Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Congregationalist’s Tool Chest


One of the interesting twists in my research into the furniture making of Jonathan Fisher is learning who his descendants are. Though the archives are jammed full of documents, letters, and journals from Fisher, it’s been on my list to contact his posterity. It was about half way through this winter I was discussing the research with Brad Emerson (former president of the board) when he relayed to me that one of Jonathan Fisher’s descendants was Thomas Lie-Nielsen, owner of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. I was dumbstruck. Wait. What? You mean Fisher is Thomas Lie-Nielsen’s great, great, etc.. grandfather?  I wasn’t sure if he was pulling my leg. Turns out, he wasn’t.

Tom and Chris discussing the JF Tools

To make a complicated story simplified, I was working on plans for two separate visits. The first was a visit to the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, ME to see the extant tool chest of Jonathan Fisher. The second was a trip with Chris Schwarz to the Tool Barn in Hull’s Cove as well as the Jonathan Fisher House. I invited Tom along as well and he not only agreed to come along to the Fisher House but was interested in coming along to the Farnsworth to see the tools. In the end, Chris made it up to Tom’s on Thursday morning. Then I met up with Tom, Chris, Deneb, Kirsten, Robin, and Julia Kalthoff (of Wetterlings Axe Works) at the Farnsworth to look at the tools. Once we were all assembled, registar Angela Waldron and and assistant curator Jan Bianco led us back into the room.



Truth be told, it was better than I had allowed myself to hope. I did not know if there were five or fifty tools surviving. All I knew is that there were “some old tools in storage over there”. Though I had a 1990s photo of the chest, I had no idea how many objects were inside it. 

Wooden Squares


When we walked into the room I was pleasantly surprised to see 53 tools laying out for viewing. Not only are they definitely of the period (first half of the 19th century) but a number of them are stamped “J. Fisher”. This is a goldmine for my research. It took me a few minutes to be able to think straight while I stared at the table overhearing the observations of Tom and Chris and company firing back and forth. I was just trying to soak it all in at first.

Molding planes

Screw box and taps

Compass saw
"Bitts" for a brace

Wooden square joinery

Stamped "JF 1799"

Plane iron made by Matt Ray of Blue Hill, ME

Overall, the tools are in good condition. There are numerous planes, a mallet, wooden squares, a screw box and taps, bits for a brace, a compass saw, a spokeshave, a large wooden screw, and various other things. We spent about an hour combing over the collection gleaning what we could from this introductory visit.

Plane iron purchased in Boston


Mysterious stippling on the sides of all the long planes


After working our way through the Farnsworth’s excellent Shaker exhibit, we all went to get something to eat. Over fried food and beer, we conversed about everything from the Fisher story to the founding of Tom’s company. Chris even told tales of a helicopter chase involving a runaway bear cub. You never know what a day may bring forth.


The tool chest

Detail on the chest

It was an exciting visit and I cannot wait to get back there for a much more thorough examination of the tools. I will be taking countless measurements and photos, and begin working out the mysteries in the collection. Plans are already in the works.

The next morning, the whole gang met me up at the Fisher house for a tour but more on that later…


  1. Fascinating discoveries, Joshua. I wonder about the stippling on the body of the planes. Is a long line of marks or relatively short. Could be from the teeth of bench dogs holding the plane in place while being shaped or smoothed with other tools?

    1. Thanks, Jon. The marks are all over the both sides of all the planes. They aren't just a line of marks... they cover the sides. They appear to be struck in with something like a v-tool. It's the thoroughness of the surface area covered that is baffling to us. It appears to be an intentional marking. I believe Chris will be posting it on his blog in the near future and we'll see what everyone's thoughts are.

  2. Joshua,

    I am so happy that you are able to share with the world all your hard work. I too think the stippling on the body can possible be from a bench dog, for I seen similar detail from furniture maker Nathan Lombard in the early 1800's near Sturbridge MA. So now the big question is when can I see those tools and visit that barn of tools?

    1. Freddy,

      Thanks. Tool Barn is easy. Whenever you want, we'll do it. Farnsworth requires more coordination. Stay tuned about that one...

  3. Could have it been caused by pressing a saw blade between two plane body to get an even saw set? Is there any corresponding saw?
    If yes, why not use scrap wood to do it?
    Or is it just storage of saws next to planes?

  4. Sylvain,

    Good thoughts. I think it is too irregular to be from setting saw teeth though. This is not a series of long straight lines. It's too random for that.
    Also these v - marks are definitely pounded into the surface, not merely scratched up against it from storage.