A Brief History of Tools

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Tools tell us about the society that made them. The more advanced a society, the more it produces, and the more tools it uses. The story isn't one of continual development as there are periods when progress is slow or even goes backwards. By Roman times many hand tools we would recognise today were used. The Roman joiner had a more extensive tool chest than his Medieval counterpart. Specialist crafts and tools were developed to harvest and turn wood into useful things. Sawyers, Carpenters, Joiners, Carvers, Wagon builders, Shipwrights, Millwrights and Musical Instrument makers have all used the properties of different types of wood to make goods. Every stage of a process had its special tool, from saws and axes to gouges and chisels.

A craftsman’s tools were his main means of earning a living. They were a huge investment in time and money, either being made by himself, or purchased from specialist manufacturers and suppliers. The cost of a fully equipped tool chest in 1797 was £15.10.4d. (£15.52p), about a years wages for a skilled craftsman. This is why many older tools are stamped with names and initials. Sometimes there are several sets of names, as valuable tools were passed down the generations, or sold to new owners after retirement. Individual or family marks, together with manufacturers stamps, offer one of the clearest indications of date and age, provided you know what the initials stand for

Axes and adzes

Early Bronze Age axe found in Ashley, Hampshire.  ARCH 2.42
Early Bronze Age axe found in Ashley, Hampshire. 
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Date back to at least 8000BC when Reindeer antlers were sharpened to form a cutting edge. Later on the stump end was hollowed out to hold a piece of hard stone or flint. Combined antler and wooden handled axes first appeared about 6000BC. Copper and Bronze axes and adzes developed after 3000BC in the Middle East. Iron axes similar in shape and size to the form we know today, developed sometime

between 500-200BC. During the Middle, Axes and Adzes were developed into many different forms and shapes. During the Eighteenth Century, advances in saw design led to a slow decline in their use, although an 1969 trade catalogue still lists 47 different types of axes for various trades, including coachmaking, coopering, and boat building.

Benches, vices and cramps

The first benches appeared in the Greek and Roman period. Work was held in place by pegs driven into pre-drilled holes in the top of the bench. By the early 17th century simple wooden screw vices were in general use. By the early 19th century bench vices as we know them today began to be developed. Metal cramps using wooden screws were in use from the late Medieval period. Improvements in screw design made them more widely available for woodworkers from the 17th century, although the modern ‘G’ cramp form did not appear until the early 19th century.


By the Roman period, the plane was a key element of the carpenter and joiners tool chest. Wood and iron planes from all over the Roman World have been found, including a fine example from the Roman town of Silchester in Hampshire. Specialist forms for particular jobs developed, including smoothing planes, moulding planes and Jack planes. It allowed Roman craftsmen to produce highly sophisticated joinery not seen again in Western Europe until the late 17th century

Planes did not go completely out of use during the ‘Dark Ages’, although few have survived, suggesting that there was not the demand for highly finished woodwork during this period. Emphasis was on carved decoration, rather than quality joinery. Very little survives in fact much before 1600, and tool historians have been forced to rely on paintings, illuminated manuscripts and early printed books. Increasing demand for high quality wooden architectural features and furniture after 1600 led to a revival of the plane in all its forms. The development of manufacturing processes like veneering also called for even higher standards, and directly contributed to the rapid evolution of new types or improvement of existing standard tools.

Many 17th and 18th century planes had elaborate scrolled handles and carved decorations, although the basic form remained unchanged until the early 19th century. Specialist plane makers began to appear from the early 1700s. A major design improvement was introduced in the 1780s, in the form of the double iron or cutting edge to prevent tearing. Industrially produced all metal steel planes became common from the late 19th century, although wooden planes continued to be available until recent times.

Hammers and mallets

Early hammers were simply hand held stones and continued to be used in this form until the Greek period. Hammers with handles were made of bronze, iron and finally steel. The Romans made extensive use of nails and developed the basic claw hammer as a result. English hammers developed with round striking faces and were known as the ‘Exeter’ or ‘London’ pattern. Various trades developed specialist hammers to suit their type of work, including picture framing, upholstering, saddle making, veneering, engineering and even telephone cable installation. Mallets date back to early history when tree branches or roots were used as a kind of club or cudget. The Egyptians and Romans both used wooden mallets, although the typical square sectioned English mallet did not develop until the later medieval period.

Chisels and gouges

Neolithic flint chisel
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Stone Age chisels made of flint were succeeded by copper and bronze examples. From the earliest metal working period they made in two basic forms, one to fit into a socketed handle, the other with a spike or tongue, allowing a handle to be attached. For centuries there have been four basic patterns of Chisel

  • Firmer Chisel - general purpose tool with flat blade and parallel sides, made to be worked with a mallet
  • Paring Chisel - lighter, long and thin blade for finer work, not suitable for use with a mallet
  • Mortise Chisel - thick stout blade and substantial handle for use with a mallet. Used for cutting mortises in woodworking joints
  • Special Purpose Chisels - variety of forms, used by carvers, turners, millwrights and wheelwrights for specialist jobs.

Pincers and Pliers

Roman blacksmiths made extensive use of iron tongs for working metal, although they used their claw hammers for removing nails. Specialist tools for cutting and bending were occasionally illustrated in medieval pictures but did not come into general use until the 18th century.

The saw

Saws date back at least to the Egyptians, who used copper hand saws up to .5 metres long. The Greeks and Romans who improved

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Flint sickle-saw from Faiyum, Egypt
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the basic design, by introducing wooden frames for supporting the blade, and setting the saw teeth alternately, in order to get a better more accurate and easier cut. The big break through came after 1650, when the process of rolling wide strip steel was developed in Sheffield and Holland. Wider bladed saws made it possible to do away with the wooden frame, and the steel hand saw, as we know it, was born. English saw makers developed the wider type handle still in use today, while continental makers produced a pistol-shaped handle. As furniture and joinery work became finer and more detailed, specialist saws were developed to help the craftsmen achieve the desired effect. Sash, tenon and dovetail saws with thinner blades, finer teeth and a steel or brass strengthening bar or back, began to appear, together with new types of open handles for ease of use.

Boring tools

These include braces, bits, augers and gimlets, and are all used for making holes in different types of material. The Egyptians used a variety of drills and awls to make holes for wooden pegs, which held their furniture together in place of nails and screws. Pictorial evidence shows the use of bow drills, which were later used throughout the Middle East and Classical World, as early as 2540BC. After the Roman period, craftsmen preferred to use heavier, more substantial tools, like breast augers and braces. Augers were widely used throughout the Medieval period and later for boat and house building and general woodworking. Steel was welded into the entire length of many iron augers to provide extra strength. The last survivor of the auger family still in regular use is the gimlet, which dates back to at least the 15th century. The Joiners Brace or ‘piercer’ first appeared in Europe in the 15th Century. It was an entirely new type of tool and had not evolved from an earlier form. All metal braces were being used in Germany by the early 1500s. The basic design was gradually refined over the years until the mid 19th Century when the current form was finally fixed.

Files and rasps

Although files and rasps were in general use from possibly the Egyptian and certainly the Greek period onwards, their use began to change after 1300, when more complex mechanisms like clocks began to appear. 4th century files were basically similar to the types in use today, being of different sizes with straight or tapering sides, and flat, round, semi-circular, or multi-edged profiles. The file teeth were cut by hand using a special sharp-edged hammer or hammer and chisel, until mechanisation took over in the late 19th century. By 1900 Sheffield tool makers produced 10,000 different types of file cut, profile and size.