• February 8, 2017
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100 Years Ago Today: Antique Woodworking Tools

100 Years Ago Today: Antique Woodworking Tools

Tools designed for woodwork can be traced right back to the Neanderthals using stones to beat down trees and sharpen sticks for weapons. It’s safe to say we’ve found better uses for woodwork tools throughout the past couple of centuries, but that can only be attributed to the foundations laid by pioneering tool designs.

100 years ago the world was locked in the great war, the outboard motor was maxing at a massive three horse power and the first formal State of Origin series was still another 63 years away. It was dire times. The woodwork industry was similarly juvenile, still breaking the backs of carpenters with immense physical labor and simple tools that often existed only to serve one purpose and within that purpose, one specific application.

The gradual transition from old woodworking hand tools to contemporary battery powered ones came about as power-tools began to be reproduced in handheld forms. These innovations meant that jobs which formerly required a whole kit of different tools could now be handled with just one and a bag full of attachments. The establishing prominence of concrete foundations for buildings also meant that carpenters no longer had to deal with heavy timber sills.

Image Credit: londonlives.org

These developments had strange implications on the woodwork industries. A sort of oxymoron formed where the physical labor of the work had been reduced as the tools had made tasks easier, but woodwork projects were now expected to go up faster and be more precise, meaning there were heavier expectations on the workers. With the efficiency of hand held power tools the work didn’t just become easier, it became more vast.

A Bit of Perspective

The tools we use on contemporary woodwork projects are taken for granted. Carpenters of the past didn’t have access to the powered hand tools that are available today, meaning their work required higher levels of physical labor and for elaborate woodwork projects, achieving detail was a far more meticulous undertaking.

Anyone who considers themselves a woodwork enthusiast should take a look through their power tool collection for a moment, then peruse the following woodworking tools list in retrospect.

  • Hand held battery-powered circular saws—Invented in 1923 by a man name Edmond Michel.
  • Power drill—First around towards the end of the first world war and known as the hole shooter, also designed by A.H. Petersen after Henry Ford challenged him to design a compact, high capacity power drill.
  • Jigsaw—The idea came to Albert Kaufmann after he had attached a saw blade to his wife’s sewing machine. This was in 1946.
  • Pneumatic Sander—The first straight line sander wasn’t patented until 1969 when Otto Hendrickson realised the potential of his idea.

Consider this the next time you reach for your power tools. Mentally replace the relevant tool with its manual predecessor and experience the sensation of being a carpenter in the 1910’s.

Woodworking tools were not all subject to mechanical transitions however, with simple devices remaining unchanged through the past century of technological advancements and innovations. Take the chisel for example, with the design of the tool becoming mostly optimised in Neolithic times and the only changes since being in the type of metal used for the blade.

The Survivors

The tools that have survived the periods of mechanical upgrades without becoming obsolete, stand as tall as Rocky after knocking down Creed; their continued existence as necessary tools to the woodworker’s belt is a testament to their practicality and versatility. And that’s what makes these tools, the cool woodworking tools. The inter-generational nod to their design and vintage look have made antique tools popular among woodwork traditionalists and carpentering historians.

Aside from the chisel, other hand tools have too persevered the tide of lithium and electricity that revolutionized the woodwork industry. Traditional Japanese woodworking tools are perhaps the best example, having remained staunch to their earliest designs and still providing useful alternatives to their battery-powered counterparts, especially for jobs requiring Japanese woodworking techniques.

Just as evolution has formed the intelligence of birds over millions of years, these fundamental hand tools have too grown to adapt to the contemporary worksite. Now, these innovations allow even strangers to woordworking pick up tools and undertake simple woordwork projects. Innovations in the teeth of hand saws or the butts of hammers have supported their continued use, especially in situations where compactness is a priority. But these changes have divided hand tools into contemporary and antique versions, with the latter being more expensive but also more unique.

Antique hammers and saws are now fetching hundreds of dollars on tool marketplaces. The appeal in these tools is the design and craftsmanship, with antique saws using hardwood handles that have been engraved by hand and use buttons on their grip to display early logos of pioneering brands. Similarly vintage hammers used leather handles and cast iron for the head to create a heavier but more balanced tool. Antique planes have also become popular among collectors, with their history in woodwork extending to the days when carpenters had to build the tools themselves.

The Dinosaurs

But for the hand tools that didn’t quite make it to the 21st century, they may rejoice in their newfound value. Powered hand-tools were just too dominant in their practicality for some jobs, replacing the use of some tools mostly or completely. The tools that lost their spot in woodworking workshops still present practical and intelligent designs and have not entirely lost their functionality or appeal.

The power drill replaced the many variations of hand drills that were being used by woodworkers in the early 1900’s, sending an array of designs into early retirement. Among these hand drills was the brace design, which has been reanimated in a slightly bigger form for the bonus torque it offers, but has otherwise mostly passed on. The brace is still an efficient tool, able to drill precise holes and easily pierce wood, however it cannot achieve anywhere near the RPM of a power drill.

Millers Falls has their own hand drill design which would have been greatly beneficial for improving a woodworker’s fishing reeling technique. The design featured a crank wheel that would rotate the brace and pierce wood at a much faster RPM than the original U brace design, but often would obstruct the vision of the hole being formed in the wood.

Draw knifes are still used when crafting the curve on cricket bats, but they are no longer an essential tool for carpenters. These knifes were multipurpose tools, having the ability to strip bark from logs, to form concave and convex on wood lengths, as well as basic splitting and cutting duties. The tool’s design itself resembles a period of woodwork gone past, with handles for both hands the tool often requiring its wielder to be seated.

Image Credit: retonthenet.co.uk

Where to Buy Antique Woodworking Tools & Supplies?

Antique woodworking tools can make a perfect gift for carpenters or DIY hobbyists looking to boost their belts with some slick tools. Though as antique tools will generally be more expensive than contemporary ones, they should not be purchased as substitutes, and instead reserved for traditional projects or home tool museums.

When looking for antique tools make sure you perform some initial research before heading into the markets. For specific tools, research the most popular makers from that generation, and always pay attention to design measurements and specifications to assure authenticity. Try Early American Industries or Fine Tools for information on antique tools.

There are plenty of online marketplaces that offer old woodworking tools and while these tools occasionally appear in the Machines4u marketplace, there are other sites that exist predominantly for the sale and resale of vintage tools.

Love antique tools and traditional craftsmanship?
You might like this article about Traditional Japanese Woodworking Tools.
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