A Revloution in Dowel Making
Stanley 77
Some craftsmen still use the Stanley No. 77 dowel and rod turning machine, pictured here with three extra cutter heads.

Prior to the development of the Stanley benchtop dowel and rod turning machine, craftsmen cut wood to the approximate size needed. Then they pounded the rough, oversized stock through the tapered, circular hole in a metal dowel-sizing plate. The resulting dowel proved that you really can fit a square peg into a round hole--if you use a big enough hammer. This crude method worked well enough for short joinery dowels, but rods had to be turned on a lathe.

Manufactured by the Stanley Rule & Level Co. from 1911 to 1969, the No. 77 dowel and rod turning machine represented the most important improvement in dowel making since Medieval times. It not only made rods of any length, but also of whatever wood the craftsman needed. The cutter heads themselves are similar to the Scottish wooden rounder, which dates back to the 18th century.

Stanley introduced its eggbeater-type mechanism in 1911, adapting it for use with both the dowel machine and several breast drills. On the dowel maker, the metal gear-driven cutter head rotates around the stock, shaving it to a cylinder much as a pencil sharpener shaves wood to a point.

Cast iron and 15" long, the earlier dowel machines were coated with a hard black varnish (japanned). Later models were blue.

The dowel machine came standard with a 38 " dowel cutter, but eight other sizes, ranging from 14 " to 34 ", were available in 116 " increments at additional cost.

In 1911, the machine sold for $8.50, with the other cutter heads selling for 80 cents each. Today, collectors pay between $200 and $400 for one with the standard cutter, more for one with multiple cutter heads. The heads alone range in value from $30 to $100.

Written with: Phillip J. Whitby
Photograph: Tim Murphy