The following is excerpted from “The Workshop Book,” by Scott Landis. First published in 1991, it remains the most complete book about every woodworker’s favorite place: the workshop.
“The Workshop Book” is a richly illustrated guided tour of some of the world’s most inspiring workshops — from garage to basement shops, from mobile to purpose-built shops.
Note: Ben Thresher died in 1995; his mill has since been restored and is now a museum. Find out more at bensmill.com.
Falling water has powered mills and machinery for several thousand years. Until the Civil War, when it was eclipsed by steam, water was the principal source of stationary power in America, spawning tens of thousands of small mills all over the Northeast. Several Shaker communities piped water great distances underground to run their machines.
For a brief while at the end of the last century, water and steam lived side by side. But the eventual decline of water as a primary source of local power parallels a similar transition between craft and manufacturing. (The recent revival of both craft and small hydro projects may be more than coincidental.) In today’s “post-industrial” society, water power is a comforting reminder of an age in which craft was more than a luxury.
Collapsed mills and breached dams flank the rivers of New England, but on a winding road in northern Vermont, one old woodshop clings stubbornly to its bank. I first saw “Ben’s Mill” in a film of the same name, which was produced in the early 1980s. When I visited the mill (shown above) in East Barnet, Vermont, last spring, I drove right past it, never thinking it might house a working shop. With its broken windows and overgrown yard, the haggard structure looked even more disreputable than it did in the film. Clinging to the clapboard beneath the eaves were traces of rust-colored paint that the mill’s owner, Ben Thresher, figure are original. “Modern latex wouldn’t last that long,” he says, and he’s sure he never painted it.
The mill has become a Vermont institution and Thresher is a local legend, doling out sturdy country woodwork and droll humor in equal measure. For half a century, he has served the seasonal needs of his farming neighbors – building cordwood sleighs for the winter, wooden cattle tubs in the spring and tool handles all year. The fall before my visit, Thresher pressed 6,000 gallons of cider. It’s a no-frills operation, and Thresher would certainly be more at home in the Dominy shop than in many modern furniture studios I visited.
In the film, Thresher notes, “I was just a johnny-come-lately. The real history of it came way before me.” Ben’s Mill is situated about 2-1/2 miles up Stevens Brook from the Connecticut River, New England’s major inland artery. At one time, there were at least four mills in Barnet – including a gristmill, a sash and blind factory and a sawmill on Thresher’s side of the village – and three more in West Barnet (two more gristmill and a woodshop like Thresher’s).
Ben’s Mill has been running since 1848 on the site of an earlier sawmill, and it is the only survivor. The mill hasn’t run off water since 1982, when a flood swept away one end of the dam and part of the penstock. Thresher installed a concrete foundation the following year to keep the mill from sliding into its own stream. He calls it his “monument,” and says, “it wouldn’t be there now if it hadn’t been for me. I’m just that stubborn.” Although electricity was installed on Thresher’s road in 1903, he uses it to power only three bare bulbs, an electric drill and a small motor. In the early days, he recalls, the lights in the shop dimmed when the farmers down the road began their evening milking.
The machinery is now powered by a small tractor, which is belted to the mill’s main lineshaft. Apart from having to oil the wooden bearings (which used to be lubricated with water) and not having to drain and clean the penstock, operation and maintenance of the mill is about the same as it was when it was water driven. “Of course it’s different work,” Thresher says. “It comes out about the same … except you have to buy gasoline.”
In the beginning, Thresher put in 16-hour days at the mill, adding, “Maybe I’d be able to do more now if I hadn’t done so much then.” He relates one particularly chilling episode about an ice floe that jammed the gates open. Thresher waded into the waist-deep water and chopped the ice out with an ax until he could pound the gates shut with a sledge. The next morning, it was -27° F but the dam was full and the mill was running. “I wouldn’t do that now,” he says.
Nowadays, Thresher doesn’t work much in the mill in the winter – it’s dark and the walls are uninsulated. But sometime around April (or on an occasional warm winter clay), he shuffles down the hill from his house across the road, rolls back the front door and fires up the tractor. For the last ten years, Thresher has worked alone. “I’m used to it,” he says. “No arguments that way.” On a more serious note, he adds, “I do so many different things that you pretty well lose your time to do [an employee’s] work.” Shrugging at the triphammer in the corner of the blacksmith shop, “That’s the best man I ever had,” he says. “It won’t talk back.”
Over the years, the river has proved company enough. The water may be high or low, frozen or flooding, but it’s never the same. When the mill was running, water flowed through a gate at one end of the wooden dam and into the penstock. Ben built the penstock in 1949 out of hemlock and tamarack, tough softwood that lasts about as long as oak. In its construction, the penstock resembles a horizontal wooden silo, with metal spline in the butt-jointed ends of the boards to keep it from leaking. As the wood swells, the joints seal “just the same a a tub,” Ben explains, “and as well.”
At the end of the penstock is a horizontal turbine, built in 1911, the year before Thresher was born. The flow of water is controlled by a cast-iron “cheesecake” gate inside the turbine or by boards shoved in front of the penstock. Next to the penstock in the basement is an old boiler, which Thresher uses to fire a steambox to bend wagon wheels and sled runners or to evaporate cider jelly.
The tailwater beneath the turbine is 16 ft. below the top of the mill pond, a drop (or “head”) that generated 29-1/2 hp, or enough to run all the shop machinery at once. (According to Thresher, the 2-ft. long draft tube beneath the turbine added almost as much power as the drop from the pond.) “You could nun a 1-/2-in. dia. bit in the drill press and slow it right down,” Thresher explains, “and you’ve still got the torque.”
Thresher pulls the wheel on his bandsaw to jump start it in motion and explains that the machinery “is pretty much like it was 100 years ago.” In the last 40 years, he has purchased only two machines – a drill press and a lathe – and the drill press was older than the one it replaced. A horizontal boring machine, more than 100 years old, was moved into the shop from another mill. The elegant cast wheel on the Carey jointer is stenciled “Lowell Ma. 1870.” He has two table saws: a sliding saw for crosscutting and a hinged saw for ripping. (The depth of cut is controlled by lifting one end of the hinged top.) “Boy, if I had the lumber that went across that table it’d be quite a pile,” Thresher says.
Most of the machinery is situated in the middle of the first-floor workspace, and Ben works across the width of the shop. That way, the material is less likely to interfere with other machines, and he can open a window or the large sliding door to accommodate long stock. There’s hardly a tool guard in the building. “OSHA would shut me right down,” Thresher says, “only I don’t hire anybody.” Over the years, the machines have caught him only once, when he snagged his sleeve in the table saw and lost the first digit of one thumb.
What OSHA never got around to doing, time is taking care of. Between spring floods and winter frosts, upkeep on the dam and penstock is enough to make anyone think twice about generating their own power. (Thresher has rebuilt the dam four times.) Still, water is more efficient than just about any other source of power – including electricity, gasoline or wind. It’s 90 percent efficient, according to Thresher, and he hated to see it go. Sometimes he still talks as though it hadn’t. As I left, he told me, “If it keeps raining, we’ll have a good year.”