Small Objects with Big Stories
Timber Scribe: A small tool, a timber scribe, helps inform us about resourcefulness and entrepreneurship.
The Oxford English Dictionary confirms use of the term “timber scribe” by 1858 as “a metal tool or pointed instrument for marking logs and casks.” Another tool, a “race-knife” (also spelled rase knife) performed a similar function, “marking timber,” but the tools differed in detail.
The race knife had a “bent-over, sharp lip for scribing,” according to Edward H. Knight who compiled the Practical Dictionary of Mechanics, a nearly 8,000-page behemoth containing 20,000 subjects and around 6,000 illustrations, published in 1877. The timber scribe included two pieces with bent-over sharp lips as well as a point. The combination made it possible to scribe Arabic numbers, not just gouge Roman numerals, into logs and casks and timber, as shown below.
This tool has a wooden handle, a brass band that helped stabilize the wooden end where the forged steel was inset into the wooden handle, and the steel point with a cutter/gouge and separate “bent-over sharp lip”/gouge Dimensions: Length 7.25 inches; Height 2 inches; Width 1 inch. Object ID: 2017.0.34.625
Simply stated, a timber scribe included the components of the race knife. Lumbermen, shipbuilders, house wrights and carpenters, coopers, and surveyors, all used the timber scribe to make uniform marks on wood, but they could also use the elongated cutter/gouge to make free-hand marks. They used the race knife to make free-hand marks.
Appearances mattered. The timber scribe at The Henry Ford combines three natural materials – iron/steel, brass, and wood – all processed and refined in ways that make the tool pleasing to the eye, and useful to the woodsman or craftsman. The maker chamfered the edges of the wooden handle and scribed the brass collar.An 1897 catalog from a Detroit hardware distributor, the Charles A. Strelinger Company, advertised a “rase knife or timber scribe.” The company sold three variations: a large size (though the catalog provided no dimensions), a small size, and a pocket rase knife. The large timber scribe included all three steel components (point with cutter gouge and “bent-over sharp lip” gouge) while the small version included just two of the three (point and gouge). The pocket rase knife likely consisted of just the gouge, which folded into the wooden handle of the knife, as seen below.
Rase Knife or Timber Scribe. Detail from Wood Workers’ Tools: Being a Catalogue of Tools, Supplies, Machinery, and Similar Goods used by Carpenters, Builders, Cabinet Makers, Pattern Makers, Millwrights, Carvers, Ship Carpenters, Inventors, Draughtsmen, and [also] all “Wood Butchers” not included in Foregoing Classification and in Manufactories, Mills, Mines, etc., etc. Detroit Michigan: Charles A. Strelinger & Company, 1897, page 662. In the collection of the Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan.
The tool in The Henry Ford's collection compares to the large timber scribe illustrated in Strelinger & Company’s 1897 catalog. The tool’s dimensions (7.25 inches long) inform us about the size of a “large” scribe.
Charles A. Strelinger was born in Detroit in 1856. The 1897 catalog Charles A. Strelinger Company indicated that the company had 30 years of experience in manufacturing and selling tools, supplies and machinery. Strelinger’s approach to advertising his wares through print media indicated how little change occurred in the tool business. The front page of the catalog had a blank space to write in the date, and, as he explained in “This Year’s Catalogue”: “our 1895 catalogue is also our 1896-’97-’98, and perhaps, 1899 catalogue. If we were selling Seeds and Plants, Ladies’ Hats and Bonnets, Patent Medicines, etc., we would, doubtless, find it necessary to issue a new catalogue every year, but our goods are of a stable nature, changes are comparatively few, and we are not warranted to going to the expense of printing a new book every year.”
The timber scribe and the Strelinger Company catalog confirm the need for specialized tools that serve many in various wood-working trades. The Company was resourceful in advertising, because the hand tools in woodworking were remarkably standardized by the late-nineteenth century and remained useful despite industrialization.
Debra A. Reid is Curator, Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
The Henry Ford received funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in 2017 to support a three-year project to conserve, rehouse, and digitize thousands of objects. This is work, supported through IMLS’s Museums for America Collections Stewardship project, will continue over three years as The Henry Ford consolidates offsite collections into a new location on campus. The work “will improve the physical condition of the project artifacts through conservation treatment, rehousing, and removal to improved environments.” Finally, IMLS funding “will facilitate collections access through the creation of catalog records and digital images, available to all via THF's Digital Collections.”
A series of blogs shares the stories of small items that tell big stories of innovation, ingenuity, and resourcefulness, and that relate to other collections and interpretation at The Henry Ford.