As I open my wood shop with a hot, steaming cup of tea in hand, I grab for my apron, hung on a single, very old hand-wrought rose head nail. This nostalgic keepsake from Grandpa’s house, built in 1870, is the first thing I see every morning in my shop.
Prior to the advent of machine cut nails in the mid 19th century, each nail had to be forged individually by a blacksmith. Wrought iron nails were therefore expensive and scarce. All throughout North America there were stories of early pioneers burning down their houses to recycle nails for their new, upwardly mobile residences. So prevalent was this practice in the 18th century that the early New England colonies passed laws requiring a magistrate’s order before early homesteaders were allowed to torch their starter homes. But allow me to take a short detour. To pick up where we left off in Part V, we should have a quick look at bench saws.
Grandpa had many bench saws for ripping and crosscutting boards. Much of his sawing was done with a bow saw, a smaller and much more refined version of the buck saw. Also known as a turning saw, the frame was tensioned with waxed linen cord and had a mahogany and walnut toggle. The handles were shaped from curly maple while the crossbeam was made from well-seasoned spruce to lighten the tool. For those who have worked with this remarkable tool, it becomes an extension of the hand. Grandpa had one bow saw for ripping (with a more aggressive rip set to the teeth) and one for crosscutting (with a finer set and more teeth per inch).
No woodworker, however traditional, turns his back on technology, if it can save time and offer increased efficiency. Grandpa was no exception. He was proud of his beautiful, gleaming, very expensive American made Henry Disston & Sons handsaws, purchased one year in South Portland, Maine, as a result of an unexpected windfall. One very dark night as Grandpa disembarked from his fishing boat at Barachois wharf, a lurking, ominous group of Yankee adventurers approached him and asked if he was interested in a sudden fishing trip to a tiny cove off the coast of Maine. They also had a small cargo: a dozen barrels of undisclosed contents, and he would be paid well for this hasty sea journey. After three Hail Marys, one Our Father, and the words: “pickled herrings” muttered ten times under his breath, Grandpa made his decision, and yet another story passed into family lore.
These handsaws were state-of-the art; the handles alone were works of art. Grandpa had a 6 point (teeth per inch) rip, two crosscut saws at 8 and 10 points, and two different sizes of back saw: a 12 point tenon saw and a 15 point dovetail saw with open handle. He was so proud of these handsaws that he had a toolbox devoted to their maintenance. In that box were shop-made saw vices to hold blades for sharpening and an assortment of mill files equipped with fences for jointing (filing the teeth to an even height). There were also tapered saw files for hand filing a bevel on each tooth, and a pliers and anvil set (to re-bend each tooth to the original angle or set).
Grandpa’s woodworking skills were a vestige of the ancient medieval trade of carpenter-joiner. Nails and wooden pegs were part of this long tradition. The trade of cabinetmaker was a much later evolution to meet the requirement to produce fine furniture for the emerging bourgeoisie of the 18th century. Town-based cabinetmakers frowned on the use of hammers and nails and relied almost exclusively on glue and intricate joinery. This was a world apart for early Canadian country woodworkers who were very proud of their carpenter-joiner roots.
Modern woodworkers sometimes take certain things for granted. For example, nails and screws are now plentiful and inexpensive. The strength of PVA white glue is greater than the strength of the wood itself. It was, however, a different story for the woodworkers of Grandpa’s generation. They could not rely on hide glue, which would eventually break down over time. Machine produced screws were prohibitively expensive and difficult to find. Early in our pioneer past, door hinges and latches were often made entirely of wood because iron was so scarce.
At the end of the 19th century Grandpa enjoyed a few technological benefits. From the general store in the village he could purchase strap hinges, mortise rim locks, and machine-cut rose head and Lhead nails in bulk. Although some hardware came with slotted screws, strap hinges, for example, used nails bent or “clenched” at the back of the door rail or brace. Old nails and spikes were always straightened and used again.
Grandpa preferred to use wooden pegs and, like his ancestors, could make an entire piece of furniture without a single iron fixture. The proverbial square peg in a round hole required a carefully whittled peg with a tapered shank and a squared head. For mortise and tenon joinery, a very precise hole or socket would be drilled through the post or stile into the interlocking tenon. The length of the peg would match the depth of the socket and would be driven home with a wooden mallet so that the square head would tightly grip the sides.
Grandpa had many wooden mallets, each weighted for a specific purpose. For timber framing he had a trunnel (tree nail) mallet made from a birch burl. He had a huge “commander” mallet for knocking large, heavy beams into place. At his work bench he used the more common carpenter’s mallet for chiseling work, a chairmaker’s mallet for assembly, a cylindrical carver’s mallet and a smaller striking mallet for setting wooden planes and driving small trunnels and pegs. All were shop-made, shaped and weighted for Grandpa’s large hands. He would apply a coat of linseed oil every month, primarily to harden the wood fibres and to prevent splitting. Under no circumstance would Grandpa ever use a claw hammer to strike a chisel, nor would he drive a spike with a mallet.
For the latter purpose Grandpa had a good selection of hammers. In those days the framing hammer had not been invented and the general-purpose claw hammer, a relatively new innovation in Grandpa’s day, was the tool of choice for carpentry. For furniture making and finish carpentry a much lighter 7 ounce claw hammer was used. When driving smaller, more delicate brads, the Warrington cross-peen hammer would be chosen because the narrow head could get into tight places.
Screwdrivers were far less important than they are today. Almost certainly the screw, one of the greatest single mechanical invention ever devised by man, has been around since the time of Archimedes. In rural Canada it was next to impossible for woodworkers to buy screws in bulk. Each screw had a very crude machined thread and Grandpa usually had to cut the slot with a hack saw. Apart from hardware for structural purposes, screws were seldom even considered.
The humble brace and bit was a mainstream woodworking tool for these early Canadians. The modern hand drill started out as the bow or pump drill of the ancient Egyptians, essentially a metal shaft with a cutting head, twisted into the wood, back and forth by means of a primitive bow. Grandpa had three fairly modern braces of differing sizes. In his workshop he had a whole shelf just devoted to drill bits. He had both spiral auger bits and spoon bits, all of which had to be sharpened and maintained on a regular basis. Hanging up on the main roof truss beam in his shop was a full set of timber framing augers (essentially a much larger version of the modern cork screw, used for house construction). At the diminutive end of the drill scale, Grandpa had a set of hole-starting gimlets, scratch awls, nail punches, and reamer awls. These early woodworkers marked-out and drilled every single pilot hole and countersink with extreme precision.
Furniture, for our early Canadian forefathers, was much more than interior decoration. Their locally made furniture often defined their cultural roots, organized their daily lives, and helped to plot their futures in a harshly majestic land where house and hearth provided shelter and sustenance for body and soul.