Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 39, September 1995
Good tradesmen, it is said, are only as good as their tools; and to look at a well-kept set of tools for any trade is to know something of the person. During my years as a museum curator I saw some fine chests of tools, and long before that time I was taught to respect such things by my father and maternal grandfather. They were carpenters of great skill and handled timber with reverence. The combined tools used by both of these men cover the whole period under review and display the timeless character of simple, functional implements.
Looking at late medieval paintings gives us an insight into the kinds of tools that existed over 500 years ago. The wooden brace used in those times remained relatively unchanged until the introduction of the steel brace in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Hammers, augers, chisels, mallets, hand saws and frame saws, draw knives and spoke shaves remained in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries much as they had been for centuries. Many of the brand names seen on the tools in early catalogue pages are with us still, the only difference being that nylon or plastic has replaced the traditional wooden handles. As a child I was fascinated by the elaborate Celtic-style scrolls on saw handles.
One of the most marvellous chests of tools I have ever seen had belonged to a cooper who spent his earlier years making casks for the herring fisheries in Scotland. There is something enchanting about the gleam of the steel and the rich patina of the well worn handles. Another chest which comes to mind is one I know of used by a carriage-builder through the 1880s, 90s and early 1900s. This collection, all perfectly fitted into the separate levels and compartments of the chest, was first brought to Australia, then taken back to England, and finally brought back to Australia again. How many fine details were worked on numerous railway carriages and later on trams by the craftsman who prided himself on this set of tools? One of the most historic sets of tools in Australia is that used by the colonial cabinetmaker J W Wooley; he worked in Hobart during the period 1830 to 1870 and produced many fine pieces of furniture.
Catalogues offered a stunning range of tools all through the period 1880 to 1940 and these included whole sets for each trade and a general range for individuals who could turn their hand to almost anything. Many households kept an iron shoe-last, a supply of tacks and the other items needed to repair boots and shoes. Tools for general maintenance around the house have always been seen as necessary for most practical households and to these might be added the essential garden tools. Many tradesmen moved about with their work as they continue to do, and went to great pains to keep their tools secure, reasonably portable and clearly marked with their name or initials.
Trades and crafts were represented by a whole series of tool sets, each with their own distinctive tools which have evolved over centuries or simply remained in their ancient form. The list of trades is long and includes carpenters, cabinetmakers, coach and carriage-builders, shipwrights and boat-builders, stonemasons, painters, plasterers, plumbers, bricklayers, mechanics, machinists, fitters and turners, blacksmiths, bootmakers, saddlers, tinsmiths, clock and watchmakers, jewellers, woodturners and carvers, metal spinners, wheelwrights, gold and silversmiths, bookbinders, leather workers, gunsmiths, chairmakers, coopers, boilermakers, sailmakers, and many others. Think of all the fascinating sorts of wood planes used by cabinetmakers and carriage-builders from the basic bench, jack and rabbet planes, to round planes, nosing planes, and the endlessvariations in moulding planes.
While many well-equipped factories used sophisticated machinery such as belt-driven lathes, planes, handsaws and drills, people on the land or out in the bush were at any time in the period 1880 to 1940 likely to be still using the great cross-cut saws, the axe, the broadaxe, the sledge hammer and wedge, and then hauling with horses or bullocks. Traction engines were used for hauling, clearing and for driving threshing machines and saw benches. The latter were also driven by stationary engines using steam or internal combustion.
Saw benches and portable mechanical saws were a vast improvement on the old pit saws, a slow and laborious method of cutting logs into beams. From as far back as the 1850s there had been steam-driven saw mills turning out planks, palings, weatherboards and scantlings. The tools used to work these were the traditional hand or panel saw and the old-style frame saw with its tensioning rod. There were also keyhole saws, coping saws, compass saws and. hack saws, all for their particular jobs. Good tradesmen and anyone else interested in efficiency and good workmanship always had the necessary tools to set and sharpen saws. There were oil stones to sharpen chisels, knives and plane blades, and the various grindstones, including those very large ones often seen in old workshops.
Taking levels, making measurements, and calculating and marking angles, employed familiar devices: the spirit level, the measuring tape and three-foot, four-fold boxwood rule, the try and mitre square and the sliding T bevel. Wheelwrights had their traveller, 12 inches marked around a wheel or disc which they used to take the circumference of a rim or tyre. Many trades used inside and outside callipers along with dividers, and a cross between the two, the hermaphrodite calliper. Plumb bobs too, most ancient devices, were essential for carpenters, bricklayers and stonemasons. Catalogues in the period 1880 to 1940 offered boxwood marking gauges for woodwork and nickel-plated steel gauges for taking depths or marking widths. Vices and clamps have come in much the same form for hundreds of years; those used in this period were virtually identical to the designs seen in illustrations and paintings of the seventeenth century. Apparently metalworkers first used the vice in the sixteenth century, while those for woodworkers' benches only became common in the eighteenth century; Spanners and wrenches date back to the period when nuts and bolts came into use; this is said to have happened from about the middle of the sixteenth century. Adjustable spanners go back to around 1700. The list of tools might also include stocks and dies, taps and reamers, files and emery wheels, cold chisels and punches, pliers and bolt cutters, pipe cutters and riveting machines, wrenches and pipe benders.
While industry was, during the period 1880 to 1940, moving further in the direction of machine production, there was still room for the long list of traditional trades. Some adapted as best they could when change threatened their existence, as in the case of coach-builders who turned to motorbody work. Eventually the woodwork in motor cars was lost to all-steel fabrication in the same way that metals and plastics have, over a long period, supplanted wood in most boat-building. Our bays, harbours and rivers were full of traditional clinker-built small boats until quite recent decades. Many trades such as leadlighting, hard plastering, graining and polishing, woodcarving and the creation of fine joinery were on the decline with the trend towards modem functionalism - happily they are being given new life with the boom in the restoration of buildings and antique furniture and fittings.
A similar upsurge of interest in early music and oldstyle instruments has spawned a new breed of craftsmen; some have learnt from masters, while many others have researched and revived almost forgotten skills. Those who have a passion for veteran cars, motorbikes, traction engines, horse-drawn vehicles, historic boats and ships, early aircraft and most of all for steam trains, keep a whole range of trades and crafts alive. Many people find it possible to make a living working with a combination of traditional tools and the most useful modem machines to satisfy a public demand for dwellings, everyday items and purely ornamental objects which have that quality and character so often lacking in this age of mass production and minimal standards.