Friday, December 31, 2010

making screws

These days no one would make a screw. They come free in packages with other things. Buy a whatsit and a small plastic package of screws comes free, whether you end up using them or not. In my shop I have a a small cabinet of drawers with screws sorted by type. Still, I make occasional trips to the hardware store just to buy more. But less than 200 years ago, screws were a rare thing. Each required the investment of a craftsman's skill and time. Reader John Grossbohlin had worked as a craftsman at Colonial Williamsberg in his earlier life, and he wrote the following:
"I've been thinking about your blog posting on "10% Off" as my Rockler catalog came in today's mail...

Over time quite a number of skills were lost, or would have been lost, if it weren't for living history museums and individual crafts people. For example, if it weren't for Wallace Gusler, and the support of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the myriad skills involved in making flintlock rifles with 18th century (and earlier) technologies would have been lost. Wallace redeveloped the technologies by looking at the story artifacts and old guns could tell...

One of the things I learned while working in the Williamsburg Gunsmith Shop was how to make wood screws. Seems like a simple thing until you find out the shafts were shaped and the threads created with files... yes files. There were no screw plates for wood screws as there were for machine screws though a chamfer plate was used to shape the countersink.

I got good at making screws and it took me about 20 minutes to make a screw of about No 8 size 1 1/4" long... larger screws such as used on butt plates took about 30 minutes each. Today we take wood screws for granted as machine make them by the billions each year for pennies per piece. In the 18th century nails, pegs, clenched spikes or rivets would be used instead of a very expensive screw... can you imagine paying for an hour's worth of shop time for two screws?

Attached is a photo of screws I made. You can see file marks on them. The heads are thick on purpose. A temporary slot would be cut in the head, the screw inserted into the desired pre-drilled hole, and then the permanent slot orientation would be determined. The screw would then be removed and the head shaped with the permanent slot. This allowed for lining all the slots up in the desired orientation. Also, screws always had to be returned to the same hole due to variance in the threads and the slot orientation.

I know how to do this work but quite frankly have no occasion to use the skill!

It occurs to me that some specific skills are interesting but of no practical value. This was not one of those cases. I found out that if someone couldn't make wood screws the gunsmiths wouldn't waste any time trying to teach them the far more difficult tasks of gun making. I passed the screw test and was exposed to far more interesting and challenging tasks... after all, making screws was the work of women and children in the period, not something a skilled tradesman would waste time on! A lot has changed over the years but those stepping-stone skills should be preserved. -John"
John, your screws are amazing. So you tell me... What are the values of such things? What are the reasons such things need to be preserved? Is there an intellectual component to making a screw? Is there a developmental component? Do you suspect that John's time in making screws added to his perspectives on the universe? Michael Wiener, in describing his relationship to the Spaulding Boatworks in Sausalito said,
"... it's important that people learn both technique and values while they're working here. That's my own sort of quiet contribution to the educational component of our mission. I find that kind of learning more to my liking than school-learning. I served a four-year apprenticeship--and then you're ready to start learning."
One good thing about the computer age is that it is allowing those of us whose greater skills are hand skills, to take a few moments to explain a few things to those who may never quite understand. There is no better way to shape character and intellect than to become engaged fashioning real things from basic raw materials. Make, fix, and create. Take a straight shaving off a plank. There are two things that most worry those of us who observe modern schooling. Students become intellectually disengaged and lacking in character, missing two distinct components of craftsmanship. We have chosen to neglect the education of our children's hands. DIY (do it yourself) , LIY (learn it yourself), TIY (teach it yourself). Best yet, teach it to kids.

In the photo at left, you can see my finished tie cabinet, inspired by Greene and Greene designs.
As you can see, I continue work on the cherry cabinet, by assembling the cherry and maple raised panel doors and fitting the base molding. While the molding parts are clamped in place, I will use screws to attach them to the cabinet frame, then remove the parts for sanding, and then install them permanently to the cabinet. The doors are ready for routing, sanding and hinges.


  1. Anonymous1:31 PM

    The skill needed to make screws, even if it was a job for kids, was serious. About three miles from where I sit is a company that makes screw-making machinery. Their name, Oliver Screw, along with the Acme Nipple Manufacturing Co. not far away, have always been favorites of teenaged boys.


  2. A trip to the hardware store could get the teen boys giggling. Funny, they don't know how much fun hardware stores can be.

  3. John Grossbohlin2:49 PM

    Mario's comment brought another thought to mind... Specialization and division of labor were well entrenched concepts by the mid-18th century. Adam Smith wrote, as I recall, in The Wealth of Nations about those notions in the context of pin manufacturing. The guild system in England and Europe certainly forced the notion on the manufacturing world as did government contracting for things like musket parts. Even in the Colonies many items were assembled from parts created by others. That is one area where a living history museum such as Williamsburg departs from history... it would have been unlikely for a single craftsman to build an entire gun's parts and assemble them into a finished gun. In the context of WOTH, it would seem to me that exposure to myriad craftsman, perhaps of varying skills so the good ones could show themselves, would be a good approach to understanding our world. Funny... that sounds a lot like the shop and home economics classes that existed when I was a child.

  4. John, I have thought that one of the things most missing from modern education is the understanding of how mastery is attained. It seems that if you know the steps, they can lead in a number of directions. Some time ago, the county had a building that was available and wanted to use available federal and state funds to develop and education program. It never went anywhere, of course. But if you centered a program on a single skill, like wood turning and the program would be intended to simply impart a sense of how quality is achieved, it would add significantly to the value of the workforce. It could be constructed around any given skill set, but is based on what I've observed in the crafts community. If you can do something really well, you have the mental and physiological make-up to do other things at the same level... You have a set of expectations and ability to self-manage toward significant goals. I observed this when I would see a jeweler doing woodwork, or a potter doing jewelry. They all had higher than normal sets of goals and expectations for what was to result from their efforts. These days in schools we present a smorgasbord of activities, even when kids are lucky enough to get doses of the arts, none of which offer true opportunities of engagement on a path toward mastery of some kind.

    This is actually another selling point for ESSA and similar craft schools. If students emerge with higher standards and a clear sense of how those standards can be met, you have added significantly to the value of each employee. But then we have become a culture in which craftsmanship is poorly understood.

  5. John, on the idea of Colonial Williamsburg doing all of it, start to finish, that is a part of the Sloyd educational system.. engendering a sense of completeness and self-reliance.. sense of the whole of it, the Gestalt. We don't do very much in the way of systems thinking.

    A friend of mine who I have mentioned before in the blog was a gunsmith who made replicas of long rifles and antique fire arms. He would buy cast parts from foundries, brass and steel or iron, then file and mill them into working locks. The parts were rather crudely cast, and took a lot of work to get a working flintlock out of the deal. Funny, now we think of locks as what you use on the storage shed, when at one time a "lock" was was part of a firearm.