Worth Asking Old Dead Guys

Of the Hatchet.

The Hatchet marked L, in Plate 4. Its use is so well known (even to the most un-intelligent) that I need not use many Words on it, yet thus much I will say, Its use is to Hew the Irregularities off such pieces of Stuff which may be sooner Hewn than Sawn. 

When the Edge is downwards, and the Handle towards you, the right side of its Edge must be Ground to a Bevil, so as to make an Angle of about 12 Degrees with the left side of it: And afterwards set with the Whetstone, as the Irons of Planes, &c.

– Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises: or, The Doctrine of Handy-works (1703)


Recently reading Mechanick Exercises, I noted several interesting points in this amusing excerpt.

  • First, the use of the hatchet was widespread knowledge, so much that it was absurd to spend time (and ink) explaining it.
  • Second, the primary criteria for choosing to hew rather than saw waste away was when it was most expeditious to do so. I operate with the same criteria – I’m always asking myself if it’s faster to hew, saw, or plane in any given circumstance.
  • Third, Moxon’s hatchet is single bevel.
  • Fourth, the bevel is quite shallow – only 12 degrees!
  • Fifth, it was sharpened as painstakingly as plane irons were.

This excerpt shows that Moxon thought differently about hatchets than the way moderns do – many think these things are too crude for furniture making and are better reserved for splitting firewood. But I’ve seen too many hatchet marks in historic furniture (from various eras and regions) to conclude Moxon’s full of it.

It’s always worth asking the old dead guys.

– Joshua


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