Who better to write a book about Jonathan Fisher, a late 18th century/early 19th century Maine woodworker and preacher, than Joshua Klein? Like Fisher, Joshua and his family are homesteaders in rural Maine, doing their best to live completely off the land. And Joshua is using in his own shop many of the same types of tools that Fisher had in his collection (not a surprise to those who know Joshua as the founder and editor in chief of Mortise & Tenon Magazine, a periodical that celebrates the preservation, research and recreation of historic furniture). As the crow flies, the Kleins live about 7 miles from Fisher’s Blue Hill farm.
Excerpted from “Hands Employed Aright: The Furniture Making of Jonathan Fisher (1768-1847),” by Joshua A. Klein.
In November 1810, Fisher began building a model of a “wood house.” Never one for technological stagnation, Fisher envisioned a building next to his house that was dedicated to producing lumber on a wind-powered sawmill that would also power his lathe. As a lumbering town, Blue Hill had numerous water-powered sawmills in Fisher’s days, but on his property at the top of the hill, Fisher had no access to a river or stream. What he did have, especially after years of clearing his property, was wind.
Although the memories of New England’s windmills are nearly faded, their abundance, especially along the coastline, is well documented. (2) As early as the 17th century, windmills (primarily for grinding grain) were being built in areas of New England without direct water access so they were not an unusual sight by the early 1800s.
As commonly known as they were, however, the construction of such a mechanism was beyond the skill of most craftsmen. One author has noted that the millwright’s job required a precision and care equal to the shipwright’s. The vision of a rural farmer building a windmill to saw his own lumber is quixotic. It seemed a project doomed to fail.
Reading through the journals during the two-and-a-half-years of construction of the mill is agonizing, especially as the recorded tally of his investment that included his own labor rises at $1 per day (the same rate as Joseph Murphy, a cabinetmaker of South Berwick (3) ) in the midst of numerous frustrated attempts at sawing.
We know the mill was generating power as early as April 1812, because Fisher recorded having his grindstone running “by wind.” After investing substantially and working on it for more than two years, Fisher recorded on April 19, 1813: “Worked upon saw gear and made an attempt to saw wood. Broke the [?]. Greatly disappointed in my hopes. Endeavored to resign to the will of God but found it a hard trial. I doubt not, however, but God intends good by this cross. Expense of wood house, etc. = $215.50.” The next day all that is recorded is: “Made a new experiment to carry my saw for sawing wood by wind – discouraged in it. Laid it aside = $216.50.”
Despite his discouragement, Fisher carried on and a few days later wrote, “first commenced sawing wood, with some, though small, good effect.” From here, only periodic sawing is recorded. The anticlimactic success of the sawmill is startling after so much labor and expense.
The wind power was also harnessed to drive the lathe. June of that year, Fisher documented: “Worked upon turning gear and set my lath a-going by wind.” Powering lathes with water power was common in production shops but wind-powered lathes were much less common. It’s hard to envision the practicality of such a setup. The irregularity of the wind must have been a challenge to deal with for the turning he was doing. The idea is not unprecedented, however. Windmill historian, Roy Gregory, has documented the use of an 8.5′-tall tower mill in a Lancashire, England, shop that powered a lathe and circular saw. The mill is described as having four 8′ long common sails with gears for regulating speed (4). Ants Viires, a historian of Estonian woodcraft, has photographed a small tower mill attached to the roof of a mid-20th-century spinning wheel workshop. It is likely that Fisher’s was similar in size.
The design of the wood house’s lathe is unknown. In Fisher’s room-by-room probate inventory taken in 1847, it listed a lathe and its chisels in the barn of which his son, Willard, was half-owner. Because two of the existing poppets do not fit the surviving lathe, it is assumed that Fisher had another lathe in the shop that was discarded when that building was taken down. Because no lathe (or any workbenches, for that matter) are listed in the probate inventory, it may be that these shop fixtures were built-ins. Often, probate inventories exclude these items because they were considered part of the shop building.
It is apparent that Fisher achieved his primary goal with this windmill project because he was able to generate lumber to some degree. But it must not have revolutionized his production enough because in June 1821, he disassembled the tower of his mill, never to speak of the mill in action again. Neither the 1824 Morning View painting nor the 1888 photograph of the wood house show any evidence to testify to the existence of the mill.
That Fisher referred to a least a portion of his wood house as his “shop” suggests that he eventually moved his tools out of the barn and into this dedicated space. The transition between workspaces must have been gradual because the installations of a new workbench and lathe are carried out over time amidst other woodworking projects. It is also conceivable that there always remained a small shop space in the barn for convenience sake.
In June 1823, Fisher was busy setting up his “shop chamber.” He moved his grindstone to a new location, built a “cupboard” for tool storage, constructed a portable workbench and installed a new stove. The reconfiguring of this workspace was likely due to his feeling “the infirmities of old age creeping stealthily upon him.” Perhaps this rearrangement facilitated his work.
2. Lombardo, Daniel, Windmills of New England: Their Genius, Madness, History & Future, On Cape Publications, 2003.
3. Burch, Abby, By His Account Rendered: The Business of Cabinetmaking in York County, Maine, 1815-1840, a modified master’s thesis, 2008.
4. Gregory, Roy, The Industrial Windmill in Britain, Phillimore & Co., 2005.
13 thoughts on “Wind-powered Lathe in Rural Maine”
Can’t really consider him a lifestyle woodworker if he was using all these newfangled machines. More of a machinist.
You win the comments section today. I laughed out loud.
Great Story, Very interesting to read and understand how woodworking was done in the early 1800 and how Mr Fisher used his windmill. Thank you!
I wonder how a solar/wind to battery storage with inverter would work on a small shop/lathe setup?
No different than running from the main voltage line. Your machine does not care where or how the power was generated only that it has the right voltage and Adequate current. You could setup a generator run by gerbil power as they run their little hearts out in a ball. Course you’d need a whole house filled with em to get enough power. The only real question is if your battery storage would be big enough to run the tool long enough to complete the task. Machines draw an awful lot of power. My guess is you’d need a very large battery bank to do it. The really interesting thing about the old windmill is the system of gears required to keep the lathe turning at a consistent speed. Think about the fluctuation in wind speed. You’d probably need some sort of flywheel that would spin freely when the wind isn’t blowing. That way a gust could get the flywheel moving to store kinetic energy and save it during brief lulls in the wind. Then you’d have a separate system of gears to transfer the energy from the flywheel to the lathe.
The nicest (and most expensive) piece of equipment I own is my lathe. That’s because the thing I am worst at is turning. I figured it would help make up for my lack of skill. I suppose it does, a little. But not a lot.
I suppose I could live with a wind-powered lathe. But I can’t ever imagine dealing with a treadle lathe. I have way too little coordination for that.
Put an S in the end of my name for me instead of a D. Measure twice post once…
I’ll be kind. It’s a crank idea. That’s why they’re not around.
Wind-powered sawmills are still around, although there used to be many, many more. De Heesterboom in Leiden, the Netherlands, is an absolutely gorgeous example of a mill that can address three logs at a time. It’s run today by volunteers and only mills wood for special projects.
They’re among the most-complicated windmills Dutch engineering ever produced.
They absolutely exist, although there are far fewer than there used to be. De Heesterboom in Leiden, the Netherlands, is a fine example of a working sawmill. The deal is that they are extremely complicated machines (as all Dutch windmills at their height were), and these among the most sophisticated.
I noticed with interest that these power-generating units were referred to throughout the article as “windmills” even though they were milling nothing but rather generating kinetic energy. This lends credence to the idea that modern generators can fairly be referred to as “windmills” as well as the overly-pedantic “wind turbines.”
Great book. Highly recommended.
Whenever I read stats on ubiquitous windmills along the American east coast from colonial times into the 19th century I think of the current aversion to wind turbines for electricity – that it spoils the view across our landscape. Our ancestors saw windmills everywhere they looked and accepted it as necessity and part of economic life. Other power took it place including steam and coal and oil burners without a thought of what it might do to our environment. Now we need cleaner alternatives, so, where there is wind, we had better get used to it!
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