Document 59:-- George Sturt on the Wheelwright's Shop

Admittedly, the George Sturt's text doesn't match that well with the images -- adapted from R. A. Salaman's Dictionary of Woodworking Tools, which has its origins in Britain, and therefore reflects conditions that prevailed in a setting entirely outside America. (Let's just leave it as a "do-for" until something more appropriate come to light. One of Edwin Tunis's books -- designed for young readers -- has an illustration of making a Conestoga wagon that might work here.)

Regardless of a disconnect between text and image in this webpage, what connects is a parallel between Sturt's recollections of building a wagon, using entirely hand tools, and the anatomy of a wooden wagon's construction from Salaman's dictionary of woodworking's hand tools.


    Chapter XI: HAND-WORK

    There was no machinery, or at any rate there was no steam or other "power," in my father's shop in 1884. Everything had to be done by hand, though we had implements to serve machine-uses in their feeble way. I myself have spent hours turning the grindstone. It stood under a walnut tree; and in sunny weather there might have been worse jobs. Only, sometimes the grinding lasted too long - especially for a new tool, or for an ax. Cook was a terror in this respect. Time seemed no object with him; he must get his edge. And he had a word I used to wonder at. For when a new plane or chisel proved over-brittle, so that a nick chinked out of it and needed grinding wholly away, Cook used to look disapprovingly at the broken edge and mutter "Crips." What was that word? I never asked. Besides, Cook was too deaf. But after some years it dawned upon me that he had meant crisp.

    Another implement to be turned with a handle was a drill, for drilling tires for the blacksmiths. To put this round, under its horizontal crank, was harder work than turning the grind­stone. The shaft of it went up through the ceiling to a loft, where a circular weight-a heavy iron wheel in fact-gave the pressure on the drill. Men took turns at drilling, for it was often a long job. I don't remember doing much of this; yet I well remember the battered old oil-tin, and the little narrow spoon, and the smell of the linseed oil, as we fed it to the drill to prevent over-heating.

    More interesting-but I was never man enough to use it -- was a lathe, for turning the hubs of wagon and cart wheels. I suspect it was too clumsy for smaller work. Whenever I think of this, shame flushes over me that I did not treasure up this ancient thing, when at last it was removed. My grandfather had made it -- so I was told. wheelwright wagon anatomy 3Before his time the hubs or stocks of wheels had been merely rounded up with an ax in that shop, because there was no lathe there, or man who could use one.wheelwright wagon anatomy 1 But my grandfather had introduced this improvement when he came to the shop as foreman; and there the lathe remained until my day. I had seen my father covered with the tiny chips from it (the floor of the "lathe-house" it stood in was foot deep in such chips), and too late I realised that it was a curiosity in its way.

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    On a stout post from floor to ceiling was swung a large wheel -- the hind wheel for a waggon -- to serve for pulley. All round the rim of this slats were nailed, or perhaps screwed on. They stood up on both sides of the felloes so as to form a run or channel for the leather belting that was carried over the pulley-wheel, across to the stock to be turned. A big handle, which years of use had polished smooth and shiny, stood out from the spokes of this wheel, just within the rim. Gripping this handle two men (but it took two) could put the wheel round fast enough for the turner with his gouge. They supplied the needful "power." Thanks to them a fourteen-inch stock could be kept spinning in the lathe. And had I but realized it in time, near at hand was a most interesting proof of the advantages of this implement. wheelwright_wagon_anatomy5For the stock of the wagon wheel-that very wheel now used for turning other stocks-had not itself been turned. It had only been rounded up very neatly with an ax, in the old-fashioned way. It puzzles me now how they could ever have built a wheel at all on so inexact a foundation.

    But the want of machinery was most evident in the daily task of cutting up plank or board for other work, and of planing and mortising afterwards. We had neither band-saw nor circular saw. Most of the felloes were shaped out by adz and ax: the pieces for barrow-wheel felloes were clamped to a woodman's' bench (for they were too short and small for an ax), and sawed out there by a boy with a frame-saw (I hated the job -- it was at once lonely and laborious); the heavy boards were cut out (and edged up) with a hand-saw, being held down on the trestles with your knee (it was no joke to cut a set of one-inch elm boards -- for a wagon-bottom -- your arm knew about it); but all the timbers for framework of wagon or cart, or harrow or plough or wheelbarrow, were cut out by two men on a saw-pit.

    From my childhood I had liked this saw-pit. It lay under a penthouse just beyond the grindstone already mentioned; and in summer the walnut-tree over the grindstone sent a cool and dappled shadow down on the tiles of the saw-pit roof. The sill at the farther end was cumbered up with lengths of timber standing on end-timber "in cut," as we said, meaning that widths had been already cut off from it. But if you merely jumped across the saw-pit to the opposite side you were brought up short by a tier of plank stacked there to get the shelter of the roof. When this plank came to be moved (but that was not often) it disclosed tarred weather-boarding, closing in that side of the saw-pit penthouse from the public lane outside.

    A short old piece of ladder enabled one to get down the five or six feet into the saw-pit. On either hand was brickwork- two bricks having been left out, each side, to hold an oil-cup, and wedges for the "saw-box" which clutched the bottom-end of the saw. But the "box" itself, and the little oily club for knocking it on, might be tossed down anywhere on to the layer of sawdust at the bottom. Sometimes a frog was hopping about in this sawdust, sometimes one saw a black beetle there. The sight of this quiet fauna gave me, as a child, a sense of great peace. wheelwright_wagon_anatomy6The aged-looking brickwork-grayish pink and very dusty-helped the impression, and so did the planks stacked on the sill at the side. The daylight seemed to float in a sort of dusty ease amongst the planks and the sawdust, as if nothing noisier than a frog or a black beetle need be thought of there.

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    And there I found the same settled peace when, as a young man, at last I began to go down into the saw-pit to work. Certainly peace was beneficial; for sawing was hard work and often lasted a whole day-or more than that, if the timbers for a new wagon were to be sawed out. One got a queer glimpse of the top-sawyer, as one glanced up (with puckered eyelids) through the falling sawdust. Gradually the dust accumulated about one's feet, and eventually it had to be shoveled up into sacks. wheelwright_wagon_anatomy8Being from dry timber, and mostly oak, it was useful for bacon-curing, and I used to sell it for that purpose at fourpence the sack.

    Excepting that the timber was harder yet thinner (for it was dry plank instead of green round timber) and also that the work was far more varied-excepting for these reasons this pit-sawing I took part in was not very different from a professional sawyer's. I never had confidence enough, or muscle enough, to choose the top-sawyer's arduous post: I was only bottom-sawyer. And truly the work was hard enough there, though I suspect I didn't do my share. I suspect so, judging by the frequency of the top-sawyer's exhortations to "Chuck her up." (Pit-saws were always feminine.) How was a man to chuck her up when his back was one ache and all he could do for rest was to lean his weight on the handles of the saw-box for the down-pull? When the down-streaming sawdust caked on his sweaty arms and face? And thirst too! After those parched hours I have always felt that there were excuses for the notorious drunkenness of sawyers, who had not hours but years of this exhausting drudgery to endure.

    Not but there were compensations, at least for the bottom man. He might not, indeed, quite go to sleep. He had to keep the saw perpendicular, to watch "the cut" as best he could through the ever-descending sawdust, and now and again he halted (straightening his back) to carry out the blessed command from the top-sawyer to drive in a wedge or to "oil-up." But with these exceptions the bottom-sawyer's lot was placid in the extreme. The work was hard enough to prevent thought, there was nothing to see beyond the brick walls of the saw-pit, and the up-and-down sway of arms and body was frequent enough and regular enough to induce a restful drowsiness.

    Yet, fatiguing though it was, the work was full of interest -- for me, who owned the timber, and for the skilled man who was going to work it up. We both were anxious to see how it looked after sawing -- if any knot or shake or rind-gall or other unsuspected flaw should make it necessary to condemn this or that piece and to start again. On the other hand we were sometimes rewarded by the sight of really beautiful "stuff" -- beautiful, that is to say, in the qualities only an expert could discern.

    Of course before the sawing could begin we had taken much pains to find the right timber and to mark it out. As I made a practice of doing this for every job, whereby nothing was used without my knowledge (it was my father's way), so my acquaintance with the individual pieces (planks and "flitches," to say nothing of spokes and felloes and hubs) became intimate and exhaustive. I spent hours, often by myself, hunting for just the exact piece that would be wanted, perhaps, tomorrow. Or, was any man about to begin on new cart, or wagon, or wheelbarrow, he looked to me to find him the material for the whole.

    Truly interesting this was. Most of the timbers required a slight curve in them, the exact curves being preserved in patterns, some of them dating from my grandfather's time, no doubt. Thus there was a pattern for the bottom-timbers of a wagon, and another for a dung-cart, and yet another for a "raved" cart. Wagon-shafts "off" and "near," cart-shafts, "hounds," "hames," tailboard rails, and a dozen other things, having to be cut to pattern, were first marked-out or "lined-out" on their respective planks, before the sawing could begin.

    Tricky work it was, very often. Especially tricky, until you knew how, was lining-out the shafts for a cart. The pattern was not enough here. It gave the curve; but the outside width of the shafts at the back end where they fitted the cart, and the inside width the horse needed between them in front, introduced complications which had to be allowed for, before one shaft could be sawed out. So the lines had to be completed with chalk line and two-foot rule. I learnt how to do this years before I saw the reason for what was done. "Rule-of-thumb" was my guide, and as I suspect that this was all that the men had to go by, it may be supposed that it was a sort of folk tradition we were following each time we lined-out a pair of shafts.

    There was a choice of two saws, but after a long time they both grew so dull that the men began to give broad hints of the need of the file. But not one of the staff offered to do the sharpening, probably because it was a mystery to them all. Indeed, sharpening the pit-saws had been my father's care. Accordingly, eager to fill his place wherever I could, I took on this job. To be sure, I had a little dim theory of what was wanted; I had watched the professional sawyer too; conceivably I was as likely to succeed at it as any of the wheelwrights. And at least I got a little "cut" into the saw. "She" felt right, when I passed my hand gently along the teeth, as I had seen the real sawyer do; yes, one felt a sort of bite from the newly filed teeth. And she looked right too, when I squinted along to see if the teeth stood out evenly in their two rows, this side and that. It is true, in the act of sawing afterwards an occasional jump of the saw almost jarred one's arms out and probably the top-sawyer swore a little, yet I do not recall any complaints. Only a facetious wheelwright took to calling one of the saws "Old Raspberry," in allusion to her scratching character. He also hinted that the teeth were "all uncles and aunts," they were so uneven.

    If the one o'clock bell sounded before we had done, this same man was wont to say wearily: "Well, let's go and have some dinner. Perhaps we shall be stronger then." I wonder now -- was that "just a thing to say"? or was he gibing at my physical weakness?

    Source: George Sturt, The Wheelwright's Shop New York: Cambridge University Press, 1923, pages 56-61

Other accessible sources on apprenticeships, woodworking, cabinetwork, craftsmen: Charles Alpheus Bennett, History of Manual and Industrial Education Up to 1870 Peoria, IL: The Manual Arts Press, 1926, especially chapter 1 in volume 1. Extensive treatments in Louis Francis Salzman, English Industries of the Middle Ages Oxford: The Clarendon Press , 1923. (John Blair and Nigel Ramsay, English Medieval Industries: Craftsmen, Techniques, Products (place of publication? : Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001, -- intended to complement L.F. Salzman's English Industries in the Middle Ages-- approaches each industry by material, discussing how it is acquired, how it is worked and how it is sold as a finished product.

Reputed to be most thorough history of apprenticeship is W. J. Rorabaugh, The Craft Apprentice: From Franklin to the Machine Age in America (New York, 1986). The footnotes in this intelligent study are studded with references to autobiographies and other first-person accounts of masters and journeymen.

I have yet to examine Jonathon French Scott's thesis, Historical Essays on Apprenticeship and Vocational Education. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ann Arbor Press. 1914. (However, Bennett reprints selections from both Salzman's English Industries of the Middle Ages, and Jonathon French Scott's Historical Essays on Apprenticeship and Vocational Education.)

Bruce Laurie's Artisans Into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth Century America, New York: Noonday Press, 1989, and to a lesser extent -- because it covers and earlier era -- Ronald Schultz's The Republic of Labor: Philadelphia Artisans and the Politics of Class, 1720-1830 New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, focus on issues of apprenticeship's decline.