This history of woodworking hand tools from
the 17th to the 20th century is
of a very gradual evolution of tools through generations of
craftsmen. As a result, the sources of changes in design are
almost impossible to ascertain.
Published sources, moreover, have been
concerned primarily with the object shaped by the tool
rather than the tool itself. The resulting scarcity of
information is somewhat compensated for by collections in
museums and restorations.
In this paper, the author spans three
centuries in discussing the specialization, configuration,
and change of woodworking tools in the United States.
author, Peter C. Welsh is curator, Growth of the United
States, in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of History
In 1918, Professor Sir William Matthew
Flinders Petrie concluded a
brief article on "History in Tools" with a reminder that the
history of this subject "has yet to be studied," and
lamented the survival of so few precisely dated specimens.
What Petrie found so discouraging in studying the implements
of the ancient world has consistently plagued those
concerned with tools of more recent vintage. Anonymity is
the chief characteristic of hand tools of the last three
The reasons are many: first, the tool is an
object of daily use, subjected while in service to hard wear
and, in some cases, ultimate destruction; second, a tool's
usefulness is apt to continue through many years and through
the hands of several generations of craftsmen, with the
result that its origins become lost; third, the achievement
of an implement of demonstrated proficiency dictated against
radical, and therefore easily datable, changes in shape or
style; and fourth, dated survivals needed to establish a
range of firm control specimens for the better
identification of unknowns, particularly the wooden elements
of tools - handles, moldings, and plane bodies - are
frustratingly few in non-arid archaeological sites.
tracing the provenance of American tools there is the
additional problem of heterogeneous origins and shapes -
that is, what was the appearance of a given tool prior to
its standardization in England and the United States?
The answer requires a brief summary of the
origin of selected tool shapes, particularly those whose
form was common to both the British Isles and the Continent
in the 17th century. Beyond this, when did the shape of
English tools begin to differ from the shape of tools of the
Finally, what tool forms predominated in American
usage and when, if in fact ever, did any of these tools
achieve a distinctly American character? In the process of
framing answers to these questions, one is confronted by a
constantly diminishing literature, coupled with a steadily
increasing number of tool types.