Thus far our smith had by no means realized the benefits anticipated
from the possession of steel. He had, indeed, ascertained what degree of
heat it would bear, learned to weld it to iron, made some punches that
were a little better than iron ones, and yet he was as far removed from
a knowledge of tempering that would enable him to forge and finish a
reliable tool of any kind as before; since to heat a piece of steel and
plunge it in water, making it so hard and brittle as to be useless, or
quenching it when nearly cold, thus rendering it about as soft as iron,
did not amount to anything practically.

And yet this man aspired to make an axe; yes, even had dim visions of
plane-irons, draw-shaves, chisels, and gouges manufactured by William
Richardson, edge tool maker. Aspired, did I say? The expression is too
feeble. The idea absorbed his thoughts, and, ever present to his mind,
assumed the character of a passion. It was not a mere whim, but based
upon solid grounds.

There were but few ploughs in the place, and not many horses, and they
were not shod all round except in the winter. But the axe was in
universal use, subject to continual wear, and frequently broken. John
Drew was celebrated for giving to his axes a high temper, that rendered
them liable to break in frosty weather; one cause of which probably was,
that he made up a lot of axes, and then tempered the lot. Upon tempering
days he was always more or less under the influence of liquor. Indeed,
he thought he could not temper an axe properly, unless he was half
drunk; and it must be allowed that many of his neighbors were of the
same opinion, while others said, he wanted them to break, in order that
he might have a job of repairing. It was too early in the season to
plough; the ice had broken up in the river, and having first driven the
logs, cut and hauled in the winter, to the mill, he gave his undivided
attention to the work, and employed John Bradford to help him cut up and
draw the large bar of iron purchased at the store, while Clem and Robert
mounted on a block–not being tall enough to reach the handle
without–and blew the bellows. John had not struck through two heats
with the large sledge when the stone anvil broke in two. This mishap,
however, was soon repaired, as there was no lack of stones.

While they were placing another stone on the stump, David Montague came

“Neighbor Richardson,” said he, “it is too bad that a man who is
possessed of the industry and ingenuity you are, should be so put to it
for tools, and be obliged to work iron on a stone. Now I tell you what
I’ll do with you. I mean to get out timber and boards in the course of
next year to build me a frame house the year after; ’twill take two
years to make the shingles and clapboards, hew the frame, and put the
house up. Now I’ll advance you money to buy an anvil beck (beak) horn,
stake, tools to head nails with, and you may pay me in work, shoe my
horse and oxen, and make all the nails for my house. I shan’t want a
nail under a year, and not many under fourteen months, so that you can
make them next winter, and at odd jobs.”

Nails were then made by hand, of wrought iron. The stake was a species
of anvil of small size, and used to point horse-nails on. The beak horn
was a very necessary thing at that day, used for welding hollow
articles, and for work upon plough irons.

“I am sure, neighbor, you couldn’t do me a greater favor, for I need an
anvil sadly, though I can get along without the stake and the beck

“You can, perhaps, at present, but you will soon need them both. I
don’t think you ought to feel under the least obligation to me, for in
advancing this money, I am benefiting myself and the whole neighborhood
more than you. It will save me and all of us many a hard tramp through
the woods. Besides, I don’t like to get down on my knees to John Drew,
beg him to work for me, and then pay him twice as much as it is worth.”

“So I say, neighbor,” said Bradford, “though–to give the devil his
due–Drew is as good a blacksmith as ever stood behind an anvil, but
mighty uncomfortable. But where are you going to get the bricks,
neighbor, to build your chimneys?”

“Make them, John; there’s sand and clay both in my pasture. So you see
there’s work enough for two years to hew the frame, make the shingles
and clapboards, cut logs for boards, and make and burn the bricks.”

Richardson improved the opportunity, while assisted by Bradford, to
forge the polls or iron portion of two axes, and split up iron for
nail-rods and also for horseshoes. He had never seen any one temper a
tool, but he had often struck for Drew to forge axes; had seen him weld
the steel to the iron, and knew he could do that. Although he had hired
John to help him draw the large iron, because he could not do it, even
with the aid of the boys, without great outlay of both time and labor,
he didn’t care to expose his awkwardness before him. In short, he
preferred to be alone while adventuring upon this portion of the work,
in order that he might study out the matter as he went along with no
witness to his mistake but the boys, and as for tempering, we have seen
how little he knew in respect to that.

The next morning he made his steel in the shape of a wedge, and split a
corresponding crevice in the blade of the axe, and not quite so wide as
the steel was thick, in order that it might bind on the sides as it
entered, to hold it while heating, and put the whole in the fire for a
weld. At the first trial the steel fell out on the ground the moment he
struck it, and he lost his heat. He now shut the slit together so that
the steel did not quite reach to the bottom, closed it up on the steel a
little harder, put the axe in the fire, and before striking, struck the
edge of the steel against the side of the anvil, to drive it home to the
bottom of the slit, and thus succeeded in making a perfect weld.

But now came the crisis–to temper it. All depended upon this. So
important a tool was an axe at that day, men wouldn’t hesitate to travel
twenty miles additional to a smith who had the reputation of excelling
in the art, and no excellence of form or finish could compensate an
axe-man for its absence.

He was well aware the reason the punch broke was on account of its
hardness, and also that if he had, after putting it in water, let it
cool some, it would have been less brittle; but he also knew the harder
a tool is, the keener it cuts, and, forgetful of the fault in Drew’s
axes, imagined he could not get it too hard to cut wood. He thought
there must be a vast difference between wood and iron, and that the
harder the better; it would never break in wood.

Therefore, after finishing as well as he could, he made it as hot as he
could without burning, and quenched it, put in a handle, and set to work
grinding. The axe proved so hard, although he had made the blade very
thin by hammering, that it was almost impossible to grind it, though he
put a liberal allowance of sand on the stone. Susan and the boys took
turns at the stone, the father encouraging them by declaring that it
would cut like a ribbon, for it was harder than Pharaoh’s heart.

The implement was ground at length. Richardson whet the edge and
forthwith proceeded to a large hemlock that grew near, to try it. If
unskilled in making, he was very far from being a novice in the use of
an axe.

At the first blow he cried to his family, who were all gathered at the
foot of the tree, his wife with the babe in her arms,–

“It’s going to cut; I know it is.”

Leaving the keen instrument buried in the wood, he pulled off his outer
garments. The blows now fell thick and heavy.

“Cuts like a razor. Throws the chips well. Never saw an axe work easier
in the wood,” broke from him at intervals, while the children clapped
their hands and capered around the tree till it came crashing to the

The hemlock was scrubby, and one of the lower limbs was dead. Richardson
struck the axe into it with all his might; but when he pulled it out,
there was a piece of steel out of the middle of the bitt as large as a

Greatly to the surprise of his wife, he manifested no symptoms of
discouragement at this disappointment in the moment of victory; he
merely said, as with one foot on the butt of the tree, he looked at the
shining and crystalline surface of the fracture,–

“Well, I’ve found out the temper that will shave the wood. I must now
find out the highest temper that will stand hemlock knots.”

The next thing Richardson did was to try with a file his saw and a
draw-shave that cut well. He found they bore no comparison in hardness
with the axe he had just broken, yet they were both wood tools, and good
ones. He then tried a chopping axe made by Drew. It was softer still,
but it cut well and stood hemlock, fir, and spruce knots. He now
understood that tools for wood, especially where blows were given, did
not admit of a very high temper.

“I wish,” he said, “I did know how it is that blacksmiths tell when
steel cools down to a right temper. How I wish I had asked Tom Breslaw!”
He sat down on the butt of the tree to reflect. Clem seated himself by
his side, while Robert, standing on the tree, wiped the drops of sweat
from his father’s brow.

“Father,” said Clem, at length, clambering into his parent’s lap, “what
you going to do with the axe now?”

“I’m going,” said he, putting his arm fondly around the little
questioner, “to try and make it just hard enough to cut, and not break
or turn.”

“How will you know, father, when you’ve got just enough out?”

“Guess at it. I can’t do any better. If I only had a watch or clock, I’d
let it cool two minutes, then four, and see what that would do. Do you
understand, my little man?”

“I don’t know, father; ain’t it just like when mother takes a candle,
makes a mark on it with her knitting needle, and says, ‘When the candle
burns down to that mark, ’twill be half an hour, and then you’ll have to
go to bed, Clem?'”

“Something like it; but I want something that will tell the minutes.”

“Then it would be two minutes hard, father,” cried Clem, who, with both
arms around his parent’s neck, had almost got into his mouth. “How
funny! Shall I go borrow Mr. Montague’s watch?”

“Not now, dear.”

Taking the boy by the hand, and the axe in the other hand, he walked
thoughtfully towards the shop.

After heating to a cherry red, he laid it on the forge to cool, began to
count, and continued counting till the axe was cool. He then chalked
down the number on his bellows.


“Don’t bother me now, dear;” and he began to think aloud.

“This axe was as hard as glass before I het it; now the temper’s all
out. It has taken while I could count sixty-four to come out. Now, if
sixty-four takes out the whole, thirty-two ought to take out half,
sixteen a quarter, eight an eighth. The temper is put into steel when
it’s put into water; and the hotter the steel, and the quicker the
chill, the harder it is. What made that axe so hard was, that I het it
so hot, and chilled it quick. If I had made it only half as hot, and
then put it in water, the temper wouldn’t have begun but half as soon,
and then it would have been only half as hard. I guess that axe’s about
an eighth too hard. I’ll heat it just as hot as I did before, and count
eight, then put it in water. I wonder if that’ll be the same thing as
though I hardened it at full heat, and after that found some rule by
which to reduce the temper. I’m afraid it won’t. Let me think of it.” He
sat down on the forge, while Clem, not daring to speak, stood with his
great round eyes staring anxiously in his father’s face.

“I had an axe of John Drew once that was too hard–kept breaking; but it
cut like a razor. I was afraid to touch it to draw the temper; but one
day I put the ‘poll’ of it in the fire to burn the handle out, and the
wet cloths I had on the steel to keep it cool got dry while I was
talking with a neighbor, and the poll got red hot. I thought I’d drawn
all the temper out and spoilt it, but after that it was just hard
enough. Now I’ll just do the same thing again.”

He heated the whole axe, steel, and all, then quenched the whole of the
steel in water till it was cold, leaving the rest of the axe red hot.

“Now I’ll let that hot iron draw on the steel while I count eight.”

He did thus, then quenched the whole; tried it in the knot; it broke,
but very little; put it in again, and counted sixteen. It was too soft;
the edge turned.

“I don’t believe but that red-hot iron draws too savage on the steel;
takes the temper out too fast. I’ll draw it more gradual and count the
same number of times.”

He now dipped the whole axe in water, edge first, took it out directly,
put the poll only on the outside of the fire to keep up a gradual heat,
counted sixteen and quenched it. The axe cut much better and neither
broke nor turned. He thought he would heat it, count but twelve, and
thus see if it wouldn’t bear a little higher temper. Just as he was
about to take it from the fire little Sue came to call him to dinner.

“Tell your mother I can’t come yet; don’t know when I can come; to eat
dinner, and not wait for me.”

“Nor me, nuther,” said Clem. “I ain’t coming till father comes.”

He quenched the axe, put the poll on the fire, and while looking at it
and counting, thought he noticed a flaw in the steel. Rubbing it in the
sand and coal-dust of the forge till it was bright, he found it was only
the edge of a scale raised by the frequent heats. But his attention was
instantly arrested by seeing the bright steel change under his eye to a
pale yellow, commencing at the point where the steel joined the iron,
and gradually extending over it; while he looked, it changed to a darker
shade, became brown, almost purple. He had now counted twelve, and
quenched it. When he took the axe from the water, the same tinge was on
the steel. The axe now cut better and stood well. But he had got hold of
an idea he meant to follow out.

“I wonder what those colors are,” he said. “Who knows but they may be
the temper? Just as fast as the temper was let down they changed–grew
darker. Wonder what they would have come to, if I hadn’t quenched the
steel. I’ll know.” Heating the axe once more, he rubbed it bright, and
looked for the colors. For a little time the steel was white; then the
pale straw color appeared again, growing darker, till it became brown,
with purple spots, then purple, light blue, pigeon blue; then darker,
almost black.

“O, father, what handsome colors!”

No reply. Much excited, he quenched the steel, and determined to
ascertain whether the colors represented different degrees of hardness.
When he found, by careful experiment, they did, he caught the wondering
boy in his arms, ran into the house crying,–

“Now, my boy, we’ve got something that’s a better regulator than David
Montague’s watch, your mother’s candle, or counting, either.”

Entering the house he shouted,–

“Sue, I’ve got it! I’ve found how the blacksmith’s do it, or, if I
haven’t, I’ve found a way just as good.”

His progress was now rapid; he soon ascertained the proper temper for
all kinds of tools. The steel of the axe he had experimented with had
been through the fire so many times that the life of it was all gone. He
therefore put new steel in it, improved the shape somewhat, ground the
whole surface of it before tempering, to take off the hammer marks,–for
he had not learned to hammer smooth,–tempered it carefully, and hid it
away in the shop.

The next week he procured his anvil, beak-horn, stake, and tools for
nails. They came from Boston to Portsmouth, from thence to
Kennebunkport, by water; on an ox team to the village, and from there up
the river in a canoe.

His land joined Bradford’s, and they had appointed a day to build a
piece of log fence together. Richardson took his new axe with him,
having ground it sharp. Watching his opportunity while Bradford was
putting some top poles on the fence, he took Bradford’s axe, putting his
own in the same place. Bradford, without noticing the difference, took
it up and began to chop into the side of a tree.

“Whew! How this axe cuts! Gnaws right into the wood. It ain’t my axe;
it’s William’s. Will, where’d you get this axe?”

“Made it.”

“The dogs you did.”

“It is one of those you helped me forge.”

“It’s worth two of that axe you are using that John Drew made me. Will
you sell it?”

“Yes; that’s what I made it for.”

“May I put it into the knots?”

“Yes; try it in any fair way, and if it breaks or turns, you needn’t
take it.”

Bradford, after making a thorough trial, took it. It was soon noised
round that William Richardson had made an axe for John Bradford that
beat Drew’s all hollow. Every body wondered at the ease with which he
took up anything, little knowing the struggle it cost him.

His farming work now came on; but at intervals he made axes that found a
ready sale. He made a small pair of bellows in the fall, and a little
forge in the chimney corner. The boys learned to make nails, and made
nearly all Montague’s nails in the winter evenings. He paid less and
less attention to farming, and more to working in iron, paid for his
land, and built him a frame house. In the autumn of the year that he
made the first axe, he found that he could not well make ox and
horse-shoes without a vice, and resolved to make something that would
answer the purpose.

He began by taking two wide, flat bars of iron, and turned the edge of
them over the edge of the anvil, like the head of a railroad spike, in
order that, when the flat surfaces came together, these edges might make
a face to the vice. To the other ends of each of the bars he welded
pieces of the old crane, rendering that portion of the vice that was to
fasten to the bench long enough to reach to the ground, and rise eight
inches above the edge of the bench, and welded an old horse-shoe on the
back side to fasten it to the bench. The other he made but two-thirds
as long, and by making a slot in one, with a hole for a pin, and
punching an eye in the other, he contrived both to connect them, and
form a hinge joint on which the outer leg of the vice might traverse.
Two holes were now punched to receive a bolt that was designed to answer
the purpose of a screw, one end of which terminated in a head; the
remaining portion was punched at short distances with eyes very long and
wide, to receive broad, thick keys or wedges that would endure hard

He now set up the permanent portion of his vice, put the lower end into
a flat rock set in the ground, and fastened the upper part to the bench,
brought up the other side, and put the bolt through both. The hinge at
the bottom permitted the outer jaw of the vice to play back and forth on
the bolt in order to open or close it. By means of tapering wedges
driven into the eyes in the bolt, he could wedge a piece of iron firmly
into his vice to file it, could turn the calks of a horse-shoe or set
them at any angle he wished. Whenever the vice did not come up to the
eye, and the wedge would not draw, he slipped washers–iron rings–over
the bolt to fill the space, and then entering the point of his key,
drove it with great force. It was not very convenient, but it answered
the purpose effectually, for it was substituting the power of the wedge
for that of the screw.

“Mother,” said Clem, one morning, “will you let me have a piece of your

“My tongs, child? What do you want of my tongs?”

“To make some bow-pins–iron ones–for my steer’s yoke; father’s gone,
and said we might play.”

“No, child; you’re crazy.”

“You let father have ’em.”

“Well, that was because he wanted a pair of tongs to hold his iron.”

“So I want the bow-pins.”

“Well, I shan’t have my tongs spoilt for nonsense.”

“Mother, is that red and white rooster mine?”


“Mine to do what I’m a mind to with?”


In the course of half an hour, Clem, with his rooster under his arm,
presented himself at David Montague’s door.

“Good morning, Clem. What are you going to do with that rooster?”

“I want to sell him. Andrew said you wanted one.”

“Yes; mine froze last winter. What do you ask for him?”

“I’ll sell him for that horse-shoe what’s hanging on your barn-yard

“What on earth do you want of that horse-shoe?”

“I want to make some bow-pins for my steers.”

“Well, you may have it, and after you have made ’em, I want to see ’em.”

As William Richardson came home, he saw smoke coming out of the chimney
of the shop, and heard the sound of the hammer and sledge. Looking
through a chink, he saw the boys busy enough. Clem was behind the anvil.
They had flattened out the heel calks of the horse-shoe, straightened
it, and lapped one part over the other. Just as he looked in, Clem was
putting sand on it; in a few moments he took it from the fire, welding
hot: Robert struck with the sledge, and they soon drew it out into a
thin, square bar.

“I hope you ain’t wasting my iron, boys.”

“No, father,” said Clem, “it’s mine. I sold my rooster to Mr. Montague,
and bought it. We are going to make some bow-pins, and we don’t want
anybody to help nor show us; we want to do it.”

At this hint Richardson walked into the house. When Clem took the
bow-pins to Mr. Montague, the latter told him to make two pairs, and he
would buy them of him.

Settlers now began to flock in; a carriage road was made through the
woods; wagons and carts came into use. Montague and others built a
sawmill and a grist-mill; the town was incorporated, and Richardson made
the mill-chain. This was a wonderful advance from mending the ox-chain
before the kitchen fire on a flat stone.

“Neighbor Richardson,” said Montague, as he came to get his horse shod,
“I was coming home from the village last Tuesday, and met Sam Parker
going to get screw-bolts made. Now, it always galls me to have work go
out of this place. I think you’d better send to Boston and get tools, so
that you can cut screws whenever they are wanted; there will be more
call for them every day, for the town is growing fast.”

“Thank you, neighbor. I’ll think of it.”

He resolved to see if he could not make something that would cut screws,
before sending to Boston.

It is said that the idea of the principle of gravitation was suggested
to Sir Isaac Newton by seeing an apple fall from a tree. He wondered
what made it drop to the earth, rather than go in the opposite
direction. However that may be, it is certain that a thoughtful man will
receive suggestions from things that make no impress upon the stupid and

As William Richardson sat before the fire that night reflecting upon the
conversation with Montague, he noticed Clem putting powder into a horn.
The boy had rolled a leaf of his last year’s writing-book into the form
of a tunnel, fastened it with a pin, and was pouring the powder through

When the boy had finished, he said,–

“Clem, hand me that paper before you unpin it.”

After looking attentively at it for some time, he said to the boy, who,
interested in whatever attracted his father’s attention, was looking
over his shoulder,–

“Clem, the lines on that paper are a screw.”

“Be they, father?”

“Unpin the paper.”

Clem did so, and they were all straight again.

“How funny, father!”

“Get my square, and you, Robert, go to the wood-pile and get a piece of
birch bark–white birch.”

After stripping the bark to a thin sheet, he cut it square. He then set
off an inch at one corner, and drew a line from that mark to the corner
of the paper on the same side, making an oblique line.

“You see that is up hill, boys–don’t you?”

“Yes, father.”

He then wrapped the bark round the broom-handle.

“Now it climbs right up the broom-handle; that’s the way a screw does;
it’s just getting up hill by going round.”

“What’s the good of it, father?” said Clem, who was altogether of a
practical turn, but had never seen a screw.

“I’m going to try to make one in the morning; then you’ll see.”

The next day he made a steel bolt, or blank, tapering, and of the size
of the screws he thought would be generally needed, leaving the head
square, and sufficient length of steel to hold it by in the vice. The
next thing to determine was, the pitch or inclination of the thread, and
its size. On the edge of a piece of birch bark he set off quarter of an
inch, and drew a line from that mark to the edge of the bark, and cut it
off, giving the rise or pitch. It was the time of year when boys make
whistles. He cut an elder sprout just the size of his bolt, spit on it,
and pounded it on his knee with the handle of his knife till the bark
came off; this bark he slipped over the bolt, pounded up and boiled some
pieces of moose horns, made glue and glued it on solid, put the strip of
birch bark around the lower part of the bolt, its straight edge in line
with the lower edge, and glued it on. There was now a perfectly true
spiral round the bolt, the quarter of an inch offset determining the
inclination, and also the size of the thread. He now filed out a fork
from a thin piece of iron just a quarter of an inch in width, the two
points, chisel-edged, one sixteenth of an inch in width each, leaving a
space of two sixteenths between them. Commencing at the narrow end of
the birch bark, he followed along its edge, cutting the bark sheath as
he went, till he came again to the point from which he started, having
cut two spirals through to the steel, with a ridge of bark between them
two sixteenths of an inch wide. Putting one side of his fork in the
furrow already made, he followed round till he came to the head of the
bolt. Placing it in the vice with a three-cornered file, he cut out his
thread, the ridges of bark on each side forming a guide for a true
thread. With file and cold-chisel he cut out segments in the middle of
his bolt, the whole length, leaving the thread on the corners unbroken,
thus forming a cutting edge at each corner where the thread was broken.
He now hardened and tempered it.

As the next stage of the process, he forged a steel plate,–the ends
terminating in handles,–in which he made round holes of various sizes,
corresponding to the size of the two ends of his bolt. Into these holes
he put this hardened steel screw-tap with plenty of bear’s grease,
turning it forcibly round with a wrench till the sharp edges at the
squares cut a thread on the inside of the hole, and then hardened the
plate. With this plate he could cut a screw on the head of a bolt, and
with the screw could cut a thread on the inside of a nut. Seizing his
broadaxe, he hewed a great spot on one of the logs of the shop, and
wrote on it with chalk,–


Having paid for his land, and being able to buy iron, and in the
possession of suitable tools to work with, he resolved to make a proper
vice with a screw, instead of a bolt. He made the vice-body, taking
pattern from John Drew’s, of English make; but the screw of a vice must
be square threaded, not a diamond thread, like those he had hitherto
made; since, being in constant use, the thread would wear off in a short
time. He laid out the screw in the same manner as before, except that
instead of sheathing it in bark, he dipped it in beeswax till it was
coated, and cut the thread with a file and cold-chisel, and instead of
putting the screw through both parts of the vice, made a box for it to
work in. It is evident he could not cut a thread in the box, that must
be square, like that of the screw, with a screw that was
square-threaded; neither could he do it with a chisel or file. He did it
in this way: he hammered out some steel wire large enough to more than
fill the thread of the screw, and wound it around it; then he drove the
screw with the wire on it hard into the box, filling it completely, and
fastened the ends of the wire. He then turned the screw carefully back,
and took it out, leaving the hole lined with the wire.

Richardson had in the house a brass plate that had been on a soldier’s
belt, and procured from Montague the brass top of a fire-shovel; these
he cut up and filed up, putting the filings and pieces into the box
between the coils of wire with borax. He wrapped the whole box in clay
mortar, and dried the mass; then put it in the fire till the clay was
red hot, and the brass melted, which soldered the coils of wire fast to
the sides of the box, forming a thread.

With the two springs of a broken fox-trap welded together, he made a
spring to throw back the jaw of his vice when the screw was turned.
After accomplishing all this, he built a frame shop with a brick
chimney, paying Montague in work for the bricks, laying them himself;
and now he considered himself entitled to wear a leather apron.