Making masts for Ma Bell

Recently I decided that I needed a larger draw knife for chamfering seat planks.  So, I went to Ebay and was surprised to find a significant number of large draw knives (12-14″ blades, 22-24″ overall) that were available and most were in surprisingly good condition.  In the descriptions, most sellers referred to them as “mast makers” draw knives.  At first, that made sense to me.  Certainly, masts, spars and booms were made using draw knives for shaping.  What didn’t make sense was that most of these knives didn’t appear to be old enough to have been around during the “age of sail”.   In several descriptions there were makers marks that gave dates.  One example was “L.I. & J. White, Buffalo, 1837”.  The seller had assumed that 1837 was the date of manufacture when, in fact, 1837 was, more likely, a founding date for the L.I.& J. White company.  Then other tell-tale words popped out in a number of descriptions; “Bell System”, “Western Electric”, “U.S. Army”.  A bell went off in my head (no pun intended).

These days, we tend to forget that the construction of the communications and power delivery systems that we take so much for granted, are, relatively modern phenomena.  The rural electrification system was largely a product of U.S. government efforts to modernize the country’s infrastructure after the Great Depression. It became immediately clear that these “mast maker’s” draw knives were used to make the “masts” that supported the nation’s telegraphic, telephonic and power lines.  They were used to make utility poles and cross-arms.

A 24" (woa) "mast maker's" draw knife

A 24″ (woa) “mast maker’s” draw knife

A "mast maker's" draw knife with a thicknessing gauge bar

A “mast maker’s” draw knife with a thicknessing gauge bar

Today’s utility poles are manufactured with large machinery in centralized plants, then transported to the field.  In earlier times, utility poles were often made from appropriate trees removed when right-of-ways were being cleared.  Many of these “field made” poles are still in place around rural areas across the country.  During WWI and WWII, telegraphic communications were critical.  Where do you string telegraph wire, on poles.  Ergo, “U.S. Army.”

Utility companies and all braches of the Defense Department bought massive amounts of forestry and woodworking equipment and continue to do so.  And, it was always of high quality.  For example, many of us are in possession of bit braces and all-metal Yankee drills that bear the “Bell System” logo.

Kelly provided felling axes to “Ma Bell”.  Stanley was a huge supplier of all sorts of tools for the “utility” trade.  The number of well known, U.S. companies that provided tools to Bell, General Electric, etc. is immense.  Sadly, many of these firms are no longer with us.  They fell victim to the advance of technology.

Broad hatchet with hole for tightening square cross-arm bolts

Broad hatchet with hole for tightening square head cross-arm bolts (Bell System)

So the next time you pay your phone bill, give “Ma Bell” a little nod of thanks and respect.  “She” helped American hand tool manufacturers and continues to provide “unplugged” woodworkers with quality, vintage tools.




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3 Comments on “Making masts for Ma Bell”

  1. Very cool. I have an egg beater style drill that an uncle gave me from when he worked for Southern Bell. It was still in the box and had never been used.

  2. There are also common to find large drawknifes among coopers tools. Here in Noway it was also used drawknifes to make “masts” as sailingmarks for the boats sailing along the cost. One of the master carpenters I have learned from did use drawknifes to shape logs for logbuilfing. A large and good drawknife could be a very useful tool. Still I use a pjål in most situatons where a drawknife could be used.

    Regards Roald

  3. Jim Crammond Says:

    Hi Dennis,

    You were right in suggesting that L & I J White was founded in 1837. They began making edge tools in Monroe, Mi. in 1837 and moved to Buffalo in 1844. Because of the Monroe connection, I sort of collect any L & I J White tools that I come across. They seemed to specialize in coopers tools, timber framing and millwright edge tools. I have a reprint of their 1910 catalog that lists 16 different types of drawknives. Their spar shave had a maximum cutting edge of 14″ while their heading shave (for coopers?) had a maximum cutting edge of 18″.

    They also made a very nice selection of chisels.


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