Full Chisel Blog

November 27, 2008

The Ugly American…

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,The Trade,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 10:17 pm

Tools.  Lets see what kind of dander this fluffs.  The recent post on English Influence, there was a considerable amount of interest and comment, so I would like to explore this issue further.  The origins of British design are still in contention, but many tools remain largely unchanged since Medieval times.  And no doubt tool production reached its zenith and great abundance in the United Kingdom.  Although I am not sure when they became united.

1818 American Flag

However what was produced here in America often falls short of the standards and quality of British tools, and we are talking hand woodworking tools.  Machine tools are another subject.  The English (I will use that term hoping not to insult anyone from Scotland, Ireland, Canada, &c.), tools are just nicer looking than their American counterparts.

 America is a melting pot of people from all corners of the world.  I wonder if the corners of the world are from when we thought it was flat?  There were more German emigrants than any other country, yet there influence certainly did not have the impression on American tool making ad did those from Britain.

Yet American tools don’t have the sophistication and refinement as those from England, but there were reasons that American versions aren’t that refined.  The main reason is that ‘improved’ manufacturing techniques did not lend themselves to producing anything too complicated.

With the pressure of supply and demand created by the industrial revolution (which came about due to the introduction of the potato into Europe from the New World), it was necessary to make more utilitarian tools, and it was not until later in the nineteenth century that the Victorian influence (wasn’t she an English Queen?) that hand tools took on some embellishments.  Some were quite gaudy and garish.

I bring up Dutch hand planes as they are some of the most fancy embellished planes that I have ever seen.  Now those fancy late nineteenth ivory plows are bodacious, the fancy Dutch planes appear to be actual user planes.  Those decorative scallops do provide a better grip on these planes, and Russian wooden hand planes were toothed on the outside to improve grip.

Look at saw handles on British hand saws and closely compare them to those made in America.  Both design and execution are noticeably better on the English versions.  The normal bench planes made in Britain have much sharper edges and more defined characteristics than those of American origin.

Now does this matter in the overall picture, probably not.  It is arguable that Sheffield steel is superior but many American makers used those iron/steel tools.  That aside there probably isn’t much difference, but the ability to supply the demand still saw imports from England, Germany, Spain and other countries to meet the growing American demands.

Certainly there were innovations, the Knowles patent cast iron joiner plane, not a copy of the Roman planes but an effort rather unsuccessful to replace the wood with cast iron.  The Jennings twist auger bit takes of on Cooke and L’Hommedieu and becomes the American standard, while Gedge got his patent (based on Cooke) two weeks before Jennings.  Marketing is everything. (The Gedge pattern is clearly superior.)

And marketing may well have had much more influence on tool design than we may expect.  I believe the introduction of the backed saws with thin blades in the early 19th century was a marketing ploy.  A ‘finer saw kerf, wastes less wood’ was the hot buzz word/phrase from that time period.  Like anyone here in America cared about saving wood. 

Here is what a back saw is: it is a tool that requires less steel, because it is thinner, the cheap wrought iron or brass back stiffens the saw blade that is just too thin.  So it should be cheaper but it wasn’t.  Like the ‘solid cast steel’ tools were more costly than laid steel tools is marketing as they are actually cheaper to make but sold for more money.  That is good business if you are selling tools.

 But not necessarily a good thing, at least for the craftsmen that had to use these tools, the old farts continued using what they had and disparaged the new improvements preferring the traditions that had learned early on.  Then they all died and no one cared and everyone wanted the ‘new and improved’.

We were the upstart colonists, we had our own agenda and were interested in creating our own standards and traditions.  We were our own new country and had needs that needed to be fulfilled.  So we dropped some of those embellishments and even forgot what certain features were actually created to produce, such as the nicker nib on hand saws.  Henry Disston was at a loss as to its purpose.

Is it hubris or is it that we needed to create our own identity in the international community that we reduced tools to a common denominator of utility?  We produced quality tools that just weren’t as good looking as those made in other parts of the world.  The guilds, societies and associations that had greatly influenced the trades early on began having less and less significance in America.

 There were more people in Europe than America in the late 18th and early 19th century, so labor was cheap and materials, namely wood was not as readily available, especially in England and had to be imported.  In America there was plenty of wood, of course ebony, mahogany and rosewood and other materials like ivory were necessarily imported on both sides of the ocean.  In America labor was scarce but the world was expanding, demand was great and with improvements in clean water supply and advancements in medicines allowed people to live longer.

 I am not sure I have given the reasons that American hand tools aren’t as good looking as English and European tools   But there are noticeable aesthetic differences that have come to the attention of others as well.



  1. 1 1 May 1707
    2 One of the enduring pleasures of the US is the deliberate lack of design in almost everything. As if the utilitarian is enough in itself. And this seems to be a characteristic of all national groups. I think this applies to tools also. British tools were better made and refined; now things are refined to their detriment and have become etiolated and silly. (Probably applies to the Canadians too.)

    Comment by rfrancis — November 28, 2008 @ 5:58 am

  2. Bingo! Stephen hits the rose-head nail on the head with his hand forged claw hammer (nicely handled in froe-split hickory). When wholesalers are busy importing British Made Stuff of the Beste Quality, how was the American toolmaker going to compete? When the tools appear similar in design, who is to say what was made locally and what came across the water? I too believe that the need to differentiate domestic products from British goods meant developing clearly defined and recognizable design conventions.

    There was also a lack of Guilds over here. No Guilds means no institutional pressure to conform. The market dictated what sold and what didn’t. Regional design preferences held sway as a way to maintain, hopefully, dominance in a narrow market.

    Comment by Gary Roberts — November 28, 2008 @ 8:27 am

  3. Good article, Stephen, but the one thing everyone seems to overlook in all the arguments that have been bantering back and forth these last few days – you can produce whatever you want in a utilitarian or embellished fashion but to sell it, it has to be what the customer wants. I’m currently working on an article specific to this point and I expect two things to happen – a) it to be posted by the end of the weekend, and b) I will be lynched first thing Monday morning.



    Comment by Mitchell — November 28, 2008 @ 9:44 am

  4. Mitchell

    The worst that can happen is a dunking in raw linseed oil and a rolling in sawdust.

    Comment by Gary Roberts — November 28, 2008 @ 11:19 am

  5. Interesting article, I suspect that there is more cultural cringe going on with earlier US toolmakers than you are acknowledging, Henry Disston (and other sawmakers) were at pains to make their product look like English “Made in Sheffield” saws. (later they developed their own style). But they were selling into a market that appears to have preferred British made tools. It is to Disston’s credit that they succeeded in reversing that bias (Henry Disston, don’t forget, was born and raised in England by the way)

    Utilitarian, can’t compete with marketting, just look at some of the tools being offered for sale today. Hardly utilitarian…

    One more point, Cast steel is considered better, because the carbon content is more uniformly distributed. I’m not clear on what you are referring to as “Laid steel”

    Thanks for an interesting article.


    Comment by Ray Gardiner — November 30, 2008 @ 12:18 am

  6. One other thing, backsaws appeared at least 100 years earlier than you are saying.
    Early 18th century at least, probably as early as mid 17th. I am of course ignoring the Roman backsaws. Definately not a marketting ploy.


    Comment by Ray Gardiner — November 30, 2008 @ 12:24 am

  7. rfrancis,

    Thanks for that quote, looks like people have been talking of this for some time.


    I do think that the marketing of tools has not been studied sufficiently.


    I read your blog post on the subject, let me know if you need backup.


    Cast steel would have been one of the steels like German steel, Shear steel that were forge welded or ‘laid’ on to the softer wrought iron body.

    What is the source on early backed saws?


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — December 1, 2008 @ 6:53 am

  8. Hi Stephen,

    I did a bit of research on evolution of the backsaw, you can find it here…

    Choosing Blister Steel (produced from the cementation process) as the starting point, you can reheat and forge and roll to produce shear steel, repeat the process to produce double shear steel. That produces a steel that has layers of high/low carbon content. If you take blister steel and melt in a crucible covered with a glass flux then cast an ingot that is then forged, that is called crucible steel, (cast steel), the carbon is distributed more evenly through the steel. The forge welding of high carbon steel to a low carbon (wrought iron) base is another thing altogether, and not to be confused with shear steel. (albeit I can see similarities in the sense that there are layers of hard/soft steel).

    German steel, is very difficult to define, as it has meant different things at different times and places.
    It was produced (originally) directly from pig iron and quenched pellets drawn out and forged into faggots.
    Later usage seems to be more akin to the shear steel process, I think for the process to work direct from pig iron you need a pretty high grade (low impurity) iron, unlike the poor quality iron ore found around Sheffield.

    By the end of the 19th Century the steel used in tools had become dominated by marketting gobbledegook and names were seemingly invented ad-hoc by tool makers.

    Interesting, if somewhat arcane subject.. Thanks for the thought provoking article, as always.


    Comment by Ray Gardiner — December 1, 2008 @ 1:10 pm

  9. Goodness Steven, you said “…yet there influence certainly…”! That would be ‘their’ not ‘there’. Stepping down off my high horse now to say it’s a great article.

    Comment by Peter Robinson — December 2, 2008 @ 5:45 am

  10. Ray,

    Nice write up on your site on back saws, I had no idea the backed saws were that early. And good description of steel, thanks for the information that is what makes the Internet interesting.


    That is ‘Stephen’, and sorry about that there misuse of the word. The spelling checker doesn’t catch those mistakes. I usually read my posts several times to catch errors, but this read right, so I missed that one. And thanks for your comment.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — December 2, 2008 @ 8:44 am

  11. oops, sorry Stephen. Yes darn speeling checkers aren’t worth much are they, and neither are picky critics 🙂 I also was going to say, but did not say, that here down under since we see mostly tools from England (and many locally made duplicates some of questionable quality and some excellent) and various parts of Europe, with some from the USA but not many, I find your points about the relative quality and aesthetics of the tools interesting. I have so far found the old English made tools to be generally much more refined than those I have seen from the US, and locally devised tools seem largely to be very utilitarian by comparison.

    Comment by Peter Robinson — December 4, 2008 @ 4:49 am

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