Monthly Archives: November 2013

The birth of the box store lumberyard

While I have been learning to use hand planes to smooth and dimension rough sawn lumber, I have been wondering how our predecessors managed to keep enough hand milled lumber around to complete the magnificent wood structures that grace most of our Nation, and indeed the world.

I imagined legions of apprentice joiners laboring for hour after hour, making boards square and flat.  Soon, my curiosity went a bit further, and I began to wonder into the beginnings of our current batch of table top, electric powered, surface planers (my Ridgid 13″ planer gets a fair bit of use).  Just when did surfaced lumber become available?

Well, in just a short evening of research, I came across a name, and a book.  The name, William Woodworth.  The book, A History of the Planing Mill by C.R. Tompkins, published in 1889.  Mr. Tompkins begins his book with a definitive but technical tale of Mr. Woodworth’s invention, clearly establishing him as the father of the modern planer.  All of this in the period from 1828 to 1845!   Here is an excerpt:

“About the same time William Woodworth, an old carpenter residing in Poughkeepsie, N. Y., and who was familiarly known among the carpenters as ” Uncle Billy,” was experimenting upon the same thing in an old saw-mill situated in the lower part of the town, near the river, and not far from where the old Whaling dock was afterwards located. The old mill and Whaling-dock have long since disappeared, but their location will no doubt be still remembered by some of the older residents of that beautiful city upon the Hudson.

His first machine was patented December 27, 1828. In this machine there was no -other device for holding the lumber down to the bed while being planed except the feed-rolls; but as they were placed very close to the cutter-head, they answered the purpose very well,  except upon the ends of the boards as they entered the machine before reaching the second pair of rolls located on the other side of the cylinder. The same difficulty was experienced with the latter end of the board as it passed out of the machine after leaving the first, or leading-in, rollers. This had the effect of causing about six inches upon each end of the board to be planed thinner than the middle ; and in order to use it in laying floors so as to present a uniform, smooth surface, it was necessary to cut about six inches off both ends of the piece.

This patent, under the conditions of the old patent law, was Granted for fourteen years, and expired December 27, 1842, but was extended for a further term of seven years under a provision of the same law which provides that, upon the expiration of the original patent, if the patentee could show, to the satisfaction of the commissioner of patents, that he had used due diligence in bringing his invention before the public, and that he had not been able to realize a sufficient compensation for his time, labor, and expenses in introducing it, he was entitled to a further extension of seven years.

It is very doubtful whether William Woodworth had made any money out of his invention up to this time.  The feeling among the journeymen carpenters was so strong against it that, when the first machine was put in operation, the old saw-mill in which it was located had to be watched constantly both day and night for several months to prevent them from burning it down. Another reason was the want of means to introduce it.  Mr. Woodworth having but little means to begin with, and that had all been spent in perfecting his invention, and as almost everyone looked upon it with suspicion, as is often the case with other new inventions, the consequence was that very few planing-mills were in operation at that time.”

The full download of this worthy publication may be found here: