Sometimes in the quest to learn more about historical woodworking it is necessary to look into the tools. Terms change, especially in the last few decades where we have become very specific about what a tool is based on it’s appearance and function. Museum curators and archeologists aren’t likely to be up to date, or even more than broadly concerned, about the specific differences between two similar tools. It isn’t a fault, per se, that they are not knowledgeable of every piece of twisted metal and rotted wood that is pulled out of the dirt. It does make it a real pain in the petard to scour through whole collections of tools to find something very specific as usually curators label items “correctly” but not specifically.
I’ve spent more than a few hours investigating the origin of floats. For those who don’t know, a float is a wood working tool that is something like a very deep gullied file or a very wide saw blade. It’s purpose is to quickly flatten a small section of wood across a relatively broad face. Most often, floats are used to even out the throats of wood-bodied planes or are used to fine tune tenons and mortise cheeks. The difference being identified as a “plane float” or a “joinery float.” Lie-Neilson happens to have several of each kind available from their catalog (follow the hyperlinks for examples).
In medieval manuscripts we have “files” and “rasps” appearing around woodworkers. The late medieval innovation of the grooved wedge indicates the use of floats for making the plane throat. But how does one describe the differences between a file, rasp, and float to someone who isn’t specifically schooled in woodworking tools?
Short answer, you don’t. Looking for something that specific requires doing your own research. Case in point, the Mastermyr Chest. Found in Sweden in 1936, the Mastermyr Chest is a treasure trove for the tool junkie. Contained in the chest were a broad array of relatively well preserved wood- and metal-working tools from the 11th Century. Perusing through the contents of the find, we can easily see that many of the hand tools in use through the modern era have had minor, if any, modifications or changes in form in the last 1000 years.
Among the tools listed in the Mastermyr Find are four tools identified as files, and two identified as rasps. These are listed as items 32-35 and 37 and 38. Sounds great! But what convention did they use to determine the differences?
A careful look at the plates from the book shows some great details and great disappointment in the curation of the find. Neither object identified as “rasp” bears the characteristic tooth pattern expected of a rasp. Instead, they primarily differ from the “files” in that they have a crane-neck tang rather than straight. This allows the tool to be used against the face of a board without the user’s hand getting in the way of flattening a broad face. We’d call this a “face float” modernly. On the other side, half of the tools identified as “files” have deep gullets that run perpendicular to the length of the iron. Usually, we’d expect a file to have gullets that run obliquely across the width of the iron, and in one case this is true. One of the “rasps” also has the gullets running obliquely. Object 34 (a “file”) could be accurately described as a rat-tail rasp or a round file, depending on how deep the gullets actually were before some years of use and several centuries buried in a bog. With a different tooth pattern, we might call item 35 a riffler, or it might have been a tapered float that just happened to get bent near the narrow end.
The final weirdness comes from item 38, which is identified as a rasp, presumably from the crane-necked tang. The iron has fine teeth running perpendicular to the length of the tool, but there is a gullet that runs straight down the center of the iron. The teeth appear to be very fine, while the center flute is distinctly deeper. Personally, I have no idea of the purpose for this arrangement. I may just have to make one to figure out it’s functionality.
Suffice it all to say that those who cataloged the tools in the Mastermyr Chest were not early 21st Century hand-tool historians with a broad base of very specific tool names and definitions to draw from. Regardless, it falls then to us to look at the actual tools and ignore the preconceptions of the labels placed on them by educated, but perhaps not specialist, curators and archeologists.