Handle-Factory Impressions


The other day I made a trip through a handle factory and talked about hickory handles and their manufacture for a couple of hours, after which I did some thinking and investigating, the result of which is I have come to the conclusion that we are not giving a prominent enough place in history to inventors of wood-working machinery.

In the handle factory they were using old-style irregular lathes and had quite a string of them, giving good service. I marveled a little at this, as it was a living example of the possibilities of doing good work and successful business with what are termed antiquated types of machines. Then I fell to wondering just how old these machines were in their type, and this led me to consulting a modern encyclopedia, from which I got more disappointment than anything else.

I found that the simple lathe is one of the oldest of wood-working inventions, its conception being ascribed by Pliny to Theodor of Samos, 740 B. C. The irregular lathe—that is, the lathe for automatically turning irregular forms — was invented by Thomas Blanchard, an ingenious mechanic of Massachusetts, in 1820. That is all the encyclopedia had to say about it. There was no biographic sketch of this Blanchard, though there is a sketch of a Frenchman by this name and an American military man, and that’s where the disappointment came in.

Other mechanical inventors get a place in history—Blake, the inventor of the jaw-type of rock-crusher, has proper attention—but here is a man who invented one of the most important wood-working machines going, who had no place in the encyclopedia except a mere mention under the head of lathes. It looks like it is time to organize a historical society for the perpetuation of the history of the inventing genius of the wood-working trade.

But, to return to the handle factory, it may be interesting to some to know just what I saw and just how they do it. The majority of the hickory stock as it comes from the factory is cut to single handle lengths and split up into pieces to make one handle each. Some of the stock is sawed, being cut up on a bolter saw, and the tendency these days is to saw more of it than formerly, but considerably more than half the stock in the yard was split.

A man who knows his business and attends to it properly can bolt hickory with a saw and follow the grain practically as well as the stock will split, and by working it on a saw he can economize in timber, time and elbow grease. There is, of course, attached to this work a natural tendency to work up and put in stock on which the grain twists, some that should not go in first-class work, but if this temptation is resisted conscientiously there is not much argument to offer against bolting handle stock with a saw.

The stock is piled up on the yard pretty much like cord wood and stove wood, and generally gets partially, if not thoroughly, dry before it is taken into the factory. The turning is done on the irregular type of lathes. If it is short stock it is one man to a lathe, but if it is long stock, such as pick handles or even ax handles, one man can attend to two lathes if they are conveniently arranged. From the lathe stock goes to equalizer saws and is trimmed to length, then it goes to the sanding room.

When it arrives in the sanding room it is very rough—rougher than ordinary sawed lumber. The stock is cut with a saw in the lathe, and every crook and turn means a shoulder in addition to the saw marks, so the sanding room really has lots of work to do. The sanding is done on belts. There is no need to describe the sand belts further than to say that before the handle is finished it is handled at three or four different belts, coarser ones taking off the rough stuff and finer ones doing the finishing. If the stock is not thoroughly dry after it passes the second sanding it is taken to the drying room and thoroughly dried before finishing.

The drying room, in this instance, consisted simply of a tight room in one side of the factory, with an open floor, beneath which were coils or lines of steam pipe supplied with live steam. Small windows are furnished to give a little ventilation and the stock is cross-piled in this room carefully, closed up and kept warm three or four days, depending upon how much drying it needs.

The temperature is never run very high, being kept usually between 60 and 80 degrees, and very seldom going over 100 degrees. In this respect it differs materially from the average drykiln used for lumber, and it differs also in that there is not much circulation of air. It is just a warm, oven-like place with only a little ventilation.

Sometimes, when the stock is not for immediate shipment, they simply pile under a shed and let dry, then before finishing and shipping out they assort and grade it. About the last thing it gets before being bundled or crated for shipment is the final touch in finishing or polishing.

To a stranger in the works, and many a new man entering the business, it looks like there is too much handling attached to the finishing end of this business, as it involves handling the stock five, six and seven times after passing the lathe. It looks like there ought to be some way to eliminate part of this expensive work, for the cost counts up every time you have to handle a lot of small articles of this kind separately, and apparently the logical thing to do would be to figure out some way to finish these handles automatically just as they are turned automatically.

Yet many a man who has tried to shorten the road between the rough stock and the finished handle has made a failure of the business, while the prominent concerns, those which have made a success of and built up a business of magnitude, continue to handle their stock over and over in the same old way, so there must be good reasons for it; but it all impresses one that the handle business is a strange contrast in this respect to the general adoption of automatic labor-saving devices to eliminate the continued handling of small articles.

C. T. James

The Wood-Worker – March, 1906

—Jeff Burks

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4 Responses to Handle-Factory Impressions

  1. jackbaumgartner says:

    the hand must have a handle that has been handled by a hand:)


  2. ssayott says:

    Does anyone know if the making of handles has been sufficiently automated today as to eliminate the manual handling step at the end?


  3. Jack Baumgarnter’s comment brought the poet Gary Snyder (the real-life Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s novel “The Dharma Bums”) to mind, specifically his poem “Ax Handles”:

    One afternoon the last week in April
    Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
    One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
    He recalls the hatchet-head
    Without a handle, in the shop
    And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
    A broken-off axe handle behind the door
    Is long enough for a hatchet,
    We cut it to length and take it
    With the hatchet head
    And working hatchet, to the wood block.
    There I begin to shape the old handle
    With the hatchet, and the phrase
    First learned from Ezra Pound
    Rings in my ears!
    “When making an axe handle
    the pattern is not far off.”
    And I say this to Kai
    “Look: We’ll shape the handle
    By checking the handle
    Of the axe we cut with-”
    And he sees. And I hear it again:
    It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century
    A.D. “Essay on Literature”-in the
    Preface: “In making the handle Of an axe
    By cutting wood with an axe
    The model is indeed near at hand.-
    My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
    Translated that and taught it years ago
    And I see: Pound was an axe,
    Chen was an axe, I am an axe
    And my son a handle, soon
    To be shaping again, model
    And tool, craft of culture,
    How we go on.

    found online at:

    I recommend the entire book-a classic!


  4. I toured an old factory that made wooden rakes and other similar tools. They had long barrel like machines where they placed a good number of handles or tooth pegs or rake heads and tumbled them together along with a special granulated wax they said they got from somewhere in Sweden. I’m not sure how long the items tumbled, but I held the finished product and found it absolutely smooth and delightful to the touch. The tumbling machines had gears with the “wavy” spokes, meaning they were made before foundry folks had figured out how to cast something that wouldn’t deform because of the pull from a contracting/cooling straight spoke.

    It was such a delightful place, but seemed very dangerous with all the moving parts, belts, pulleys, and unguarded and open areas between floors. I wanted to live there.


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