By Jay Daniel Moore
December 2013/January 2014
In the last 177 years—since the invention of the steam engine, to be precise—the flooring industry has come a long way. It started with hand planes and adzes, but by the mid-19th century, the craftsmen of the time were developing new tools that would change the flooring industry forever. Their primary motivation was that woodworking was purely manual and required a high level of energy to plane, gauge and undercut the material for floor installations. This was the case with all woodworking—extraordinary energy was required to fell trees, construct, saw, cut down, fabricate and install wood products, and, not surprisingly, those doing it were highly motivated to progress to easier methods. Of course, in today’s wood flooring industry we benefit from the easiest methods yet, but it also can be useful to take a look back at how things were done before modern technology took over.
The English carpenters would build a house from start to finish, and they would usually source material locally, so it is not uncommon to find several species making up the construction of a 17th, 18th, or early 19th century dwelling. Before the carpenters would even get to the flooring stage, they’d likely start with green logs that they would hew square—green logs are easier than dried logs to hew or saw, but not to plane.
After the logs were hand-hewn to dimension and the building was erected using mortise-and-tenon joinery, the house would be ready for flooring, which would have been traditionally laid directly over the hand-hewn floor joists. Interestingly, one can find corresponding scribed roman numerals on both the floor joists and the sills or beams, indicating the carpenters laid the house out and mortised the material before erecting the building.
In our area the flooring would have historically been cut from pine and typically rough cut to 11/2 inches thick with a pitsaw. The pitsaw is a straight saw blade with two wooden handles and was used by two people pulling the saw up and down through a hand-hewn log (see the photos later in this article). There was great amount of manual labor required in sawing, and so there was not a precise thickness for boards cut in the pitsaw.
One face of each board would be planed using a long wooden jack plane, which would essentially join the face to make it smooth and relatively flat. After this process, the boards were then gauged using a rabbeting plane. The rabbet was cut from the rough side of the board and would have been ½ inch to 1 inch wide from the outer edge to create a small flat surface onto which the tongue or groove hand plane would ride. Now the craftsman was ready to cut his tongue and groove. By working the plane over the board held firmly in the upright position, the fence of his plane would glide smoothly across the planed side of the board (with the guide riding on the rabbet) with both the groove cutter and the tongue cutter (see the photo on the opener page of this article).
There has been great speculation on why in the early days of the Enlightenment period homes were built with nice long-length quartersawn and riftsawn flooring that came from select logs with very few knots, windshakes, splits, pitch pockets, etc. The reason was not because of the aesthetic preference, but rather had everything to do with how the perfectly straight vertical-grain wood could be cut and would wear and last. As the plane is being pushed and pulled across the board from the front to back, any grain movement would make the plane more difficult to push. There is even a strategy regarding knots: as with hand scraping wood floors, working around those knots is the strategy!
As for the long lengths that would be typically found in these homes, it is a result of proper planning on the part of the sawyers, well-disciplined enslaved peoples and/or apprentices. Well-organized labor helped to minimize the physical work involved for the master sawyers. If a room in a given house were 18 feet long, then the flooring logs would have been cut to that length to minimize the work required to plane and groove the material. There was likely great effort put into not cutting more flooring than what was needed. Also, once a board was clamped to the working table, work would have been more productive using full-length flooring. Additionally, the aesthetic would have been more desirable, although this was a secondary concern to the practical reasons.
Once the flooring was processed, then the boards would have been individually placed in the house over the joists to see how they laid. Since the elevation of the floor joists and flooring varied by 1/4 inch (or thereabouts), during installation of individual boards, adjustments would be made. Either they would remove a small amount of wood from under the bottom of the floorboard, or if the floorboard was scant (too thin) or the height of the top of the floor joist was less than full height, a shim (a small wedge) would be added between the two surfaces.
This material is from the Hilary Baker House, a Federal home in Richmond, Va., built in 1813. This is a good example of what the bottoms of the flooring boards looked like before wood flooring was created with machinery. In the photo on the left you can see where they notched out the backside of the boards on the ends so they laid flat on the joist—notching out only where necessary saved on the arduous labor of planing the entire board. On the sides, you can see wide gauge marks on the groove side and shallower gauge marks on the tongue side. Just as you do today, you find varying degrees of quality of the historic wood flooring, and I would have to classify these as more of a hack job!—J.D.M.
Prior to the steam engine, woodworking was purely manual—machines were not used because they had not been invented. Mass production and industrialism were unknown. The prevalent form of industrial organization was the guild, wherein a master worked with his men (including slaves, apprentices, and freemen); and most men, in due time, all became masters and/or were freed. This was the Age of Enlightenment, and a cultural movement was about to take place in large part because of the fast-paced shift in industrialism and tool-making.
Many things would soon change. In the early 19th century, the industrial revolution would allow men to produce boards, flooring, siding, and many other building materials through machines like the one designed by William Woodworth, a craftsman from Hudson, N.Y., who began patenting his planing machines in 1828 (see the illustrations later in this article). His machines would ultimately cut four sides, effectively joining one horizontal and one vertical side onto which the other side cut could then be cut to dimension relative to those sides. Initially, he simply designed the side cutting heads for moulding the edges separate from the horizontal cutting heads. As described in Appleton’s Dictionary of Machines, Mechanics, Engine-Work, and Engineering, written in 1869, “[his original planer] consisted of a rotary cylinder on which were fastened the blades or cutters, placed above or laterally to a carriage on which was placed the board to be planed, which was moved forward by rack and pinion. The cylinder revolved opposed to the movement of the board, and rollers were introduced bearing upon the upper surface, so as to prevent the board being drawn up to the cutter.”
Wood flooring is still a labor-intensive profession, but at least contractors laying a wood floor in homes don’t have to cut each wood flooring board by hand. The invention of William Woodworth’s planing machine, first patented in 1828, changed the lumber industry forever and started the wood flooring industry on the path of industrialization.
History books note that the invention could perform the output of 25 laborers, cheapened finished lumber, and greatly increased the supply, and the U.S. Congress praised the invention in 1850, along with Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, as one of the great labor saving inventions of the country.
Woodworth improved upon the concept by combining the horizontal cutters and the vertical cutters, and by making the spinning heads adjustable, but Woodworth’s machines were made inferior in just a few years. This was not accomplished easily, though, as the intellectual property rights prevented others from replicating a machine with similar design elements. As stated in Appleton’s dictionary, “…[his planer] has been a fruitful source of litigation. The only novelty seems to have been in the pressure rollers to keep down the board, and the union of the tonguing and grooving with the planing.”
At the E.T. Moore plant in Richmond, Va., a J.A. Vance Model 66 moulder from 1902, originally designed to be used with a steam engine, is still in use. It originally would have used straight steel blades but has been retrofitted with carbide blades. It will cut flooring up to 15 inches wide.—J.D.M.
A number of fixed knife planers came on the market, and they did circumvent the patent, but they were so tedious to set up and operate that most lumbermen surrendered to the Woodworth group. This was not, however, the end of where the industry would go, but merely a beginning. From here, more machines for planing flooring would be invented during the Enlightenment period. This is also the case in most industries throughout the Eastern seaboard of colonial America—industrialism would benefit from low taxation, a more productive working class, and the availability of interstate commerce. But the War Between the States would bring an end to the Enlightenment, and industrialism and the steel revolution would later be fully recognized as bringing a fundamental change in how work is done—a change that is truly exemplified in our trade.
Jay Daniel Moore is owner at Richmond, Va.-based Antique Floors LLC. Taylor Moore Jr. is owner of E.T. Moore Mfg. Inc., Heart Pine Specialists.