Drawn to Old Time Tools

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Three spoke shaves, used for light trimming on straight or curved wood.
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Jim Linthicum works at his homemade, foot-operated shaving horse, based on an original model. He calls it "the potter's wheel of the woodworker."
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An auger, with interchangeable bits, made by the Millers Falls Company of Millers Falls, Mass.
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Froes: small for basketmaking; curved for coopering; large for splitting siding boards and shingles.

Jim Linthicum of New Market, Md., felt so stressed out at work 10 years ago that his wife, Kara, suggested he take up a hobby. He chose woodworking and soon found himself collecting old time tools used for woodworking and tool literature, too.

As a child, Jim said, he spent many hours on his grandparents’ dairy farms, learning how to make hay, plant tobacco and feed the animals. Doing those things, he gained an understanding of how the previous generation used old farm tools.

Later, he trained to be an industrial arts teacher and then switched to real estate, which was what he was doing when he took up woodworking.

“I started working with green wood and old time tools,” he said. “I like this type of woodworking. It’s the way this country was settled in the 1700s and 1800s. I like to work wood the way they did back then.”

He’s not particularly interested in the exact chronology of when a tool was invented. Rather, he is fascinated with how a tool first was used and how he might replicate that use.

When Jim started looking for old woodworking tools, though, he couldn’t find them. “They were only available at antique shops, farm auctions or specialized auctions of antique tools,” he recalled. “One of my resources was Eric Sloane’s book, Museum of Early American Tools. He has the best drawings and insight into these tools and how they were used.

“I also watched Roy Underbill’s TV program, ‘The Woodwright’s Shop,’ and started to figure out the market to buy the tools.”

Now, he goes to 10 to 15 auctions a year, preferring to buy in person rather than, for example, on the Internet in order to correctly judge quality.

“Collecting has become a big part of this even though it’s not my goal,” Jim said. “The collecting takes more time than the work, which is a struggle as I’m not retired.”

Jim’s collection includes chisels, gouges, long and short planes, molding planes, scrapers, saws, augers and reamers. The tools come in a variety of sizes and are mostly made for specialized functions.

He also has a post ax, used for splitting rail fence posts, and a heavy auger, used for making the holes in the posts to hold the rails. Both tools are about 150 years old and are of a style that traces back at least 300 years in U.S. history.

One of Jim’s favorite tools is the froe, a wood-splitting tool that comes in many sizes. He said it was one of the only tools that hadn’t been replaced by something more modern.

Large froes were used to make shingles, medium-sized froes were used to make barrels and buckets, and small ones, wooden baskets.

“The other passion I have is edge tools – the different axes, hatchets, draw knives,” he said, noting any tool with an “ungauged” cutting edge is considered an edge tool.

Village blacksmiths working 100 or more years ago made many of Jim’s tools. Others were produced by early manufacturers, including Stanley, Jennings and Millers Falls.

His literature collection includes Stanley catalogs and books on that company, which began in 1843 in New Britain, Conn.

Jim’s small barn is stacked from floor to ceiling with woodworking projects and the old woodworking tools he uses to execute them.

“You end up making things in order to use the tools,” he said, adding he spent a lot of time cleaning up and restoring tools to working condition, especially sharpening them and making new wooden handles for them.

Jim likes to harvest and split logs. He cleans off the bark with a barking spud – a tool used by 19th-century farmers, who harvested tree bark to sell to local tanneries for its tannic acid content. Different techniques were used to harvest bark, depending on the type of tree. Jim also has made his own spoke vise, used to hold wood to make round legs for such items as three-legged camping stools, and his own shaving horse, which is a foot-operated vise.

He also likes to share his old tool expertise with young people. “I’m teaching Boy Scouts,” he said.

“Each year we do a pioneering campout. I’ll bring in fresh 8-foot poplar logs. I’ll entrust the older Scouts to split logs down the middle and then quarter them, using wooden wedges made out of dogwood. They hit them with metal or wooden hammers.’

Then, under Jim’s instruction, the boys take a draw knife and “spoke shave” to smooth the split quarters into poles. When the split runs naturally with the grain, they learn, it’s stronger. Then, they use lashings to tie the poles together, and make towers and monkey bridges out of them.

Working with the Scouts, just like working with the old tools, turns out to be what Jim likes to call “good therapy.” FC

For more information on Jim’s tool collection, contact him by e-mail at jimlinthicum@mris.com.

Jill Teunis, a frequent contributor to Farm Collector magazine, is a freelance writer who lives in Damascus, Md.

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