Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Colonial Carpenter Tools
Courtesy of the Gay Gardener

Anyone who owned a farm in 17th and 18th Century colonial America was a carpenter.  It didn’t matter how good they were at it.  They couldn’t afford the services of a full time carpenter and his apprentices (one to three), so they made do.  Perhaps they did something for a neighbor who was better at working wood.  People had a carpenter do big things, like build a house or a barn, or frame a doorway.. 
There were men who earned a living at carpentry.  If they lived in a port town, they might have been doing it part time as early as the 1630s.  All of them learned the same way, as apprentices.  (Many colonial boys grew up with a small wooden tool kit made by a father who hoped to guide his son’s career.)  About age fourteen, boys took up learning a craft from their father, an uncle, or someone with a carpenter shop who was agreeable.  They stayed with their master until about age eighteen, at which time they could call themselves journeymen and look for work.
There were lots of things to learn about carpentry and it took time to absorb it.  There were lots of tools to learn to use, three different kinds of saws, broadaxes for cutting trees down so they could be cut with saws, and when to use a wooden mallet and when to use an iron hammer.  There were augers and gimlets for making holes in wood and compass saws for enlarging them.  ‘Measure twice and cut once’ had to be learned by every apprentice and how to measure with a cloth tape and a wooden yardstick.  Calipers and compasses had to be learned, how to use a square to measure a right angle and a bevel to measure other angles.  There were different kinds of wood to learn how to work and not all of them were treated the same way.  Sometimes there was pine, oak, cypress, or poplar for outdoors and birch, maple, or oak for indoors
Carpenters were hired to build homes, from the foundation to the roof.  They framed walls, measured for doorways, and put up the rafters.  They laid the floor.  Carpenters built shops for craftsmen, sheds and smokehouses, and even a necessary house in someone’s back yard.  In slow times, they did repairs, built fences, and found ways to stay busy.  They made boxes with hinged lids and some even repaired boats.

Buttolph-Williams House in Wethersfield Connecticut
Constructed in 1711.
Courtesy of
and The Library of Congress
Houses such as the above were built from designs drawn in London and shipped to the colonies.  It was up to the master carpenter to use his calipers on the design and establish his numbers for widths, lengths, and heights.

18th Century  New England ‘Saltbox’ Home
John Adams was born in this one in 1735.
Courtesy of Carole Knits

From the front, this is a two story house.  At the back, though, note the sloping roof.  It is as though the back of the house had been attached and the roof extended down to cover it.  (It is supposed to look like a 17th Century salt box.)
It is alleged this was the first house design used by settlers in New England.  (It is a European form from the Middle Ages.)  They are not simple constructions that a group of untrained men could throw together in a few days.  Carpenters were needed.


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