Full Chisel Blog

November 22, 2008

Think of Old England

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,The Trade,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 6:26 am

1801 Union Jack


For the past 36 years I have devoted my career to the study and application of Traditional American Woodworking.  I have focused on the technology of the early nineteenth century, the tools, materials and techniques of the woodworking trades.  I chose that time period because I thought that it had been largely overlooked.  Because of my location I focused on the state of the trade in the West.  I gained some experience in the Mid-west and was familiar with the information available about Eastern woodworking, and chose pioneer and rural settlement influence rather than the metropolitan urban trends.

I have recently come to the conclusion that better than 50% of what I was looking at was a direct product of England.  Yes, the Mother Country, the one that lost two wars to us, from whence many of us emigrated.  Here in Utah in the 1850’s about 54% of the population was from Britain and brought traditions and tools with them.

The number of tools that I have from England is about 40%, 10% from elsewhere and half American in origin, with many of those from England.  I am not playing down the significance of other emigrants and we are all emigrants except the autochthonous people.  Sheffield Steel and tools made from it are among the finest in the world.  Also the most prolific in production, the shear quantities drove down prices world wide.

Old World practices such as guilds, associations, societies, apprentices, etc were copied on this continent with adjustments to more resources and less labor.  The direct opposite of European supply/population ratio.  We were reliant on imports, we couldn’t make everything we needed.  We even attempted to use the same language.

With established trade and a couple of disputes out of the way, England was the best game in town.  Influences like Moxon, Hogarth, Chippendale, Sheraton, Hepplewhite, Nicholson, et al from publications and guides and printed tool and hardware catalogues of the period were felt on this side of the ocean,  can not be denied.

Repressed during Colonial rule to repair work only, little was produced until free from those constraints.  The end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century saw a burgeoning industry of tool manufacturing in America.  But if you look at those tools, many are patterned after English examples.  But American production could not keep up with American demand and imports were necessary.

Perhaps the situation here in Utah and the West is unique.  Our pioneer and settlement period took place much later in North American History  Settlement on the East coast began in the early 1600’s and that didn’t occur out here until 1847.  California and Oregon were occupied with some settlement a bit earlier.

Prior to that the Hudson Bay Fur Company and other British enterprises were exploiting the rich fur trade of North America to satisfy European fashion demands.  David Douglas a botanist for the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, spent years in the Pacific Northwest and the Douglas fir is named after him.  The Spanish and French also claimed land in North America, which were later purchased or taken.

During the mid nineteenth century an enormous amount of money was spent on a Trans Atlantic Telegraph Cable from America to England.  The first in 1857 failed, the one later in 1866 after the American Civil War worked.  We were able to call home.

 The introduction of steam technology, developed in England was employed in the woodworking trades and adapted to sailing ships.  This reduced the crossing time from 4 to5 weeks under sail, under steam the time was cut in half.  Steam power to mills and shops replaced water power which was seasonal and froze in the winter time.

Another unusual and perhaps singular distinction in Utah emigrants is that most of them had come directly to Utah Territory directly from their country of origin.  Many of course were from the States, but the majority had only a brief passing through America and brought their customs, traditions, knowledge and tools with them.  It is possible to determine the cultural origins of a piece of local furniture by its construction, especially dovetails.  Danish, German and English styles are reflected in what they made.

Am I an Anglophile, well William Shepherd, my great great, great, great grandfather arrived on this continent from England in 1755, so maybe I am.  And Moses Trader Shepherd, my great great grandfather was out here in the early 1850’s.  Funny thing is, I own two reproduction American flags, the 13 star flag that flew during the American Revolution and the 15 star, 15 stripe flag that flew during the War of 1812.

We even used the Pound and Shilling as currency and British Gold and Silver was legal tender in America until 1857.  And the English Foot is 12 inches long.  I once had pickled English Walnuts, hulls, shell and meat, they were quite tasty but have not ever seen them again.  And then there is English Marmalade (with bitter Seville oranges) on a toasted  English Muffin, well, what can I say.

And while we have had our differences over the centuries, we have been reliant on each other in an economic relationship that has benefited both countries.  And I would like to give credit for much of the woodworking done in America to its origins, influences and assistance from England.

So, smell the Roses, have a little ‘bubble and squeak’, raise a glass of single malt and God Save the Queen.





  1. Nice write-up, Stephen. As a first generation Canadian whose parents came from England, I appreciate the nod of the hat to ovr’ ‘ome.

    Maybe you could answer the one question I have asked of many which has never been answered for me. Why are British tools so much prettier than the ones available from the same time period in the United States and Canada? It seems there was much more emphasis on the look of the tool over there, as well as its function.

    And as a point of contention from “the other side” regarding those two wars. You guys only won one. The second one (1812) was a draw. At least that’s the way we perceive it here.

    May there never be another,


    Comment by Mitchell — November 22, 2008 @ 7:07 am

  2. Stephen,
    Check out: http://www.bodgers.org.uk/index.php for a connection to early British Greenwoodworking

    Comment by Joe — November 22, 2008 @ 8:12 am

  3. Ah, and we’re off to our annual St. Andrew’s dance tonight. The St. Andrews cross, the white diagonal one in the flag, represents Scotland.

    St. George’s cross is the horizontal/vertical cross. And I’m dragging my memory here, but I think that the red diagonal cross is St. Patrick’s, and was added to the flag in the early 1800s, after Ireland gleefully became part of the UK.

    The recent Scots immigrants around here refer to themselves as British, but not English — and woe to you if you confuse the two. Tough for a dumb western-US fellow such as me.

    I’ll raise one tonight for all the good British woodworking traditions.



    Comment by Ken Pollard — November 22, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

  4. Mitchell,

    OK, one win (or loss) and one tie, I will give you that. As for why British tools look better, I have a few ideas, but this got me thinking, so I will come up with something.


    Thanks for the link, I rarely get to use green wood but love it when I get a chance.


    Have fun at the dance, and I will keep that in mind when I address those from over there. Thanks for the delineation of the Union Jack, the one I put on the blog is from 1801.



    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — November 22, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

  5. There’s scant but possibly, maybe reasonable evidence that British tools have Dutch tools as their forebearers. And tools of early Dutch make were very pretty indeed. There was regular commerce with the Dutch tool making community selling to British wholesale and retail establishments. But who came first may now be more a matter of national pride than anything else.

    Comment by Gary Roberts — November 22, 2008 @ 11:54 pm

  6. Must admit that I always thought the difference in appearance between British and early American tools had to do with two things, utility and demand. Manufacturers realised they had to produce a significant number of tools at a realistic price and did away, therefore, with much of the ornamentation, concentrating instead on function. They beat the Bauhaus to the conclusion that form follows function by a number of years!

    Comment by Mark — November 23, 2008 @ 2:37 am

  7. Many do fail to give the Dutch the credit they deserve in so many areas. I seem to remember that they have a long tradition in instrument making also – the first compound microscope is generally credited to two Dutchmen; Zacharias Jansen and John Lipperhey in 1590. Just look at that date, to be grinding lenses of sufficient quality over 400 years ago! Also, trade had flourished here in Europe since Roman times – and quite possibly before then – with goods travelling huge distances. No doubt ideas flowed as well and, at that time, there was no concept of the copyright.

    Comment by Mark — November 23, 2008 @ 2:44 am

  8. Gary,

    It doesn’t surprise me that the Dutch was an early influence, they were commercially making hide glue before anyone else. Most of their tools are very well done and the examples from Nova Zembla are nicely preserved considering their age and circumstance.


    Welcome and as for your first comment, I think you are spot on, the demand was far greater and many refinements were scrapped e.g. the nicker nib. And indeed the Dutch need their contributions and accomplishments accredited.

    I am not sure if we Americans had the national pride of other more established countries. That is a bit harsh but I think the established guilds and societies and apprenticeship system help to put a sense of pride into the trades and I think that is reflected in the tools. And while those things existed here they didn’t have the impetus they had in the Old World.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — November 23, 2008 @ 7:08 am

  9. Stephen, the sentence in your reply that begins ‘That is a bit harsh…’ leads me to think that I may have said something to offend. If that is the case, then I apologise, all I intended to do was suggest that toolmakers in America recognised that certain ‘features’ could be dispensed with and that the utility of the tool would not be affected to any degree. My comment about the Bauhaus was based upon the fact that one of it’s favourite son’s coined the expressions ‘less is more’ and ‘form over function’, stressing the need to remove anything that did not directly contribute to an objects usability. Furthermore I sought to emphasise the point that it is easy to overlook contributions from other societies and that the British toolmakers owed a debt of gratitude to others.

    It was not my intention to malign or impune and I apologise again if my comments gave that impression.

    Comment by Mark — November 23, 2008 @ 9:20 am

  10. Mark,

    Your comments were fine and at this early hour, my sentence construction was unclear in that I meant My comment was a bit harsh about us lacking national pride. Forgive my lack of clarity and thanks again for your comments. Any you are more than welcome to take me to task on anything I say.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — November 23, 2008 @ 9:36 am

  11. There are ‘British” style planes bearing Dutch makers marks from the early years of production. It’s not a leap to guess that some Dutch makers were simply exporting their product to Great Britain for sale through retail outlets, who added the company name stamp. I’ve come to think there is a strong Anglo-USA bent to the current study of tool making. We seem to have a dearth of information on the Dutch and Belgian connection.


    Comment by Gary Roberts — November 23, 2008 @ 5:30 pm

  12. Gary,

    The early illustrations of Moxon showing a round front throat on the top of planes are typical of the Earlier Dutch planes that sometimes had double flutes in the throats. Moxon illustration of chisels look exactly like chisels, handle and all from the late 1500 Dutch examples. A Dutch engraving from 1631 illustrates tools that I would imagine Moxon copied.

    There is little information about older tools from the Low Countries as they are referred too and that is too bad. But the old tools that do survive are wonderful examples. And maybe it is for that reason that they survived, but plainer examples also exist. That part of the world is not the best for preserving wood and iron objects.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — November 23, 2008 @ 6:54 pm

  13. Stephen,

    Actually, it’s pretty accepted that the images in Moxon were copied from Andre Felibien’s works. Why Moxon chose to copy French engravings is a mystery. The one plane Moxon added was a smooth plane and it is very different from the French planes pictured. Moxon’s engraver copied the images directly and didn’t reverse them for printing so all the handed tools like the plow plane and the bench are reversed. I’m sure the British weren’t commonly making left handed plow planes or benches in 1680.

    Care should be taken in interpreting the Dutch planes Gary mentions. Not one has shown up in Great Britain with provenance that would suggest it was an early import from Holland. There’s direct evidence to support Dutch influence in British planes in the last half of the 17th Century or in the 18th Century. I’m confident I can show evidence that British planes were more advanced and sophisticated than the Dutch planes by the time Moxon published his Mechanick Exercises in 1680. In fact, Continental planes never did commonly exhibit the more advanced features of early 18th Century British planes.

    Perhaps we should move this discussion to a more public place like WoodCentral. I’d enjoy talking about this in more depth.

    Comment by Larry Williams — November 23, 2008 @ 9:07 pm

  14. Larry

    Someday, hopefully, research will turn up documentary evidence of early Dutch, German, Belgian and British planemakers such that we can reliably date their journeys. It’s even more of a problem when you look at geo-political lines of demarcation over the centuries. The difference between various countries or between differing social groups can get fuzzy. While the Guild system attempted to control the trades, cross-pollination continued due to familial or trade connections.

    As to the sophistication of any once given style of planemaking, it’s true that British planes of the 18th C hold the prize for sophistication in design elements. There’s a common question of which came first, the needs of the architect or furniture maker, or the inventiveness of the planemaker. LN not-with-standing, generally craft follows form. If the prevailing architectural and furniture design elements require a more refined molding or joinery techniques, the tool maker has to adapt to the market.

    Move away from heavy oak and chestnut furniture into deal, maples and exotic hardwoods and you need a totally different type of tool. If it wasn’t for the French, perhaps Great Britain would still be leaning towards Dutch or Spanish styles?

    Comment by Gary Roberts — November 25, 2008 @ 8:56 am

  15. Interesting thesis. I’m not in a position to offer much to support or refute it, except to comment that, at least as the nineteenth century progressed, American tools moved further from British antecedents. I’ve heard it commented, for instance, that the Bailey plane, and many of its competitors, was optimized for American softwood, while the classic British infill plane was optimized for hardwoods; and certainly the Bailey plane (again, and competitors) doesn’t seem to owe much to British models.

    One anthropological comment: you say, “…we are all emigrants except the autochthonous people.” Actually, as I understand the archaeological record, we are ALL immigrants to these shores – it’s just a question of when. As I understand it, the evidence is pretty overwhelming that homo sapiens originated in Africa. Granted, Native Americans migrated quite a many years earlier than the Europeans; but they did migrate. And a lot of the Western tribes were migrating within the U.S. over pretty large distances concurrently with European settlement of the East.

    Comment by Bill Houghton — November 25, 2008 @ 9:51 pm

  16. Larry,

    I will agree that some of the images in Moxon et al are reversed in the printing process, but I don’t believe the bench illustration in Moxon is reversed. If so the catch on top would be on the wrong side. And I did put up a post on WoodCentral. I read your response, and you have a good argument although I am still not convinced there wasn’t any influence.


    I think there is more of a connection to the materials being planed, oak and chestnut compared to what was being used elsewhere. I think they ran out of those woods early and the tools changed to adapt. There is still more investigation to do on this entire issue.


    Welcome, and of course you are right everyone emigrated to this continent, the Native Americans just got here first. I do think your comments about adapting to American softwoods is a very important point. I am wondering where the Knowles Patent Plane of 1827 fits and was he influenced by Roman plane design.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — November 26, 2008 @ 6:37 am

  17. Speaking of Knowles, I’ve often wondered if his planes (and those attributed to him) were a function of limited patternmaking or foundry skills.

    On Moxon v Felibien, I believe we have to take a step back to the craft of the engraver. Moxon, while an author, printer and publisher, was not an engraver by trade. We have no way of knowing who did the original engravings for his work, or for Felibien. For all we know, the same engraving shop did both. There was considerable trade and contact between Britain, France and Holland during that time period. It was typical for journeymen engravers to duplicate a particular cut over and over as the printings continued. Their skill was in producing an exact duplicate. I’ve compared the engravings in Holtzappfel over a half a century and found minor differences in line numbers, but nothing really relevant to the image.

    It would be an interesting bit of research to compare the wood import trade over the centuries to architectural and furniture styles v tool styles. For all I know, there is something in Jstore that covers this!

    Happy Thanksgiving to those to whom the holiday is relevant

    Comment by Gary Roberts — November 26, 2008 @ 8:04 am

  18. This is a subject I really enjoy. Here in Kansas, settlement other than trading posts and forts started about 1855 as immigrants headed west along the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. The early settlers in my area were mostly European and so were the most of early tools I found. Shortly after the area began to be settled, American tools such as metal planes and Disston saws arrived in quantities.
    In other words, the British influence was not felt here as much as in other parts of the country.

    Comment by Roger Nixon — November 26, 2008 @ 10:58 am

  19. Lest we not forget, the Dutch held control of New Amsterdam (aka New York) beginning in 1625 (or thereabouts). People of Germanic descent settled in parts of Pennsylvania. Each group lent design preferences to the making of tools, to architecture and to furniture. Over here in Dedham, Massachusetts, some of the earliest pieces of furniture (low chests and ladderback chairs) are clearly British in flavor, as would be expected. But now I am getting confused between my Woodcentral posts and the Full Chisel blog…

    Comment by Gary Roberts — November 26, 2008 @ 9:23 pm

  20. Roger,

    The advantage we have out beyond the Mississippi is that our settlement period was much later than the East coast, therefore we are closer to our historic past and there are better chances of finding old stuff. Also the dryer climate helps preserve thing.


    I think the Dutch influence on many things has been understated as they didn’t end up on top of the big European conflicts. History is written by the winners. I don’t think this is solved but a lot more has been brought to the surface. I am glad I posted on WoodCentral (at Larry’s request) as it did provoke some interesting response.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — November 28, 2008 @ 7:08 am

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