Traditional Wood Working Tools

Traditional Wood Working Tools image by b.gliwa/


Developed for different styles of woodworking than those in common use today, traditional woodworking tools covered the entire range of work possible with modern power tools. Some old tools fell out of favor when the first forests of prime timber became scarce. In other cases, entire trades disappeared because modern factories produced equivalent products cheaper than individual craftsmen could.


Riving or splitting wood was a necessary skill on the American frontier. When the quality of timber was high and straight-grained wood was abundant, pioneers could fell a tree and split the log into timbers and billets of any size. Coopers and other tradesmen used froes and mallets to split crosscut logs to a required size. Finishing work involved spokeshaves, drawknives and the foot-powered vise called the shaving horse.


Handsaws and muscle power covered all the applications served by modern electric and gasoline powered saws today. Loggers used two-man crosscut saws and axes to fell even the largest trees. Sawyers produced lumber with pit saws designed for ripping with the grain. For finer work, the bow saw was the common choice in America and Europe. The thin blade held tautly by a frame of wood and tightened by a simple windlass was used even by the finest cabinetmakers.


Before power tools were available, planes with either wooden or cast-iron bodies were the preferred way to smooth and shape rough lumber. Wooden body planes with steel blades fixed in position by wooden wedges were often made by the same craftsmen who used them. Matching the body to a complex blade shape made shaving convoluted moldings possible. This heavy work often required two men to pull and guide the tool. Special planes also cut grooves and rabbets that are the work of routers today.


A mallet and chisel quickly shaped both mortise and tenon of many complex woodworking joints. Using these tools along with a fine handsaw made complicated joints like the corner dovetail a standard construction practice. Many old cabinet and furniture designs used no nails or screws. Accurate joinery reinforced by glue, wooden pegs, and hidden wedges matched the strength of today's products.


Hand drills and augers handled both small and large work in cabinetry and timber frame building. Small diameter holes up to a quarter inch in diameter required the egg-beater style drill still in use today. From one quarter inch to an inch and a half in diameter, the usual tool was the auger bit and hand brace. Twist augers with simple horizontal wooden handles could bore mortises in large timbers. Auger mills allowed both arms to power the boring machine while the craftsman sat astride the timber.

Keywords: traditional wood working tools, wooden plane, auger bit

About this Author

James Young began writing in 1969 as a military journalist combat correspondent in Vietnam. Young's articles have been published in "Tai Chi Magazine," "Seattle Post-Intelligencer," Sonar 4 ezine, "Stars & Stripes" and "Fine Woodworking." He worked as a foundryman, woodturner, electronics technician, herb farmer and woodcarver. Young graduated from North Seattle Community College with an associate degree in applied science and electronic technology.

Photo by: b.gliwa/

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