The Dating of Tools

This article previously appeared in The M-WTCA Scribe, No. 1 January, 1974

The Dating of Tools

Paul Feller
Fernand Tourret

[Editor’s Note: The following editorial note is reprinted from The M-WTCA Scribe, No. 1 January, 1974. Chapter E, Subchapter 3, of L’Outil, dialogue de I’homme avec la matiere, by Paul Feller and Fernand Tourret, Compagnie Belge d’Editions S. P . R. L., Rhode-St-Genese, Belgique, 1970. Very special thanks are hereby offered to Laurent J. Torno, Sr. and to Thomas N. Tileston (M.A. Romance Philology, Harvard, 1939) for their kindness and hard work in preparing the following translation.]

“Tools can only be dated with certainty when the circumstances of their discovery are precise and verified. In the best of cases, it is the last artisan who owned them who can give assurances as to their origin and date.

Tools that have passed through many hands before becoming part of the private or public collections are frequently labeled in a purely arbitrary fashion. In the case of very ornate tools, certain museums in Germany, Holland, and Great Britain have been able to trace histories that seem acceptable and that correspond very well to local as well as to general periodic types. This permits the establishment of an approximate date of origin.

In any case, a precise date of origin can rarely be expected unless the artisan inscribed it with his hallmark. It should be considered enough to be able to define the generation that produced the tool – in other words, to date its origin within a thir ty year period.

It is in such a period, parenthetically, that tools rarely undergo a change in form and workmanship. It is in such a period also that the artisan who created them, made use of them, maintained them, and handed them down. Dating to within a generation, then, is not to be considered the worst solution. If a tool can be dated within a generation, the period not only of its creation but also of an important part of its life can be determined.

The period in which a tool was last used constitutes the closest possible date and efforts should be made to obtain all possible information about this period.

Many tools vary little after they have attained, through “natural selection”, the form and structure that made them satisfactory. We said that they then ceased to change; new tools were used for different purposes. The old tools were kept on hand at th e same time that new ones were added to the artisan’s tool box.

As far as change in form is concerned, we should distinguish between tools which show little wear in use and those which wear constantly. A compass point, the edge of a glazier’s hammer, a carpenter’s metal T-square do not wear out rapidly and the tool remains essentially intact. These tools have come to us in ancestral form.

We can again wonder if, in tools as well as in furniture, bad style would not drive out the good.

An unusual hammer can mislead one to believe that it is very old. Would it not be reasonable, on the contrary, to believe that the beautifully simple tools are the oldest? As happened in architecture and in interior decorating, the history of tool maki ng seems to show a marked degeneration in style at the end of the 19th century. We wonder where we could find today a blacksmith who could fashion hammers as they used to be made.

An old tool, perfectly adapted to its function and which has faithfully served the artisan, will be the natural prototype for the artisan when he needs to replace it.

It is for this reason that some ancient forms that seem archaic remain in use for a very long time. Thus we find wooden braces still in use in the 19th century in carpenters’ shops where the metal braces had been introduced. As late as 1910 carpenters were still making them as they had done in the 18th century.

There are, however, wooden brace heads whose stylized turnings help in establishing dates. We have shown a few examples.

Other details can help to establish date limits.

A copper ferrule with two flanges can generally be placed, between the ends of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Iron ferrules, particularly those with two circular grooves, indicate subsequent periods – late 18th and middle 19th centuries.

Wrought iron ferrules, forge welded or dovetailed by brazing, date just prior to our times. They may have been cannibalized from older tools to be used on modern ones.

Hand engraved inscriptions with cursive letters and ornamental capitals were done in the handwriting style of the period, naturally. It is easy to tell which are 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

These were followed, 30 to 40 years later, by the proprietary marks made letter by letter with a steel punch. When decorative elements exist, they too permit dating by comparison with other styles in use at various times. Styles vary and show clear dif ferences about every 50 years.

Ornamented tools can be dated by consulting the classic writings on style, but care should be used here. Also the material that the tool, or any of its parts, was made from can be a source of information. In particular, tools fashioned of pure iron, wo rked cold, date from the middle of the 19th century. After that, there occurred a marked degeneration in technique in the replacement of older tools.

Precise knowledge of certain work methods that can be definitely pinpointed in history would permit a more rigorous establishment of the oldest possible date of a tool. It would be dangerous, however, to attempt to group work methods to form a basis of argument; it might appear to be sufficient. It could only be sufficient if such a grouping of work methods is accompanied by solid knowledge of the tool in question.

We can, however, give some particular details:

Wood and metal screws up to certain dimensions (for vises, presses, etc.) were made by hand up to the beginning of the 18th century. A perfect cylinder was formed; the cylinder was wrapped in paper or parchment on which were traced the interior and ext erior profiles of the threads, and the threads were then cut with the point of a scissor (?) or with a cold chisel. After the 18th century the threads of wooden screws were cut with a turning lathe or tap, except for wine press screws which continued to b e hand cut into the 20th century.

It is very easy to recognize the differences in the methods of fabrication.

The wood screw with conical head and kerf goes back to the middle of the 18th century. Roubo shows this screw in place in his plans and cross sections in homogeneous aspects. There was a tendency to use this screw for dowel pins in working with wood wh ere a complete (cross beam) was not required. The installation was even then effected with an auger, and bits fitted to the exact measurement, and a brace. It would then be a mistake to think of the wood screw as exclusive to the end of the 19th century a s some occasionally do.

The screw with the hemispheric, or “oil drop”, head seems clearly to be of an earlier date and to go back to the middle of the 17th century.

Tools that do not wear out much have served three generations without interruption – from grandfather to grandson. If we can establish the last user, we can fix a date of origin going back at least 50 years more. A workman’s hand leaves its trace on th e hardest of woods, but the softer woods are especially affected and many parts (handles, etc.) thus worn are cast aside. Tools bearing the “signature” of the artisan’s hand are rare. The workman’s hand also leaves its mark on metal.

The hand leaves its trace on the wooden handle of a brace; likewise the metal mid-portion shows wear, and no matter how careful the maintenance, sweat leaves its corrosive traces above and below the spot where the hand grasps the tool.

A grouping of the hallmarks of edge tool makers since the17th century would permit limited dating. In some regions historians and students of folklore have begun to collect these hallmarks. The same should be attempted in all regions where the edge too l industry was established, as has been done with glass blowers, bell founders, paper and clock makers. Such a study should begin with the great masters of the industry.

A good many dates could be rectified by turning to the great classical books which spread among the trades beginning in the 16th century. Particularly useful among these books will be the ones whose illustrations were produced under the direction, and frequently by the hands of, the masters. The masters, however, often insisted or giving priority to the exact reproduction of their personal tools; thus they show a tendency to normalize concepts. With a few exceptions, then, original tools, the collector ‘s delight, will not be found in the hands of the masters. Masters have a tendency to be selective. Their books, while providing a certain degree of control, are not sufficient to guarantee a date.

The custom of representing objects in elevation, plan, and cross section began in the middle of the 18th century; from then on, we are sure to have everything a drawing can offer in graphic representation, since the intention of the illustration was to show others how to make these objects.”