7.05.2012

A Museum of Early American Tools

Walking, like I do, has its avantages. The other week, on Belmont, I stumbled into a box of free books and picked up a battered copy of Eric Sloane's A Museum of Early American Tools.


I knew Sloane from some of his other books, which my parents had in the house growing up. Museum was originally released in 1962, by the venerable Funk and Wagnall's, a reference publisher that also made illustrated children's encyclopedias that I remember from the elementary school library.


My edition.


Sloane was a painter, by trade, producing thousands of landscapes over a 60-year career. He also had an abiding interest in New England folklore, traditions, and history, and wrote a series of hand-illustrated books about tools, barns, and other aspects of the pioneer life at the beginning of our republic. His drawings are beautiful, and technically accurate, but the hand-lettering and illustrative flourishes have not aged well. His writing, when it appears, is wooden and poorly edited, but there is relatively little prose.  


The Early American toolkit.

The shop and workbench.


That said, I find Museum fascinating because shows what it is to be a woodworker without electricity and metal fasteners. Almost everything I do in a shop is predicated on a trio of tools: the table saw, the chop saw, and the power drill/driver. Every joint I make is held together with mass-manufactured glue, screws, or nails. In contrast to fine Japanese joinery that manages to dispense with fasteners in a beautiful way, early American joinery was relatively crude, making heavy use of pegs and simple laps


Detail of the workbench.

I love the squaring process; today, a log is band-sawed into blank boards in seconds.
Back then, joinery, simple milling operations, and the ability to get anything flat or square required a lot of time and energy, provided by men, animals, or running water.  These old skills are re-animated by Roy Underhill, host of the Woodwright's Shop on PBS. I realize I'm getting into deep geekery here, the show is a varsity-level interrogation of pre-power tool woodworking filmed through the hazed, corny lens of early-eighties public television. Dressed in his trusty Canadian tuxedo, (also a favorite of PBS native son Bob Vila), Underhill takes you on a technical but understandable trip to a colonial-era shop.


Common log cabin joints.

Bit and brace.
Most of the old techniques and tools were about saving labor somehow. Without a table saw, long cuts with the grain (rips), were frequently split instead of sawn, making use of the natural lines of weakness within the lumber. Jigs, stops, and workbenches held awkward workpieces and facilitated certain tasks. Simple tools, like planes, came in seemingly infinite varieties, each one associated with a specialized task. 


I only have one plane, a Home Depot cheapo.
I study these things because, even now, they improve my craft. And so I'm ready for after the apocalypse.  

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