Full Chisel Blog

May 19, 2010

They sure don’t make them like they use to.

Filed under: Historical Material,Moxon,Of Interest,The Trade,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 9:41 am


After some recent discussions around the internet on various topics has prodded me to start thinking about if things really got better.  Not that I need any prodding, I think about old stuff all the time.  There is also a great discussion about the quality of steel used in edge tools, many saying that modern steels are ‘better’ than those available in the past.  With all of the modern innovations; tempering ovens, atmospheric controlled and exotic new materials, people assume that the steel will be better.  What the hell does that mean?

Their argument seems to be that with modern techniques the material is more uniform and consistent from batch to batch.  I think we under estimate the abilities of our ancestors with this bit of arrogance and hubris. I have used ‘modern’ steel tools, there is nothing like a laid steel blade for a chisel or plane blade that were common on tools prior to modern times.

Moxon talks about the different types of steel that was available in the late fifteenth early sixteenth century in England.  If he could determine and delineate different steel types then he knew or was told by those who did, the differences.  Sounds pretty consistent to me.  The annealing [or as he called it nealing] process is the same as today, heat up the metal to a blood-red-heat and allow it to cool slowly.  His process of hardening appears to be the same [although he does mention hammer hardening for saw plates, etc.], but his description of tempering [to let it down] differs from how the process is done today.  ‘The light goldifh Colour is for Files, Cold-chiffels and Punches, that Punch into iron and Steel: The dark goldifh Colour for Punches to use on Brafs, and generally for moft Edge-tools; The blew colour gives the temper to Springs in general…’

Moxon is not the be all or end all when it comes to the trade, but it was the first English language description of the topics he included in Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works.  It is the foundation on which all subsequent publications were built.  It is a great resource and should be read with its original punctuation, spelling and type face, for the best effect.  When immersed in the text, I get a bit of the feeling of what it was like 300 years ago, and I like that feeling.

We think everything new is better, synthetic sharpening stones, synthetic glues and finishes are better than the real thing.  Our ancestors were not some sort of knuckle dragging sub humans, our brains are the same size.  Nor are they stupid hayseeds that just fell off the cabbage wagon.  I would venture a guess that if educated adults today had to pass the mid school curriculum of the early nineteenth century many wouldn’t qualify.

If you look at metal turning lathes from L’Art de Tourner by Charles Plumier in 1792, the only difference between those and modern lathes are the power source.  They were sophisticated machines that could cut threads, had slide rests and in some instances have more options that are now available.  Look at the ornamental turning lathes of the nineteenth century produced by Holtzaffel are quite sophisticated.

A friend of mine called this ‘White Man Syndrome’ in that today people consider that they know more or when making reproductions they make ‘improvements’, using newer ‘better’ materials, etc.  I have heard that inane comment ‘well if they would have had it they would have used it’, to which I reply well they didn’t have it, so they didn’t use it, so stop [explicative deleted] messing with history.  You can’t improve upon the past.



  1. I do not agree that Moxon should only be “read with its original punctuation, spelling and type face, for the best effect.”

    My guess is you have only read a reprint. The 1703 edition which doesn’t have the original spelling, original punctuation, typeface, and some of the engravings – especially the one on woodworking tools were redone. Does it invalidate the experience that in the original Joiner was spelled Joyner? the reprint doesn’t have the original advertising either. There are other changes but they are all minor. The version you read is slightly easier to read than the original. A modern version with modern spellings is easier still. Each edition carries it’s own flavor and they all have merit. The modern version being the most accessible. the earlier editions harder to get into the swing of reading it.

    I don’t think your reading the reprint from 1703 invalidates your experience. I think it’s a lot better to read that version then hold our for the original. By the same token I would much rather someone reads a modern version with modern spelling than not read the book, and not learn anything at all.

    Comment by joel — May 19, 2010 @ 10:48 am

  2. I should make it clear – the 1703 edition of moxon is a reprint by a different publisher of the original 1677-1683 edition. The original first and second editions are available on EEBO but have not been generally reprinted.

    Comment by joel — May 19, 2010 @ 10:50 am

  3. It seems to me that “we” lose out if we don’t have deep respect for traditions and the hard earned base of knowledge of our forebears. Hence a huge rekindling of interest in the “old ways” that many in the post WW II generations have pursued. It’s clear that industrial society turned its back on a lot of vital connections and they were broken.
    At the same time I believe it is a losing attitude to assume that our forebears themselves didn’t embrace innovation and wouldn’t do so today or in any era. It is
    up to the individual artisan to determine what an appropriate balance of traditional and modern elements to incorporate in methods of work, materials,and design, but beware a stodgy attitude. That wasn’t how progress was ever made.

    Comment by Tico Vogt — May 19, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

  4. To add a little to what Joel said, using “f” instead of a long s (ſ) as a transliteration is kinda confusing. At least, I think that’s what you’re trying to do here.

    Comment by Brian — May 19, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

  5. … and the aether veritably steams with the conversations flying back and forth!

    !. Mr. Moxon was quite dead by 1703. Lacking an electrotype plate or a scanner, those who wanted to reprint (and benefit monetarily from said reprinting) needed to recreate the book in it’s entirety. Which was the standard of that day. Publishing houses might print a mess of sheets and store them in hopes of someone requesting a copy at some future date. That was their version of a hard disc. Or until there was a fire and the stock was toast.

    2. Moxon was the first SERIALIZED ENGLISH LANGUAGE BOOK and the first English Language book to POPULARIZE the building trades for the enjoyment and edification of the intelligentsia of the time who reveled in the romantic notion of being another De Vinci. Pay close attention to those capitals of mine. There were French authors who preceded Moxon in their treatments of the subject. For all I know there were Dutch authors too. I have an early book on shipbuilding, in Dutch, and I can read that one even less than I can French. I am now off on a search to discover who invented the first workbench…

    3. Joinery was the chapter title but Joyner was the form of nomenclature used within the text of the 1703 edition of Moxon (and we really don’t know for how many years after 1703 this was printed or sold. Perhaps the publisher had a stack of sheets ready to go to the binder for the next 30 years.) If you read early works carefully, thing like spelling, punctuation and grammar were not adhered to with any great respect for the English language.

    4. Read a copy of an early 19th C or late 19th C boys book of Things Necessary To Succeed In Life and you’ll see some computations that would stump any but the best math minds of today’s colleges. Or, when was the last time anyone figured out the board feet in a tree using a ruler, the sun and Hoppel’s Menusuration? Gives me the whillies just thinking about it. These people were anything by dummies. Of course, I happen to think that elephants, dolphins and whales are more intelligent than we are. Or for that matter, my cats.

    5. Agricolla’s Metallica (I know that’s not the real title, I just like putting the name of a heavy metal band in there) covers some very sophisticated material. And for all our vaunted modern knowledge, we’re still approaching wood as if it was a manufactured material with consistent internal structures.

    6. When reading the long “s”, I simply insert a slight lisp in my reading. Works for me.

    7. If everyone was right, it would make for a very boring internet.


    Comment by Gary Roberts — May 19, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

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