations in pastry and pie crusts; crafters also use them to imprint clay for art projects. These mini pins are made of hardwoods (usually maple) or plastic. Wood handles are supplied for both wood and plastic tools, however.
Blown glass rolling pins are made with straight walls and are solid or hollow. Ceramic rolling pins are also produced in hollow form, and glass and ceramic models can be filled with water and plugged with stoppers. Tapered glass rolling pins with stoppers were made for many centuries when salt import and export were prohibited or heavily taxed. The rolling pin containers disguised the true contents. The straight-sided cylinder is a more recent development, although tapered glass pins are still common craft projects made by cutting two wine bottles in half and sealing the two ends together so that the necks serve as handles at each end.
Tiny rolling pins are also twisted into shape using formed wire. The pins will not flatten and smooth pastry, and the handles do not turn. The metal pins are popular as kitchen decorations and also to hang pots, pans, and potholders.
- Production of wooden rolling pins starts with the selection of the wood. Trees are selected by log buyers in approved forests, and are then cut and hauled to sawmills. There, they are sawn into squares of either 1.5 in (3.8 cm) or 2 in (5.1 cm); both sizes of squared wood are cut into lengths of 48 in (1.2 m). The square pieces are then kiln-dried.
- The prepared wood lengths are brought into the rolling pin plant and fed through a specialized machine called a hawker. The hawker produces a large, rounded dowel by taking off the corners of the squares and about 0.25 in (0.6 cm) of wood all around the length. The trimmed lengths are inspected. The 4 ft (1.2 m) length may be free of defects for its full length. If 3 ft (2.7 m) of the length are acceptable, the imperfect portion is trimmed off. These long, perfect lengths are called clear dowels and are sold to the dowel market primarily for use in furniture manufacture.
- The long dowels containing defects like knots, mineral deposits, or major color changes are clipped to appropriate lengths for rolling pins. The standard lengths are 12, 15, and 18 in (30.5, 38.1, and 45.7 cm, respectively); a high-quality large rolling pin can weight 12 lb (4.48 kg). Typically, one or two rolling pins of different sizes can be clipped from acceptable parts of the dowels. Shorter pieces than those suitable for standard rolling pins can be further trimmed in diameter and length and made into handles or mini rolling pins.
- From the clipping station, the rolling pin lengths are transferred to the next workstation, where they are deep bored with the holes that will hold the rods. The lengths are chamfered (machined with beveled or gently angled edges) and counter bored. The wood length is then considered to be completely machined and is termed a pin blank. Handles are shaped with a different woodworking machine. They are made from short lengths of wood and are turned on spool lathes to produce rounded, uniform handles.
- At the next station, the pin blanks and handles are given their fine outer finishes on a machine with motors and belts that is something like a sander capable of a series of tasks. The outer surface of the rolling pin (or handle) is sanded with two or more types of sandpaper, from a coarse 80-grit paper to a very fine 150-grit paper. The machine then waxes the surface and buffs it to an attractive polish.
- When the machining and treating of the wood is completed, the rolling pins and their handles are put on carts and taken to the assembly area. Until recently, the assembly work was done by hand, but it is now fully automated. The assembler inserts rods and ball bearings in the bores through the rolling pins and adds nylon bushings that will keep the rods centered in the pins. Wood handles are fitted on the rod ends, and the assembly machine taps the handles firmly in place.
- Labels are applied to complete rolling pins. Each is boxed in a pre-labeled box, and the boxes are packed into bulk cartons for storage or shipping to retailers.
Product quality begins with wood of outstanding quality. The log buyers are highly skilled in choosing fine-quality timber. When the dried, trimmed, and squared lengths are ready to be clipped into standard rolling pin lengths, they are carefully inspected for any defects. About 95-97% of the wood is perfect.
During finish machining and assembly, the chamfering, deep boring, and sanding machines and the lathes may occasionally introduce a small flaw. The operators recognize these conditions and pull the affected pin or handle from production and toss it into a recycling bin. During assembly, the workers also monitor the quality of the wood and their own processes. They have the authority to reject substandard work.
Rolling pin manufacture generates byproducts when a length of dowel is not suitable for a rolling pin. For example, if a 9.5 in (22.9 cm) piece is too short for a 12 in (30.5 cm) rolling pin, it can be clipped to make an 8 in (20.3 cm) pin. These useable lengths of quality wood can also be sold to other manufacturers to make dowel-based products such as legs for stools.
The machinery in a rolling pin plant generates a lot of heat that manufacturers use to heat other operations and save other resources. All wood trimmings and waste are clipped up into sawdust that is used to make paper or is sold to farmers as barn flooring.
Like the cliché of "building a better mousetrap," it would seem difficult to improve a device as elegantly simple and durable as the rolling pin. However, in 2000 at an inventors' show in Geneva, Switzerland, South African native Yvonne Bekker introduced a newly patented rolling pin that is perforated to release a steady sprinkling of flour. Bekker had grown increasingly frustrated with pastry sticking to the rolling pin, and this prompted her bright idea. Chrome rolling pins are also experiencing a revival, except that the new versions have coatings of Teflon to limit sticking.
Yet the familiar, reliable rolling pin appears ready to take on all newcomers. One possible threat to its future exists in ready-made food that eliminates the need for rolling pins; pre-rolled piecrusts are already on the market. The quality of the pins themselves seems to discourage new production. At least 10 major and 20 significant manufacturers of rolling pins in the United States produce 600,000-750,000 a year, and these sales figures are steady but also unexplainable, given the pins' longevity.
Not only are rolling pins kept in families, but they also are gaining popularity as kitchen collectibles. The aluminum and chrome pins that were once produced are now sought after. Wooden pins can be dated by checking the connection of the rod and pin; plastic bushings are characteristic of modern pins. Wooden rods through the handles and pins, metal bushings, or no bushings at all are indicators of collectible rolling pins. Lacquer and different colors of paint on the handles also help date rolling pins.
Where to Learn More
Editors of Consumer Guide. The Cook's Store: How to Buy and Use Gourmet Gadgets. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Field, Carol. The Italian Baker. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1985.
Mauzy, Barbara E. The Complete Book of Kitchen Collecting. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 1997.
Schat, Zachary Y. The Baker's Trade: A Recipe for Creating the Successful Small Bakery. Ukiah, CA: Acton Circle Publishing, 1998.
Bethany Housewares Web Page. December 2001. <http://www.bethanyhousewares.com/products10.htm>.
Somé, Lucio. "A Salute to the Etruscan Origins of Tuscan Cuisine." Castello Banfi Web Page. December 2001. <http://www.castellobanfi.com/features/story_salute.html>.
Koppel, Naomi. "Bright Ideas on Display: Everyday Problems Solved at Inventors' Fair." Cnews Web Page. 13 April 2000. December 2001. <http://www.canoe.ca/CNEWSFeaturesO004/13_inventors.html>.