Nineteenth Century Rural Canada Woodworking Tools
Four old butter boxes containing many old and very dusty woodworking tools belonging to my Grandpa and stored in an attic for over 40 years, would provide a surprisingly accurate picture of woodworking in 19th century rural Canada, with many convoluted historical strands stretching back to the Roman era.
Just before my Grandpa died in 1962, he placed all of his cherished woodworking tools in four wooden butter boxes and stored them upstairs in the attic of my Mother’s family home in the historic fishing village of Barachois on the Gaspé coast of Atlantic Québec. Grandpa was not a professional carpenter/joiner; he was a fisherman by trade. However, highly revered woodworking skills and tools, passed on from father to son, were not casual options for 19th/early 20th century Canadians living in isolated, rural locations. Working with wood in a country rich in this natural resource was fundamental to a reasonable level of living above basic subsistence.
Grandpa had a wooden house, barn, and assorted outbuildings; a wooden fishing boat, a wooden “truck” (a long, 4-wheeled, open wagon powered by one or two horses), and assorted agricultural implements and tools. All of these crucial possessions had to be maintained on a regular basis. If the handle of a felling axe was broken, or a wooden wheel was missing a spoke from its hub, or even if a split rail enclosure for the sheep pen was destroyed by bad weather, Grandpa had to fix the problem. With fourteen mouths to feed Grandpa needed strong life skills to survive. The ability to work with wood was key to survival.
Like many early Canadians of his generation, Grandpa had more than one job to make ends meet. He was a fisherman from spring to autumn (cod, haddock, and lobster). He was also a farmer with livestock (cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens) and seven acres of hay, blackberries, and a substantial vegetable patch. During the winter, in his younger years, he would work in the woods by cutting and hauling spruce, pine, cedar, and birch. He was back at home infrequently, but clearly often enough to have produced 14 children. He was also the village veterinarian and furniture maker. Grandpa could not read nor write. He had no formal education to speak of, but he had an abundance of raw intelligence, much ingenuity, and many very special skills. Most importantly, the fates were kind to Grandpa and his family.
Woodworking was in his blood. Möise Lemieux, my Grandpa, was the direct descendant of one of Canada’s first professional woodworkers. In 1640 Pierre DeMeux (later mispronounced and changed to Lemieux) of Rouen, Normandy, in France, and his brother Gabriel came to the newly established garrison town of Quebec in New France to make and repair barrels for the flourishing fur trade. Barrels in the 17th century were the equivalent of today’s containers and were easily rolled on and off ships. Pierre was a highly valued tradesman in the fledgling settlement and he soon prospered. His house on rue du Petit Champlain in the lower old quarter of Quebec City (la maison Lemieux) stands to this very day. Later Pierre went on to establish Quebec’s very first tavern, probably as a direct result of his highly skilled trade. He was probably one of the first to cement the very special Canadian relationship of woodworking with beer.
Woodworking also ran through Pierre’s veins. He was a Norman (Norseman), and only a few centuries earlier (in the 9th century) his ancestors from the Jutland region of western Denmark were marauding their way throughout most of Europe. Those industrious, charming folk were able to conquer and subjugate vast tracts of continental Europe and North Atlantic as far as L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Their success was primarily because of their advanced skills at wooden boat building (in particular overlapping clinker construction with hewn, adzed, logs using rivets) and their 3-in-one tool/weapon (adze, axe, and agricultural pick).
Essentially, because of their understanding of wood, advanced tool making, and highly developed woodworking skills, these irrepressible Norsemen were able to travel considerable distances in their long boats. With their ingenious 3-in-one weapon, they were able to repair their war boats, prepare campsites and, in the heat of battle, hack off the heads of their opponents.
Woodworking was also part of their genetic make-up. It was their ancestors, who survived the cold, inhospitable oak forests of North Western Europe by developing iron tools (first introduced by the Hittites in eastern Turkey, circa BC 2000) to cut wood, and therefore to tame fire. And so it went!
Many rich European cultures, were largely defined by wood and tools.
Grandpa was at the receiving end of this fertile ancestral heritage and it was therefore no surprise that he had a great reverence for wood and woodworking tools. However, Grandpa’s tool kit was not meant for me. In 1962, upon Grandpa’s death, it was to be handed on to one of my uncles. All of his sons, however, were determined to leave their village of birth and search out work in other, more urban, parts of Canada. They simply were not interested in a whole lot of old-fashioned junk.
So the four butter boxes remained in the attic until 2003 when they were passed on to me by my Aunt Irene, who had returned to her birth place to prepare for her own final journey.
It was an extraordinarily emotional day when I transported the tool kit back to my wood shop in Montreal. All wooden tools and their steel cutting irons were in perfect order, thanks to Grandpa, and the entire tool kit was complete. He had gone to great lengths to coat all wooden parts with linseed oil and paste wax, and all metal cutting implements were covered with packing grease.
I laid out all of the tools on a long bench and surveyed this valuable inheritance. The kit included axes of all description (felling, splitting, broad, double bitted, hewing hatchets); a froe and club; mauls, wedges and a beetle or iron hooped mallet; laying-out and measuring tools; a carpenter’s adze, a draw knife, scorp, and spokeshave; a fine set of wooden planes (trying, scrub, jack, and coffin) and several specialized rebate and molding planes; assorted rasps, files and scrapers; many finely sharpened and properly set saws (rip, cross-cut, buck, bow, tenon, dovetail, keyhole, and coping); many chisels (mortise, firmer, and gouges); braces, hand drills and many types of bits; mallets and hammers; whetstones; and a variety of wrenches and screw drivers. Grandpa also had a maple 19th century joiner’s bench with leg vice and wooden screw. It was passed on to one of my uncles, who in turn passed it on to me when he died in 1995.
So for the first time in 41 years this comprehensive tool kit, together with workbench, came together in my shop. The marvelous thing about this particular tool kit, aside from the more obvious family connection, was that it was a full set of finely tuned woodworking tools, ready for immediate use. These were not museum pieces to be admired from afar. With the right skills these tools were capable of fine work right away without the necessity for electricity. Additionally, the entire tool kit was a time capsule of woodworking through the ages. Grandpa’s beechwood jack plane was almost identical to a Roman bench plane. His carpenter’s adze was identical to a medieval one. His broad axe was very similar to the handy-dandy 3-in-1 Viking tool. His wooden bow saw, which can still cut through 2″inch maple with relative ease, was almost identical to an English bow saw brought to the New World by the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. His hewing hatchet was very similar to the famous trade axe traded by the early French settlers with local aboriginals, and which eventually developed into the feared tomahawk.
Grandpa’s tool kit also contained a mystery, which eventually took me some time to solve. In the fourth butter box there were three mystery tools, all wrapped up with great reverence in stiff paper and twine.
The first was essentially a gouge-like mini adze, very roughly forged without it’s original handle. The second was a very primitive, heavily pitted drawknife without handles. The third was a form of specialized semi-circular wooden plane, which at one time was subjected to wet rot and insect infestation. The plane iron was also roughly forged and had not been used in some time. For some unexplained reason, Grandpa cherished these tools but did not use them.
As a woodworker, Grandpa specialized in making blanket chests, or coffers, as he called them, bread troughs, kitchen harvest tables, and the occasional kitchen dresser or step-back hutch with glazed doors. These were pieces of furniture much in need by the growing families of the village but which could not be purchased at the local general store of Robin, Jones and Whitman. Several of Grandpa’s pieces of furniture are still in my mother’s home in the Gaspé.
I am therefore extremely fortunate to be able to re-construct Grandpa’s woodworking skills and methods of work using his very own tools. This will be the theme of this series of articles and will provide a fascinating snapshot of how our Canadian ancestors worked wood before the arrival of electricity and the mass exodus to the cities. The next article will be a review of old woodworking tools used in the preparation of stock, including a re-construction of a rural nineteenth century woodshop and a discussion of felling, splitting, and chopping tools.