Woodworking Then & Now

To celebrate my birthday, our daughter Faith and I spent the day touring Old Sturbridge Village. We are members, and we visit OSV a few times each year, but we always seem to find something we haven’t seen before. This time, it was easy, the new Cabinetmaker’s shop was completed this year and opened last month. I decided to explore some of the woodworking tools and techniques and compare them to the tools and techniques I use in my shop. I’m relying on the photos and captions to tell this story.

Construction in the 1830s was very often a woodworking endeavor. In colonial New England, most of the buildings at this time were made from wood.
Regardless of the fact that this is a historic recreation, modern laws about workplace safety are in effect. This scene has played out at our house on several occasions.
We have been waiting for several years for funds to be raised to build the new cabinet shop. The building was built in a period style, but with modern techniques and a few modern features (like heat).
The lathe is powered by a leather belt and treadle, but the work piece spins between a drive center and a dead center, just as it does on my lathe. Lathes were important to make tool handles, chair and table legs, spindles and stretchers for chairs (see mid -height left side)
Every tool on this workbench can be found in my shop. There are three hand planes – theirs have bodies made of wood, mine are steel. The have a mallet, I have an almost identical mallet. They have a vise, a square, a marking gauge and a a hold-down “dog” – I have all of those same things. Note the project on the left side of the bench (the box)
sliding lid
The image on the left is the box being built on the workbench at OSV. The box on the right is one that I made when I was learning how to use a router attachment to make precision slots for the inlays along the sides of the box.
Water powered shingle saw (see next photo)
The earliest power tools
The sled was pulled by oxen to drag logs from the forest to the sawmill. The tools on the wall in the back are familiar. My drills, saws and mallets are different in appearance and the way they work, but I could not work without them.
An even earlier version of a wood lathe. Powered by the operator’s foot, but a more direct connection, which required more strength from the operator. Still, the operation of turning that spindle is the same as it would be in my shop.
The lathe tools on the wall are identical to three of my lathe tools. From right to left, they are a gouge, a spear point chisel and a skew chisel. These are used in every turning project. Other than the quality of the steel, there is little difference after 190 years.
Before the invention of the shingle saw shown earlier, this is how men made shingles. They split a narrow segment of a log with a froe (lower right) and squared it off with a draw knife (upper left).
The split rail fence is interesting. Once the wood rails are split off of logs, no tools or fasteners are required. This was important, since nails were still being cut by hand. An interesting fact, if the rails were broken, by weather or animals, the wood was reused. Using the tools in the picture above this one, a Cooper would make staves for barrels and buckets. New England Yankees were a thrifty bunch.
The cooper, making a small bucket. This image was taken during a visit in the summer of 2020. We visit OSV often, the benefits of membership. There is too much to see in any one visit..
This holding pond stored water that was used to power the sawmill, the grist mill and the carding mill. I love the colorful reflections.
This is why Faith gets better photos than I do. She works for the best shot.

That’s it for this week. I hope to return to OSV for a few more Mondays to explore the technology of the day and to point out the differences and similarities to modern techniques.


  1. What a birthday! (And happy birthday, by the way!) I do not pretend to know how to use such tools, but I can understand what they mean. My firstborn son and I have my dad’s tools and my great-grandfather’s tools, labeled and dated by my dad. They aren’t as old as OSV’s, but the sense of history is the same. I think those who work with wood have a spirit that might linger in the tools. Wonderful photos!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. OK so we’ve made ‘progress’ with machines and other modern advances but there’s nothing like traditional hand made stuff not to mention the smell and atmosphere of a traditional craftsman’s workshop (oops sorry – craftsperson!😎)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAN! You must’ve been in Woodworkers Heaven on this tour. So interesting to read about the comparison of these old tools with what you use. We too have some really old tools that had been my dads and my grandfathers.

    Seeing this display of tools brings into focus why things were made with such care and with the intent of the finished product lasting for a long, long time. They couldn’t order a tool online and have it in two days. They had to make the tool itself first. These men were amazing in my book.

    Have a happy Monday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Ginger. They reached a point where tools were being made in a factory, but many things were still being made on-site by the blacksmith, tinsmith and various other craftspeople. Life got easier over time, but I doubt it was ever easy.

      It’s fun to think that I could step into that shop and know how to use those tools.


  4. What a nice way to spend part of your birthday! It looks like you had a great weather for it too.

    I love those split rail fences. What does the hold down-“dog” look like? They sure were a talented people!

    It is interesting that a lot of the tools look the same today they’re just metal not wood.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The hold down is a piece of metal with a round shaft and a flat-ish arm coming off at an almost right angle. The round shaft fits into the holes drilled all over the work bench. When it makes contact with the piece of wood you’re working on, you smack the top of the shaft with a mallet, and the dog anchors the wood to the workbench. It’s the simplest thing, but it works vert well. They put enough tension on the piece to hold it in place for sanding, planning and drilling. If you look at the picture, it’s inserted into a hole near the front of the workbench between a hand plane and the mallet. We still use those today. Some things are hard to improve.

      The split rail fences are so pretty to see along the pastures.

      The materials have improved, but a lot of the tools work the same way as they have for hundreds of years.


  5. What a wonderful walk through history. I have absolutely no idea what to do with any of those tools but I do love to see them at work. And what they create is magical. Love the box!

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is something about building a box that feels good. My wife and daughter have numerous boxes that I’ve made, often as a way of learning a new technique, learning how to use a new tool, or setting up a tool I don’t use very often.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Happy Birthday, Dan! What a joy this must have been to see tools that you have and use. When you look back at how tools were used then as opposed to now….but I guess that is how generations after us will look at tools we use now. It is all so fascinating to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lois. What I love about woodworking is that many aspects of the trade have changed very little over the past few hundred years. I feel a connection to the woodworkers who came before me, and I can still use the tools they used.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a wonderful way to spend your birthday Dan. I would enjoy that place as well. The box you made is pretty. And speaking of pretty, Faith just gets prettier every time I see a photo of her. Autumn is showing itself all over up there isn’t it? The trees are beautiful. Hope you have a smooth sailing week ahead.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What an awesome place, Dan!! Love the pics and the explanation of how most are powered. My grandfather had a wood working shop when he retired and I always found it fascinating to watch him create things with all those tools!! You are lucky to have this type of place kept up to pass on the way things were created and built back in the day!! Happy Birthday!! Have a great week!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great, Dan. I’m glad you had a lovely birthday in the sunshine with your daughter (I love the first photo of her!) amid lots of technical stuff. I see that you’re trying a different post lay-out. I suppose the photos are as big as they would be if the gallery opened. The captions are nice and big so that is a plus. Cin cin and happy birthday once again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Manja. I did the photos as individual images because the whole post was in the captions and I don’t trust any of the gallery options to display long captions without reminding people to click the little (i) in the circle. I’m not planning to use this layout very often.

      We had a great day. Lovely weather. It was cold enough for gloves when we walked out of the sun, but the last time we were there it was 93°f (34°c) – this was better.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Dan – loved reading this … my father had a workshop – sawdust everywhere; both his brothers and his sister had workshops … it hasn’t come down to my brothers … but no children to teach, perhaps that’s why. Fascinating to see … and it’s great they’ve got this ‘museum’ – so pleased to see Faith is happy to accompany you on your various visits. It looks a lovely site … and a beautiful autumnal day … thanks – cheers Hilary


    • I’m glad you enjoyed this, Hilary. Faith loves OSV. When she was no longer able to use our Family membership, she quickly bought her own. She has renewed our membership as a gift in some years. It’s always a fun day.


  11. Gosh, Old Sturbridge Village is one of my favorite spots to visit, when I’m in CT or NY. There’s always something going on, and it’s always beautiful. Thank you for the online visit, Dan. Beautiful photos as always. I hope you had a truly happy birthday. 🎂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. What a lovely way for you and Faith to celebrate your birthday. PS Faith still has the agility to not only get down for those good shots but also to gracefully regain vertical. Happy birthday Dan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Teagan. In so many ways, woodworking hasn’t changed in centuries. We have better tools, better glues, better fasteners but we make the same joints, and we still apply glue to the same wood species they used in 1830. Well, except for chestnut – the blight killed most of those.

      We had a wonderful day, starting with a visit here and then breakfast. OSV is a great place to wander around, learn a few things and talk.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Hi Dan, this is my favourite type of museum, ones that have figures doing work in a real setting. The UK has several like this including the Jorvik Viking Centre and the Victorian street display in York, Sherlock Holmes’ house and some of the castles. How interesting for you to be able to compare your workshop tools to these historic ones. I did a similar exercise in the working Victorian kitchen at Mary Arden [Shakespeare’s mother’s] farm in Stratford-upon-Avon. Some things just don’t change.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The kitchen comparison is very similar. So many things don’t change. They might become easier (although my wife would argue that we have too many appliances…well, she doesn’t) in the kitchen today.

      Liked by 1 person

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