Chris Schwarz's Blog

Those People Had Knives

Milford Brown writes: Since you are interested in the older hand-powered woodworking, I wonder what, if anything, you know about the history of marking knife use?

I recently had occasion to dismantle an old pine blanket chest (because of extensive powderpost beetle damage in the sapwood edges of its top and bottom boards) that had been assembled with the later-style cut nails, and had hinges attached with screws that had no point, but with the top of the head showing circular machining marks, which from what I could find, dates it to somewhere after 1837.  

I found also that in places such as rabbets for corner joints and cuts to inset the hinges and the small inner compartment, the necessary lines had been cut rather deeply with a knife.  

The joiners that Joseph Moxon (“Mechanick Exercises”) wrote about had pin-style marking gauges that followed an edge, but in either the original or your easy-to-read version, I didn’t see anything about how other cuts were marked. According to the Wikipedia article on pencils, various writing sticks with graphite cores were available long before this chest, but its maker, as many now, preferred a knife. Web-searching for marking knives located a variety of modern products, such as the ones you wrote about, but I didn’t find anything in the way of history. Did you?

Milford,

You’re right that Moxon, a 17th-century source, doesn’t mention a marking knife. He discusses the pricker, which seems to be an awl-like tool used for marking joints.

The earliest image of a marking knife that I’m aware of is from Joseph Smith’s “Explanation or Key to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield” (shown above). It’s a circa 1801 source. The striking knife shown there was the dominant form for many years , you can still find examples being made today that look like this (though I don’t recommend the modern version).

I browsed through Andre Roubo’s books this morning and couldn’t find a marking knife (if someone else has found one, let me know). I did find a “la point a tracer,” which translates as “scriber.” Roubo’s description says it is a round steel tool with a handle that comes to a peak. Sounds awl-ish to me.

I’ll check my other books at home. If you know something, fess up in the comments.

- Christopher Schwarz

8 thoughts on “Those People Had Knives

  1. Christopher Schwarz

    Milford,

    Marking knives swing both ways in Western literature. I’ve read accounts of both the bevel used against the marking device/surface and away from it.

    I prefer to have the bevel facing away. I’ve tried it both ways; I’m not so good with the bevel against the device. I tip wrongly.

    Chris

  2. Milford Brown

    One question that comes up repeatedly during my Saturday job at Hida Tool Co. is which side of a beveled-edge marking knife goes against the straightedge. My answer is to follow the design of the bamboo sumisashi (ink marker) available in the store (Toshio Odate’s book, p. 14), where for a right-handed user, the bevel goes against the square, thus is vertical, and the body of the marker slants away from it. Of course, marking a line with ink doesn’t involve fighting irregularities in the wood grain, but for me, at least, a knife seems to be easier to control when held slanted against the square (bevel vertical), because there is automatically a horizontal component of the force that holds the knife along the square or other straightedge, with less need to concentrate on preventing its wandering with irregular grain. Unfortunately, this means that of the two 15 mm marking knives available there, somewhat counter-intuitively a right-hander needs the left-bevel knife. For some unknown reason, any of the Japanese tools labeled "left-" will be a bit more expensive than the corresponding right one (!?). How do others use any of the world’s beveled-edge marking knives?

  3. Milford Brown

    Thanks, everyone, for the history lessons. In some places, the maker of my chest extended his lines beyond where a saw or chisel was to be used, and those are very narrow incisions, with no wood actually removed. Nevertheless, it’s apparent from the above that the technique of locating a cut edge very exactly with some sort of blade would have been a common procedure by the time the chest was made.

  4. Bob Rozaieski

    Nicholson (about 1830 I believe) refers to the "Drawing Knife" (not to be confused with the draw knife, which is not described as part of the joiner’s tools):

    "THE DRAWING KNIFE"
    "Is an oblique ended chisel, or old knife, for drawing in the ends of tenons, by making a deep incision with the sharp edge, by the edge of the tongue of a square: for this purpose a small part is cut out in the form of a triangular prism, and consequently the hollow will contain one interior angle and two sides, one side next the body of the wood being perpendicular, and the other inclined. The use of this excavation is to enter the saw, and keep it close to the shoulder, and to make the end of the rail quite smooth, for the saw will not only be liable to get out of it’s course into a new direction, but may tear and scratch at the wood at the shoulder."

    If I remember correctly, the Charles Plumley inventory (1708 I believe) also contained a "Drawing Knife".

  5. Bjenk

    I just remembered something else. Peter Nicholson, am architect, carpenter, builder, mathematician born 1765 did write about the drawing knife, a tool used to scribe joinery . Its in his mechanic’s companion first published in 1808.

  6. Bjenk

    Other things of note: The Nixon chest has a saddler’s awl fitted with a rough handle. The tool is very rustic looking indicating a self made tool. Benjamin Seaton’s chest is interesting. There is a Scribe, a marking awl with a tapering point at one end, a knife at the other. It is 6.5 inches long. There is also a pencil, cedarwood with lead for drawing. The reasons for the use of an awl-knife tool instead of a pencil is that the knife’s lines don’t rub off and the lines are used as a reference for other tools like chisels and saws. Tool slaving in other words. Pencils are much less accurate.

  7. Bjenk

    Roubo explains that the Menuisiers use shalky stones that are black or red to mark the stock for dimensioning once it has been surfaced and squared (or straightened). Roubo refers to "la pointe à tracer" as a scribing tool for everything else. Roubo describes it as just a piece of steel which ends in a point and which can be fitted with a handle so that the worker does not lose it or to hold it better. Interestingly, Roubo says that this tool is most often fashioned out of old tools like "tiers-points" that have been rounded and retempered. So I am guessing that it was very common to see awlish scribing tool and even knives made out of old chisels like Adam Cherubini’s knives as it was the practice to make them according to Roubo. Plate 15, figure 4 shows an example.

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