Highland Woodworking Wood News Online: Employee Contribution - The History of Work is a Human Story: Highland Woodworking's Antique Tools by Chris Black
Highland Woodworking Wood News Online The History of Work is a Human Story: Highland Woodworking's Antique Tools by Chris Black

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The History of Work is a Human Story: Highland Woodworking's Antique Tools

by Chris Black

Highland Woodworking Antique Tool Collection Roy Underhill during one of his seminars here in the store commented that written history usually concerns itself with kings, queens, presidents and generals. History is rarely about common people, their day-to-day lives, the work they did or the tools they used. Archeology, on the other hand, almost always uncovers common items such as pottery, coins and yes, tools. These artifacts tell the stories of real people like you and me.

If you've ever visited our showroom in Atlanta, you've probably noticed the antique woodworking tools on display around the store. You'll see backsaws, carpenter's saws, braces, spokeshaves, gauges, drawknives, squares and of course planes of every kind. These tools are part of a larger collection started by our now retired owner, Chris Bagby. Chris acquired these wonderful tools over many years and kept them at Highland Woodworking. Occasionally we'd bring some of them out for display, but the vast majority has been kept in storage for close to 20 years. We recently rediscovered the collection in our attic during some house cleaning. Finding these tools was like uncovering buried treasure, at least to us woodworkers. We couldn't help but think of all the stories these well-worn jewels had to tell.

Most of the collection is of British make dating roughly from the early to mid-19th century. Eventually they made their way to the States, not as part of a collection, but to be used in actual trade and commerce. None of them are particularly rare or valuable, and all are fairly well used. Typically the irons have been shortened from repeated grinding and honing. You can tell from the worn spots if the original owner was left or right handed, and all have the unmistakable adjusting marks from mallet blows. Based on these fingerprints, we started thinking about how the tools were employed, what they made and most importantly, who used them.

A few show signs of outdoor duty and job site wear, but most were shop kept. Clearly these tools were involved in someone's livelihood. Perhaps they made everyday things like doors, window sashes and animal gates, or maybe they built cased pieces, tables and chairs. Since there are no written records, we can only speculate and wonder. Many of these questions will remain unanswered. One thing we can do is revere history. We can learn about how these tools work, and a little about how they served the craftspeople who owned them.

You might acquire an antique tool of your own, and recondition it for use in one of your projects. Of course since the industrial revolution, these tools are hopelessly outdated for production work. This means commercial woodworkers will be content to let their mysteries remain unsolved, so it is up to the hobbyist, amateur and woodworking enthusiast to preserve their tradition and spirit. Let's continue to tell the story of these people and their tools.

Rosewood Square Brass Inlay Detail In the past carpenters, joiners and cabinetmakers marked their tools to show ownership. The tools in our collection are no exception. Here are just a few of the names of the people who once owned and used these tools: C. Blyton, G. Pilgram, F. Wolfe, G. Lewis, G. Baker, H. Webb, W. Bygrave, H. Hircock, B. Bedham, A. Barrie, W. Ovenden, C. Cooper, A. Wood, H. Howe and E. Light. Their faces are long since forgotten, but maybe their stories won't be.

If your travels ever bring you to Atlanta, Georgia, we would be honored if you'd stop by our store. We make a special effort to preserve the history of woodworking by carrying the largest selection possible of traditional woodworking tools from every part of the globe. Our knowledgeable staff can answer questions, and help you make a little history of your own.

View images of Highland Woodworking's antique tool collection

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Highland Woodworking | 1045 N. Highland Avenue, NE | Atlanta | GA | 30306 | 404.872.4466