Here's how cabinetmakers of yesteryear cut thin stock.
With the fence in position, the Thomas Rice slitting cutter is ready to go to work. Cabinetmakers used tools like this to rip thin stock a century ago.
The slots in the brass foot provide cutting-depth adjustment. The round blade doesn't turn when cutting, but can be rotated easily to reveal a fresh edge.

Cabinetmakers have always spent much of their time sawing stock into parts. So, they often have embraced new tools or procedures that speed the cutting while preserving or increasing accuracy. Consider one operation: ripping thin stock for drawer bottoms.

Today, you simply set the tablesaw fence and feed the wood into a fine-toothed, carbide-tipped blade. The cut piece comes out uniformly wide, with a smooth, true edge. From start to end, the operation can be timed in seconds. And you can cut any number of pieces to precisely the same width.

A century ago, however, circular tablesaws were far less common. To rip thin stock back then, a craftsman had to measure and mark a cutting line on the wood before sawing it with a hand ripsaw. Aside from the tendency for the ripsaw to follow the grain instead of the line, there was the problem of cutting additional pieces the same width. Then, too, the edge often required jointing.

A fence-guided slitting cutter (also called a slitting gauge) such as the one shown above, enabled the early cabinetmaker or joiner to work faster. Using one, he could cut thin material simply by slicing through it with the sharp blade. The fence maintained uniform width and helped keep the grain from leading the cutter off the intended path. While severing a piece of stock might take several passes, this was still quicker than marking and sawing.

Some craftsmen made their own slitting cutters, usually attaching a knife blade to a marking gauge. Commercial slitting cutters, widely available, ranged from rudimentary to elaborate.

The one shown belongs near the elaborate end of the spectrum. Nicely made of brass and rosewood, it was patented September 9, 1873, by Thomas Rice, according to an inscription on the side. Thanks to the saw-type handle, a craftsman could bear down on the cutter while guiding it. Cutting depth was adjustable, and the 734 "-long fence could be set for widths from 18 " to 12".

The round blade (it's about 134 " in diameter) is an unusual but practical feature. Instead of taking time to resharpen a dulled, straight blade, a cabinetmaker could loosen the blade on this slitting gauge and rotate it to expose a fresh cutting edge.

A slitting cutter came in handy for other tasks in the cabinet shop, too. The cutter could scribe a guideline on stock too thick to slice through. And the tool proved to be ideal for both ripping and crosscutting veneer.

Don't expect to find a slew of slitting cutters at old-tool sales and auctions, however. "Slitting gauges with maker marks are among the rarest of all cabinetmaker's tools," one dealer notes. When they turn up, prices vary widely—a 1994 catalog listed one at $135; the fancier one here was priced around $300 in 1993.

Similar tools are sold today for veneer cutting. And modelers often use a smaller version called a balsa stripper. But you probably won't find any modern cabinetmakers ripping with a slitting cutter; the tablesaw just does it so much better and faster.

Photographs: Hetherington Photography Tool courtesy of Neill Stoll, Glenbrier Antiques, Dexter, Michigan Written by Larry Johnston