Change in Woodworking Tools 1600-1900

American hand tools in 1876 did not achieve the popular acclaim accorded the Corliss engine, yet few products shown by American exhibitors were more highly praised by foreign experts. It seems justified to suggest that American edge tools displayed at the Centennial had reached their high point of development—a metamorphosis that began with the medieval European tool forms, moved through a period of reliance on English precedents, and ended, in the last quarter of the 19th century, with the production of American hand tools “occupying an enviable position before the world.”[11]

Figure 54. Figure 54.—1809: The introduction of the gimlet-pointed auger followed Ezra L’Hommedieu’s patent of 1809. From this date until its general disuse in the early 20th century, the conformation of the tool remained unchanged, although the quality of steel and the precision of the twist steadily improved. (Wash drawing from the restored patent drawings awarded July 31, 1809, U.S. Patent Office, Record Group 241, the National Archives. Smithsonian photo 49790-A.)
Figure 55. Figure 55.—1855: Russell Jennings’ improved auger bits, first patented in 1855, received superior citation at the Philadelphia Centennial; in the years following, the trade name “Jennings” was seldom omitted from trade catalogues. (Original wash drawing, patent drawing submitted by R. Jennings, U.S. Patent Office, Record Group 241, the National Archives.)

The tool most highly praised at Philadelphia was the American felling axe (fig. 52) “made out of a solid piece of cast steel” with the eye “punched out of the solid.” When compared to other forms, the American axe was “more easily worked,” and its shape permitted an easier withdrawal after striking.[12]

Sawmakers, too, were singled out for praise—in particular Disston & Sons (fig. 53) for “improvements in the form of the handles, and in the mode of fixing them to the saw.” The Disston saw also embodied an improved blade shape which made it “lighter and more convenient by giving it a greater taper to the point.” Sheffield saws, once supplied to most of the world, were not exhibited at Philadelphia, and the British expert lamented that our “monopoly remains with us no longer.”[13]

Figure 56. Figure 56.—1894: The Persistence of “jennings” As a Trade Name is suggested by the vignette from the “Illustrated Catalogue” of Baldwin, Robbins and Company, published in 1894. (Smithsonian photo 56628.)

Augers, essential to “the heavier branches of the building trade … [and] in the workshops of joiners, carpenters, cabinetmakers, turners, carvers, and by amateurs and others,” were considered a “most important exhibit” at the Centennial. The auger had attained a perfection in “the accuracy of the twist, the various forms of the cutters, the quality of the steel, and fine finish of the twist and polish.” The ancient pod or shell auger had nearly disappeared from use, to be replaced by “the screwed form of the tool” considerably refined by comparison to L’Hommedieu’s prototype, patented in 1809 (fig. 54). Russell Jennings’ patented auger bits (figs. 55–56) were cited for their “workmanship and quality,” and, collectively, the Exhibition “fully established the reputation of American augers.”[14] Likewise, makers of braces and bits were commended for the number of excellent examples shown. Some were a departure from the familiar design with “an expansive chuck for the bit,” but others were simply elegant examples of the traditional brace, in wood, japanned and heavily reinforced with highly polished brass sidings. An example exhibited by E. Mills and Company, of Philadelphia, received a certification from the judges as being “of the best quality and finish” (fig. 57). The Mills brace, together with other award-winning tools of the company—drawknives, screwdrivers, and spokeshaves—is preserved in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution (accession 319326). Today as a group they confirm “the remarkably fine quality of … both iron and steel” that characterized the manufacture of American edge tools in the second half of the 19th century.[15]

Figure 57. Figure 57.—1876: Japanned and splinted with heavy brass, this brace was among the award-winning tools exhibited at the Centennial by E. Mills and Company of Philadelphia. (Smithsonian photo 49792-D.)
Figure 58. Figure 58.—1827: The bench planes exhibited at Philadelphia in 1876 were a radical departure from the traditional. In 1827 H. Knowles patented an iron-bodied bench plane that portended a change in form that would witness a substitution of steel for wood in all critical areas of the tool’s construction, and easy adjustment of the cutting edge by a setscrew, and an increased flexibility that allowed one plane to be used for several purposes. (Wash drawing from the restored patent drawings, August 24, 1827, U.S. Patent Office, Record Group 241, the National Archives.)
Figure 59. Figure 59.—1857: The addition of metallic parts to critical areas of wear as suggested by M.B. Tidey did not at first radically alter the design of the bench plane. (Wash drawing from U.S. Patent Office, March 24, 1857, Record Group 241, the National Archives.)

It is the plane, however, that best exemplifies the progress of tool design. In 1876, American planemakers were enthusiastically credited with having achieved “an important change in the structure of the tool.”[16] Although change had been suggested by American patentees as early as the 1820’s, mass production lagged until after the Civil War, and the use of this new tool form was not widespread outside of the United States. Hazard Knowles of Colchester, Connecticut, in 1827, patented a plane stock of cast iron which in many respects was a prototype of later Centennial models (fig. 58).[17] It is evident, even in its earliest manifestation, that the quest for improvement of the bench plane did not alter its sound design. In 1857, M.B. Tidey (fig. 59) listed several of the goals that motivated planemakers:

First to simplify the manufacturing of planes; second to render them more durable; third to retain a uniform mouth; fourth to obviate their clogging; and fifth the retention of the essential part of the plane when the stock is worn out.[18]

By far the greatest number of patents was concerned with perfecting an adjustable plane iron and methods of constructing the sole of a plane so that it would always be “true.” Obviously the use of metal rather than the older medium, wood, was a natural step, but in the process of changing from the wood to the iron-bodied bench plane there were many transitional suggestions that combined both materials. Seth Howes of South Chatham, Massachusetts, in U.S. patent 37,694, specified:

This invention relates to an improvement in that class of planes which are commonly termed “bench-planes,” comprising the foreplane, smoothing plane, jack plane, jointer, &c.

The invention consists in a novel and improved mode of adjusting the plane-iron to regulate the depth of the cut of the same, in connection with an adjustable cap, all being constructed and arranged in such a manner that the plane-iron may be “set” with the greatest facility and firmly retained in position by the adjustment simply of the cap to the plane-iron, after the latter is set, and the cap also rendered capable of being adjusted to compensate for the wear of the “sole” or face of the plane stock.

The stock of Howes’ plane was wood combined with metal plates, caps, and screws. Thomas Worrall of Lowell was issued patent 17,657 for a plane based on the same general principle (fig. 60). Worrall claimed in his specifications of June 23, 1857:

the improved manufacture of [the] carpenter’s bench plane or jointer as made with its handle, its wooden stock to which said handle is affixed, and a separate metallic cutter holder, and cutter clamping devices arranged together substantially as specified.

Finally patentees throughout the 19th century, faced with an increasing proliferation of tool types, frequently sought to perfect multipurpose implements of a type best represented later by the ubiquitous Stanley plane. The evolution of the all-purpose idea, which is incidentally not peculiar to hand tools alone, can be seen from random statements selected from U.S. patents for the improvement of bench planes. In 1864 Stephen Williams in the specifications of his patent 43,360 stated:

I denominate my improvement the “universal smoothing plane,” because it belongs to that variety of planes in which the face is made changeable, so that it may be conveniently adapted to the planing of curved as well as straight surfaces. By the use of my improvement surfaces that are convex, concave, or straight may be easily worked, the face of the tool being readily changed from one form to another to suit the surface to which it is to be applied.

The announced object of Theodore Duval’s improved grooving plane (pat. 97,177) was “to produce in one tool all that is required to form grooves of several different widths.” None was more appealing than Daniel D. Whitker’s saw-rabbet plane (pat. 52,478) which combined “an adjustable saw with an adjustable fence or gage, both being attached to a stock with handle similar to a plane, forming together a tool combining the properties of the joiner’s plow and fillister” (fig. 61). Nor was Whitker’s idea simply a drawing-board exercise. It was produced commercially and was well advertised, as seen in the circular reproduced in figure 62.

Figure 60. Figure 60.—1857: In a variety of arrangements, the addition of metal plates, caps, and screws at the mouth of the plane, as shown in Thomas Worrall’s drawing, proved a transitional device that preserved the ancient shape of the tool and slowed the introduction of bench planes made entirely of iron. (Wash drawing from U.S. Patent Office, June 23, 1857, Record Group 241, the National Archives.)
Figure 61. Figure 61.—1865: Not all multipurpose innovations resulted from the use of new materials. Daniel D. Whitker patented a combination saw and rabbet plane little different from one illustrated by André-Jacob Roubo in his L’Art du menuisier in 1769. (Wash drawing from U.S. Patent Office, October 4, 1865, Record Group 241, the National Archives.)

In sum, these ideas produced a major break with the traditional shape of the bench plane. William Foster in 1843 (pat. 3,355), Birdsill Holly in 1852 (pat. 9,094), and W.S. Loughborough in 1859 (pat. 23,928) are particularly good examples of the radical departure from the wooden block. And, in the period after the Civil War, C.G. Miller (discussed on p. 213 and in fig. 63), B.A. Blandin (fig. 64), and Russell Phillips (pat. 106,868) patented multipurpose metallic bench planes of excellent design. It should be pointed out that the patentees mentioned above represent only a few of the great number that tried to improve the plane. Only the trend of change is suggested by the descriptions and illustrations presented here. The cumulative effect awaited a showcase, and the planemakers found it at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 held in Philadelphia.

Figure 62. Figure 62.—About 1865: The progress of an idea from an 18th-century encyclopedia through an American patentee to commercial reality can be seen in this flier advertising Whitker’s saw-rabbet. (Smithsonian Institution Library. Smithsonian photo 56629.)

The impact of these new planes at the Exhibition caused some retrospection among the judges:

The planes manufactured in Great Britain and in other countries fifty years ago were formed of best beech-wood; the plane irons were of steel and iron welded together; the jointer plane, about 21 inches long, was a bulky tool; the jack and hand planes were of the same materials. Very little change has been made upon the plane in Great Britain, unless in the superior workmanship and higher quality of the plane iron.[19]

The solid wood-block plane, varying from country to country only in the structure of its handles and body decoration, had preserved its integrity of design since the Middle Ages. At the Centennial, however, only a few examples of the old-type plane were exhibited. A new shape dominated the cases. Designated by foreign observers as the American plane, it received extended comment. Here was a tool

constructed with a skeleton iron body, having a curved wooden handle; the plane iron is of the finest cast-steel; the cover is fitted with an ingenious trigger at the top, which, with a screw below the iron, admits of the plane iron being removed for sharpening and setting without the aid of the hammer, and with the greatest ease. The extensive varieties of plane iron in use are fitted for every requirement; a very ingenious arrangement is applied to the tools for planing the insides of circles or other curved works, such as stair-rails, etc. The sole of the plane is formed of a plate of tempered steel about the thickness of a handsaw, according to the length required, and this plate is adapted to the curve, and is securely fixed at each end. With this tool the work is not only done better but in less time than formerly. In some exhibits the face of the plane was made of beech or of other hard wood, secured by screws to the stock, and the tool becomes a hybrid, all other parts remaining the same as in the iron plane.[20]

The popularity of Bailey’s patented planes (fig. 65), the type so praised above, was by no means transitory. In 1884 the Boston firm of Goodnow & Wightman, “Importers, Manufacturers and Dealers in Tools of all kinds,” illustrated the several planes just described and assured prospective buyers that

These tools meet with universal approbation from the best Mechanics. For beauty of style and finish they are unequalled, and the great convenience in operating renders them the cheapest Planes in use; they are SELF-ADJUSTING in every respect; and each part being made INTERCHANGEABLE, can be replaced at a trifling expense.[21]

By 1900 an advertisement for Bailey’s planes published in the catalogue of another Boston firm, Chandler and Farquhar, indicated that “over 900,000” had already been sold.[22]

Other mass-produced edge tools—axes, adzes, braces and bits, augers, saws, and chisels—illustrated in the trade literature of the toolmakers became, as had the iron-bodied bench plane, standard forms. In the last quarter of the 19th century the tool catalogue replaced Moxon, Duhamel, Diderot, and the builders’ manuals as the primary source for the study and identification of hand tools. The Centennial had called attention to the superiority of certain American tools and toolmakers. The result was that until the end of the century, trade literature faithfully drummed the products that had proven such “an attraction to the numerous artisans who visited the Centennial Exhibition from the United States and other countries.”[23]

Figure 63. Figure 63.—1870: The metallic version of the plow plane later produced by Stanley and Company was patented by [Charles] G. Miller as a tool readily “convertible into a grooving, rabbeting, or smoothing plane.” In production this multipurpose plow gained an elaborate decoration (fig. 51) nowhere suggested in Miller’s specification. (Wash drawing from U.S. Patent Office, June 28, 1870, Record Group 241, the National Archives.)
Figure 64. Figure 64.—1867: The drawing accompanying B.A. Blandin’s specification for an “Improvement in Bench Planes” retained only the familiarly shaped handle or tote of the traditional wood-bodied plane. This new shape rapidly became the standard form of the tool with later variations chiefly related to the adjustability of the plane-iron and sole. (Wash drawing from U.S. Patent Office, May 7, 1867, Record Group 241, the National Archives.)

Collins and Company of New York City had been given commendation for the excellence of their axes; through the end of the century, Collins’ brand felling axes, broad axes, and adzes were standard items, as witness Hammacher, Schlemmer and Company’s catalogue of 1896.[24] Disston saws were a byword, and the impact of their exhibit at Philadelphia was still strong, as judged from Baldwin, Robbins’ catalogue of 1894. Highly recommended was the Disston no. 76, the “Centennial” handsaw with its “skew back” and “apple handle.” Jennings’ patented auger bits were likewise standard fare in nearly every tool catalogue.[25] So were bench planes manufactured by companies that had been cited at Philadelphia for the excellence of their product; namely, The Metallic Plane Company, Auburn, New York; The Middletown Tool Company, Middletown, Connecticut; Bailey, Leonard, and Company, Hartford; and The Sandusky Tool Company, Sandusky, Ohio.[26]

An excellent indication of the persistence of the Centennial influence, and of the tool catalogue as source material, is seen in Chandler and Farquhar’s illustrated pamphlet of 1900. Their advertisement for Barber’s improved ratchet brace (fig. 66), a tool much admired by the Centennial judges, amply illustrates the evolution of design of a basic implement present in American society since the first years of settlement. The Barber brace represents the ultimate sophistication of a tool, achieved through an expanded industrial technology rather than by an extended or newly found use for the device itself. It is a prime example of the transition of a tool from Moxon to its perfected form in the 20th century:

These Braces possess the following points of superiority: The Sweep is made from Steel; the Jaws are forged from Steel; the Wood Handle has brass rings inserted in each end so it cannot split off; the Chuck has a hardened Steel antifriction washer between the two sockets, thus reducing the wear. The Head has a bearing of steel balls, running on hard steel plates, so no wear can take place, as the friction is reduced to the minimum. The Brace is heavily nickel-plated and warranted in every particular. We endeavor to make these goods as nearly perfection as is possible in durability, quality of material and workmanship, and fineness and beauty of finish.[27]

Figure 65. Figure 65.—1900: American planemakers had been cited at the Philadelphia Centennial as having introduced a dramatic change in the nature of the tool. Although wood-bodied planes continued to be used, they were outdated and in fact anachronistic by the close of the 19th century. From the 1870’s forward, it was the iron-bodied plane, most frequently Bailey’s, that enlivened the trade literature. (Catalogue of Chandler and Farquhar, Boston, 1900. Smithsonian photo 55798.)
Figure 66. Figure 66.—1900: Few tools suggest more clearly the influence of modern industrial society upon the design and construction of traditional implements than Barber’s ratchet brace. It is not without interest that as the tools of the wood craftsman became crisply efficient, his work declined correspondingly in individuality and character. The brace and the plane, as followed from Moxon through the trade literature of the late 19th century, achieved perfection in form and operation at a time when their basic functions had been usurped by machines. (Catalogue of Chandler and Farquhar, Boston, 1900. Smithsonian photo 56626.)

The description of Barber’s brace documents a major technical change: wood to steel, leather washers to ball bearings, and natural patina to nickel plate. It is also an explanation for the appearance and shape of craftmen’s tools, either hand forged or mass produced. In each case, the sought-after result in the form of a finished product has been an implement of “fineness and beauty.” This quest motivated three centuries of toolmakers and brought vitality to hand-tool design. Moxon had advised:

He that will a good Edge win,
Must Forge thick and Grind thin.[28]

If heeded, the result would be an edge tool that assured its owner “ease and delight.”[29] Throughout the period considered here, the most praiseworthy remarks made about edge tools were variations of either “unsurpassed in quality, finish, and beauty of style” or, more simply, commendation for “excellent design and superior workmanship.”[30] The hand tool thus provoked the same value words in the 19th as in the 17th century.

The aesthetics of industrial art, whether propounded by Moxon or by an official at the Philadelphia Centennial, proved the standard measure by which quality could be judged. Today these values are particularly valid when applied to a class of artifacts that changed slowly and have as their prime characteristics anonymity of maker and date. With such objects the origin, transition, and variation of shape are of primary interest. Consider the common auger whose “Office” Moxon declared “is to make great round holes” and whose importance was so clearly stressed at Philadelphia in 1876.[31] Neither its purpose nor its gross appearance (a T-handled boring tool) had changed. The tool did, however, develop qualitatively through 200 years, from a pod or shell to a spiral bit, from a blunt to a gimlet point, and from a hand-fashioned to a geometrically exact, factory-made implement: innovations associated with Cooke (1770), L’Hommedieu (1809), and Jennings (1850’s). In each instance the tool was improved—a double spiral facilitated the discharge of shavings, a gimlet point allowed the direct insertion of the auger, and machine precision brought mathematical accuracy to the degree of twist. Still, overall appearance did not change. At the Centennial, Moxon would have recognized an auger, and, further, his lecture on its uses would have been singularly current. The large-bore spiral auger still denoted a mortise, tenon, and trenail mode of building in a wood-based technology; at the same time its near cousin, the wheelwright’s reamer, suggested the reliance upon a transport dependent upon wooden hubs. The auger in its perfected form—fine steel, perfectly machined, and highly finished—contrasted with an auger of earlier vintage will clearly show the advance from forge to factory, but will indicate little new in its method of use or its intended purpose.

Persons neither skilled in the use of tools nor interested in technical history will find that there is another response to the common auger, as there was to the upholsterer’s hammer, the 18th-century brace, or the saw with the custom-fitted grip. This is a subjective reaction to a pleasing form. It is the same reaction that prompted artists to use tools as vehicles to help convey lessons in perspective, a frequent practice in 19th-century art manuals. The harmony of related parts—the balance of shaft and handle or the geometry of the twist—makes the auger a decorative object. This is not to say that the ancient woodworker’s tool is not a document attesting a society’s technical proficiency—ingenuity, craftsmanship, and productivity. It is only to suggest again that it is something more; a survival of the past whose intrinsic qualities permit it to stand alone as a bridge between the craftsman’s hand and his work; an object of considerable appeal in which integrity of line and form is not dimmed by the skill of the user nor by the quality of the object produced by it.

In America, this integrity of design is derived from three centuries of experience: one of heterogeneous character, the mid-17th to the mid-18th; one of predominately English influence, from 1750 to 1850; and one that saw the perfection of basic tools, by native innovators, between 1850 and the early 20th century. In the two earlier periods, the woodworking tool and the products it finished had a natural affinity owing largely to the harmony of line that both the tool and finished product shared. The later period, however, presents a striking contrast. Hand-tool design, with few exceptions, continued vigorous and functional amidst the confusion of an eclectic architecture, a flurry of rival styles, the horrors of the jigsaw, and the excesses of Victorian taste. In conclusion, it would seem that whether seeking some continuous thread in the evolution of a national style, or whether appraising American contributions to technology, such a search must rest, at least in part, upon the character and quality of the hand tools the society has made and used, because they offer a continuity largely unknown to other classes of material survivals.

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