The Tools that Built America

The Tools that Built America

by Alex W. Bealer

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Fascinating story of early American woodworking, told by a master craftsman, enthusiastically describes and clearly illustrates a wide array of axes, saws, planes, hammers, and other implements used by frontiersmen. Delicate tools such as calipers, bevels, and lathes employed by cabinet- and furniture-makers are portrayed as well. Over 200 drawings and photographs…  See more details below


Fascinating story of early American woodworking, told by a master craftsman, enthusiastically describes and clearly illustrates a wide array of axes, saws, planes, hammers, and other implements used by frontiersmen. Delicate tools such as calipers, bevels, and lathes employed by cabinet- and furniture-makers are portrayed as well. Over 200 drawings and photographs.

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The Tools That Built America

By Alex W. Bealer, John O. Ellis

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1976 Alex W Bealer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13862-6



If ever there has been a symbol of the early American frontier, it is the formerly ubiquitous log cabin.

It could be built quickly and relatively easily, entirely from the trees of American forests, and with a minimum of tools. When built well it lasted for generations, providing shelter against the most severe weather and serving as a sturdy fortress against Indian attacks.

Like most cultural expressions in America, the log cabin reflected European origins. It is thought to have been introduced to the New World by the Swedish colonists who first settled Delaware as the most far-flung outpost of King Gustavus Adolphus. Familiar also to the Germans who emigrated to Pennsylvania in the early eighteenth century, the log cabin soon was adopted by English and Scotch-Irish settlers as they populated the empty, forested reaches southward along the foothills of the Appalachians. These Britons, seeking in the New World a comfort and opportunity they had not known in the Old, adapted the construction of the Swedish cabin to the simple floor plans of the stone and timbered cots they had known for generations in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Often one could determine the Old World provenance of a man's ancestors by examining the plan of his cabin and the presence of dovetails or saddle notches.

Finer cabins with multiple rooms and stories might require a few more sophisticated tools, such as a mortising chisel and mallet for fitting floor and ceiling joists. An auger was necessary to bore holes for pegs and treenails which fastened door and window framing or provided a place to hang clothes. Since all log cabins in the old days had split shingle roofs, a froe and maul, the latter, invariably handmade, were necessities.

To minimize the number of trees needed for a cabin the builder usually split his logs in half with such simple tools as the iron wedge and sledge, or the wooden wedge, called a glut, which was driven in with a homemade maul. The German settlers of Pennsylvania introduced to the American frontier the holzaxt, a specialized splitting ax which was adopted by southern pioneers and given the name "go-devil."

So, equipped with tools that could be carried by one man, the American pioneer built his own houses almost entirely by his own efforts, and did such a good job that his cabin outlasted himself and even his grandsons.


Ancient in design, inefficient in function, the felling ax was the first weapon used by Europeans against the virgin forests of a newly discovered continent. It equipped the gentlemen woodcutters of Jamestown, the laboring pilgrims of Plymouth, and the mission Indians of St. Augustine. Relatively long-bladed and lacking a poll, this imperfectly balanced tool nevertheless enabled the colonists of England, Spain, France, Holland, and Sweden to carve a foothold and establish a new society. It was improved upon only in the middle of the eighteenth century by settlers who needed new tools to meet the problems of a vast frontier.

After a century or more of cutting huge trees and clearing land with a tool which had not changed since the Stone Age, American colonists anticipated the industrial age by modifying the ancient felling ax into a more efficient tool. Some backwoods blacksmith, somewhere, perhaps executing the concept of a weary woodcutter, produced an ax that had a shorter, broader blade and a poll attached to the eye opposite the blade. The result was an ax with well-nigh perfect balance that could be swung easily for hours with no effort required to keep the blade aligned with the kerf. Its poll provided more weight behind the edge, allowing the momentum to push the sharpened edge into the resistant tree; its wide, rather thick, blade made a bigger cut and more easily removed the chips, some as large as a dinner plate, from the kerf. With it an experienced axman could fell a two-foot tree in less than half an hour. The genius behind its design, mostly unnoticed in the sophisticated atmosphere of an industrial society, was reflected in its adoption in most countries of the civilized world. The building of America rested far more on this prosaic tool than on the more romantic symbols of long rifle and six-shooter and locomotive. Its rudimentary influence was probably more important to the future of America than any manned moonshot.

As America entered the industrial age around 1840, and the population exploded, creating a vast need for housing and transportation, mostly made of wood, the incipient lumber industry was strained to supply the country's needs. Maine, with its largely untouched forests, was where wholesale commercial timber cutting for the lumber mills began. There the uniquely American polled ax was discarded for the double-bit ax that later was used almost exclusively to clear the forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Appalachian regions, the virgin pine forests of Georgia, and finally the heavily forested slopes of California and the Northwest Coast, where it has only recently been supplanted by the horrendous gasoline power saw. Actually the double-bit ax developed in Maine was a reinvention of a most ancient tool. Minoans and Romans used a double-bit ax in ancient times; and Danish woodcutters in the nineteenth century were also known to use a double-bit ax. Perhaps it was Scandinavian lumberjacks who developed the form in Maine. Regardless of its history or past forms, the American double-bit ax developed into a graceful, efficient tool, well-balanced and providing two sharp blades. With the crosscut saw, it was an important factor in the settlement of the Midwest and the northwestern sections of the country and in the building of America's cities.

Another peculiarly American modification of the ax was the curved handle developed for the single-bit felling ax shortly after the Civil War. These graceful appendages, known as colt's foot or fawn's foot handles, replaced the straight handles used on axes since prehistoric times. The curve, with a knot on the end, allowed improved control over the swing of the axhead and provided additional accuracy. The curved handle, like the polled head, has gained recognition through its acceptance all over the world. Straight handles, of course, continue to be required on double-bit axes.

Logs too large to be used for specific purposes in pioneer times were reduced by splitting to supply properly dimensioned timber. Fence rails, cabin logs, puncheons, corner posts for well houses, billets for shingles were all split by using a club to pound a wedge through the log. Iron wedges have been used since olden times, but where iron was scarce a wooden wedge, known as a "glut" in eastern America, was used. These wedges were forced in with mauls, clubs with a heavy head and fairly short handle chopped from a single log, or by beetles, a giant-sized mallet with a long handle, its head bound with iron hoops to prevent splitting under repeated pounding. Some splitters employed a steel sledgehammer for use with metal wedges, but the more careful preferred a striking tool which would not batter and spread the malleable iron.

In the Pennsylvania Dutch country a widely used splitting tool was the holzaxt, the name of which showed its pure German origin. At some time or another it drifted South and became known as a splitting ax or go-devil. With a six- to eight-pound head, a heavy eye, and an obtuse blade, seldom sharpened, it could serve as an ax, a wedge, or a sledge. Its weight would split a good-sized log up to four feet long. For logs of fence rail length the go-devil might be used to start the split enough to insert gluts or wedges which could then be pounded in with the poll of the go-devil. Never a widely used tool, it is still made by a couple of ax manufacturers and is sometimes found for sale in modern hardware stores.

There were several varieties of the broadax, all large and relatively heavy; all were employed in conjunction with the felling ax to square large timbers such as the logs with which a cabin was built. The name is obviously appropriate, for it designates an extremely wide blade suitable for planing a large area at one blow. Most broadaxes, but not all, had a heavy poll behind the eye which could be used to pound house timbers together at a mortise and tenon joint. Some, which apparently originated in Germany and were widely used by the Pennsylvania Dutch in America, were known as "goosewing" broadaxes because of the graceful ogee curve of the blade from eye to straight edge. Others, used exclusively for hewing, had a wrapped eye with no poll. Most, with the exception of the knife-edged broadax, used for rough hewing, were bezeled on the right side of the edge only, and had the eye protruding to the right to leave the left side perfectly flat for hewing with a long stroke. The bezeled-edged axes were usually equipped with a handle which curved to the right so that the axman would not mash his fingers between handle and log, which was located on his left. The broadax began to disappear it the 1840s, but became a manufactured item later in the nineteenth century when its use was revived in the South to shape crossties for the railroads. Broadaxes were used to flatten a log which invariably had previously been scored deeply at six-inch intervals with a felling ax. It is the marks of the convex edge of the felling ax which are seen on the hand-hewn logs of old cabins, or the sill timbers of old houses. A good broadaxman took pride in precisely hewing to the line, which he marked on the timber with chalk or charcoal dust applied with a snap line, making his broadax serve as a gigantic swing plane.


In the beginning virtually all the roofs of all the cabins in America were made of shingles split from oak or pine, chestnut or poplar, durable cedar and cypress. Clapboards were split, also. Three simple and ancient tools were used for splitting; the iron froe with a wooden handle, the wooden maul, or mallet, and the brake made from a tree fork or improvised from a couple of small straight logs. Even such a simple tool as the froe had to be used with considerable skill and careful technique. Each bolt of wood from which the board was split required a certain amount of study of its individual character. A good boardmaker, however, could turn out a couple of thousand shingles, or that longer type of shingle called a shake, or several hundred six-foot clapboards a day. Probably the first real organized industry in the first colony of the British Empire, Virginia, was the splitting of clapboards to be exported to England. The timber resources of the Virginia tidewater provided a welcome substitute for the oak forests of early seventeenth-century England, which were being systematically raped to make charcoal for the iron industry and to supply timber for the English navy. With no sawmills established at Jamestown, splitting was the only suitable technique for making small boards. Even after sawmills were commonplace, most householders in the backwoods considered split shingles far more satisfactory and durable than sawn shingles.


Though not essential, a good crosscut saw enabled the pioneer jack-of-all-trades to cut the logs for his cabin more easily than by ax alone, and it made the jobs of trimming the ends of logs for neat corners, and shaping dovetails, much quicker and easier. The crosscut saw, its tooth pattern modified in the nineteenth century to make it more efficient, was also widely used by the logging industry for cutting the timber of Maine and the Northwest. Most crosscut saws were designed to be used by two men, but one-man saws became available in the late nineteenth century.

The adz, as old as the ax in concept, is sometimes described as a chisel with an ax handle, and at other times designated an ax with a perpendicular blade. Both descriptions may apply, for the function of an adz is that of a chisel, while the technique of its use is similar to that of the ax. Most backwoods households had a foot adz as part of the basic collection of tools needed to provide minor comforts and refinements to a home isolated in the wilderness. It was kept razor sharp and was used to smooth floor puncheons, or to make table tops, or to provide any type of board which needed a smooth, level surface. Adzing was a dangerous occupation for any but the most skillful. The tool was used by standing on top of the log to be smoothed and swinging the adz precisely to create an even plane of the wood below the adzman's foot. If it was not used precisely the razor-sharp blade would easily cut through the shoe to the flesh and bone of the foot. Nevertheless, some adzmen were so confident of their skill that they would win bets that they could split their shoe sole without damage to the foot which was placed a fraction of an inch above the callous steel.

In the days when nails were scarce and pegs were used as a substitute, the auger was absolutely essential for boring the holes into which the pegs were driven. Most pioneer homesteaders had augers of several sizes in their tool chests. Before 1800 augers were of the spoon, or pod, design, which required considerable pressure to force the curved, sharpened end into a log or board. After 1800 the modern twist auger became more and more common. The twist auger was much easier to use by virtue of its screw point which pulled the bit into the wood, and more precise because the twisted bit removed the wood shavings and controlled the direction of the hole. Augers were not only used in building cabins, but also for starting the mortises in post and rail fences and in making sleds and other pieces of farm equipment made of wood.

Although many a log cabin was built after 1840, that year is generally recognized, somewhat arbitrarily, as the beginning of America's industrial age, give or take ten years. It was around then that hand tools slowly began to be discarded and replaced by the tools of impersonal mass production; sawn lumber, for so many centuries the luxury product of the hand sawyer, became a commonplace building material; and mass-produced cut iron nails became a commodity, replacing the expensive hand-wrought nails, which had been used since biblical times.

It is true that mill sawn lumber, the product of inefficient, up-and-down sash mills run by water, had been familiar for several hundred years at the time America was first colonized. About 1850, however, the concept of the circular saw was realized. Steam power freed the sawmills from thralldom to the streams, for the new steam engines of the times could be transported, however tortuously, to any place where timber was found. After 1850 one found sawmills even in the flat country of the coastal plains and on the seacoast itself where slow meandering streams were unsuitable as a source of power for sawmills. Later still, the internal combustion engine provided even more transportable power so that a mill could be used one day in one area and easily disassembled and set up the next day at a location miles away from the first.

This meant, of course, that a farmer wanting a new house could fell only half the trees needed for a cabin and these trees would yield enough rough sawn boards to make a house of several rooms and a floored porch. After World War I, a backwoods farmer who had been reared in a log cabin could even convert his Model-T Ford into a sawmill and produce his own lumber. So the circular saw joined the devices that eventually separated the American freeholder from his long, personal relationship with hand tools.

The change was not apparent day by day or year by year, but it was plainly apparent generation by generation. The first generation away from the log cabin often built a clapboard house of frame construction, ceiled on the inside with beaded boards, roofed with sawn shingles or sheet iron. Such a house was generally a symbol of prosperity and, since it had a number of rooms, a symbol of status.

Those less prosperous might sheath their smaller cabins with board and batten, ceil the inside and put on a split shingle roof. Later still, when roll tarpaper became prevalent, the sheathing might be covered with this somber material, the battens then being applied to fasten the paper down. Often the roof, too, would have tarpaper substituted for shingles. Many houses of board and batten construction are still to be found, usually abandoned, in farming areas around the country. That most hideous of synthetic materials, asphalt sheathing with a brick pattern, was used as sheathing on some.

Of course, the tools used in building latter-day equivalents of the log cabin changed greatly in character, and so quickly that many of the old tools of true frontier days virtually disappeared. The broadax and adz were no longer needed when working with boards which came from a nearby portable sawmill, nor was a twibil, nor auger, nor maul and froe. About all that was needed, in fact, was an adz-eye hammer, which appeared about 1840, handsaws for crosscutting and ripping, and kegs of nails—cut nails until the 1870s and after that the cheaper wire nails developed in Europe and soon adopted wholesale in America. Also, the more modern housebuilder often needed a plane or two to trim door and window facings to fit, and of course he used levels and squares which could be easily carried in a wooden box, homemade, which he slung over his shoulder.

One finds a cabin class of American society even during the period of affluence following World War II, but the cabins of the space age are for the most part shell houses, prefabricated houses, and mobile homes. They are many steps removed from the personal efforts of the owner, and built of materials harvested or manufactured long distances from the site. Many of them are well built but they lack the spiritual quality of a family-built house. Most are built of wood, but the heavy work is done in faraway factories, the parts cut and assembled according to preconceived plans instead of being designed to fit circumstances of individual tree trunks and limited tools, factors that made the old log cabin a work of art.

In the factories, new and complicated tools are employed. Huge bench saws cut already planed boards. Even the ancient hammer and nail is often discarded for pneumatic or electric staple guns. In some instances new adhesives obviate the need for nails.


Excerpted from The Tools That Built America by Alex W. Bealer, John O. Ellis. Copyright © 1976 Alex W Bealer. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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