Full Chisel Blog

September 18, 2008

Modern Technology, in the nineteenth century

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,The Trade,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 6:28 am

Having worked for a number of years in museums, mostly living history museums, I was amazed at just how little people know of the past and how primitive people’s views are about their ancestors.  One day I was pounding a nail into a board and someone said ‘They didn’t haven’t have nails back then!’  I stopped, contained myself and said ‘well they didn’t peg Jesus to the cross.’ 


There were also comments about people not using nails or screws in furniture back then.  One of my favorite stories didn’t take place in my shop but in the Blacksmiths shop.  A woman asked what a particular tool was, the blacksmith was working so didn’t see what she pointed to, so he asked her which tool she had enquired about was and she said the one that looks like an anvil.  With tongue well bitten he said ‘an anvil’. 



I am constantly surprised at peoples response when they find out that their ancestors were not knuckle draggers.  The Dark Ages apparently lasted longer for some folks.  The nineteenth century was after all the time of the Industrial Revolution (brought about by the potato, but that is another topic) and woodworking machinery starts to make its general appearance.  Prior to the nineteenth century the common power source for tools were human first, then water and wind (wind to a lesser extent) power.  Animals were also used to power woodworking shops, saw mills and mills and shops for other trades. 



Then as the nineteenth century begins the introduction of the steam engine.  With this there were no longer seasonal problems of a water source freezing in the winter, flooding in the spring, the steam engine works well in cold weather and were available.  And smaller woodworking shops did not require the high pressure steam engines (like on steamboats), so they were much safer.  The nineteenth century saw the introduction or substantial refinements in woodworking tools especially machinery. 


The circular saw invented in both England in the 18th century and America in the early nineteenth century, were first used for veneers and the size of logs they could cut were small.  The larger blades would heat up, wobble and it was difficult to make a straight cut.  Initially they were used to trim the edge of boards that had been cut in an up down saw mill.  This was the most common type of mill, later the Muley saw was introduced and started to replace the slower sash mills.  The muley was a much stouter blade that didn’t require the surrounding sash, so it worked with less resistance and much faster.  The kerf was quite wide, but that was of no concern during this time period.  In the 1860’s it was reported that English saw blades were half the thickness of American saw blades.


And while the band saw was invented by Newberry in 1808 in England and again in America a bit latter, but it wasn’t until after the American Civil War that the technology existed to produce band saw blades that would (not) easily break.  Other advancements in tool and metal technology lead to other improvements and innovations in sawing machinery.  The second area where much attention was focused was that of planing the lumber. 


In the early nineteenth century there were a number of patents issued to planing machines; carriage planers, parallel planers, etc., then in 1828 William Woodworth patented and then for the next  nearly 30 years vigorously defended his patent for a planer with roller feed and cylindrical knives.  Because of his extensive patent his idea was almost impossible to get around and he did quite well.  The Danial Planer was a lateral planer with a carriage and was meant to surface large timbers, e.g. railroad ties, mill parts, wagon parts, &c. 


Other areas where the technology met the demand were making mortises.  The reciprocating mortise machine was an early one, based on the foot powered mortise machine, then the hollow chisel later on. 


Then there is one very unique part of woodworking.  Now perhaps it is because I have a fondness for turning or perhaps turning was a widely practiced trade.   The turning lathe was delineated in Charles Plummier’s L’art de Tournier in the 1790’s shows the advancement of lathes in the period, the only difference between today’s lathes is the power source.  Both metal and woodworking lathes are depicted.  Index heads, slide rests, screw advance and overhead power head that worked in the slide rest, there isn’t much difference between then and now.  But I think the real development of lathes was done by Thomas Blanchard when he made his pattern lathe. 

Blanchard Lathe

This is a back action copy lathe.  A pattern is placed in the mechanism, the index head activated and a pass is made with the spinning wooden wheel with steel cutters around the edge removes the wood.  The wood and pattern are indexed and another pass.  This is continued until the work is completed. 


Developed in 1822 this lathe was originally made for making shoe lasts, tool handles and wagon wheel spokes.  But by 1829 it had been adapted in the Springfield Armory to make gun stocks.  Not only could it shape the stock but with their developments when the stock came off the lathe it was ready to receive its metal parts.  This lead to interchangeable parts which is something the military was interested in doing. 



It is interesting to see the advancements in woodworking technology during the early nineteenth century and how it effected the trade.  This was the Golden Age of Woodworking, the best of both worlds, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution but before the large mass produced factories started to replace shop built furniture.  It is for this reason that I decided to study and devote my life to the pursuit of understanding Nineteenth Century Woodworking.  And the style of furniture at the time is attractive with its Classical influences. 


Instead of a rock, I have a fine Gentleman’s hammer, I have replaced the flint saw with a Spears & Jackson and bone awl with a steel brad awl.  But there are the throwbacks, I still lash with rawhide on occasion and use hide glue.






  1. Spear and Jackson please.
    Just read the saw.

    Comment by rfrancis — September 18, 2008 @ 5:31 pm

  2. Pardon me. I corrected the mistake and thank you.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — September 18, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

  3. Talking of nit picking..:-)
    My favorite is this one: but it wasn’t until after the American Civil War that the technology existed to produce band saw blades that would easily break.
    Wow, thats progress, and today we have perfected the easily breaking blades 🙂
    Missing the word ..not.. is it?

    There may be a typo on the french title
    Charles Plummier’s L’art de Tournier in the 1790’s
    I say maybe, because although it would read in French: L’art de Tourner (the art of turning) maybe in old french they had the extra silent ‘i’ in there??

    Nit picking aside, keep up the good work Stephen, i do enjoy reading your blog.
    Oh, one last thing, the font and size used, makes it dificult to read…

    Bob, who need better glasses ? 🙂

    Comment by Robert Demers — September 20, 2008 @ 9:20 am

  4. Well at least you are reading it critically and I appreciate that. I will be re-reading my work a little more carefully before posting. I have been using the spell checker, but it can’t correct grammar and operator error.

    I don’t know what to do about the font and size. I think I may try their default font and see if the size is better.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — September 20, 2008 @ 10:22 am

  5. Bob, who need better glasses ?
    If you are using Internet Explorer under the view menu there is a choice for text size. You can make the text larger on the page that way, Apple Safari changes the text size under the view menu as MakeText Bigger. Hope this helps both you and Stephen. That way you can postpone the glasses.

    Comment by Jack Ervin — September 20, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

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