A Key To Dating Vintage Woodworking Machinery

A Key To Dating Vintage Woodworking Machinery

Batory, Dana Martin

How to determine the age of old woodworking machinery is a frequently asked question. Sometimes an individual, after swinging a sweetheart deal at the flea market or auction, wants to know just how old a machine is. Very seldom does a machine actually carry a date of manufcture; however, there are several clues that when strung together will yield a general idea.

If the purchaser is fortunate enough to have some kind of paper associated with the machine-a shipping label, sales sticker, manual, etc.-an approximate age can more easily be worked out by considering the following facts:

* Postal zones in the United States were added to business addresses after 1943.

* The five number zip code dates from 1963, and the nine number zip code was added in 1976.

* A telephone number with fewer than seven digits dates from 1896-1945.

Usually a machine will carry a patent number, which can date a machine to within a few decades, but not precisely since any machine was probably manufactured for many years. Patent number 1 was issued in 1836. Patent numbers 1 through 550,000 run to 1895, and 550,001 through 2,300,000 to 1945. Patent numbers were nearing 4 million in 1976 and now exceed 4.5 million. The best and most accessible guide for looking up the exact year a patent was issued is Schroeder’s Antiques Price Guide, which includes a list from 1836 through 1970.The popular book can be found in any fair-sixed public library. (See also at “Patent Searches: Step-by-Step” in The Chronicle 55, no. 4 (2002): 161-165).

Machine construction itself can be of help. However, one must remember that woodworkers, like other craftsmen, are continually modifying equipment. Retrofitting is far from a new concept. Beginning in the 1930s, Baxter D. Whitney & Sons of Winchendon, Massachusetts (established in 1837), supplied Babbitt-bearing-to-ball-bearing conversion kits for its early planers. And since many of us don’t follow the maxim, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” a machine’s original flat belts or square cutterhead may have been replaced by V-belts and a round head later on.

A square cutter head could indicate pro-1908 construction. The patent for the round safety head in the United States dates from 1908 when Oliver Machinery Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan (established in 1890), introduced it for the first time. Companies were quick to design their own variations. However, many companies would not only supply replacement round heads but continued to furnish square heads for die-hard customers well into the 1930s.

The hall bearing had originated about 1877 but was not widely used in America until the bicycle craze swept the country. By 1890, ball bearings were universally used in the self-propelled vehicle.

The emerging automobile industry of the early 1900s also required free-running, high-capacity hall hearings mounted in dirt-proof housings. These trouble-free hearings quickly caught the attention of production woodshop operators, who began requesting them in woodworking machinery.

Even so, hall hearings were slow in appearing in American woodworking machinery. After a century of designing equipment with Babbitt hearings, manufacturers had become quite expert at maintaining an oil film between cutterhead spindles and the hearing material. Many engineers still considered it the best way of supporting a spindle. As late as 1929, engineers were still claiming that at high speed and on load Babbitt bearings worked just as well as ball bearings.

Like the round cutter head, ball bearings were used on wood working machinery in Europe for some years before appearing in this country. It’s reported that ball bearings were first offered as a special order on American jointers as early as 1908. The first manufacturer to use them on a regular basis was the Buss Machine Works originally of Marlborough, New Hampshire (established in 1847).

Buss pioneered the use of high speed ball bearings in 1909, but they generally did not appear in woodworking machinery before World War I. In 1911 a group of ambitious ball bearing manufacturers advertised in the trade journal The. WoodWorking offering to retrofit any type of woodworking machine, old or new.

The Sidney Machine Tool Co. of Sidney, Ohio (established in 1905), in 1916 offered its new no. 1, 36-inch handsaw with ball bearings made by SKF Industries. P. B. Yates Machine Co. of Berlin, Wisconsin, (established in 1876), in its circa 1917 catalog, carried seventy-three basic machines but only three with ball bearings. The Oliver Machinery Co. was also offering various ball bearing machines by that time. By 1923, they were available as standard equipment on most manufacturers machines, while a few still offered them as options.

Like wooden-framed machines, Babbitt bearing machines continued to be sold alongside their more sophisticated offspring, to satisfy traditionalists and provide cheaper machines for a market where cost rather than quality was important. Also between 1920 and 1930, nearly all woodworking machinery was finally redesigned for direct motor drives, belted motor drive, and hall bearings.

In 1909, thin high-speed knives (mounted in circular cutterheads) started to appear in jointers, planers, moldcrs, etc. The rubber V-belt made its appearance around 1930.

It was estimated that by 1887 there were fifteen motor makers in the United States, and ten thousand motors of up to 15 hp were in daily operation nationwide. In 1893 Westinghouse Electric Co. brought out a line of advanced alternating current (AC) motors and began generating power at the first hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls.

In 1896 General Electric Co. developed a line of 1 to 150 hp AC motors. Squirrel cage motors, the most reliable and simplest of all motors, were in operation in the United States before 1000.

The use of electric motors for separate woodworking machines had been greatly retarded by the lack of a public electric system. Factories basically had to generate their own.

The great demands placed on industry during World War I created the public utility system. The full production capacities of the Allies were called upon to supply the ever growing needs of the armies in Europe. All machines had to do more, do it faster, and do it longer. Electricity was not only quickly run into plants but also into homes. Readily available electricity affected woodworking machinery design more than any other factor. Before the decade’s end, it was discovered that an individual motor for each machine was more efficient and a lot safer than line shafts.

The April 1905 issue of The WoodWorker illustrated a square-headed jointer driven directly by a motor and a flat belt. In 1906, direct current (DC) 720-900 rpm motors were beingcoupled directly to machine countershafts. Such a machine, freed from lineshafting, could be located absolutely anywhere in the shop as work flow dictated. These belted motor driven machines (BMD) not only eliminated the dangerous belting, but made it easier to properly guard the machine’s moving parts.

A direct-motor-driven (DMD) handsaw was developed by the Crescent Machine Co. of Leetonia, Ohio (established in 1893), in 1901. This latest and safest method of drive did not come into general use until around 1910-1920, when the method was finally adopted by most woodworking machinery manufacturers. By 1904 all of Crescent’s machines were available with motor drives-belted, direct, or even geared.

Early DMD machines usually had a flexible coupling between the motor and spindle; later the spindle itself was incorporated into the motor. DMD cutterheads improved power transmission and completely eliminated belts and pulleys, making a machine safer, cheaper, and easier to maintain.

The AC motor came into popular use circa 1019. These first motors were mounted directly on cutterhead arbors still running in Babbitt bearings. Machines with cutter spindles mounted on ball bearings and driven by direct drive motors date from 1920-1930.

About 1923, the first light duty home-shop woodworking machines began to be manufactured, most designed to plug directly into a common light socket.


Dana Batory is a geologist turned cabinetmaker who operates a small one-man shop in Crestline, Ohio, with several antique machines. He is also author of the book Vintage Woodworking Machinery-An Illustrated Guide To Four Manufacturers (Astragal Press, P.O. Box 239, Mendham, NJ 07945, astragalpress@attglobal.net, $26.45 postpaid), which also provides information on buying and restoring machinery. Autographed copies are available from the author ($30, postpaid, 402 E. Bucyrus St., Crestline, OH 44827). A second volume will appear this spring.

Copyright Early American Industries Association Mar 2004

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