Full Chisel Blog

September 22, 2008

The Nineteenth Century

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,The Trade,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 3:16 pm

The economic conditions in the world at the beginning of the nineteenth century had different effects on different countries.  In England the focus was to find a substitute for wood as they ran out, the focus in America was what to do with all the wood.  Wood was only second to Cotton as the most valuable American export.  Europe had a lot of cheap labor and America didn’t but made up for it with inexpensive resources such as wood, which was expensive in Europe as the original growth was being used up or was already gone.


It is interesting that in 1840 there were over 30,000 sawmills in America, and every census since then show a decline in the number of sawmills with a continuing increase in wood prices. Apparently the Dutch in Manhattan built a sawmill in the 1630’s a full 30 years before one was built in England.  This I find interesting. 



The Wholesale Lumber Index (normalized index) during the nineteenth century increased from 24 in 1800 to 53 in 1857.    (Based on 1910-14 original price index =100)  The Lumber index today (9-22-08) is 216.  The per capita consumption of lumber in America went from 58 in 1800 to 259 in 1857.  England consumption went from 10 in 1800 to 79 in 1857. Europe talked of the wasteful lumbering practices in America as criminal.



An English gunsmith imported the newly invented Blanchard Lathe from America to use in his shop.  After trying it one time, it was abandon as being too wasteful.  It was cheaper to pay a man to shape it by hand rather than purchase the wood it took to ‘turn’ out a gun-stock.



Also during the early nineteenth century, the price of iron began to decline, that also includes the price of steel declining at the same rate (steel was 5 times the price of iron).  The ability to begin to manufacture it in larger more consistent quality and and larger quantities.  Iron was basic wrought iron, with its grain and slag inclusions and steel started to become available in more grades; Cast Steel, Blister Steel, German Steel, Shear Steel and other types.


And in America innovations in toolmaking, both metallurgy and woodworking saw the introduction of nail making machines.  Prior to that time (around 1795) hand wrought iron nails were $0.25 a pound and dropped to below a half dime (Nickle introduced in 1866) by the 1840’s. 


This together with sawn lumber lead to the building of balloon frame houses, quickly replacing the mortise and tenon, post and beam constructed buildings that had dominated.  These could be build by less skilled craftsman than the laborious and heavy timber frame construction.


About the middle of the nineteenth century it was realized that a great deal of wood was becoming sawdust.  And there was an effort to make finer saw blades.  With the advent of the band saw a much thinner saw kerf allowed for less waste.  It is estimated that prior to the introduction of thinner blades for every one inch of wood (allowing for removal of rough saw marks) 5/8″ ended up as lumber and 3/8″ as sawdust.




  1. Stephen

    The history you’ve posted here has absolutely captured my imagination. Can you share your resources so that I can persue this further?



    Comment by Mack — September 23, 2008 @ 11:41 am

  2. Mack,

    A lot of this stuff I lifted from America’s Wooden Age: Aspects of its Early Technology, edited by Brooke Hindle. A Sleepy Hollow Restorations Book, 1975. I bought the book when it came out and for some reason kept it, having sold my library a couple of times, this one I kept. This should be in every woodworkers and historians library, an excellent tome.

    I had help from Jake Beckstrand (a reenactor and statistician) understanding the lumber index.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — September 23, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

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