Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Joiner's Tool Kit in 1844

One of the issues in furnishing the reconstructed carpenter shop at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site as it might have looked in the 1840s is whether the tools we display and use are historically correct. This is less of a problem in the smithy (another name for the blacksmith shop—not the people in it). If a blacksmith uses coal in the forges, a double-chamber bellows to force air into the fire, and avoids all machines, then most other equipment—hammers, anvils and hardy tools, tongs, post vises—are not much changed from the 1840s. (1)
            The same is not true for the carpenter shop. Even sticking to hand tools, in the second half of the 1800s there was something of a second industrial revolution, this one involving advances in metallurgy, engineering, and technology, that changed some woodworking tools fairly dramatically. The most widespread change was in the planes used to shape and smooth wood. Planes transitioned from the wooden-bodied design with the blade wedged in place that dates back at least to Roman times, to the metal body and complex adjustment mechanisms usually associated with wood planes today.
          What the tool does to the wood is the same for both types, but the setting up and adjusting, what woodworkers call “fettling,” is quite different. In any case, the most successful and most copied metal bench plane features, invented by Leonard Bailey in the 1860s and mass produced by Stanley Rule and Level Co. after they acquired Bailey’s patents in 1869, are not appropriate in a shop depicting Fort Vancouver in the 1840s. (2)
          There are several published lists of the “Articles in Use” in the carpenter shops in the 1840s that provide most of the information needed to equip the reconstructed shop for display and reenactment.(3)  A closer look at the exhaustive inventory of supplies and trade goods in the Hudson's Bay Company’s Columbia District taken in Spring 1844 turns up two lists of tools that were assembled in chests and apparently meant for sale as groups. One of these chests of tools was intended to supply the needs of a ship’s carpenter, and the other is a collection of joiner's tools.  As sets of tools meant for specific crafts and accurately dated, these lists are of particular interest to tool historians and collectors generally—beyond what they tell us about supplies on hand in the frontier Pacific Northwest in the Hudson's Bay Company era.
          This is the original manuscript list of the ship carpenter’s tool kit: (4)

The clerk’s script is so clear that I think we can dispense with a typed transcription, except to note that what look like quotation marks work like the "Do" (ditto) notation, to repeat what is in the line above (except in the currency notations, where " means 0 [zero, or maybe aught to HBC clerks]). Also, a listing such as "9 plane irons of sizes" implies the word "assorted" between "of" and "sizes." The one item I needed help on were the "socket slices," 5th and 6th from the bottom. A mid-19th-century British glossary of nautical terms defines a "slice" as "a bar of iron with a flat, sharp, spear-shaped end, used in stripping off sheathing, ceiling, and the like."(5)
          I call your attention to the three columns of numbers on the right side. These are the wholesale prices the Hudson’s Bay Company paid for each line item, expressed in £ (pounds, blank in most cases), s (shillings, 20 of which made up one £), and d (pence, 12 of which made up one shilling, or 240 pence per £). If such supplies were used in HBC operations the wholesale price was the cost to the Company. If they were sold to non-employees the standard cost-plus markup was 100%.
          Joiner is an older term for what today we could call a woodworker who makes furniture and cabinetry or installs final trim in buildings, in contrast to a carpenter whose main focus is the (rougher) construction of the buildings themselves. HBC personnel records made no such distinctions. The job title was carpenter, whatever the level of skill or specialization. Inventories of "articles in use" in the carpenter shops suggest that some construction of frontier-style furniture went on, along with construction and repair of farm equipment and most anything of wood. There were often more coopers (specialized barrel makers) on the payroll than carpenters, but no one at Fort Vancouver was designated a joiner or cabinetmaker. That said, the title at the top of this list clearly indicates that the term "joiner" was understood as distinct from the more generic "carpenter":

          If you are not really into old tools your eyes are probably glazing over by now. If you are particularly interested in woodworking tools and their history: Have fun!

1) Earlier postings on this blog have dealt with topics pertaining to the history of blacksmithing at Fort Vancouver, including whether beavertraps were made on-site or imported from England, and a similar posting on nails.

2) Other woodworking tools now common and considered somewhat “antique” but which came into widespread use only after the 1840s include small auger bits used in a brace with a complex chuck, “eggbeater”-type drills for boring small holes (and the twist drill bits they use), combination squares with sliding heads, metal-bodied spokeshaves, and “Jorgensen”-style handscrew clamps with threaded metal rods through pivoting nuts (invented in 1901).

3) Carpenter shop inventories for 1844, 1845, and 1848 are HERE. NPS Historian John Hussey’s instructions were to determine from the historical record how the reconstructed Fort Vancouver should look, so he passed over the inventories of supplies stored in warehouses for eventual sale, as well as inventories of outlying posts and land-based brigades, as well as the coastal paddlewheel steamer "Beaver."

4) Both these lists are from Hudson's Bay Company Archives, B 223/d/155, Columbia District Inventory, Spring 1844. I thank Theresa Langford, Curator, and Meagan Huff, Museum Technician, Fort Vancouver NHS, for facilitating access to these records.
      These lists also confirm that most of the tools used in the carpenter shop and sold or traded to settlers or others were made in a specialized factory or workshop setting in Britain, and shipped to Fort Vancouver on annual supply ships.

5) W.H. Smyth, The Sailor's Word-Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms (London: Blackie and Son, 1867),  p. 631. This book is available for complete and free download from GoogleBooks.  Just click on the title in this note. I am grateful to Ed Minch of Chestertown, MD, my Galoot buddy on the OldTools group, for pointing me to this source.


  1. Nicely done, Tom, and thanks for posting this. It's good to see careful work being done on PNW history!

    It's interesting to see bead planes on the list; I found a T. Goldsmith (pre 1840) in the wild here in Port Angeles WA, though it's unlikely to have come through your fort with a Pennsylvania-style owner mark.

  2. Tom,

    this is really nice piece.

    The source material is increadible.