Full Chisel Blog

September 16, 2008

What they had to work with in the 19th Century. Part II

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,The Trade,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 5:50 am

The second thing they had was an ‘endless’ supply of wood at their disposal.  This was a new thing for the early settlers, a land with endless resources that had not been touched, in Europe most of the old growth was being used up and supplies running low.  But in the ‘New World’ were more trees than they could possibly use.

Old Growth

Now this is what the massive mixed mesophytic climax forest looked like in the nineteenth century.  This oak/hickory, beech/maple hardwood forest was the largest in the hemisphere and provided an endless supply of wood. 


However there is a wood supply problem that they had, finding saw logs.  A saw log is a log that will fit into a saw mill.  The diameter of the tree needs to be small enough to fit within the frameworks of the up-down sash saw mill.  Then they were cut to length to fit on the carriage in the mill.  The length of the carriage dictated the maximum length of boards that the mill produces.  Because these were set up in the area where there were trees and water to power the mill and the lengths of the carriages vary somewhat from location to location. 


What didn’t change was the length of the mill irons.  This was a term describing the metal pieces it took to make a mill and this hardware was called mill irons.  According to the catalogues available at the time period it looks like mill saws were up to 8 feet long.  Loosing say 6 inches on either end for attaching to the sash, you have an effective blade length of 7 feet.  Now taking into consideration the stroke of the mill, usually a foot the maximum log that could be sawn was 6 feet in diameter.  Today we might consider that a large tree, in the nineteenth century it was considered a saw log.  Anything bigger wasn’t.


Most of the trees growing in the Midwest and East were much larger, were girdled, allowed to dry on the stump for 5 years, then felled and burned.  Yes most of the wood available was just too big to be cut up into lumber.  They had no way of reducing it to lumber.  It was in their way as they were clearing the land for agricultural purposes.  And the soil was wonderful, several feet of good top soil from centuries of bast accumulations on the forest floor.  And it looked much different as the canopy of leaves would prevent sunlight from reaching the forest floor, so there was little or no underbrush, but a park like atmosphere with large trees reaching up for sunlight. 


There were reports of people traveling a couple of days to get to where they could see the sunshine.  A 205 acre cornfield/floodplain on the White River near Noblesville Indiana, owned by William Conner (first Governor) and in the 1820’s there were reports of people traveling many miles and in some cases several days to get to this place where they could see the sun, if it wasn’t overcast.  The forest was massive and dark, even in the winter time when the leaves are gone, the branches and foul weather let in very little light, it must have been an interesting if not terrifying experience. 


Because of the large number of rivers and streams, most of the trees were transported by floating them down river to a sawmill where they could be converted them into lumber and scantlings.  Floaters such as poplar were secured in rafts with sinkers like white oak to keep them afloat until they reached the mill.  Of course some of the sinkers sank and are being recovered, and of course this is all original first growth trees. 


Called ‘wild wood’, England ran out of the stuff in the late 1600’s and started using second growth trees.  But here in America we had plenty of wood.  During colonial times certain trees were marked with the broad arrow, indicating they were Naval Stores and belonged to the King.  It was illegal to chop down one of these Royal trees. 


Well after a couple of scuffles with Great Britain, the upstart colonists expanded West into the great hardwood forests of the Midwest.  Most of the large trees were in the way of farming and removed and burned.  Accounts from the nineteenth century about how bad the rivers were as everyone threw all their trash and dead animals.  The skies were filled with smoke, both from heating and cooking fires and the piles of huge old growth trees were smoldering as they were burned. 


Then of course there was that volcano (Mount Tambora) in the Pacific that blew in 1815 resulting in the ‘Year Without a Summer’, 1816.  It snowed as late as July and then begin again in late August.  This was a worldwide phenomenon that produced some interesting results besides an enormous number of deaths.   John William Polidori and Mary Shelley and a couple of other authors (Lord Byron) were in a castle in Switzerland at the time and during these dark and cold times they wrote ‘Vampyre‘ and ‘Frankenstein‘. 


So what was this forest producing, well some of the finest lumber that has ever come from trees.  Many of these trees had been growing for 500 to 700 years, had been growing during the Maunder Minimum (mini-ice age) that occurred around 1270 AD.  There was also a world wide drought that started in 1830 and continued through 1870, so for 40 years the tree rings are very tight. Trees that were 90 feet to the first crotch.  Trees growing in pristine conditions with no natural predators until humans came around.  Massive trees, growing tall and straight, so many and so large they just got in the way.


The British commented on how wasteful American Lumbering practices were in the nineteenth century.  It was probably considered wasteful as so much of it was just burned and the Americans just couldn’t see a problem as there was more wood than they could possibly use, it seemed endless.On old pieces of furniture it is not uncommon to see large boards in back panels, drawer bottoms and dust boards.  It was common to see quarter sawn wood used on drawer sides and panels where stability was necessary. 


I had the opportunity to restore an early nineteenth century blackboard from an old school.  It was a bit over one and one half inches thick, poplar, about 8 or 9 feet long and 42 inches wide, a single board.  It was sawn from a larger log as this slab was about 2 to 3 feet from the center of the tree.  I am not sure but I think the log had been squared prior to slabbing off the boards.  The board had a slight bow, I installed hickory battens with screws in slots and built a framework around the blackboard.  The original was mitered around the corner of a wall and continued.  I left the original miter (on the back side).  It was one nice slab of poplar.  And pieces like this were common. 



I have also had the opportunity to visit sites of original growth.  While the Giant Redwoods of California are some big trees as are those growing in Olympia Washington, the hardwood trees growing in the Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest in southern Indiana had some old growth trees.  White oak and Poplar, one which we surrounded with 9 people touching finger tips while hugging the tree.  It was 53 feet in circumference.  Some of the other trees were larger.  If you ever get an opportunity to visit ‘big trees’, it is worth the time as it can give you a better perspective on life in earlier times.


And in architecture of the period you can also see how big some of those timbers were.   When I first visited the Midwest I was amazed that Walnut was used for barn beams and 2 by 4’s in building construction.  I then learned that it was common and during the time period walnut was called ‘black pine’ and that was a term of derision, it is also call some other things which I will not mention except for ‘p*** pine’.  It was not a popular furniture wood during this time period.


Today we can only dream of the fine woods they had at their disposal.  Occasionally we do find some nice wide boards and of course all of those antiques with their original growth woods.  If I were to live back then (If I were a frog, I’d be a prince) and for the most part I wouldn’t want to do that, but all that wood, that would be an enticement.



September 14, 2008

Reconsidering “Gentlemens’ Tools”

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,Proper Tools,The Trade,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 1:11 pm



Gentlemens' Tool Chest

I have been thinking about this for a while and I think it is time to reconsider the ‘Gent’s’ tools.  Now I have seen reference to these being smaller tools for the ‘gentleman’ woodworker who might want to dabble in the common trades.  Sort of like a hobby kit of tools for an amateur woodworker.  Proper little tools for a fop or a dandy to work about the house on little craft projects.  To this I say balderdash! 


These are not toy tools, these are not low end ‘home-owners’ tools to use a modern term.  These are of the finest quality and if you look at catalogues of the period, yes the tools are smaller to fit in a tool chest, but they were on the high end in terms of price. 


The above illustration is from Smiths Key to Various Manufactories in Sheffield, reprinted by the Early American Industries Association and shows a Number 7 Gentlemens’ Tool Chest and Tools for a price which I believe is 74 Pounds.  Now at that time that box of tools (they offered sets from #1 at 26 pounds to #12 at 200 pounds), would be worth $185.00 (#7) in nineteenth century dollars.  With the wages of a skilled craftsman between $1.75 and $2.50 per day, that is an investment. 


These tools were far from toys and the association and connotation that has been placed on Gentlemens’ Tools as not being professional grade is wrong.  Not only are they professional grade they are on the upper end.  They are sized that way to fit in a tool box, a proper gentlemens tool chest. 


And of course Cabinet Makers, Carpenters, Coopers, Joiners and other Tradesmen were indeed gentlemen.  They were pillars of their communities, had good trades that provided a very good income and many prospered as the country grew. 



It is too bad that Smith doesn’t describe the tools contained within the chest.  I am working up a list of what was probably in a nineteenth century Cabinetmaker’s Tool Chest.  This will be based on inventories, catalogues and other historical records along with an educated guess or two.  And if it is going to fit into a chest, I am sure a few of the tools will be Gentlemen’s tools. 


The Word ‘Gentleman’ is a complimentary designation of a member of certain societies and professions, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.  I like that designation.



September 13, 2008

What they had to work with in the 19th century. Part I

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,Proper Tools,The Trade,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 6:30 am

With some idea of how they worked in the nineteenth century, I thought about what they had to work with during this time period.  There are two things, physical things they possessed that contributed to the amount of work they put forth.  The first thing is the correct and appropriate tools for their trade.  Exactly what they were is a matter of conjecture, but it is apparent by examining the old pieces of furniture what at least some of the tools they used were, and in some cases how they used them.  The second thing they had was an ‘endless’ supply of wood at their disposal.  I will cover this in the next part.




A Bodgered chair would require a froe and maul, a shaving horse and drawknife (a spokeshave would be nice), and a brace an bit.  A chair maker would have a lathe, chisel, gouges, calipers, dividers and other lathe paraphernalia. 


A cooper would have his long joiner, a croze, a howel, a chime and a buzz.  They would have an offset bench ax, a cresset, a hoop driver, a rivet anvil, punch and rivets.  A compass or sun plane, a pair of dividers, tapered bung reamers and a set of head tools.  A windlass or Dutch hand, driving hoops and stave irons were necessary to hot bend barrels.  A white or dry cooper could get by with fewer tools.


A carpenter would have his chest of tools including saws, planes, augers, squares, gauges, draw pins, mallets, hammers, ax and adze with the other compliment of tools necessary for his trade of building buildings.  Thinking that a log cabin can be built with an ax was dismissed by Dr. Warren E. Roberts in his work on ‘The Tools Used in Building Log Houses in Indiana’, indicating that it took 47 tools to make a log house. (Dr. Roberts was a fine cabinet maker himself).


Whatever the trade, the craftsmen had the necessary tools to do their profession.  If they needed a new tool, it was ordered from the East or Europe or made by the local blacksmith.  With proper training these craftsmen knew how to use them properly, how to sharpen and maintain them, for they were what put meat on the table.  They were guarded, protected and secured.  A large tool box full of tools require at least two strapping people to move, aiding in theft protection. 


The personal investment in ‘a box of tools’ could be considerable for the craftsman depending upon the trade.  Not only was this a great initial layout of cash, but replacement over the years also require continued investment.  And if the craftsmen is training an apprentice then they will need to provide them with ‘custom of country’, new set of clothes and a set of tools and their ‘walking papers’.  Now some of these tools would have been made by the apprentice during his training as practice or training pieces, this investment would have also been considerable.  That is why many masters would hire them when they were journeymen.  Besides they were properly trained. 

The cost of a box of tools would have been considerable, I am guessing at least a quarter to a half years wages?  I am going to have to put together some numbers.  It does look like it is a significant investment.


And don’t think that there were not traveling salesmen peddling the latest tools and newspaper advertisements listed woodworking tools as the latest from the East Coast.  I am sure when a shipment came into town, the tradesman would stop buy to see what was new.  While this is only 35 years old, but when I was an apprentice, once or twice a year a fellow from Germany came by the shop where I was training and had tools for sale.  I bought my first wooden plane from him.  He had tools especially for cabinet shops and that was how he made his living. 


There were catalogues and other publications that contributed to the knowledge of what was available and while keeping up with the latest furniture fashion, keeping up with the latest technology was also readily accessible.  Out west in various communities were Trade Guilds, Organizations and Societies that held annual competitions as well as regular meetings, so there was an exchange of information.  But not everyone would share ‘their’ recipe for varnish and there were closely guarded ‘trade secrets’.


What sets these tools apart from the tools we have today are ‘laid steel blades’.  I know I have gone on and on about these but they are vastly superior to modern all steel tools.  Everyone comments on how hard the steel in the old blades.  They didn’t have better steel they were just capable of the ‘brine quench’ which makes it much harder.  At least some tools are available with laid steel blades, the fine plane blades from Galoot Tools and the possibility of altering Oriental chisels to match what was available, but modern makers are not interested in the expense of making laid steel blades.  This I find terribly unfortunate as laminated tools are far superior to solid steel tools, but then I have said this before and I am sure I will bring it up again. 



It is not just the tools of course, it is tools together with the proper training it takes to use them correctly.  It is the experience they got every day using these tools, no wasted moves, no extra effort.  They knew which tools to get out for each project they encountered and they had far fewer tools than woodworkers do today.  It is possible to produce furniture using only the tools listed on old probate inventories of old shops, but it is a challenge.  I suggest you give it a try if you have the opportunity, it is a real eye-opener.




September 10, 2008

The Speed at which Traditional Craftsmen worked

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,The Trade,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 4:12 pm

Now this is not going to be something that everyone will agree with, but I want to express my feelings on just how fast they got work done in the nineteenth century.  I can not speak for times earlier, but I have a feeling that some things just don’t change that much. 


When examining historical records such as price books, journals, diaries, account books and other relevant materials, looking at correspondence, newspaper advertisements, trade publications and other social contextual materials has given me an idea of the pace and speed at which nineteenth cabinetmakers (and I am sure other trades) did their work based upon how they lived. 


Today we look at this from our modern perspective, the 8 hour day, 5 day work week, with little or not reference to the seasons, except when to plan our vacation.  Well in the nineteenth century things were much more closely governed by the seasons and the amount of available daylight.  Oil or candles would be burned on certain occasions when work needed to be done overnight such as the building of a coffin in the summer time.  But by and large shops worked when the sun shined and there was sufficient light to work.Here is another very important difference between the past and how we do things today. 


Now of course things vary but generally craftsmen in the past had every tool they needed for the task right at hand.  (Lacking the sufficient tools recently, reinforces this point).  They had an ‘endless’ supply of material (wood), in most cases as dimensioned lumber from the lumber mill or mid nineteenth century on, from a planer mill.  They new exactly what they were making, furniture that was in style at the time, furniture that they had made before, so everything was very familiar.  They had at least 4 years of training as an apprentice and knew the trade, could use the tools and had experience working long hours.



With this general background and the daily requirement of actually working to get paid led to these craftsmen to work at a speed today we think as very fast.  I have a problem with this as while some things change, there are some things that I believe never do, namely the human being is very lazy.  Perhaps this is a bit harsh and maybe not the correct word but people will tend to find the easiest method to get things done.  If that means ‘gang’ sawing the sides of drawers or sides of boxes, then they did that.  Or if it meant not planing the underside and backs perfectly smooth, or over-sawing half blind dovetails on the backs of drawer fronts or not painting the stripes on the back side of legs, these were ‘shortcuts’ that allowed the work to get done quickly. 


Having the apprentice or helper do the basic preparation of materials in advance of the master putting it all together, greatly increased the speed at which furniture could be built.  In shops like those of a chair maker, many parts can be made ahead of time and easily stored until a chair was ordered.  Then with the parts already made, they can be quickly assembled, a finish applied and it is ready to go out the door.  When times were slow (and this may not have been a common occurrence as the demand for furniture was great as our nation grew) extra parts were made and stored for future use. 


Many of these craftsmen were farmers as well and farming is done in the warmer months, interfering with the long daylight working hours in the shop.  In the winter months, there was not that great a demand around the farmstead other than the daily chores and more time could be spent doing woodwork.  The winter time had shorter days, so less useful time in the shop. 


Using traditional lighting it is possible to work at night when there is no sunshine, but it is difficult.  The work needs to be done near the light source, but several things that were routinely done can be done in very low light.  For instance surface preparation with hand planes can be done, relying on the sense of touch to feel when the board is smooth.  I even do this in broad daylight.  And other tasks can be done in low light.  Certain operations require a lot of light and those were best done during the day but could be done at night if enough grease lamps are burning.  I am certain the inside of every shop was white plaster, whitewashed or painted white, to increase reflected light.


People were not any faster back then than we are now, evolution takes a bit longer, they just had more experience.  Working 12 to 16 hours a day just gave one more experience as did the repetitive work being done.  A chair shop made nothing but chairs and they just got fast at the work because that was all they did.  In a Cabinet shop there was probably 10 to 12 items that were offered for sale.  That was all they made, aside from the regular repair and coffin work and the special order for a fancy variation of an item they already made, so they were familiar with the basic techniques, had the properly prepared materials, and had all of the (sharp) tools that they needed. 


With this kind of experience ingrained (pun intended) it is not at all unreasonable that they could accomplish the most mundane work quickly and the more complex tasks with the greatest dispatch.  They were seldom confronted with something they hadn’t had experience with as their basic learning had been done as an apprentice with the added experience of working in the trade.  They seldom made their own tools but had to be proficient at sharpening and maintaining them.  They seldom prepared their own timbers/lumber, etc. as most of it came from sawmills and later planing mills. 


They would ‘sub-contract’ out some work such as painting and decorating and seat bottoms to local cottage industry and hire out some specialized work such as wood carving.  It wasn’t important for a shop to do all the work what was important is that the shop put work out the door and food on the table for all involved. 


This all contributed to the local economy, the lumberman that felled the trees and took them to the sawmills.  The saw mills that cut the trees up into boards and sold them.  The teamster that transported the lumber to town, the local lumber yard (if the settlement was large enough) all participated in the final product, the woodwork that was sold and used in the community.  If hardware was used, it had to be made by the local blacksmith or imported from factories in the East or Europe, and was sold by local stores that frequently carried a good variety of hardware and other commodities like glass, paint and tools.  Manufacturers, freight companies, merchants all benefited, contributing to local and other economies. 


They weren’t any faster, they were just exposed to the work on a regular basis and learned to do it without any wasted moves.  They had things planned out because they had done it time and time again, knew which tools to have at hand, what to do and how to get it done with the least amount of effort.  They made it as easy on themselves as possible, with sharp tools, proper materials and learned from their experience.  Paid by the piece, whether the master or the journeyman, (the apprentise was paid in learning how to work properly and quickly), the sooner it went out the door the better.




September 9, 2008

Emergency Dovetails!

Filed under: Dovetails,Of Interest,Techniques,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 3:44 pm

This was the word on Sunday last, two (2) Dovetailed drawers for a good client of a friend of mine, Mike Moore.  We glued the wood together Sunday and worked for 8 hours Monday and 5 hours today. 


 You will notice the unusual surroundings for me, there is a makeshift vise on the end of this table and the adjustable one is handy for people who can’t decide what height their workbench should be.

Dovetail drawer 1

These are unusual sized drawers and the bottoms are fit in.

Dovetail drawer 2

Here is the third picture.  These are the two drawer fronts with the hardware installed.  I designed this bar and specified this hardware.  This will become evident later when you see the entire bar.

Dovetail drawer 5

This is Mr. Mike Moore, my new student as he finishes off the stopped grooves for the bottoms of the drawers.

Dovetail drawer 4


Now I was of the opinion that he wanted me to make the drawers, although I don’t have access to my tools, he said he had enough, so I was ready.  What I came to learn on Monday morning was that I was going to teach him how to make hand cut dovetail drawers.  That together with not having my own tools resulted in the drawers taking approximately 24 man hours to make.  This is not my best speed for sure, but it was an altogether fun experience.  The two drawers are for this Bar I have briefly mentioned and the clients are very nice people, and very patient. 


Both drawers are self guided, the large one for bar towels and other light items, but what the small drawer will be used for is still a mystery.  It may have a cut out on the side to allow access.  The drawers need to be strong to survive a good bar fight, so they are constructed of 3/4″ pine, sides and bottom.  The bottom is let into a groove running around the bottom on the inside of the drawer.  It is not like a normal drawer in that it is completely contained, is loose and floats. 


So the emergency has ended, both drawer boxes are under clamp and will be finished off on the morrow.  Smoothing the corners and a good coat of shellac will take care of the boxes.


September 7, 2008

Moving in

Filed under: Furniture,Historical Material,Restoration,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 1:54 pm

Well my good friend Mike Moore cleared out a space for me in his shop, a very large commercial cabinet shop.  Here is some of the crap in the way.  The rest of the stuff took a forklift to move.  So I have a place and we have struck a deal and I will have a nice space to continue my work.  Both of these pieces will need to be restored, I wonder if he can find anyone to do the work?

Empire Sofa


This piece is an Empire Style sofa (a couch or lounge would have only one arm) in cross-banded crotch mahogany.  A bit of an alligator surface, but probably has its original finish.  I think the upholstery is new.  But a nice rich brocade would look good.  Needs a few repairs, but it is remarkable condition.  Look that hide glue is holding that veneer after nearly 200 years.

Mahogany Bureau


The Bureau is also of mahogany and mahogany crotch veneer.  (This one is not painted and grained).  This one has some interesting stuff going on.  It has some layout marks that are quite rare and except for the finish and some wear on the drawers and guides and runners, it is in good shape.  There is some missing veneer, but that isn’t a problem. 


There is evidence of an original mirror on top of the glove box, will have to figure out what that should look like, but the scrolls on the bracket feet has some good lines to copy.  Over the course of the next several days I will make arrangements to get my stuff picked up at the Park and delivered to my new corner. 


I have worked with Mike on a couple of projects in the past and they were always fun.  I will be posting some pictures of a Bar that I designed (it took me a day to do the drawings) and he has been working on it for 4 years.  He has a very patient client, but you should see this Bar, and you will.



September 4, 2008

Writing Accessories Part II

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 6:56 am

Not like pulling a pencil* and notebook out of your pocket, writing with pen and ink requires a bit more finesse and a few more accouterments.  One thing that is necessary after you have put pen to paper is something to deal with the wet ink.  There are a few methods.  For one you can just let it air dry or you can use a blotter. 

Ink Blotter & blotter paper

This blotter has a threaded handle that holds a piece of wood that holds the blotter paper.  I had some absorbent paper on the blotter and began my long search for blotter paper.  Finally at a fancy stationers, I found some spendy French paper.  I thought I might have to re-size my blotters, but if the paper is cut exactly in half long way (I get two blotters from each sheet) it fits my blotters perfectly. 

Tin Sander

Then there is the sander, this is what I show people when they say I don’t have a sander.  This one is made of tin, but examples in pottery, horn, wood and other materials were used.  You will note the Black Sand, which was commonly used in the nineteenth century and earlier.  Why black sand?  Because it is easy to see on white paper.

Cherry Sander

And here is an old one made of cherry in a local museum.  I would love to repair this one.  It is drilled up from the bottom to make the cavity for the sand and then the bottom hole is sealed.  The sand is put in from the top.  After it is sprinkled on the wet ink, it is poured back into the concave top, a little shake and it all goes back into the sander ready for use again.

Ink Erasure

One also needs an ink erasure and sure enough they came in many styles.  This is a bit later one that is both an ink erasure and a letter opener.  Many had just the small spade shaped head to remove the ink from the paper.  These work surprisingly well, I use this one all the time, not that I make that many mistakes.

Drawing Tools

Here are a couple of tools that I use on a regular basis, the classic sweep and parallel rulers.  The latter tool is an incredibly handy tool for drawing and laying out. 

French Drafting Set

This is a little box of drawing tools I picked up for $6.00.  It is French and says Tools of Mathematics embossed on the lid. 

Drawing Tools

Not a complete set and the Ruler is English, but a nice set, the handle on the liner is bone.

  I also have a couple more liners. 


These are adjustable to different width line when drawing with ink.  They are just over 5 inches long, the black handle is gutta-percha.  The one with the ‘silver’ handle has an unusual bump on its side, this is for a straight edge to rub against, strange looking and very handy.  But here is a little trick for you, I use them to put stripes on furniture as they hold paint as well as they hold ink.

Writing with pen & stylus

This is the proper way to write with a quill or ink pen.  A stylus is held in the off hand and that is used to keep the paper or parchment flat for easier writing.  In old illustrations you frequently see what looks like someone writing with two pens, the one is to hold the paper down. 


You also need to clean the tips as the ink can be corrosive.  I have a small piece of soft leather I use.  Several small mall circles, lozenges of black broad cloth were held together with a single stitch in their center and were used to clean the tips.  I have also ‘heard’ of a nib cleaner/holder made of horsehair.  I have yet to make one of these, but it is on my list.


*the ‘modern’ wooden pencil [two pieces of wood with a groove shot down the center of each and a piece of sawn graphite glued in between] was invented by a Cabinetmaker, William Munrow of Concord Mass. in 1812.  The mechanical pencil in England in 1822.



September 2, 2008

Writing Accessories Part I

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 6:40 pm

Now that we have pen and ink there are a few other accessories that should be mentioned.  First of course is paper and during the mid nineteenth century ‘wove‘ paper was introduced.  Prior to that time and even later all paper was ‘laid‘.  The difference can be determined by holding the paper up to the light.  If there are a lot of little horizontal lines caused by the wire in the paper mold and a few vertical lines called ‘chains’ that hold the fine wires in position.  Some are watermarked with the paper makers name. 

Laid Paper


Wove paper when held up to the light doesn’t have these lines as it is made on woven screen, hence the name.  It is possible to see the pattern of the screen on the paper, but it is more subtle than the laid paper.  And of course all paper was made with cotton, linen and wool cloth scraps, wood pulp was not a big player in the paper industry until after the American Civil War. 

Wove Paper 


Now writing paper is different from printing paper as writing paper is ‘sized’ to prevent the ink from bleeding through the paper.  Printing paper uses ink made of varnish and lamp black and does not bleed into the paper.  The size is usually thin hide glue, however starches and other materials were used to size and seal the paper for writing with the thin writing ink.  This is why some inscriptions in books bleed through as even the end papers in a book were un-sized paper, it is more costly to add the additional step of sizing the paper. 


And of course there was parchment, which is made from sheep or goat skins and carefully prepared for writing.  Important documents were frequently done on parchment, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, comes to mind.  Speaking of putting pen to paper, here are some of my writing instruments.



From left to right: a liner or lining tool, can be set to different widths, then two crow quills with linen wraps and a small nib with a linen and shellac holder.  The longer pen is of Red Pine (now extinct), the crooked one (I call the lawyers pen) is of curly maple, the curved one from a relictual scrub oak, all with English Steel Nibs.  Then a quill and a short traveling quill in a wooden box.  Note the quill has a small piece of brass to act as a reservoir for ink.


There are also containers for ink and they vary from large ink shipping bottles, made of glass but more frequently stoneware to fine thin glass ink wells as well as fancy traveling Brass Inkstand. 

Brass Inkstand

This particular one is from Joseph Smiths Key to Various Manufactories of Sheffield published in 1816.  The top part holds the pen while the lower section houses the ink well or font.  These range from 6 to 8 inches tall.  Most of the other items in the book are knives and woodworking tools.  Here is a series of pictures showing some of the inkwells in my collection.  Apparently in the trade they are called ‘Inks’.

Plain and Fancy

The one on the left is a plain mold blown inkwell, the one on the right is also mold blown, is both wheel ground and flame polished and the top is hot finished.

Inks with Pen Rests

These two are mold blown and have integral pen wrests. 

Reproduction Inks

These are two reproduction traveling ink wells, the one on the right with the silver lid is mold blown and ground,  the one on the left is stick blown ( a turned wooden stick, soaked in water is placed on the hot glass, which forms a bubble of steam that forms the font) or steam blown and is almost spill proof.  Brilliant Ink

This one is unique in that it is mold blown and flame polished, but the font is blown separate from the base and the two attached when the glass is hot.  I have never seen one like this before, one of my favorites. 

Inks I use

Now these two are my users, the one on the left for iron gall ink and the small traveling ink on the right for my Sympathetic Ink. 


Once again I thought I could get it all in one post, but I can not, so I will continue in another post.





September 1, 2008

The Ink part of Pen & Ink

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 6:42 am

The pen of course is necessary in order to write as long as you have two other things, something to write on, paper, parchment, the wall of the necessary, &c., and Ink.  Now we are talking writing ink not printing ink.  Printers ink in the nineteenth century was made from Varnish, which they usually bought from local cabinetmakers and lamp black, which they either made or purchased. 


Writing ink on the other hand was almost always made from Oak Galls and Copperas.  There are many other varieties such as India Ink and Bankers’ Ink that were available in the nineteenth century, but the most common was Iron Gall Ink.  It is difficult to tell who made the ink in a community, but I imagine it was probably made by someone on a regular basis.  It was also imported and sold in merchantiles and in the 1850’s a Bottle of Ink cost $2.00, but I don’t know how large a bottle. 

 Oak Gall

The main ingredient in this ink are oak galls.  These occur on oak trees (others as well but oak galls are higher in tannic acid) when an insect Cynips gallae tinctoriae (or others) lay an egg in the branch of the tree.  The oak tree in response grows these galls as self defense.  The insect harmlessly hatches and flies away leaving the nodules that form in clusters on the local oak trees out here (Quercus gambelii).  The best galls are said to come from Aleppo and Turkey, but American Galls work just fine. 


I collect them by breaking them off the branch, sometimes little pieces of branch come off and should be removed to make the grinding easier.  Now these are hard little buggers and tend to jump out of the mortar and pestle when attempting the initial grind.  I just use a wooden M&P and grind the galls up.  These out here are a yellowish green color when powdered, I have heard that Aleppo galls are purple.  It isn’t the color now that matters it is the reaction that takes place when it mixes with the other ingredient and water. 


The second ingredient that gives its first name to Iron Gall Ink is copperas.  Often confused with copper, it is not what it is, is Iron Sulfate or Ferrous Sulfate, goes by either name.  The form I have is unusual in that it came to me in hard sticks of this material that must be crushed with metal tools.  I use an iron plate and a large faced hammer to crush this stuff up into a powder.  I place the chunks (I have previously broken it up into smaller pieces) on the metal plate, put the large face hammer on them then push down or strike the back of the hammer with a mallet.  I then grind it up fine between the face of the hammer and the iron plate.  Other recipes use green vitriol but that is also iron sulfate and some add logwood (heart wood from Haematoxylon  campechianum) to the mix, I however do not.  I may add some to an inkwell with oak gall ink, but I make the regular variety.

There is also Gum Arabic which is the secreted gum of the Acacia tree, also called Gum Senegal, which is soluble in water and acts as the initial binder for the ink.  It becomes insignificant later after the ink has ‘burned’ itself into the paper or parchment. 


As for the proportions I have seen 1 to 3 (copperas to galls) but I am sure that my mixture is about 1 to 10, a lot more gall than iron sulfate. To this I add water to cover it up with 5 times the amount of water to volume of dry mix.  Do not add the Gum Arabic until it has sat for 4 weeks and is decanted off.  If it is winter time I will add alcohol to prevent it from freezing.  I mix the stuff up in a well stoppered bottle and from time to time remove the mold growing on the surface and shake the contents.  Now I can not figure this mold out, that should be a very hostile place for mold to grow but it does.  I will put a fresh stick of willow (Salix spp)with the outer bark removed and that will keep the mold from growing.  Only a small amount of Gum Arabic is necessary, to a pint of ink I will add 1/2 teaspoon.


I keep the dross in the mixing bottle as a sort of starter for my next batch of ink.  I don’t pour out the lees as I am not sure if all of the copperas has been used up.  The ink is a light purple gray ink that darkens over time.  Because of the high acid content it literally burns into the paper or parchment.  The Constitution and Declaration of Independence were penned with Iron Gall Ink as was nearly every other document from the nineteenth century or earlier.


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