Traveling Exhibition

Maine Made Edge Tools

Passionate Pursuits - History in the Collector's Eye display at the Maine Historical Society.

An exhibition of 13 steeled edge tools currently on display at the Maine Historical Society in Portland and available for loan for other institutions starting in 2007.  The tools in this display typify the finesse of the Maine shipsmith and the tools he made for his fellow shipwright.  The sketch below outlines the steel and toolmaking strategies and techniques before 1870, which would typify those available to the shipsmiths of New England in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  For a more detailed description of the history of hand tools, see our five part publication series on tools.

After 1730, a robust indigenous iron smelting industry arose in the American colonies, supplementing the English and European supply of iron and steel needed by the colonists for the rapidly expanding demand for wrought iron tools and cast iron hollowware.  First centered near the bog iron deposits of southeastern New England and the rock ores of western Connecticut, furnaces in eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and other states were soon shipping iron both to England and to the rapidly growing coastal cities of North America and toolmaking centers in New England.  By the time of the American Revolution, the colonial iron industry equaled the output of the English iron industry making 1/7th of the world's production of iron (Bining, 1933; Mulholland, 1981).

American iron production was characterized by the development of both integrated blast furnace complexes and the widespread existence of charcoal fired direct process bloomeries, which combined the function of furnace (smelting) and forge (shaping and processing).  But where did the colonists, including growing numbers of American shipwrights and woodworkers, get the steel so essential for the edge tools needed to construct the ships, wharfs, and mills of the rapidly expanding economy of the American republic in the late 18th and early to mid-19th century?  Initially imported from both England and continental Europe, by the end of the 18th century, American forge masters began producing their own steel, especially for the larger timber framing and woodworking edge tools, including those in this display.  The high quality, high cost cast steel of Sheffield was soon supplemented by American made natural, blister, puddled, and German steel, the methods of manufacture of which were long known to blacksmiths, many of whom had emigrated to America from Europe.  The edge tools in this display were all made in Maine by Maine shipsmiths in the first decades of the 19th century for our growing shipbuilding and woodworking related industries.  It was the shipsmith who made not only the iron fittings essential to the construction of any wooden ship, but also many of the edge tools used by the shipwright as he constructed his vessel.  Some steel in these tools may have been made in Maine; most was probably manufactured in Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts and brought to Maine.  The several tools marked cast steel were probably made from imported cast steel from England, which was not made in the United States until after 1860.  One clearly marked English edge tool is included in this group of Maine made tools for comparison.  These tools document the existence of a robust community of edge tool manufacturers in Maine in the years before large New England edge tool manufacturers such as the Underhills, the Buck Brothers, and Thomas Whitherby dominated the American market for timber framing and shipbuilding tools after the Civil War.

Steel and Toolmaking Strategies and Techniques before 1870

Iron and Steel Tool Types:
A. Iron: .Bog Iron .Ore iron --> .Wrought Iron .Cast Iron
B. Steel: .Natural .Pattern welded .German .Blister .Shear .Crucible .Puddled .(Modern: drop forged low carbon, carbon, high carbon, crucible, alloy)
Iron, steel, and cast iron are defined by their carbon content: wrought iron (.08 % or less); low carbon steel (.08 - .30 % carbon); steel (.30 - 2.2 % carbon); cast iron (2.2 - 4.0 % carbon)

Steelmaking strategies before 1870 (note most strategies overlap in time):
A. Ancient

1. Natural Steel - direct process from the bloom (raw steel nodules) +/- c
2. Case hardened  - wrought iron sheets submerged in charcoal +c
3. Wootz (Islamic) - variations of crucible techniques +/- 3 kg. c
4. Chinese/Japanese - crucible s. + wrought iron: pattern welded swords +/- c
B. Renaissance 1400 - 1742
Blast furnace indirect process derived steel 1400 f. supplemented direct process steel
a: cast iron decarburized to wrought iron, then carburized into steel
b: steel made from partially decarburized (fined) cast iron
5. Catalan - natural steel produced manually, direct process from the bloom +/- c
6. Bressican (Italy) - submerge & carburize wrought iron in cast iron bath +c
7. German steel (I) - spathic Mn ore: natural steel, from the bloom +/- c
8. German (II) continental method - partially decarburize spathic cast iron - c
9. Blister steel (English) - bundled bars of wrought iron carburized in converting furnace +c
10. Shear steel (English) - refined bundles of blister steel +/- c
C. Early Modern
10. Crucible steel (1742, B. Huntsman) - adapted ancient crucible steel making techniques: bundled blister steel bars broken and remelted; pure steel produced chemically +/- c
11. Puddled steel (1784, H. Cort) - reverbatory furnace initially used to produce large quantities of wrought iron using coke as fuel; adapted to steel production +/- 1830 by halting the decarburization of cast iron - a variation of the German (continental) method - c
Edge Toolmaking Techniques
A. Before 1742
1. Forge welding individual tools from a bloom of natural raw steel
2. Pattern welding weapons from layers of natural steel and wrought iron
3. Forge welding individual tools from sheets of carburized wrought iron
4. Steeling, i.e. welding pieces of steel onto iron bodies
B. 1742 f. (reintroduction of crucible steel making techniques)
1. Forge welded crucible steel
2. Rolled crucible steel after 1784 (H. Cort)
3. Drop forging after 1837 - gradual appearance of metal shaping machinery to drop forge all varieties of steel into factory made hand tools.  1850 - 1875: gradual disappearance of forge welded (hand made) hand tools.
Note: high manganese content iron ores, especially in Austria, facilitated direct process natural steel production by lowering the melting point of the slag and enhancing carbon uptake in direct process bloomeries (Catalan forges, Europe; high shaft Stuckofen furnaces, Austria and Germany).

Halstadt (early iron age), Noricum (Roman swords), German Renaissance (I & II) = continental method of steel production all using iron ores high in manganese.

Bining, Arthur Cecil. (1933). British Regulation of the Colonial Iron Industry. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA.

Mulholland, James A. (1981). A history of metals in colonial America. Birmingham, AL.

Goldenberg, Joseph. (1976). Shipbuilding in colonial America. University of Virginia Press for the Mariner's Museum, Charlottesville, VA.