Jonathan Fisher’s Tool Chest (and Tools)


Immediately after arriving in Maine last week, Thomas Lie-Nielsen took me and some of his key employees to the Farnsworth Art Museum in nearby Rockland, Maine. The trip was to view the tools contained in Jonathan Fisher’s tool chest.


Joshua Klein, a woodworker who has been studying Fisher, met us at the museum and we were quickly taken to the Farnsworth’s administrative offices upstairs. There, in a corner room, the employees had laid out about 50 of Fisher’s tools with his tool chest sitting on the floor against the wall.

It was an interesting, and somewhat unusual, collection of tools. Of course, Fisher was an interesting and unusual fellow who invented and built all sorts of contrivances and recorded them in his illustrated journal. Some of the things on the table we couldn’t identify. Could that be a slitting tool used to make woven hats (the Fisher family made a lot of hats)?

Other tools were quite familiar.

With the help of the museum staff we examined the tools, asked a lot of questions out loud and simply puzzled over some of the objects in this unique collection. Klein was interested in the tools because he has been researching Fisher’s woodworking (perhaps for a future book). Lie-Nielsen was particularly interested because Fisher is one of his relatives.

(By the way, if you haven’t read anything about Jonathan Fisher, check out the web site for his house museum here. The Wikipedia entry on him only scratches the surface. He was a remarkable and industrious man.)


During our visit to the Farnsworth, I kept focusing on Fisher’s long planes, especially his jack, try and jointer planes. All three of them were festooned with an unusual triangular indentation. The “stippling,” for lack of a better word, was only on the sidewalls of these planes. It wasn’t on top of the stock. And it wasn’t on the sole. (Interestingly, it also wasn’t on his smoothing plane nor any of the moulding planes we examined.)

What was this this for? Deneb Puchalski of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks wondered if it could be something to improve one’s grip on the plane. But the stippling was everywhere on the sidewalls, and not on the top of the plane where you grip it.

There was no rhyme or reason for the marks, and so my speculation is this: It was done by a bored child who was allowed to decorate the sides of the planes with a hammer and some sort of triangular tool.

We might never know the answer. Or perhaps Klein will uncover the answer in one of Fisher’s letters or an unread journal entry.

Next time: One (or perhaps two) of Fisher’s many workbenches.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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9 Responses to Jonathan Fisher’s Tool Chest (and Tools)

  1. Tom Dugan says:

    When stored on their heels, moulding planes will have their irons pointing downward at regular spacing. If the jointer is stored in the bottom next to a low divider that keeps the moulding planes together, the tops of the irons will bang against the jointer’s side every time the box gets moved.

    Requires a certain peculiar geometry to the box, but that’s my shot at the cause of the stippling.


  2. johnwalkowiak says:

    The triangular indentations are from saw teeth! It was not uncommon to use long planes as an anvil when setting saw teeth with a hammer and punch.


  3. Jeff Burks says:

    The rudest and simplest mode of setting a saw is, to lay the blade of it on a smooth end of a block of hard wood, and with a punch and hammer bend the point of every other tooth by a single blow, and then turn the saw over and set the other side, being careful to place the punch on each tooth in the same place, and to gauge the force of each blow as nearly as may be.

    Sereno Edwards Todd
    The Young Farmer’s Manual – 1860

    There are a great variety of saw-sets invented, manufactured, sold, and used; some are good; a great proportion are good for nothing. The old way of setting with a punch on a block of wood, is very far from the right way. It is impossible to strike every blow alike, and the wood being the fulcrum over which the tooth is bent, yields, and the tooth is bent clear to its base, which is very likely to kink the saw. One third of a tooth is all that should be set or turned out of line of the blade.

    H. W. Holly
    The Art of Saw-Filing – 1864

    These two quotes refer to the use of a simple wooden block in place of a saw setting anvil. Normally when a block of wood is used for this purpose the teeth are supported by the end-grain of the wood.

    I think John is correct that the owner of this plane had used it to set saw teeth with a punch. The marks are clearly in rows, with every other tooth absent. It seems rather odd to use such an expensive tool in what may seem a careless manner, yet these marks do not affect the performance of the tool. It could also be that the tools were being used far from the shop, where craftsmen are forced to make due with the materials on hand.


  4. Tom Stork says:

    Saw teeth makes sense. And the fact that it was decorative probably didn’t hurt, either — maybe similar to how my grandfather’s Craftsman/Millers Falls jack plane has (non-functional) machining on the sides; some people can’t bear an unadorned surface!


  5. Reblogged this on Workbench Diary and commented:
    Chris’s take on Fisher’s Tools…


  6. Brian Eve says:

    The last photo looks to be the end of a plane, but the pith is in the wood (hence all the cracks). I can’t imagine that plane to have anything resembling a flat sole. Is it possible this plane could still be considered useable?


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