Glossary Adze, Adz

As a noun, a tool similar to an axe, its blade is set at right angles to the shaft and curving inwards towards it, used for cutting or slicing away the surface of wood. As a verb, to adze means to carve or cut (at, out, etc.).

In use since ancient times, the adze is for hewing and smoothing of larger workpieces. Normally considered a two-handed tool, but some smaller versions are suitable for use with one hand. Over time, numerous variations in shapes and sizes have been created for different applications. (Among numerous images, Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary pictures a stone adze used by the Chalam [sic -- we think instead it should be "Clalam"] Indians -- who occupy the shores of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state -- for hollowing out log canoes.)

The adze consists of a cutting edge fixed at right angles to its handle. Because it is a tool that cuts on the impact of it swing, the cutting bit on its head curves back toward the adze's handle. An axe-like tool, the adze can be used for scooping, cutting, or slicing away the surface of a workpiece, especially where Coves, or other types of concave-shaped contours, including Windsor chair seats, are needed. To help the user control the tool as it is swung, the adze's cutting edge is beveled on the side adjacent to the handle.

adze anatomy

The carpenter’s adze – sometimes called a foot adze, a house adze or a house carpenters' adze – is used for smoothing a large surface such as the timbers in a building's frame or the boards in a floor. Adzes are used by timber-framers, ship wrights (for wooden boats), carpenters, coopers (wooden-barrel makers), and others who engage in constructing larger projects than chairs. The “pin” – see diagram – is used for driving pegs or nails. The conventional use of the carpenter’s adze is a chipping or smoothing action, roughly between the feet of the user – see photo from Herbert Cescinsky and Ernest R Gribble's Early English Furniture and Woodwork. Since the bit is kept extremely sharp, an unsteady hand or a glancing blow can result in injury to the user's foot.

Descriptions of the adze are also featured in two books frequently cited in the history of woodworking: Joseph Moxon's 1683 Mechanick Exercises and Henry C. Mercer's 1929 Ancient Carpenter's Tools.

The Handyman's Book, the 1903 guide by the indefatigable writer on woodworking, Paul N. Hasluck, usefully includes drawings, background and instructions in the use of the adze:

"The Indian workman uses the adze for producing curved surfaces, and holds the tool so near its head that the hand touches the metal, the blows being delivered chiefly from the elbow."

The Anatomy of the Adze

An adze's iron blade sits at right angles to the handle, and its curved shape allows the blade to tilt slightly upwards toward the handle's end. Hasluck describes and illustrates three models of adze: the English pattern, Scottish pattern, and American pattern. Also, according to Hasluck,

The adze must be sharpened from the inside, and when its action is considered ..., it is clear that the curvature of the face of the adze-iron must be circular, or nearly so. The edge of an adze often is so keen as to cut through a horse's hair pressed against it. It is not pleasant to contemplate an error of judgment or an unsteady blow, but practice brings great skill ... .

The tool's ancient origins are documented by the Oxford English Dictionary, Herbert Cescinsky and Ernest R Gribble's Early English Furniture and Woodwork, vol 1, chapter 2 London: Routledge, 1922; L F Salzman's Building in England Down to 1540 W L Goodman's The History of Woodworking Tools (London: Bell and Sons, 1964) and R A Salaman's Dictionary of Woodworking ToolsNewtown, CT: Taunton Press, 1975, 1990.

adze history

We are so accustomed, at the present day, to wainscottings of wood, that it is difficult to imagine the long and arduous process which is necessitated, in the medieval era, with the primitive woodworking methods then in vogue, before the oak of the park or the forest can be fashioned into a form appropriate for covering the walls of rooms in the houses of the period. The tree needs to be felled, barked, sawn into planks with the aid only of the pit-saw, stacked and seasoned, and then constructed, in mortised-and-tenoned framing, with panels riven from the solid timber and dubbed smooth with the adze, before panellings are possible. This is a task not to be undertaken lightly, and in the generality of houses, prior to the accession of the Tudors, where considerations of defence are of primary importance, those of comfort only in secondary degree and only in peaceful times or localities, it is remarkable that such expenditures of time and labor are considered worthwhile.

Instead of wood panelings for covering bare walls, religious houses and establishments -- which in truth have aggrandised much of the skill and practically all of the culture of this time -- prefer hangings of arras tapestry. In churches and cathedrals where -- for many reasons the walls are broken up too much by windows, columns, and irregularities of surface to permit of panelings -- tapestry is not practical.

Source: Herbert Cescinsky, The Old-World House, Its Furniture and Decoration London, A. & C. Black, 1924, I, pages 116.

adze history

Among numerous references, the OED locates mention of an adze, ca 880, in a chronicle of the Anglo Saxon king, Alfred the Great. To illustrate the uses of the adze in 14th-century Britain Salzman follows a strategy of using evidence from a wide range of sources, including records of purchases. The following densely-detailed passage comes from page 342 of his Building in England Down to 1540:

Actually, the adze would seem to have an equal claim to brotherhood with the plane, its use being chiefly to smooth the surface of boards. For work at Restormel Castle in 1343, 6d. was spent on “an ades for smoothing old timber, because the timber was so full of nails (clavosum) that the carpenters would not set their own tools to 1t”. It figures at Winfield as an “aase” in 1443; and for the London Bridge works in 1382 we have 2s. 6d. paid “for a new adze for water work under the Bridge', another new adese for the water' costing 13d. in 1407, and 8d. paid in 1411 “far steeling and mending 2 wateradeses”. A variety of adze known as a “thyxtyll” occurs at Durham in 1404.

Sources: Edward H. Knight, Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary: A Description Of Tools, Instruments, Machines, Processes And Engineering; History Of Inventions; General Technological Vocabulary; And Digest Of Mechanical Appliances In Science And The Arts By Civil And Mechanical Engineer, Etc., With Upwards Of Seven Thousand Engravings, Volume I. — A-Gas. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1884, pages 16ff;
Herbert Cescinsky and Ernest R Gribble's Early English Furniture and Woodwork, vol 1, chapter 2 London: Routledge, 1922;
L F Salzman's Building in England Down to 1540 W L Goodman's The History of Woodworking Tools (London: Bell and Sons, 1964) and R A Salaman's Dictionary of Woodworking ToolsNewtown, CT: Taunton Press, 1975, 1990..W L Goodman, The History of Woodworking Tools,London: Bell and Sons, 1964;
Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises 1683;
Henry C. Mercer, Ancient Carpenter's Tools, 1929;  Paul N. Hasluck, The Handyman's Book, 1903; the online Oxford English Dictionary. (Mercer's book is also available in several other editions, including a Dover reprint. Hasluck's book is available in a cheap paperback reprint: Tiger Books International. The two images, respectively, are adapted from Salaman and Cescinsky and Gribble.