An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 114

Clinton Howell Antiques - February 8, 2021 - Issue 114
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
My brother and I collected old tools while we lived in London which was an interesting pastime in lots of different ways. The key to our success in buying close onto a thousand molding planes, among a lot of other things, was to advertise for them, which yielded numerous calls from around the country. The complete history of tools, at least to do with the many and various woodworking trades is yet to be written as far as I am aware. One of the things I learned was that every really good woodworker figured out tools that would suit a particular purpose. Hence, a joiner would create a swan necked chisel (I have posted a link to one below) which were fearsome looking blades designed to give leverage to the joiner cutting mortises in things such as doors and gates. The curve of the neck allowed the leverage to be against the interior of the mortise, not against the top edge which could be crushed against the length of a straight chisel. It is a pretty simple concept and one that speeded up the job which was always the raison d'etre behind the development of any tool.

By far the most interesting antique tool we purchased was the Holtzapffel ornamental lathe. A lady in Portsmouth called my brother and offered her late husband's lathe to him for seven hundred pounds which he agreed to pay. However, a local auctioneer talked her into going to auction and we ended up paying exactly that amount in auction as well. I knew about Holtzapffel lathes because I was introduced to a turner in New York City by a friend of my father's. Ornamental turning is a singular craft that entails an almost infinite amount of cutters, depending on the scale you wish to work at and how complex your design might be. Ornamental turning became a princely pastime in the 19th century as tool culture, particularly with the various great exhibitions being mounted in mid-century, began to take off. The Holtzapffel lathe was made in London, the founder of the company initially came from Alsace, and was considered one of the best ornamental lathes on the market. Our goal was to buy and sell the lathe and my contact in New York alerted me to a neurosurgeon in California that wanted aa ornamental lathe so we contacted him and sold him the lathe for about a two hundred pound profit. When the neurosurgeon received the lathe, he claimed that not everything we advertised was in the shipment (I should have offered to buy it back right then and there.) In any case, I offered to go to the annual Ornamental Turners Society event in London to see if I could purchase anything that he might want and/or introduce him to the group. As it turns out, when I got to the convention, everyone knew who I was--word had gone out that I was the purchaser in Portsmouth. When they found out that I sold the lathe on, there were a few tsk-tsks, but they asked for the name of the purchaser and I presume began to correspond with him. Apparently, the brotherhood was pretty tight and no one ever sold their lathes or parts of their lathes (they are complicated machines) for profit. I don't know if the neurosurgeon was ever happy, but on looking up Holtzapffel, I see a lathe selling right now for $39,500. Of course, the one we sold was almost fifty years ago. 

Tools tell all sorts of stories which is one reason why they are so much fun to look at and handle. Molding planes, for example, were made in sets. Most joiners would carry their workbox of planes to a job in order to make the moldings on site. As a rule, they would have about ninety, if I remember correctly, which would include sets of coves and hollows of various sizes and then sets of multiple shaped blades. For example, if you wanted to cut reeding on a board and there were say, a dozen reeds, you might create a blade with four hollows so that you only had to cut three times instead of twelve. Again, the idea is to make the job go more quickly. That we were able to buy so many of these wooden planes is quite remarkable when you think that in the late 19th century, the Stanley Tool Co., in Hartford, Ct., figured out how to make a single plane with many interchangeable blades. Instead of carrying a trunk of tools to a job, a joiner could carry a box with the plane and 20, 30, 40 or more blades.

If you consider all the crafts associated with woodworking, you begin to realize that the variety of tools out there is immense. Instrument makers have these lovely little thumb planes, for example, whereas barrel makers, better known as coopers, have the hywel, also known as a croze. (A croze was for sale at the Rafael Osona auction sale on February 6th--there is a link to it below.) Furthermore, when you go from country to country, things will be done altogether differently. Japanese saws cut on the in stroke, not on the out stroke. Steel will be conserved by slightly hollowing the underside of a chisel. There were tools for measuring, for creating straight lines, plumb bobs and on and on. Most of them have a singularity of purpose that can be baffling for someone who doesn't know the trade and/or the task it was meant to accomplish. In any case, if you know of anyone who would like to buy some wooden molding planes as I still have about two hundred, you know who to call.    Swan neck chisels.  A croze for sale at Rafael Osona--a cooper's tool called a hywel in the UK.