When investigating history there is often no better source than a first hand account. In this post I’d like to share with you a first hand account from my friend James A. Clarke of what it was like to participate in a manual training based program back in 1947. (If you are new to the blog or would like a refresher on Sloyd please check out some of my posts on this topic here) All of my experiences have been fairly recent and/or from research into a lot of Salomon and Larsson’s writings and from old North Bennet Street School newsletters so to meet someone with first hand experience from when the original movement was going strong is quite the treat.
Here are Jim’s recollections of the manual training and one of the projects that survives:
“Sloyd — Manual Training (Woodworking)
J. Clarke’s Recollection of Early Woodworking Training While in Public School Grades
As a small boy in Toronto, while attending Bowmore Road Public School (from Kindergarten thru 8th grade), between about 1941-1949 I also attended Manual Training Classes held at Norway Public School a few miles (walking distance) from home. How often this was, I’m not sure (can’t remember) — maybe about once per week in the 7th or 8th grades?? One thing for sure it was in 1947, at least, because there is an item still in our possession (a wall hung scissors holder) dated that year, made by J. Clarke. I do remember, however, the teacher being very disgruntled, and disappointed in me because I elected to draw and paint the chamfers (bevels) on the item, rather than use the chisel and plane, because it was easier! (I was always looking for the easy way out!)
Whether or not this was a “Sloyd” program is not clear, but certainly was a “Manual Training” program of the Toronto School System. ” — by James A. Clarke, July 2014, Age 79
In most Sloyd and similar Manual Training programs the teachers were encouraged to modify the set of models they used to suit the personality needs of the class and tastes of the local culture. I don’t know if the project below was from a book or developed by the instructor, but it certainly is in line with the other models I’ve studied in the extant publications on this topic. (I scanned through what I had but didn’t find this exact project — if any of my bibliophile friends find the project, please share it here as that would also be interesting to check out)
Jim shared with me the following photos of the wall hung Scissors holder he made back in 1947:
(The photos above were taken by James A. Clarke, scanned from hard copy by Bill Rainford both in 2014)
It looks like it was a well designed project and has survived the test of time. If you’d like to build your own version of this project — either for yourself or with any children or grand-children who are on their to becoming Sloyders — Jim has also drafted up a very nice and very detailed set of plans which you can download here:
If you wind up making your own version of this Scissors holder, please drop me a line or leave a comment as I’m sure others would be interested to see it as well.
P.S. Thank you again to James A. Clarke for sharing this material with us. Jim lives in Hilton NY with his wife Margaret. Jim is an avid tool collector and generous with his time and knowledge. I have his phone and email address but I am hesitant to put that on the open internet, so if you’d like to contact him directly please send me an email or leave a comment and I can provide that info in a less public way. (I don’t want him to wind up with lots of spam etc)
When looking at the historic prices of tools, even after converting the dollar amounts into today’s prices it often does not give a truly accurate representation of what a tool really cost the person who bought it. I remember my first job in high school working in a retail clothing store for ~$5 an hour in 1997 which was the minimum wage in NY at the time. If I went to the store to buy something, part of that decision was always based on a calculation of ‘how many hours did I have to work to buy this item?’
I wanted to apply this same logic to some of the tools in the 1900 Sloyd tool chest list we talked about here. I did some research and found that the average carpenter in 1899 made $2.30/day**. So that would mean the Sloyd cabinet full of tools which cost $11.91 would be about a week’s worth of wages to purchase — 5.17 days to be exact.
This summer I had a chance to chat a bit with my cousin, master NYC woodworker James Cooper. (Or as he is known to the family — Jim)
Jim has been working in the craft for a long time and it was great to pick his brain a bit on this topic. I’ll recount some of my interview with him here:
“In 1971 we worked for $4/hr (although we were often wrong in estimating the time required) and the only catalog I could find from that era, 1973, is of a small German American maker of chisels and carving tools where Pattern Maker’s Chisels, 6mm – 30mm, sold for $7.50 – $12.50 ea…….about 2 – 3hrs of labor! Today a competent mechanic in NY can earn $25/ hr and a decent 3/4″ (19mm) chisel can be had for $25 – $40 or rather less work then I exchanged 40 yrs ago. The most important point to emphasize is that whatever the cost, good to great hand tools will last a lifetime+ and, well used and cared for, will feed you for all that time, while never loosing value.
The early 20th Century Bailey 07 plane that I picked up, used but cleaned, at a flee market in 1981 for $100 (which at that time was about the cost of a new British Stanley) is worth $200+ today after my having used it for countless hours to realize 100s of projects over all that time…and it outperformed the British Stanley to boot! The $100 Bailey bought in 1981 was less then a days labor (about $125 / day at that time)!” — Jim Cooper
Taking the 3/4″ firmer gouge as an example I tried to plot it over time, and here are my findings so far:
Avg Pay Rate
Time to earn it
1.48 hours work
$2.30/day, so assuming an 10 hour day for hourly rate at the time
Assumption that during this time was potentially a low water mark for availability of quality tools in the US — all the old makers were on their way out, and new high end tools were only getting started
Based on estimate of about $125/day and assuming a 10 hour day. Price of tool inflation adjusted from 1973 data point. Note also this was the time of a large global recession.
Based on current price of a Henry Taylor 3/4″ in-cannel gouge from Traditional Woodworker which is very similar to that original gouge in the Sloyd tool chest
If any of my readers have some additional data points, I’d be happy to flesh this out more — especially before and after the world wars. So if you have an old tool catalog with prices from an earlier time (especially for a 3/4″ firmer gouge) or recall and are willing to share your pay rate at an earlier time (either hourly or daily) I would be happy to flesh this out more and see what else the data can teach us.
My conclusions based on all of this?
The availability of good quality tools, societies’ willingness to pay a craftsman a fair wage, tax codes, the macro-economic climate and the ability to find work in that field have all fluctuated over time which makes it hard to draw a lot of concrete conclusions without befriending an economist or gathering a lot more data. But having said that, I think all craftsmen and women have at one time or another done the mental calculation of current wage versus the price of that new tool and thought to themselves ‘I really need to charge a higher rate’ 😉
What to you think? There are only so many working hours in a lifetime. Are you spending more on tools today relative to your hourly wage compared to earlier decades? Or are you coping in other ways? (Refurbishing old tools etc which still takes up a lot of time). I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
The post below is an expanded version of a recent post I made for my friends at Popular Woodworking which can be found here. For the sake of continuity on the series related to Sloyd on this blog I am providing an extended look at this topic.
In honor of American Independence day this past week, why not do something that makes you a little more independent?
When I started out woodworking I’d watch television shows and read magazines pushing all kinds of fancy new tools and think ‘If only I had a shop full of those tools I could build anything’. I spent a long time saving my pennies, reading the reviews and trying out the latest tools. The models seemed to change with the seasons. New project? Time for a new bit or jig or gizmo. Realizing that earlier craftsmen didn’t have access to all of these modern wonders yet they produced far more intricate work, I went in search of the hand cut dovetail and the arts and mysteries of our ancient craft.
I quickly found that power equipment was not broadening my capabilities as much as it was like an anchor tethering me to a limited band of work and taking up valuable shop space. I also didn’t like wearing the requisite dust mask, hearing protection and safety glasses all the time — it was like a mini sensory deprivation chamber. When I asked master cabinetmaker Dan Faia (NBSS) what he does for dust protection in his own shop, his succinct reply was “I never coughed up a curl“. That pithy remark reflected the very different view traditional woodworkers have — without all the big machines, the dust and noise, you can focus on the work, invest in a smaller set of high quality tools that should last a lifetime and enjoy the process as much as the result.
If you are looking to downsize your powered shop, get into more traditional woodworking or just starting out the questions that often come up are —
What is a good minimum set of tools I need to get started? How much is this all going to cost me?
In researching the Sloyd tool cabinet shown above I found some old tool catalogs from Chandler and Barber of Boston (a primary supplier of Sloyd paraphernalia including the Larsson benches etc ) including one from 1900 complete with a listing of and pricing for all the tools in the cabinet. According to the Federal Reserve’s website $1 in 1900 that should be worth about $27 today. A straight monetary conversion doesn’t paint a complete picture since some tools that were common back then are a specialty today and vice versa so I also included a column showing what an equivalent quality tool would cost new today.
In 1900, just as it was when I was a student over 100 years later, the view is that it is better to buy a quality tool once that will last a lifetime than buy something of poor quality which will not serve you well in your work. Keep that in mind as you review the list — since the tools were not the cheapest back then and surely are not the cheapest today. But with this modest set of tools you can build an amazing array of projects just as many ‘Sloyders’ (Sloyd school students) have done before us.
Original Price in Today’s $
2′ Folding Wood Rule
Bi-fold Rule from Garret Wade
6″ Metal Blade Try Square
Swanson Try Square On Amazon
Robert Larson Marking Gauge on Amazon
Shinwa (Japanese) Lee Valley or Amazon
Pair Dividers, 5 inch
Starrett 4″ or 6″ on Amazon
Screw Driver, 4 inch
Marples, from Tools For Working Wood
13 oz. Claw Hammer
Stanley 13 oz Hammer, Walmart
Block and Rabbet Plane
Lie Nielsen Block Rabbet Plane
Bailey Jack Plane
Stanley Bailey Jack, from Rockler
Cross-cut Saw, 20 inch
Pax Handsaw, from Lee Valley
Splitting Saw (Rip), 20 inch
Pax Handsaw, from Lee Valley
Japanese Keyhole Saw, from Lee Valley
Firmer Chisel, 1/4 inch
Henry Taylor, from Traditional Woodworker
Firmer Chisel, 3/4 inch
Henry Taylor, from Traditional Woodworker
Firmer Gouge, 3/8 inch
Henry Taylor, from Traditional Woodworker
Firmer Gouge, 3/4 inch
Henry Taylor, from Traditional Woodworker
French Bit Brace, from Lee Valley
Jennings Pattern Bits, 1/4,1/2,3/4in.
Auger Bits, from Traditional Woodworker
2 Gimlet Bits
7 Piece Set, from Garret Wade
Driver Adapter Bit, from Lee Valley
Hand Countersink, from Lee Valley
Stanley Spoke Shave, from Rockler
Brad Awl, from Lee Valley
Stanley Nail Set, from Amazon
Half Round File
Nicholson Half Round File, from Home Depot
Norton Combo Oil Stone, from Amazon
Goldenrod Oil Can, from Amazon
Pair Combination Pliers
Crescent H26N, from Amazon
Titebond, from Amazon
Crown Bolt brad and nail assortment, from Amazon
Maxcraft woodscrew assortment, from Amazon
If your wallet still cringes at the totals above, fear not, for the totals above are for all brand new tools. The one luxury we have in our modern day of hand tools falling out of favor is the large secondhand market where you might be able to scoop up some great tools — possibly even some of the actual tools that once inhabited these cabinets for the original price in today’s dollars or less.
So before you break out the barbeque, give some thought to how you can free yourself from a mountain of modern tools and invest in a modest set of traditional hand tools that will get you started on the path to more enjoyable woodworking.
P.S. Extended Content For Readers of My Blog:
Note, the table above is expanded to show what sources I pulled my current pricing data from — which may be controversial to some — but was a best effort to identify similar makes, brands, qualities and countries of origin to be the same as what was in the original cabinet. For items no longer made in the U.S.A. I tried to find the next closest replacement.
P.P.S Why did the relative price of new tools go up so much?
This is a topic we’ll explore more in a future post, but for all the armchair economists looking to convert see what a dollar was worth in the past, this site from the FED was interesting.
Recently we’ve talked a bit about the Sloyd Tool Cabinet and it’s contents — but with all these tools on hand and a book full of models to build, where do you actually build them?
I’d like to introduce you to a slightly more famous cousin to the Sloyd Tool Cabinet — the ‘Larsson Improved Adjustable Workbench’ or more commonly known as a‘Sloyd Bench’.
This workbench was designed by Gustaf Larsson the principal of the Boston Sloyd School in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and manufactured by Chandler and Barber to Larsson’s specifications. The bench was the result of Larsson’s experiences at Naas, at the Boston Sloyd School and at the North Bennet Street Industrial School. It draws upon design elements found in traditional continental European benches but was scaled to the needs of a classroom setting and had to accommodate both children and adults.
How do we know so much about this bench?
In some ways it is fairly well documented in old tool catalogs, like those of Chandler and Barber — the premier supplier of ‘Sloyd System’ benches, tools and supplies and in other advertising. In addition, a fair number of these benches still survive which is a testament to how well they were built and how many of them were produced. While the North Bennet Street Industrial School catered to training immigrants and younger students in its earliest days, the Boston Sloyd School focused on teaching the teachers of Sloyd. Teachers would come to the school, learn how to teach Sloyd to students and then go back to their municipalities to teach Sloyd to the local population. So with diplomas in hand these new teachers often wanted to order the same or very similar setups to what they learned on. This was the genesis of many manual training programs in the United States.
Above you can see one of the many ads Chandler and Barber took out in Sloyd related publications — in this case the ‘Sloyd Record’ which was the alumni newsletter of the Boston Sloyd School. Chandler and Barber seemed to be the most prolific dealer in this space, but just like today there was a lot of competition. You’ll see ads from Hammacher Schlemmer (they used to specialize mostly in tools and hardware back then), lumber dealers, publishers and other similar companies trying to get a piece of the apparently semi-lucrative Sloyd pie.
The competition got so fierce that some of the Chandler and Barber felt it was worth mentioning how others got burned trying to save a few dollars going with a competitor’s bench of inferior quality. Don’t be a part of that sorry lot…..
What made this bench so special?
Beyond being the brand name bench associated with Sloyd pioneer Gustaf Larsson the bench did have some novel features. If you look carefully in the picture above you can see a set of hinges on the cross member of the base (near where you see the word Pat.Aplc..). Why would anyone want hinges on their bench? Essentially you could take the top of the bench off, flip up or down those blocks, re-install the bench top and be able to accommodate both children and adults in the same workspace. Over the years several models of bench were associated with Larsson’s name, including the popular No. 5 model shown here, another larger model designed for 2 students to share a workspace, and even a clamp on vise which could be used for light work when attached to a sturdy table.
Beyond being a reasonably stout bench, it could be ordered with wood or metal vise screws, a few variants of removable tool rack (which made it easy for instructors to see if all the tools were put back in their proper place and in good condition), vise and dog hole configurations and similar tweaks.
During my time at NBSS over the years I’ve had the chance to work at some of these benches a few of which seemed to survive in the darker corners of the workshop department. At the time I didn’t realize the history of what I working on — I thought it was just another old workbench which had seen better days and was propped up to accommodate taller students. At this sort of old bench I first learned to layout and cut a proper dovetail and it was well suited for the task and you could fit a fair number of them in a modest sized classroom. The benches were commonly bolted down into the floor which made up for the lack of mass when compared to a full sized bench. As a joiner these days I am used to working from a much larger bench as I work on a bigger scale, but if you are tight on space or find a good deal on a used model, it would be a great place to start on your path to more enjoyable woodworking.
In your travels, if you see any of these benches, tool cabinets or Chandler and Barber catalogs from the early 1900s, I’d be interested to see or hear about your findings here on the blog or via email.
“Sloyd is tool work so arranged and employed as to stimulate and promote vigorous, intelligent self-activity for a purpose which the worker recognizes as good” — Gustaf Larsson, Principal of the Boston Sloyd School (1906)
To explore the world of Sloyd training is to roll up your sleeves and get some time at the workbench building your skills. A core component of Sloyd based training is building a series of models which increase in scope and skills required to execute them. Let’s explore one of those skill building exercises from the series of models described in Gustaf Larsson’s 1906 book “Elementary Sloyd and Whittling: With Drawings and Working Directions”.
We’ll take a look at the ‘Match Striker’:
A Match Striker?!
Yep, a key tenet of these models is for the students to make something they can use in their day to day life. Living with items you make yourself will help further refine your ability to judge the quality and completeness of your own work. But why would a child want this? 1906 was a different time — maybe after a long day of 4th grade schooling the students liked to go home for a quick smoke? Probably not. Most likely this item was affixed near a fireplace or stove and provided a nice place to strike a match from — rather than directly on the mantel etc.
While the models were designed to be generally completed in order, the sloyd teacher was encouraged to experiment a bit and design models that would appeal to the actual students in the class. While it is possible that someone could build all the models from a Sloyd book or program and still not be much of a woodworker, the physical and life lessons learned were always considered to be more important than the accuracy of the model though clean and quality work was certainly the goal to strive for. Even if woodworking was not the students’ eventual vocation, it certainly helped them to judge the quality of and respect the work that went into this kind of work.
Above is the description of the exercise we’ll work through today…
I started off by sharpening my Sloyd knife (The Hyde Sloyd Knife is actually still made in the USA but takes a bit of sharpening to be useful) and practice a bit on some eastern white pine scrap. Tip: When whittling you want to use the full length of the blade taking a shearing cut and generally cut away from yourself.
After some practice it was time to move on to the real stock. In this case the only thing I had handy that was 1/8″ thick was some walnut I bought years ago and never found a good use for — unfortunately walnut is not great for whittling — so I’d recommend Whitewood, Eastern White Pine or Basswood as better choices for the new woodworker.
Crosscut the blank to length, then rip it to rough width. With a block plane, trim the piece to width.
Next up is laying out the design using a compass and a square as called out in the plans.
To cut the semi-circle you can use the sloyd knife to do all the work while holding the piece in your hands and whittling. If whittling is not your thing you can rough out the curve using a jeweler’s saw or fine coping saw and then clean up the edge using the sloyd knife.
Once you are happy with the general shape you’ll want to take a sanding block and fine sandpaper to break the edges.
At the center of the semi-circles you’ll want to make a hole using a brad awl. In this case I am used a chisel edge brad awl. It drills a tiny hole by simply applying downward pressure and rotating your wrist back and forth until you get to through the piece or do the depth you want. (Note: I am used a shim to protect the bench surface) These holes are used to mount the striker to the wall or some similar surface.
To complete the project, apply a coat of wax and glue a piece of ‘No. 1’ Fine Sandpaper to the surface. After the glue dries this match scratcher is ready to be used. Time to break out the matches and celebrate….
Turns out that most modern wood kitchen matches will NOT light on sandpaper or similar surfaces. So you need to either buy some ‘strike anywhere’ matches or find another use for this model. Don’t worry, if you flip back a few pages in the Larsson’s book you’ll see the the first model was a ‘pencil sharpener’ which is effectively a square strip of wood with the same sandpaper glued to it — and you’d rub a traditional wood pencil on this to sharpen/adjust the point. So now I have a very fancy yet simple pencil sharpener which will live out in the shop.
Wow, that was a lot of work for a modest item — yep, but the item was not the point — it’s a side effect of the intellectual and physical exercise. I am now able to whittle a nice curve and learned a new way to sharpen a pencil on the job site if I need something more refined than a crude chisel tip on a carpenter’s pencil made with a utility knife.
If you’d like to learn a bit more about Sloyd, please check out some of my other posts here and you can read Gustaf Larsson’s “Elementary Sloyd and Whittling: With Drawings and Working Directions” here. If you try out a sloyd model based exercise on your own, please share your experiences here.
I recently had the opportunity to make a post to the Popular Woodworking online community which is edited by Dan Farnbach the PWM online editor.
Below is an extended version of that first post:
Bill Rainford is a young and driven craftsman in whom I think you’ll find a lot in common. Voraciously self-taught at first, Bill went on to graduate from the Preservation Carpentry Program at one of New England’s premier craft schools. He now teaches workshops at that school (North Bennet Street) and serves as adjunct faculty at the Boston Architectural College, in addition to developing his own body of commissioned work, building his blog and holding down a day job in software. I want to welcome Bill to the community as an occasional guest writer. He’s going to bring us a little history and several techniques from his area of expertise, which he describes as traditional joinery –though Bill’s skills do not fit neatly in just one category.
We may also do a project plan over the course of the next few months. Please welcome Bill by reading this newsletter and then visiting his blog! Of particular interest is Bill’s recent collaboration with Roy Underhill – more on that at the bottom of this e-mail.
What Sloyd Did For Me and My Woodworking Apprenticeship
Part of what made my training in preservation carpentry so rewarding was the way in which it was taught. We followed a system of educational handwork derived from what was originally developed at Nääs in Sweden and known as the ‘Educational Sloyd System.’ Sloyd is the Swedish word for ‘craft’ and most commonly associated with skilled manual craft work. In the early years of the school in the late 19th century, there was a strong need in Boston and America as a whole to help new immigrants learn the skills needed to acclimate to this new country and develop skills to support oneself. This Sloyd System trained students by building a series of useful models/items each of which introduced basic tools and skills, built confidence to tackle more advanced work, and fostered the ability to evaluate your own work and push yourself to reach new levels of accomplishment.
When Otto Aaron Salomon wrote ‘The Theory of Educational Sloyd‘ (page 7) he described the goals one should strove for in teaching and learning within this system.
The focus was not simply the ‘utilitarian aim’ :
To directly give dexterity to the use of tools
To execute exact work
There was also a larger, more ‘formative aim’ to the education:
To instill a taste for, and love of, labour in general
Inspire a respect for rough, honest, bodily labour
Develop independence and self-reliance
Train habits of order, exactness, cleanliness and neatness
Train the eye and sense of form. To give a general dexterity of hand and to develop touch
To accustom attention, industry, perseverance and patience
To promote the development of physical powers
The goal of all this training was not just to help find a job, but to help round out the person. Students may never pick up a tool again, but they will forever have the knowledge of how to make and evaluate things with your hand and your eye and appreciate the labor of others – something I often feel is lacking in members of my generation.
Students in this sort of program would often start with a simple block of wood and a Sloyd knife and learn to make controlled cuts. From this modest exercise they will absorb 3 of the most important lessons a woodworker will ever learn:
Cutting with the grain
Cutting against the grain
From this most basic of exercises students are able to make usable objects like a pencil sharpener, letter opener, penholder etc. which they are able to keep, evaluate and use. As the training progresses the students will have more freedom to implement their own designs and apply the skills they have learned.
Fast Forward to Today
This sort of learning by doing, ability to be self critical, self-sufficient, and continually push oneself is still present at the school. In the current programs at NBSS students work under the supervision of a master craftsman who will start with the basics and guide students through their training. By the end of the 1, 2, or 3-year program, depending on major, students will demonstrate proficiency in many tasks, and while there is always more to learn they will be well situated to seek out and tackle the next big project.
After graduating from my training, I remained interested in Sloyd and did further research on the topic. I learned that many of the benches and hanging tool cabinets designed and produced for early Sloyd programs were based on the designs of Gustaf Larsson of The Boston Sloyd School and produced locally in Boston. Some of the benches are still in use by the school and you can find some second hand every now and then on eBay, but the hanging tool cabinet was news to me.
Shortly after learning about the Larsson tool cabinet I made a serendipitous discovery at a local pawn shop in New Hampshire – I actually found one of these cabinets and in very good shape given its age. All the hardware was intact, and only the front door was rebuilt. It was clear that this cabinet was used for a very long time by someone who cared about it, as the replacement door inherited the hardware and layout of the original.
I am working on a reproduction of this piece, and will be presenting parts of that project here and on the Popular Woodworking blog. Future posts will include a bit on how the cabinet was made, interesting details on the tools that once inhabited this cabinet, as well as notes and prices on modern equivalents. If there is interest I will also make some explorations into some of the Sloyd exercises which can help improve your own hand skills.
Roy Underhill is a fellow Sloyd enthusiast and has been inspirational to me in my research. I caught up with him this week and he offered even more wisdom on the topic, saying:
“Everyone human likes to move, so we came up with yoga, dance and sport to make movement more engaging and expanding. So too with woodworking and Sloyd. The exercises of Sloyd can bring every modern woodworker along a thoughtful path of liberating discipline, of progress and accomplishment — and reconnection with the good feelings of our ancient craft.”
If you’d like to join me in re-connecting with the joy of our ancient craft of woodworking I will be taking some classes at Roy’s Underhill’s ‘The Woodwright’s School’ in Pittsboro NC this July 9-12. The first class is Making a Traditional Jointer plane with Bill Anderson and the second class is Making a Traditional Metal Namestamp with Peter Ross. Both of these classes are a great way to learn some basic Sloyd skills and experience the satisfaction of using a high quality tool you made yourself for years to come. If you’d like more information on one or both of these classes, please check out my post on this topic here. If you are interested in attending, please do not wait to sign up — there is a minimum number of students needed to sign up by mid-June in order for the classes to run.
A Joiner's Guide To Traditional Woodworking and Preservation