Lee Valley & Veritas
Woodworking Newsletter
  Volume 8, Issue 3 - January 2014    
What Is It?
A Word for the Spelling Bee
What Is It?
I hope that everyone who has attended a farm sale or "urban discovery auction" as they are now called has had this experience. At some point during the dispersal, it (the mystery item) pops up, a murmur runs through the crowd, the connoisseurs become fidgety and the crowd presses closer for a good look. Then the auctioneer or barker shouts it out, "We are not sure as to what this is, but it is certainly the best one we have ever seen". The game is now afoot. Sly looks abound among the regulars, the newbies chat it up, and old Bill over in the corner just smiles. At any time, the spell can be broken by overt interest in the form of spirited high-stakes bidding. At that point, all heads turn and wonder as to the item's origin.

Within the tool fraternity, great lengths are taken to bring any obscure variation on a workable tool to the masses. Humans are a most curious sort. In the past, some adventurers have created a new form of an existing tool and attempted to slyly pass it off as a new product to those in the toolie world. This, of course, is fraud. It is possible to perpetrate these machinations because in most cases, technology has superseded the item's intended usage. Those who remember its original intent often do not catch the inventive re-creation. I am pleased to present a real tool with a real history.
What Is It?
The use of slate as a roofing choice is not a popular one here in North America, having fallen out of favor in the last 50 years. This has happened despite the claim that the life expectancy of a properly applied slate covering is somewhere in the 80 to 100 years range, with little or no surface degradation. It is, however, a labor intensive undertaking and it is definitely not at the cheaper end of the price scale. The added weight of the slate requires competent load calculations for the roofing members, be they trusses, beams or just stick frames.

The slater carries only a few tools, normally about four: a hammer to apply, pierce and trim the slate tile; a stake for sizing the tile; a ripper to remove old or defective tiles and the mystery tool shown here. This tool is a zax, a dialect form of sax, and is an essential element of a slater's kit. The English-style zax is unlike the normal slate hammer and usually has an offset handle to allow for trimming the slate on the stake without barking one's knuckles. This particular tool was manufactured by Mathieson & Son of Glasgow, as per the maker's mark. It could date post 1850 and perhaps was available right until the firm's demise in the late 1950s.
What Is It?
This tool has not seen any cleaning, buffing or other remedial assaults, except to verify the area showing the maker's mark. There has been and still is much debate in the academic world as to the proper restorative techniques for any artifact. This item is now stored in a climate-controlled environment until a proper procedure can be implemented.

D.S. Orr

D.S. Orr has been a collector, user and student of woodworking and metalworking tools and practices for more than 40 years. Recently retired, he has devoted even more time to these endeavors.
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