They Helped Keep America Rolling
In the 19th century, America was on the move. Commerce, industry, and agriculture, fueled by the young nation's growth and westward expansion, rolled ceaselessly onward, carried by countless wooden wheels.
Wheelwrights were riding high then, building spoked wooden wheels for everything from army artillery to Park Avenue hansom cabs. Strong joints were crucial because, as you'll recall from many a western movie, some of those wheels took terrific abuse.
In particular, a lot of force came to bear at the outer ends of the spokes, where they connected with the felloes, the arc-shaped segments that made up the outer rim of the wheel. (There were normally two spokes for each felloe.) Standard practice called for mating a round tenon on the end of the spoke with a hole bored into the felloe. Craftsmen often formed the tenon with a device somewhat like a plug cutter, a tool known as a hollow auger.
Both wooden and iron hollow augers had been in use in America since the time of the Revolution. The wooden one shown above (no. 1) is typical of the early, non-adjustable style. Its two steel blades cut a 3/4"-diameter tenon.
Then, in 1829, Abel Conant of Pepperville, Massachusetts, received the first United States patent for a hollow auger. For decades after, tinkerers and toolmakers alike buckled down to devising, patenting, and marketing improved devices to cut cylindrical tenons. By December 5, 1911, when the last patent was issued for a hollow auger, 85 styles had been patented.
Made to fit in a bitstock or brace, the devices appealed to chairmakers, laddermakers, and other craftsmen as well as wheel-wrights. With a hollow auger, a sturdy joint could be made in two relatively simple operations. And, with a means of cutting the tenons uniformly, parts could be made in a batch rather than being individually hand-fitted.
Variations among hollow augers generally involved methods of setting the diameter of the tenon. Some cut fixed standard sizes, others were adjustable. Some models were amazingly complex, verging on the impractical. Those didn't last long in the marketplace.
Hollow augers themselves couldn't survive the decline of wheelwrighting. As steel wheels drove out wooden ones in the years following World War I, demand for hollow augers flagged. Fewer and fewer were available. In the late 1940s, the few remaining models disappeared from the market.
Tools from the collection of James E. Price, PhD., Naylor, Missouri
Photograph: Hetherington Photography
Written by Larry Johnston