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Ancient Carpenters' Tools: Illustrated and…

Ancient Carpenters' Tools: Illustrated and Explained, Together with the…

by Henry C. Mercer

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I've seen many references to this book over the years & finally bought a copy. Originally published in 1925, this book is historically very important, a catalog of old woodworking tools for a museum as modern tools were taking off, but before all the old timers were dead. Mercer was given the assignment of a room full & sorted them from working with the trees on to finished goods. It doesn't make a great deal of sense at times since it splits up tools, interrupting the flow of their evolution & design which he concentrates on. For instance, axes are covered in the first chapter, but there are even more in the fourth.

The chapters are:
Tools for Felling, Splitting, & Log Sawing pg 1
Tools for Moving & Measuring pg 35
Tools for Holding & Gripping pg 69
Tools for Surfacing, Chopping, & Paring pg 81
Tools for Shaping & Fitting pg 136
Tools for Fastening & Unfastening pg 235
Tools for Sharpening pg 283
Addenda pg 303
Bibliography pg 313
Index pg 317

Photos & illustrations are excellent, although they are not well placed in this edition. They are often several pages away from the the text that references them which is a pain. Captions below the photos often cross to other pages, but that's OK. It allows for a larger plate & the information is right there, without the need to look up info in the bibliography. His writing is dry as dust, relying on the readers interest in the subject matter entirely.

The examples are often centered on, although certainly not limited to, Bucks County, PA tools. That's OK since they're representative & allow Mercer the opportunity to get direct information on the creation & use of these tools from old timers. He doesn't stop there, but relies heavily on other reference books & seems to have done his research well. Unfortunately, it's quite obvious that he had no personal experience with them.

Tools for Felling, Splitting, & Log Sawing pg 1
His explanation of the balance of & creation of the American axe is pretty good, although he fails to mention the character of the trees accounting for differences in tools & techniques between the imported European tools & the Americanized ones that slowly differed from them. While he mentions axe butts were not used for driving wedges, he fails to tie that in with the soft iron making up all except for the edge & doesn't seem to fully understand the reasoning behind the use of the adze for dressing beams.

I need to check
- his history of axe handles. He says the homemade curved axe handles were only really used circa 1840 - 1860 which seems at odds with other sources which led me to believe they were curved far earlier than this.
- He also says that far more boards were sawn in water powered reciprocating mills than split, save on the frontier. Not the impression I've gotten from other sources that mention the clear wood of first growth trees.
- His notes on deterioration of different types of iron in different sorts of soil were frustrating since he didn't go into any detail. Did he mean due to the type of soil, water content, or the iron itself? Acidic soils & water content seem obvious enough, but I had the impression he meant the last.

Tools for Holding & Gripping pg 69
His descriptions on the woodworking bench & vices were long & convoluted, especially of the construction of the traditional tail vice. A sketch or two would have been far better, but he seems to only use pictures or historic plates.

Covering benches & clamps in this chapter divorces them from the tools they were used with. While they are covered in later chapters, this leads to oversights on Mercer's part. For instance, he includes Moxon's plate with the bench & tools (also on the cover) which was recently covered by [a:Roy Underhill|104206|Roy Underhill|https://s.gr-assets.com/assets/nophoto/user/u_50x66-d9f6a4a5badfda0f69e70cc94d962125.png] on one of his shows. According to Roy's guest ([a:Christopher Schwarz|981385|Christopher Schwarz|https://s.gr-assets.com/assets/nophoto/user/u_50x66-d9f6a4a5badfda0f69e70cc94d962125.png]?) & their use of it, the original publisher used a plate from an earlier book which perpetrated the myth that the twin screw vice was mounted to the front of the bench with the back piece. The vice is actually a separate piece, hung on the wall when not in use (as shown in other plates in the earlier book) & could be screwed to the front of the bench with just the face or attached on top of the bench with the back using holdfasts when needed. This makes a great deal more sense from a practical stand point. It only makes sense to use the front of the bench as the back of the vice so that the piece is supported more. All that Moxon has to say about this is ...Sometimes a double Screw is fixed to the side of the bench, as at g, or sometimes its farther cheek is laid an edge upon the flat of the bench, and fastened with an hold-fast, or, sometimes two on the bench. This makes a great deal more sense from a practical stand point, something that Mercer completely misses due to his ivory tower approach.

The chapters Tools for Surfacing, Chopping, & Paring pg 81 & Tools for Shaping & Fitting pg 136 are rather strangely broken up. There's a lot of good info in both, but planes are in the former while chisels are in the latter. To my mind, the plane is a way of holding a chisel steadier, an evolutionary growth of the chisel. He thinks differently, so covers axes & hatchets, then moves into drawknives & spokeshaves, then to planes (including molding planes) & on to rasps & scrapers. The next chapter on shaping begins with saws, including a buck saw, & then on to chisels. As he explores them, he finally mentions the rough chopping tools; axe mortise chisels & the twibil, which I would have put in the previous chapter.

His history on the evolution of saws is technically rich, but thoroughly confusing. Not only does he start with the buck saw, a crosscut saw that would have been better covered in the first chapter, but then he moves on to various joining saws, covers Oriental saws, & then delves back into history for Roman & Egyptian saws, all the while referring to saws in the first chapter. Whew! It's a long strange, albeit interesting trip. His notes on the evolution of tooth rake & shaping are a treasure, but they're shamefully buried in this morass.

And so it goes throughout the book. I guess there is no perfect way to break up tools, but this was frankly awful. In many ways, it's a great reference, but only for someone already familiar with the subject or researching specifics. As a standalone or introduction, it's a nightmare. The index is excellent & as a source for further reading, it's a treasure trove since he references books that are all but unknown today. I didn't recognize several & look forward to finding them, if possible.

So overall, it's a fantastic reference for those with some background & a lot of interest, but very poorly structured. It's still worthy of 4 stars, though. ( )
1 vote jimmaclachlan | Aug 18, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0486409589, Paperback)

Classic reference describes in detail hundreds of implements in use in the American colonies in the 18th century. Over 250 illustrations depict tools identical in construction to ancient devices once used by the Greeks, Egyptians, and Chinese, among them axes, saws, clamps, chisels, mallets, and much more. An invaluable sourcebook.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:13 -0400)

Classic reference describes in detail hundreds of implements in use in the American colonies in the 18th century. Over 250 illustrations depict tools identical in construction to ancient devices once used by the Greeks, Egyptians, and Chinese, among them axes, saws, clamps, chisels, mallets, and much more. An invaluable sourcebook.… (more)

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