19th Century Sawmills and Furniture Making

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Attended two fascinating workshops over past two weekends, each at a different working museum within 10 miles of our house. Still a third area farmer's museum (even larger) boasts on-site blacksmiths, farriers and the like. We've been there on multiple occasions.

The first is a working mid-19th century vintage sawmill that relies on non-electric water power. Watching the water sluice open and seeing how efficient a small amount of water can be to turn a walloping large number of pulleys and, ultimately, saws was fascinating and wonderful. BTW, our forebears were as tech-crazy as we are. The basement below the saws would have made Robert Cook and other Yourdon engineers drool. I think. At least some of the books for sale, with their extraordinarily detailed drawings, would have.

I'm not about to build a sawmill. But it was both disturbing (for obvious reasons) and reassuring to experience the local lore about old-time skills that is still available -- crucial skills in a real TEOTWAWKI scenario. With all the water and wood in our area, a good bit of lore to retain.

The second workshop, this weekend, featured an area woodworker who uses 19th century tools, BY CHOICE, to build furniture. Though you can't produce assembly line furniture as fast (obviously), he finds the tools more fun, safer, and less wearing on his body. His point was that folks weren't stupid in those days and had very cleverly designed simple and VERY SHARP handmade tools that could do wonderful work.

The VERY SHARP is the key phrase. He had axes, adzes, "drawknives" and a variety of home-made tools (almost identical to those in use a century or more ago) that were razor sharp. Not surprisingly, sharpening is an art all to itself. He is not nostalgic and gladly uses very hard tempered steel for many of those tools, btw.

Of special interest was a lathe that worked from a foot pump which was, in turn, suspended from a clever tree branch contraption. Simple and it worked amazingly well, with scarcely any pressure on the "foot-ee".

I ain't gonna add furniture making to my resume in the next year, but I did decide to learn some about sharpening (we've got plenty of hand tools that would benefit) ASAP. And I took his card. He is tight with another area blacksmith and I figure I'm gonna get to know these dudes over the next few months.

I think you can already grasp the gist of this. On the one hand, we don't really want to (and can't) go back to recover the entire web of skills and industries of a century ago. Impossible. If TEOTWAWKI (God forbid), we will rebuild with a bizarre patchwork of those skills as we can find them and all the stuff we can cobble together from then to now.

But it is worth contemplating how truly intelligent and industrious our forebears were, not quite so primitive as we'd like to believe. And when some of them, as they got old, resisted a few of those then new-fangled inventions that our grandparents hungered for, our culture might have done well to be more thoughtful about what we kept and what we chose to abandon.

Y2K might give us, positive speaking, that same opportunity with respect to electronic technology. If we're VERY lucky.

-- BigDog (BigDog@duffer.com), July 18, 1999



You are so right about sharpening. It is one of the best skills I learned as a kid and has served me well. In my younger years I worked a while as a carpenter and it was amazing that not a single carpenter I worked with really understood sharpening.

It can get a little tiresome when you are the only one around who knows how to sharpen a plane or draw kife. It can get *really* tiresome when everybody comes to borrow you pocket knife because they *know* it will be sharp.

-Greybear, who knows beyond a doubt that sharp tools are much safer.

-- Got Stones?

-- Greybear (greybear@home.com), July 19, 1999.

Don't forget a smear of oil on the steel.

-- Bob Barbour (r.barbour@waikato.ac.nz), July 19, 1999.


Another, newly confirmed devotee of the cult of the froe.

errrrrr, maybe, at the least, someone who has SOME IDEA what the @#$@ a FROE *IS* !!!!


-- Chuck, a night driver (rienzoo@en.com), July 19, 1999.

BigDog, I'm away from my e-mail for a few more days. Still in Michigan. Thought I'd pass along a tidbit for the mosaic. My mother-in-law, a semi-quasi GI, scoffed when I told her that the federal govt. claimed to be largely ready. She then told me that one of her neighbors in his mid-80s was just hired and moved to Washington by the government as a computer programmer. (Incredibly, my mother-in -law had seen no connection between this and y2k.) I don't know the man, but I seriously doubt he's doing it for the money. I draw a lot of conclusions from information like this. I hope my conclusions are wrong.

-- Puddintame (achillesg@hotmail.com), July 19, 1999.

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