The history of tools

The history of tools

Professional Builder visits the collection of tool historian and author R A Salaman.

Thanks to the internet, certain hand tool brands have gained almost cult-like followings, with builders waxing lyrical about the build quality, ergonomic design and even their aesthetic value. Certain tools, it seems, press all the right buttons. But it has been a long journey to get to this point, one which was faithfully documented by tool historian R A Salaman, whose Dictionary of Tools has gone down as the tool collector’s bible. I was lucky enough to be shown around the great man’s personal collection, carefully preserved by the St Albans Museum.

Hand tools have been around in various forms longer than humans themselves, however it was with the advent of iron and, later, steel, that hand tools began to take on the strength and precision we recognise today. In the UK, steel was synonymous with Sheffield, and naturally that is where the tool trade flourished.

As far back as the 14th Century, Sheffield was noted for its production of knives and by the 17th Century there was said to be one smith for every two houses. Indeed, the conditions for steel production were far from unique to Sheffield, but already having an established trade in metalwork meant that once steel tools were within reach, the northern city already had the skills and the infrastructure to seize upon it and become specialists in the field. Going forward, major developments in steel production would either emanate directly from Sheffield or be brought to the city to be put to use.

Crucible steel, invented by Benjamin Huntsman in 1740, proved to be key to Sheffield’s ultimate success, allowing it to pull away dramatically from the pack. Huntsman’s innovation had a huge effect on the city, which in the space of 100 years went from producing 200 tonnes of steel per year to 80,000 tonnes. In 1856, a further leap forwards came in the form of Henry Bessemer’s converter process for the mass production of hard, durable steel. Suddenly, cheap steel was readily available for workshops to make tools from.

The mark of a good tool was longevity and, properly maintained and serviced, a tool could benefit literally generations of workers. Ironically, the propensity to use a tool until it wears down to something completely unusable has meant that few of them have lasted until the modern age.

old tools

The maker’s mark

Something that separates modern mass-produced tools from their forebears, besides quality, is the presence of the maker’s mark. Of course, modern tools have logos lasered onto them, but what appeals to the meticulous eye of the collector are the hyper-specific marks carefully left on each tool by their proud workshops. It was routine to include your name as part of the mark, but often even the address of your workshop was included. Of course, in a world before advertising, locality and reputation could make or break a tool maker. Having your tools associated with a particular area could infer a promise of quality.

However, tool makers weren’t above falsifying the company names and locations on their tools. Just as today a tool manufactured in China could wear the traditional branding of long-respected UK tool brand, Victorian tools could easily refer to a non-existent company or claim to come from an entirely different part of the country from where it was made. Often this was a rouse on behalf of the workshop to distance themselves from lower quality lines.

With the improvement of the quality of steel, and the advent of roller pressed steel making the process faster and more uniform, tools gradually took on the appearance we are familiar with today. For instance hand saws, for the first time, could be made both long and rigid enough for quick sawing. What’s more, a variety of saws could now be produced depending on what purpose they would serve. It’s with a certain sadness that some, more experienced, carpenters note the throwaway quality of modern hand saws, remembering fondly their weekly task as an apprentice of resharpening their masters’ saws.

Collections of antique tools inevitably contain many planes, of varying degrees of intricacy and aesthetic value. It makes sense, however, that so many planes would survive the test of time when you consider they are mostly made from thick steel, must have cost a small fortune and were therefore kept in good condition and as an upwardly mobile society demanded refinement, the demand for planes must have been huge. Interestingly, planes were common in the Roman Empire, where refinement was the order of the day, but disappeared completely throughout the middle ages only to reappear sometime in the 1600s.

Drilling holes is something we take for granted, as fine, straight holes of any thickness can be achieved at the press of a button. Yet for centuries it remained an exhausting task, the completion of which correlated brutally closely to the expenditure of energy. In short, if you wanted a hole, you had to work for it. Advancements to drilling technology, such as the addition of gears and a crank came quite late. Ironically, it is probably drilling which has since made the most progress. Unfortunately, it is France we have to thank for adding gears to drills. Although one consolation is that Britain’s own Rawlplug invented the hand-powered hammer drill, predating the current obsession with impact drivers by 90 years.

Once a huge importer of British-made hand tools, America eventually began producing its own wares and, indeed, began exporting them back to the UK. Many of the earliest tool makers in the US had cut their teeth, so to speak, in Sheffield and were simply taking their expertise directly to the market.

The advances in steel kept coming, and today Sheffield produces more steel than ever before. However, increasingly cheap imports and the general decline of manufacturing in the UK has meant the golden age of British toolmaking is behind us. Many would argue that the golden age of toolmaking in general is behind us. It must be pointed out however, that there are still many small companies making hand tools the old way.

history of tools


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