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Heel Tools - an experiment with old methods

The David Stanley auction catalogue for the sale in September 2014 included lot 123 described as "A rare pair of 18/19c lathe tools with birch stocks and hand forged irons probably for turning bowls." I thought I had a better idea of what they were and that it was nothing to do with making bowls.

I quite fancied bidding for them and seeing if I was right. I couldn't get to the auction, but fortunately a friend was going and had offered to bid on my behalf. He was successful and I am now the owner of these unusual tools.

How did I know what they were? I'd never seen any before, but by coincidence I had recently been reading an 1869 book "Manual of the Hand Lathe" by Egbert Pomeroy Watson (available online at archive.org/details/manualofhandlath00wats - heel tools here.) I have an old treadle-powered Barnes 4½ metalworking lathe which I have put into working order and enjoy playing with, so was reading nineteenth century instructions on metal turning techniques for foot powered lathes.

In his chatty little book, Egbert Watson describes and illustrates a tool he calls a "heel tool" and I thought the tools at the auction looked similar. They share the overall shape, having a long handle which can be rested on the user's shoulder, a handle below the tool, and a deep cutting edge, intended to be rested on a fixed surface.

Heel tool in use, from Manual of the Hand Lathe

Heel tool, detail view

Having found the name, I checked on what Charles Holtzapffel has to say in his wonderful encyclopedia "Turning and Mechanical Manipulation." He covers the heel tool in Volume 2 (1850) and describes it as being for rough work on metals. His illustration is even closer in form to the tools in the auction, except for the shape of the cutting end. He clearly shows how the side handle clamps the iron shaft into the wooden body.

Heel tools, from Holtzapffel vol 2 p 525

Once I had the tools safely in my possession, I could take a closer look.

The photos speak for themselves. The overall length is about 20 inches/500mm but can be adjusted a bit according to where you clamp the iron part.

I like the details; purely functional work by the turner and the smith.

The odd thing was that the tools were not sharp.

They were blunt beyond what I would expect from previous use, so gave no direct clue as to how they would have been sharpened and used. Compared to the Holtzapffel illustration, they seem to be upside down, if you assume that the pointy bits were meant to do the cutting. However, they were both that way round, and showed no signs of having been fiddled with, so my deduction is that in this case the cutting edge is in its proper place at the top of the tool, with the points working as fulcrums. That fits with the somewhat rough shape of the points. Holtzapffel does say that "some variation is made in the form and size of the heel tools."

I decided that the best way to learn anything more would be to sharpen them and try them out.

Sticking to my theory, I ground the top and front of the tools to give a sharp edge.

This was done on an old hand-powered grinder, taking the minimum amount of metal off. The metal felt like proper hard, sharpenable steel. I assume that the ends are made of cast steel, welded onto a stem of cheaper, more malleable iron.

Being comparatively modern, the Barnes Lathe has a slide rest, so I made a simple fixed tool rest that would clamp on in its place, using some scraps of wood.

I had a nice lump of cast brass which came with the lathe in a box of bits so I put it in the chuck and started trying out the tools. The photos show the results.

After a little bit of fiddling about, experimenting with different angles of attack, I managed to make both tools cut. You can see from the swarf that the brass was coming off in nice little flakes and the surface began to get smoother.

I realised that wood on its own was too soft for the tool rest, and the points were sinking into it, so I added a strip of steel on top. This helped a lot, making the cutting edge more stable and improving the quality of the surface.

It's hard to visualise the geometry, but somehow the curved cutting edge, when pivoted on a point, gives a straight cut along a cylindrical workpiece. I managed to expose a reasonable smooth surface on the brass, and reduce the diameter of part of it, as I wanted.

(I then went on to cut a thread and knurl the head on what will one day be a lever cap screw or something similar, so that the exercise produced something more than just shavings, but that is not part of this story.)

The whole job went fairly well. I could only take light cuts, but on a foot-pwered lathe that's true even with a freshly ground HSS cutting tool clamped in the tool post. It felt much more like turning wood than turning metal, but the support from the 'heel' meant that the whole set-up was pleasantly controllable. Being able to feel how a cut is progressing fits well with working the treadle.

All in all, I found it an illuminating excursion back into the past. I'd be very interested to hear if anyone has any similar tools or any experience of using them. Comments are welcome.

The finished job.

Andy Tuckwell
January 2015

Update 6 August 2015

I have received an interesting letter from TATHS member and trained turner Mike Kimpton exploring the subject of heel tools and how they could be sharpened and used. To read it, click here.

In this case, I think it's possible that one of my tools may have been meant to cut along one of its vertical edges, but the other is so rounded and irregular that it seems unlikely that it could have been used that way. Maybe the tools are the only evidence of a way of working that was never described in print.

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