Letting Wood Have Its Say

Breast augers, Swedish, 1770-1850 (from Robert Young Antiques).

Breast augers, Swedish, dated 1770-1850, from Robert Young Antiques.

In his introduction to “Woodworking in Estonia” Mr. Peter Follansbee captured the spirit of this book when he wrote, “The products featured in the book are everyday items found in country households, combining utility and beauty in ways that speak volumes. This book shows us a culture that remained connected to its environment and its traditions long after some others had lost their way.”

An example of the Estonian craftsman’s knowledge of and relationship to wood is the use of naturally occuring shapes to make tools. Mr. Follansbee used the example of forked draw knives (hollowing knives): “A handle made this way follows the fibers of the tree, and it therefore stronger than one made by bending or joining straight sections of timber.” On the cover of the book is a gimlet made from a bough.

From the section on Boring Tools in "Woodworking in Estonia."

From the section on Boring Tools in “Woodworking in Estonia.”

As Ants Viires describes it, “The gimlet, like other similar borers, was a tool which had to be applied with force, and it was equipped with an appropriate head that could be braced against the chest. Boring was hard work: “When you bored for some time, your chest bones gave out fire” (Pärnu-Jaagup)…When the work became too tiring, a small boy was placed astride the implement for weight…”

Some of the breast augers (or gimlets) in the top photo are made from branches and like the Estonian example several are carved with dates and initials. The Swedish augers range in size from 31 inches high by 19.5 inches wide to 18 inches high by 13.75 inches wide.

Other objects made from branches and roots that can be found in the book are boat ribs, wheel fellies and sled runners.

I recently showed my mother some of the sketches of Estonian tools made from branches and she reminded me of the slingshots my father used to make for her. When we lived in Fayetteville and Fort Bragg in North Carolina we had to be careful of the wild animals that might come into our backyards. Basking snakes and roaming snapping turtles were the most dangerous. My father used a forked branch to make the slingshot; the sling was cut from the inner tube of a tire. After some obligatory target practice (a tree was the target) my mother was a pretty good shot.

Once a particularly pugnacious (and big) snapping turtle arrived on the patio and was not intimidated by mother’s efforts with her slingshot. With me stranded on our picnic table my mother had to call my father to come home from the airfield and save me!

Suzanne Ellison

Note: To clarify the use of auger and gimlet in this post here are excerpts from the section on boring tools in “Woodworking in Estonia.”

From Gimlets: ” Like all drills, the gimlet also consists of two parts: the iron and the head. The iron part is usually referred to simply as “auger,” while the head is known as “auger’s head.” On the islands it is called “auger’s handles.”

The gimlets made by early country smiths were of the bowl type (spoon borer). The characteristic veature of this implement was the bit, known as “kaha” (“kahv”) that is shaped like the spoon bowl and made possible boring in both directions.”

From Augers: “Under this term we refer to various borers differing in shape and size, the only common feature being a handlebar placed perpendicular to the top of the shaft. As such the borers are the simplest turning device, which was probably the starting point for the creation of a more complicated gimlet.”

And from Ants Viires’ summary of boring tools: “At the beginning of the millennium, certain borers were already in use in the country. The most primitive was the awl, which was often used after heating. The spoon-shaped borers of the gimlet or auger type were also fairly widespread.”

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9 Responses to Letting Wood Have Its Say

  1. richmondp says:

    This post reminds me that much of traditional hand woodworking was backbreaking labor, all too easy to romanticize today. In the early 70’s I was a budding and romantic wooden boat builder. I was set to work by my mentor hand ripping a 22 foot hull plank from a 2″ thick piece of doug fir, using a Disston dock saw that had been re-filed rip and fitted with a big wooden handle off a logger’s two man bucking saw. I made the cut but then promptly visited the nearest industrial supply house to purchase a Black and Decker worm drive. These days I’m still a romantic, though not, perhaps, as hopeless as I once was.


  2. The top picture does not illustrate augers at all – they have a different name that actually escapes me just now. Augers have to have a spiral chip remover. Large augers can similarly also have long handles.

    Similarly gimlets have a threaded tip that matches screw threads and sometimes also a fairly long hole cutting section intended to bore out a hole to take the screw head some way into the wood so it can be hidden by a wooden plug. Gimlets were and are also used to cut a thread for brass screws so that they don’t snap off in the work. Otherwise a steel screw would need to be used and they were not so easy if you had 20 brass screws to start. Early screws did not have a tapered tip, they looked as though the tip had been hacksawn off so gimlets made them much easier to start.

    Metal screws were first made by filing the slot and thread by hand and began in the mid 15thC. Machine production began in 1760 but the screws had no taper tip that only became available in 1760. These facts help to date antique furniture etc.


  3. I have looked them up and they are called spoon bits and are often used for chairmanning as the angle of the hole can be adjusted as you cut. Hence their use makes it easier to cut multi angled holes.


  4. Bernard…I would want to know more about this view about the term…

    A Gimlet is a small helixed (screw type) auger bit often with both a “T handle” or simple shaft of wood spun between the palms as found in several Asian woodworking cultures. “Spoon Augers” (or Paddle type bits) are just a different configuration of a variety of Auger Bits.

    In translation from other languages (and in my traditional teaching from Old Order Amish et al) these are indeed referenced as “Spoon Augers,” just as Suzanne has described them in post as far as I know and understand the tools contextual definition. In several different historic collections they are referenced the same way…”Bit” is a generic term, much like Auger and is interchangeable as far as I know. Perhaps Suzanne (or others?) could shed more light on this terminology and etymology.


  5. Sorry…It posted too quickly…

    I have found further that though “Auger” in itself is reference as a helical bit…It seems to have come into common use to mean any “boring tool” whether into stone, wood, bone, or related tooled medium…

    I would love to know what others have learned…??


    • saucyindexer says:

      Jay and Bernard, I added some excerpts from “Woodworking in Estonia” regarding augers and gimlets. Keep in mind the author completed his interviews and observations with craftsmen from across his country and over several decades. He also included research and terms for tools and processes from neighboring countries.


      • Understood…I have continued to look on my own in several old text…and even though “auger” in its singular context is a reference to helical bit…It would seem it has expanded to include now (in English that is) and boring device. Thank you for your contribution to this, and I look forward to anyone else’s findings.


  6. pfollansbee says:

    Nice post, Suzanne. Please either call me Peter or call me Follansbee, but not Mr. Follansbee – I didn’t do anything wrong!

    As far as terminology goes, let’s remember that we’re dealing with a translation in this case. My studies and research into 17th-century English work finds the use of the word “auger” regularly for carpenter’s tools for boring large holes. None of these surviving early tools had spiral chip removal shapes…all were shaped much like the tools in the photograph at the head of this post, but the English ones just had a simple T-handle. I have seen “brest wimble” listed in English inventories before. Meaning a tool like those above.

    I never saw the term “spoon” bit in early documents…but I haven’t studied much of the 18th & 19th century stuff. First place I’d look if I had the time would be Nancy Evans’ work on American Windsor chairs, because like Bernard points out, spoon bits were commonly used by chairmakers. I think not for the ability to lean at funny angles, but to lessen blowout underneath arm bows, back bows, etc. All small-diameter stuff.

    The word “gimlet” appears in period references, and Bernard’s lowdown on the history of screws does help with dating – but, only if there’s screws in the furniture! Usually in what I have seen, gimlets are small, one-handed boring tools.


    • Lee Pickart says:

      Pete,or Peter,or Follansbee, that first line reminded me of that routine on the old Ed Sullivan show with” Ray J Johnson Jr,” “You don’t have to call me Johnson” . It was more annoying than humorous, but drilled into ones brain, somewhat like a gimlet.


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