Category Archives: Historical Tool Articles

A collection of self written articles on traditional woodworking subjects, using original sources

March of the Machine Age

I have been working on increasing my hand tool knowledge and skills the past six months or so, and things are coming along okay (still working on that cutting a straight line thing).   As a part of this, I have been reading a lot of articles on hand tool usage and history… a lot of articles.   During these readings I have come across a few “purists”, folks who believe the only tools are hand tools.  While I do love hand tools, and it’s true our ancestors turned out some incredible works of art in the form of furnishings using only hand tools, the simple fact is this; our forefathers used hand tools because that’s what they had.  Period.

Now, I do enjoy the quiet, relatively dust free environment.  And working with hand tools, for me, is kind of a Zen thing.  And I love history and learning how woodworking was done in the past.  But, I also have some power in my shop.  I use power tools on jobs where they are more efficient (read faster, more accurate…again that straight line thing).  I have no doubt our ancestors would have done the same thing, mainly because they did.  Carpenters and Joiners of the past used hand tools because that was what was available to them, either because they couldn’t afford a table saw, or they hadn’t been invented yet.  But if table saws were around and they could afford them, those woodworkers would certainly have bought one.  Again, I know this because they did.   As proof of this, all you need to do is a little research…




The photos above were taken from the pages of The Scientific American.  The first add, for circular saw blades, is from an 1873 issue.  The two table saw adds are from 1893 and 1896 respectively.  Power tools were here, and were being marketed to the masses.   After all, that’s what our economic system is all about…find or create a need then fulfill it.

So, if you are like me, and occasionally enjoy the schush of a hand plane as it cuts across the surface of a board, or appreciate the silence of a Jennings bit as it bores it’s way through, more power to you.  But, don’t dis the power tool users.  After all, your Grandfather may well have been one of them.

Want to learn more about Vintage Machinery?  Then head on over to ! They have scads of info, adds, and photos of antique woodworking and other infernal machines from days gone by.


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: