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A Gem of a Parks

Modified on 2010/04/21 08:49 by Jeff Joslin Categorized as History, Manufacturer Information


© 2003 Dana Martin Batory

by Dana Martin Batory.

Reproduced here with the permission of the author.

For more info and resources, see the Manufactures Index entries for L. F. Parks, Parks Ball Bearing Machine Company and Parks Woodworking Machine Co.

The once famous machine tool city of Cincinnati, OH, was naturally also the home of many woodworking machinery companies. The old firms of J. A Fay & Egan Co. (Est. 1830), Lane & Bodley (Est. 1850), and Steptoe, McFarlan & Co. (Est. 1852) immediately spring to mind. One of the last to be founded here was also one of the last to disappear.

What would become The Parks Woodworking Machine Co. was established in 1884 by Lewis F. Parks. Parks’ inventive genius enabled him to develop a successful firm that introduced several new design and manufacturing concepts into the field, particularly the use of welded iron for machine frames. Not only did his company pioneer the light woodworking machinery field, but introduced some of the first true combination machines.

Parks was born in Jackson County, KY, in 1862. He spent his boyhood and youth in the isolated counties of Jackson and Madison where his father was a sawmill operator. His formal education was limited to that provided by primitive backwoods schoolhouses and supplemented by an innate inventive and mechanical talent. Parks became his father’s assistant in his early teens.

He began making tests on a prototype foot-powered tenoning and mortising machine at an early age. He had no practical training as a machinist and was restricted to the miscellaneous tools, machinery, and raw materials he could find scattered about the various lumber camps in the Kentucky boondocks. This clearly explains the form his early machines soon took—few iron castings but an imaginative use of welded angle iron.

In spite of the hardships, he completed his inventions and arrived in Cincinnati in 1884. He set up business at 270-272 Colerain Avenue as the L. F. Parks Co., and began manufacturing his tenoning and mortising machine. Parks was probably the first to put such a tenoning machine on the market. However, George Page of South Keene, NH, had developed a foot-powered mortising machine c. 1833.

In 1885, Parks introduced an improved tenoning tool. He also had his first experience with the cut-throat business world of the 19th Century. To his dismay, he discovered his hard won designs were being outright copied by others.

The solution was obvious. On November 12, 1885, Parks applied for a patent on what he clearly considered his most valuable inventions: “new and useful Improvements in Tenoning Tools to be Used in a Mortising Machine.” Patent No. 386,653 was subsequently granted July 24, 1888. The yoke-shaped attachment was designed to hold two adjustable straight, angled, or concaved knives for cutting various sized and shaped tenons. The tool was held in the machine by a friction tapered fit.

The energetic Parks then filed a patent for a tenoning machine (including its tenoning attachment and a feed regulator) on August 5, 1886. He was granted Patent No. 374,425 on December 6, 1887. I have yet to uncover an illustration of Parks’ 1884 machine. It probably differed very little from the 1886 patent model.

The cast iron machine was intended to be temporarily clamped or permanently bolted to a suitable workbench. The frame carrying and guiding all the operating and reciprocating parts was fastened to the bed frame by a large thumb screw and adjustable vertically for different wood thicknesses. To prevent the heavy frame from suddenly dropping down during adjustment it was set on a slight incline. This also allowed a more gradual and accurate adjustment. Variations on the safety feature was included in all later incarnations.

The mandrel had a tapering counter bore at its lowest end to receive the matching tapered shanks of the tenoning and mortising tools. An indexing pin on the tool’s shank engaged a notch at the mandrel’s lower end assuring the tool was always set at right angles to the wood. A handle reversed the tool 180º for cutting from the other side. Intermediate notches were provided where tenon shoulder angles differed from 90º.

The treadle was equipped with holes by which the stroke of the mandrel could be lengthened or shortened by moving a vertical rod’s hooked end.

The tenoning tool had two wings to which the knives were bolted, and laterally adjustable through slots for different sized tenons. To keep the knives perfectly vertical the backsides of the wings and the knives were serrated.

To prevent the operator from taking too heavy a cut a feed regulator could be screwed to one of the knives. When the wood being worked bumped up against it, the operator was reminded to stop. A hand wheel moved the work table in and out. Another below locked the table in place.

But Parks wasn’t finished tinkering. On March 16, 1888, he applied for a patent on “certain new and useful Improvements” in tenoning machines.

“This invention,” stated the application, “relates to improvements in such a tenoning-machine as is shown in my United States patent of December 6, 1887, No. 374,425; and they consist in the construction, novel arrangement, and combination of certain parts, which will be hereinafter fully described and pointed out in the claims.”

Three legs were now bolted to the main machine frame. The main frame’s base formed the support for the adjustable work table. The tenoning frame was secured to the main frame and had two bearings which held and guided the mandrel. As in the older machine, a coil spring compressed between the top bearing and a thumb screw returned the mandrel to its starting position after the cut. The thumb screw also regulated the spring’s tension.

The adjustable table was dovetailed to the bed and was equipped with a bolt and triangular washer for taking up slack or wear. To prevent binding or uneven bearing of the washer, it was only supported on three points.

The adjustable tenoning frame enabled the worker to bring the tool close to the wood. Once again, to allow this adjustment to be more gradual, and prevent the heavy frame carrying the reciprocating parts from dropping down suddenly when the thumb nut was loosened, the rear part of the main frame had two inclined flanges to both sides of the central slot against which a washer was held.

“The machine as described so far corresponds in general with the one illustrated in my patent referred to above. The principal improvements in this machine relate to the tool reversing and adjusting device, the cutting-tool holder, the treadle, the gaging frame, and to devices to take up any wear and slack in the central slot of frame (main), and also in the movable bed-plate (work table).”

The new tool holder held a series of off-set knives that saved time by eliminating multiple cutting passes.

The improved treadle had two lugs on its underside bearing against an adjustable hand wheel on a threaded rod by which the treadle height could be changed. The length of its leverage (stroke) could also be changed through a pin and holes in its rear end and the rear leg.

The new cam action clamp (with an auxiliary table) not only held the wood but served as a gage or stop block for cutting duplicate parts. In order to make it possible for the three sets of knives to cut at once it was necessary the lower knives should be set back slightly behind the upper set. Since this put the knives out of a vertical line it was required to tilt the wood slightly to compensate, hence the adjustable auxiliary table.

The device to take up wear in the central slot of the frame and the slide, and to keep them snug against each other, consisted of a slotted wedge held in position on the slide by a set-screw. As the slot or the slide wore, the set-screw was loosened and the wedge advanced into the slot and tightened again.

Patent No. 415,394 was granted November 19, 1889.

The author is fortunate enough to own a foot-powered GEM, a direct descendant of these two machines, which dates from about 1900. The machine, with various minor design changes, was still being sold as late as 1932.

My blue-black machine stands 6 feet 3 inches high and occupies a space approximately 24 inches square and differs very little from its predecessors. Made predominately of welded ¼" thick, 1½x1½ and 2x2-inch angle iron, it weighs some 75 lb. The bed stands 32 inches from the floor and can be tilted left or right 45º by loosening and re-tightening two bolts in the back. There is also an in-and-out travel of nearly 2½ inches controlled by a small hand wheel. Another locks it in place. By unloosening a hand wheel on the back of the cast iron column the top unit can be raised or lowered some 8 inches and locked in place.

A hand wheel on top of the machine adjusts the tension by compressing a large coil spring. Stroke of the bit is controlled by the foot lever. The chain linkage to the treadle is arranged so that it may be changed for a long or short stroke to handle soft or hardwoods.

It can make any length of mortise required up to 5 inches wide and up to 10 inches deep if working from both edges. Two middle collars are connected around the chisel shaft to set it square. The tool is reversed 180º by flipping a lever and is held in the column by a non-Morse taper fit.

The cast iron tenoning attachment is bored out to fit the mandrel and locked by a bolt. It will make any length required up to 5 inches deep from one edge or 10 inches deep by reversing the stock and working from both edges and from ¼" to ¾" inches thick with a 1 inch shoulder on each side by moving the knives in or out. When cutting tenons a piece of scrap wood is always placed on the bed to protect the knives.

The standard mortising bits for the machine were ¼", *", and ½". My brother, who is a machinist, made me a *" and ¾".

I have used the machine several times to do quick mortising jobs or when my power hollow chisel mortiser was occupied. It also does a wonderful job cleaning up rough sawn tenons.

Listed as the Lewis F. Parks Co. in the 1885, 1886, and 1889 Cincinnati City Directories, by 1894 the firm had become The Parks Ball Bearing Machine Co. and had moved to 3900 Colerain. It was a very odd title since most of its machines were actually equipped with Babbitt bearings!

In 1900 the company moved to Knowlton Street with a neighboring warehouse at 4127 Langland Street. A new two story frame building was erected about 1910 at 1501 Knowlton, followed shortly after by a larger assembly building at 1546. This became a warehouse in the 1980s. By 1912 the company was an important industry of Cincinnati's North Side.

Parks never owned a foundry and castings were furnished by outsiders such as nearby Portsmouth Castings.

It is rumored that due to Parks’ brave anti-war beliefs he was slowly edged out of his company by the stockholders and pressured (perhaps ordered) by the United States Government to sell the company in 1918. It was incorporated December 16, 1918.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. purchased the firm in the early 1920s to assure itself a line of cheap machines to supply its own stores and catalog sales. Even so, light and heavy duty machines were still marketed separately under the Parks name. Sears would continue to sell Parks made machinery until the 1960s. Sears/Parks machines can always be identified by the “112” prefix in the model numbers.

In 1927 a group of local businessmen purchased the company from Sears and the name was officially changed to The Parks Woodworking Machine Co. April 27, 1927. The 1929 depression hit the company hard and by 1937 it was ready to file for bankruptcy.

In 1937, Elizabeth M. Reardon, a secretary at Parks since 1913, purchased the business. She would successfully operate the company with the assistance of her brothers John and Maurice.

The company prospered after W.W. II, about 75 workers producing some 50 machines daily for worldwide distribution. During its later years Parks again resumed making planers and bandsaws under contract for Sears. In 1984 the 40,000 square foot plant employed some 30 people.

In 1989, its 105th year of existence, Parks announced it was ceasing all manufacturing of new machinery, no doubt due to a deepening recession and stiff competition from cheaply made and cheaply priced foreign imports. It is also hinted that the loss of the Sears business, a liability lawsuit, and the retirement of key personnel contributed to the decision. Parks filed for dissolution February 17, 1989.

When Parks finally discontinued manufacturing machines Elizabeth is supposed to have ordered that every unsold, completed machine in the plant be destroyed and the remains hauled off to a landfill. Apparently an effort to lessen future liability lawsuits.

“A Gem Of A Parks,” was previously published in The Gristmill, No. 112 (Sept., 2003), pp. 28-31. Dana has given oldwwmachines permission to post his article. He welcomes comments, corrections, and additions concerning the piece. Mr. Dana Martin Batory, 402 E. Bucyrus St., Crestline, OH 44827. No phone calls please.

A definitive history of Parks will appear in Volume Two of Dana’s planned ten volume series on the history of woodworking machinery. The second volume, also containing detailed histories of Crescent, Boice-Crane, and Whitney, is tentatively scheduled for release in Fall 2004. Contact Astragal Press, 5 Cold Hill Rd., Suite 12, Mendham, NJ 07945 ( for further details.

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