Planer on a stick
The adze is one of the oldest of tools, having changed very little through the ages. Unless you’re a timber framer, a conservator, or a devotee of traditional hand work, you may be completely unfamiliar with it’s use. My friend Charlie, respectfully refers to it as “a planer on a stick.” Once mastered, a sharp adze is one of those tools that is a joy to use, pure therapy.
When seeing an adze today, many people assume that it is some type of excavating tool, perhaps confusing it with a grubbing hoe or mattock (corrected from maddox, thank God for intelligent readers). Indeed, it is very serviceable in that capacity.
But the adze has been a woodworking tool for centuries. While it’s use in the west has been as a finishing tool, some cultures have used the adze for felling work. Evidence that an adze has been used for felling would be a stump of significantly greater height than those left by an axe.
The adze was a common tool in shops and farms in the United States well past the mid point of the twentieth century. Adzes were manufactured by companies like Plumb until very recent times, as they were used extensively by the railroad industry for trimming ties (sleepers) in the field. It’s not unusual to spot “field built” ties in trackbeds across the country, marked by parallel top and bottom surfaces and irregular sides.
When looking at hewn beams, many people mistakenly identify broad axe marks as having been made by an adze. In fact, structural members were usually left with the “broad axe” finish. In an effort to save time, only exposed, interior beams (parlor beams) and decorative, exterior surfaces would have been finished with an adze.
As with many hand tools, the basic adze has often been redesigned for special purposes:
Foot adzes, railroad adzes and carpenter’s adzes are primarily for large, flat surfaces:
Note the curve of the handle in the adze above and the fact that the handle is not wedged as an axe or a hammer would be. The “attack” angle of the adze can be changed by reversing the position of the handle, a great help if your position changes from standing “atop” of the work surface to being “astraddle”. Removal of the handle also makes the job of sharpening much simpler.
Ship adzes, whether straight or lipped, were used for smoothing curved surfaces, frames, ceilings and planking. More often than not, ship adzes have somewhat shorter handles, as many times the user would be facing his work:
Ship pattern adzes are typically fitted with a “pin” poll, used for driving down pegs or fastenings which might sit above the finished surfaces. (Note: Iron spikes, bolts and lignum pegs are not good for cutting edges – they should be driven below the surface well before the commencement of the finishing operation.)
Coopers adzes and herminettes (Fr. adze) are used for chamfering the inside edges of barrels and casks. Today, many are identified as “bowl” adzes. There’s every possibility that your local cooper might have provided grain shovels, scoops and troughs (for dough or water). So, indeed, the term bowl adze is applicable.
Most adzes are crowned or lipped so they can be used at right angles or diagonally to the grain of the wood:
Gutter adzes were used for making all sorts of troughs and wooden pipes (some still existing in NYC). They gutter or hollowing adze can also be used for the removal of large amounts of material prior to finishing, similar to the way a scrub plane is used. They’re also used for making chair seats and just about any large concave surface. Smaller gutter adzes are usually referred to as sculptor’s adzes.
So, the next time you trip over an old adze at your local antique emporium or garage sale, pick it up, take it home (pay for it, of course), sharpen it up and learn to use it. Few tools are as much fun to use.
Remember, an easy, well-anchored, pendular motion works the best. Take small chips. This is a finishing operation, afterall. And if you’re standing atop of your work, keep your toes up. Really, for safety’s sake, keep your toes up.
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