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No. 165:
Wood-working Tools

Today, some ideas about us and our tools. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

So much is written about fine furniture and cabinet-making. But we hear very little about the tools that made Chippendale chairs or early American desks.

Historian Peter Welsh tries to remedy that. He leads us through the Smithsonian collection of hand wood-working tools --from the 17th century up into the early 20th century. It spans a little more than a century on either side of the Industrial Revolution. And it suggests that tools mirror the world we live in.

Most wood-working tools rode through this period without changing their basic character. 17th-century planes, saws, clamps, and chisels didn't look the same, but it's easy to recognize them for what they are. Only one fundamentally new tool arose in that period, and it's a surprise. It's the gimlet auger, of all things -- something you hardly see anymore.

Two things had changed by the 19th century. One was the quality and extent of metalwork. We find all sorts of fine screw fittings and adjustments that weren't there 200 years earlier.

But most of all, hand-tools start reflecting a new style. It's almost as though the fine lines of the furniture they're used to make have rubbed off on them. The sinuous shape of today's axe handle -- the way the end curves to give the user a better hold -- that came in during the 19th century. So did the comfortable pistol grip you expect to see on a carpenter's saw. These changes began in the 18th century when people began to see tools as instruments.

Perhaps the breath of 18th-century science was blowing into the cabinet-maker's shop. During these years a profusion of stylish new precision measuring instruments arose to support hand-tools -- fancy calipers and dividers. But the tools themselves also began to look like scientific instruments. Here's a hundred-year-old drill brace. It's made of heavy brass with clutches and ratchets and shiny japanned handles. Do you remember your grandfather's wood plane -- the brass and tool-steel -- the array of adjustment knobs -- the beautifully formed wooden handles?

We still do woodwork. We still seek the essential pleasure of shaping wood with our own hands. But now we use power tools. Tools are intimate possessions. They reflect the way we see ourselves. I may be nostalgic for turn-of-the-century tools -- for that lost harmony of wood, brass, steel, and form. But when the chips are down, I'm a creature of this world. When I want to make a hole, I reach for a power drill.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Welsh, P.C., Woodworking Tools: 1600-1900. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966.