Monday, August 30, 2010

"The Tool Chest" with Nick Nichols

Year after year, one of my favorite attractions at the Great New York State Fair is an old woodworker named Nick Nichols who performs outside the Agricultural Museum. Nick's act is a mix of jokes, funny stories, clever magic-like tricks (which he always explains), and a wealth of historical information about tools, woodworking and building. My knowledge of antique tools is nascent, but I certainly know quite a bit more than I did before I began listening to his lectures some fifteen or more years ago. I know enough, in fact, that when I visit local museums with the kids, I can explain the purpose and function of a wide array of tools. As a writer who often focuses on historical time periods (and fantasy worlds that resemble historical time-periods), I can even say that this information is genuinely useful to me in my craft.

Nick has a wonderful way about him - he's able to make fun of himself, his audience, city folk, country folk, and anyone else, all in a fun and non-threatening way that his audience universally enjoys. But as much as I enjoy his jokes and stories, his knowledge of history is what engrosses me the most. Among the things I've learned from Nick (though, note, I haven't validated these):

  • The superstition to "knock on wood" (which I wrote about previously) derives from the ancient Celtic druids, who believed that each tree had a spirit. Before undertaking a long journey, one would rap on the tree to invoke the protection of the spirit within.
  • The origin of the expression "dead as a doornail." An old-fashioned knocker would originally be slammed against the wood of the door, which over time would wear away an impression. To prevent such erosion, people began adding a metal spike that they would drive through the door behind the knocker, and the knocker would bang against that, instead. After being rapped on the head day in and day out, the door nail was, of course, well and truly dead. Charles Dickens then included in the opening of his classic "A Christmas Carol" the phrase "Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail." and the expression saw its place in modernity assured.
  • The "ten-foot pole" from the phrase "I wouldn't touch that with a ..." was an actual tool. It was ten feet long (marked in five two-foot intervals) because that was evidently the longest pole that could be carried on a donkey or mule without breaking (that part sounds a bit dubious to me, but there you are). It was used to measure timbers, which were then (as today) sold in eight-, ten-, and twelve-foot lengths.
  • In the old days, land was measured with a surveyor's chain. Interestingly, I had seen one of these for the very first time last Thursday at the Erie Canal Boat Museum in Chittenango, and then had Nick discuss the tool for the first time at the fair on Saturday. Anyway, if you ever wonder why a mile is 5280 feet, there actually is a reason. That is the distance of 66 surveyor's chains, each of which was 80 feet in length. The chain was the measurement used to determine one acre - an acre being in dimensions one chain wide by ten chains long. This was evidently the amount of soil that a man could plow in a day using a team of two oxen. He would plow 33 furrows, each furrow being 10 chains (1/8 of a mile) - called a "fur-long" or a furlong. You hear the term still in horse-racing, and it is, indeed, one-eighth of a mile. Fascinating! Who knew that it all made sense?? Incidentally, I also learned that a "rod" is two chains long (I think - my memory may be a bit fuzzy on that one - it was a lot of info to take in all at once).
  • Thomas Jefferson attempted to introduce the metric system to the U.S. back in the mid-1880s. He was asked by congress to devise a system of currency, which he did based on a decimal system. It was reviewed and adopted by congress. He attempted to do likewise with linear measure, adopting a French metric system that based the length of the meter on the circumference of the Earth. Unfortunately, his system had too many numbers after the decimal and died in committee in Congress.
  • A fro was a very valuable tool for pre-industrial craftsman. The tool was a handle with a dull metal blade, the "edge" of which would be driven with a mallet into a stick of wood parallel to the grain. By moving the handle "to and fro" (see what I did there?), the would could be easily split along the grain, resulting in a very strong base to be formed into a handle (as for a hammer, axe or other tool), into wheel spokes, or into furniture legs. Because it followed the grain of the wood, it was extremely strong. The fro blade didn't need (or want) to be sharp, and gave rise to the old expression "dull as a fro."
  • A shave horse was a four-legged device (much like a real horse) with a clamp on the front (either a screw-type metal clamp or a foot-operated wooden one, depending on the time period). It would clamp down on a piece of wood so the craftsman could work his knives and blades on it.
  • A draw knife was a long, slightly curved blade between two handles. The blade faced back toward the user, and the craftsman would draw it against the piece of wood that was clamped into the shave horse to shave off the rough edges.
  • Lastly, a spoke shave was a finer blade used to finish off the wooden handle, spoke or leg. It operated like a modern vegetable peeler, except that it was held sideways, again between two handles. 
  • If the desired end-product needed to be inserted into a hole, such as with a wheel spoke or a table leg, the craftsman needed to finish with two other tools. A spoke pointer was used to take the oblong spokes (which were not round, but were broader than they were wide) and round off the end. It was a metal funnel-like device that fit on the end of a drill. Another tool (the name of which I didn't catch) was then used to shave the tip of the spoke into a round, smooth "tongue" that would fit into a mortise and tenon joint - a "tongue and groove."
  • A triangular drill-bit in a floating chuck will produce a square hole.
  • One display of a master woodworker's expertise was his ability to use a plane to shave a long, continuous strip of wood off the top of a board. This strip was commonly hung in his workshop as a testament to his skill.
And on and on and on. The man's knowledge is truly remarkable, as is the amiable way he shares it with his small audiences. I told him this week that he ought to write a book, and he replied with his usual self-deprecating humor, "I read a book once!" Sadly, I fear that much of the knowledge he's accumulated won't survive him, at least not all in one neat package as it is now (I'm sure much of it has been documented elsewhere). I'll just have to do my best to learn as much of it as I can for as long as he keeps performing.

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