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Short History of Woodworking Machinery

Modified on 2008/04/05 11:26 by Jeff Joslin Categorized as History

A Short History of Woodworking Machinery

The following was taken from the 1920 edition of the William H. Field Company "Field's Wood Working Machinery Reference Book"


Wood in its various forms enters so largely into the industry of the nation that its economical and rapid conversion from forest trees into articles of general utility cannot but be of paramount interest.

Occasional efforts were made to perform the work mechanically, but not until the end of the eighteenth century were any definite and practical ideas described. Sir Samuel Bentham, an Englishman, patented in 1791 and 1793 principles which are in use today. His inventions included “planing machines with rotary cutters to cut on several sides of the wood at once; veneer cutting machines; moulding and recessing machines; bevel sawing machines; saw sharpening machine; tenon cutting machine by means of circular saws; boring tools.”

The improvements of the present day are well known to all who care to interest themselves. Motors direct connected to high speed spindles which are run in ball bearings approach perfection and economy. Today many mills are planing wood as fast as 250 lineal feet per minute. Through the use of grinding attachments and multi-knife heads, moulded surfaces are being made of unusual smoothness at speeds approaching 100 lineal feet per minute.

There is a period, however, between Bentham’s time and the present, during which ambitious manufacturers struggled with the perplexities of their day, which we have found to be interesting and which we will review briefly.

Circular Saws

With the exception perhaps of the wedge and the axe, the saw can lay claim to being the most ancient instrument for the conversion of wood, and it is certainly by far the most important.

Saw Mills are recorded to have been used at Breslau, 1427; Holstein, 1540; Lyons, 1555; Ratisbon, 1575. The first mill erected in Holland was at Saardam, in 1596, and in Sweden about 1563. The first Saw Mill in England of which there is any record was erected by a Dutchman near London about 1663, but was the occasion of so much rioting that it had to be abandoned. A James Stansfield was equally unsuccessful in 1768, but soon after, aided by the government, he erected mills in various parts of the country which were operated successfully.

The circular saw was supposed to have been originated in Holland, but the first patent was granted in 1777 to Samuel Miller of Southampton. In the beginning the blades were made with square holes. William Rowland, of Philadelphia. was the first manufacturer of blades in this country when he became established in 1806 in Philadelphia. The use of the inserted tooth, or the sectional or false tooth as it was originally called, was invented in 1824 by Robert Eastman, of Brunswick, Maine.

The Circular Saw Bench in its many forms is the most common of all Wood Working Machines. Before other operations such as planing, moulding, or tenoning can be accomplished, the material must first be prepared on the Saw Bench.

A Self Feed Rip Saw was used as early as 1824, with several blades on one spindle and divided by suitable collars for converting timber into planks, but no effort was made to patent such a machine until 1868, when John Casson, of Sheffield, England, developed a Continuous Feed Circular Saw Bench.

Planing Machines

After the saw the Planing Machine is no doubt the most important tool. The first reliable record we have of an attempt to supersede hand planing by machinery is contained in a patent granted to Hatton in 1776, but this seems to have been only a series of crude mechanical ideas which were never put into practice. It was left to Bentham to express practical ideas for development.

In 1827 Malcolm Muir, of Glasgow, invented an improved Planer. It had for its object the preparation of complete flooring boards. The operations of sawing, planing, tongueing, and grooving were all combined, and a number of the machines were put into operation.

John Cumberland, an American, brought out many improvements in 1847, but the development in this country was greatly retarded by the tyrannical restraint of the holders of a patent which was known as the Woodworth Planer. William Woodworth, an old carpenter residing in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and known familiarly as “Uncle Billy,” invented in 1828 a Planing Machine which he described as “the combination of rotary cutters and feeding rollers and of rotary matching cutters so as to form a tongue or groove on both the edges of the lumber at the same time that the principal surfaces are planed.”

At this time his patent extended for fourteen years, but was extended from the day of its expiration for a further term of seven years. Woodworth is not supposed to have profited by his invention. The feeling against the machine by the carpenters was very strong, and the mill in which the first machine was used had to be watched both day and night for several months.

After the patent extension he decided to sell it out for what he could get and succeeded in interesting Samuel Schenck, who later controlled the sales in the New England States, John Gibson, of Albany, N.Y., who handled the Middle States, and Samuel Pitts, of Detroit, Mich. It is reported that Woodworth received not over $5,000 for this valuable patent.

Gibson started a large shop at Albany for manufacturing the machines, and a planing mill nearby where he could demonstrate them in operation.

In July, 1843, the original patent was surrendered and a reissue obtained which included “a small hold-down roll.” From this time the prejudices of the workmen ceased and the demand for Planing machines increased rapidly.

The owners through a mutual understanding licensed a certain number of machines, giving each mill owner the exclusive right for a given amount of territory for which they charged a royalty. In New York State the price was $7 per thousand feet, collected by the mill owner, who paid $3 as royalty. Each mill owner was required to render an account every three months for the amount of lumber dressed and verify the same under oath, paying a royalty within ten days thereafter.

Efforts were made to circumvent this patent because of the strong feeling against the tyranny of those who owned it. Joseph B. Andrews invented “two endless feed aprons.” The Beckwith and the Gay machines in Pennsylvania and the Brown machine in Massachusetts were all developed for the purpose of evading the Woodworth patent, but their development was stopped by injunctions and declared infringements. A man named Norcross, however, was partially successful and withstood the suit of the Woodworth patent holders.

By the time the first reissued patent expired, Gibson is supposed to have been worth $1,000,000 and spent over $250,000 as his share of the expenses in getting a further renewal. He succeeded.

Congress assembled December 1,1856, when the extended patent had but twenty-seven days longer to run. Gibson and others interested with him were there and succeeded so far as to have a bill introduced early in the session to extend the patent for a further term of seven years from December 27th, but when the remonstrance was presented it resembled a roll of carpet more than a public document. Officials concluded not to read it, but to unroll and measure it, when it was found to contain two columns of closely written names fifty feet long. Thus ended the career of the Woodworth patent.

Gibson’s prosperity ceased, and he was obliged to sell out his business to Daniel Doncaster, who had for many years acted as his foreman and was well liked by his former customers. Gibson later retired to a farm owned by his wife and died there comparatively poor. Mr. Schenck removed his patterns to Matteawan, N. Y. This company also ceased through failure after the expiration of the patent. Mr. Pitts, of Detroit, never manufactured many machines, but permitted his customers to buy them from either Gibson or Schenck.

Users of this early machine were inconvenienced considerably because of defective construction. The cylinder boxes used to raise and lower perpendicularly, and it was necessary to shorten or lengthen the belt for each change or adjustment. The finger or star gearing that was used to connect the top and bottom rolls allowed of practically no expansion and consequently these had to be changed for each set-up.

These inconveniences were immediately overcome. In 1857 James A. Woodbury, of Boston, patented a plan for moving both matching heads by means of two separate screws.

Improved extension gears were invented by Charles Burleigh, of Fitchburg, June 15, 1866, and J. B. Tarr, of Chicago, patented a side head chip breaker, which was a valuable invention and prevented the board from slivering while being submitted to the action of the side cutters.

A Dimension Planer, known as the Gray & Woods Planer, was patented January 24, 1860. It was a modification of the old Daniels Planer and was developed for the purpose of straight surfacing of boards.

Moulding Machines

Heavy Moulding Machines were introduced in 1870. The first attempt to make such a machine is accredited to Fay & Fisher, Lancaster, Mass.

In 1848 C. B. Rogers, of Norwich, Conn., commenced the manufacture of Wood Working Machinery and soon after associated himself with J. A. Fay, who was located at Keene, N. H.

The first successful sticker was produced at Norwich. Other Wood Working Machines were added, and their business grew until a third shop was opened at Worcester, under the management of E. C. Tainter, who was then known as “Eph” among the old wood workers. This shop was discontinued in 1858. Upon the death of J. A. Fay. his stock and fixtures were removed to Norwich. Tainter later became associated with L. Power & Company, of Philadelphia, under the name of Power & Tainter.

The development of the Moulding Machine was continued by H. B. Smith, of Lowell, Mass., early in the ‘60’s. To Mr. Smith it is believed belongs the credit of introducing iron frame machinery exclusively. He developed the dovetail slides and gibs on the frame, which guide the bed as it is raised or lowered, and compensates the wear.

One of the first inside moulders was built by a man named Lee and some of these old Lee Inside Moulders are still in operation.

C. B. Rogers, S. A. Woods, Of Boston, and C. R. Tompkins, of Rochester, N. Y., were the first to interest themselves in heavy inside machines.

Mortising Machines

The first practical Mortising Machines were made in 1807 in England and used at the Portsmouth dockyard.

In 1826 A. Branch, of New York, invented a mortising auger for making square holes, which was described in the Franklin Journal of Philadelphia. The explanation of the patent clearly describes the hollow chisel mortise cutters of today. H. B. Smith in 1853 patented a reversible reciprocating Mortiser, and for many classes of work this type of machine is now in demand.

Tenoning Machines

Tenoning is inseparably connected with Mortising, and the two machines were invented and developed together. Credit is given to J. A. Fay for the invention of the modern type of Tenoner with rotary cutters about 1840. The framing was then made of wood.

C. B. Rogers at Norwich later patented an arrangement for adjusting cutter head yokes, either independently or together. With the addition of the roller table, vertical spindles for coping and cut-off saws for squaring the ends of the stock, we have the present day machine with all its attachments.

Band Saws

The band saw machine, although generally believed to be of French origin, was really invented in England by William Newbury in 1808. Practical development was delayed on account of the difficulty in joining the steel band. There is no record of any machines being constructed on Newbury’s plan until 1858, when M. Perine, of Paris, exhibited a machine, after which time they came gradually into use.

Single Bevel Back Band Saw Machines so commonly used today in shipyards and pattern shops were a development of 1873, and about the same time there was patented a multiple Band Sawing Machine.

Scroll Saws

The first complete fret saw machine was made by H. L. Beach, of Montrose, Pa. Motion was given to the saw by an adjustable friction pulley on the crank shaft, and the speed could be varied at will by the operator depressing the treadle.

The saw guides were adjustable laterally and transversely to line, or to give any desired rake to the saw; the cross heads were also adjustable for wear. Tension was given to the saw by a ratchet gear. The working parts were suspended to a wrought-iron tubular shaft, which was held in place by a box and lever, and balanced by a spring. An adjustable steel bearing supported the back of the saw, and it could also be used to hold down the work. An air pump for removing the sawdust was attached to the cross head.

Mr. W. J. Cunningham, of London, patented about 1865 a combined fret saw and drilling machine, of very simple construction.

Irregular Moulders or Shapers

A patent for shaping irregular forms in wood by means of a cutter block fixed on a spindle revolving vertically was invented by Mr. Andrew S. Gear, of Jamesville, Ohio, in 1853. Gear later removed to Boston, where he developed a considerable demand for his machines. This was a two-spindle machine with a wooden table, very similar to our machine of today.

Universal Wood Worker

The combining of the functions of several machines into one under the title of a general or Universal Joiner originated over half a century ago. During the past decade they have been developed and are now used successfully where the quantity of work required and the space is limited. We believe the first joiner was designed in 1858.

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