It has been said that the Inuit-Aleut people of North America have hundreds of words for snow. However, recent research has determined that there are not as many as once thought. In fact, many are but an adjective-based tag added onto the original word – snow. Yet the Sami, indigenous peoples of northern Scandinavia, do have over 300 different words to describe the various features of snow. What does this have to do with the current "What Is It"? Lots. For years I had thought the tool was called a specific name (see the last paragraph) and I was confident of that truth when writing this article. The second is self-evident – I am Canadian and I have an affinity for snow.
What Is It?
Sometimes when practicing the craft of woodworking, you cannot see the forest for the trees. It is common for regional preferences to dictate the naming of a favorite tool or device, and the English language often complicates the issue by having words that have the same spelling but different meanings. The tool we are about to expose has the added mystery of having a name which seems to have no origin. At various times, this tool has been called an adjustable rounding plane, a trapping plane, a stail engine, a turning head, a forkstaff rounder, a trenail rounder (sometimes known as a moot, a nogg or a nugg, also known as a rock band from the Channel Islands), a thole plane and, finally, the North American name of witchet.
Unlike the majority of these planes, which are craftsperson made, this one is a manufactured tool. It is marked "T. Turner, Queen St., Sheffield". This imprint dates from 1846 to 1858. The Turner name was long associated with tool making, most notably wooden planes, in Sheffield from approximately 1840 to 1912. Constructed of beech and having wear plates and perhaps repair reinforcements of brass and steel, this tool is well suited for hard usage and shows much evidence of being worked. It produces a straight rounding cut which, if one so desires, can be tapered over a long section by manipulating the threaded arms. A tool of this type could be used to cut a sized spigot or perhaps a larger round section tool handle. Cleaned and polished many years ago, it has now taken on a patina, making it most attractive.
A word about the term witchet: as I was researching and committing the start of the article to paper, I was convinced that this tool was called a widget, or at least that is what I had known it to be for many, many years. Whether that was what I had heard it called in conversation or what had been told to me I’m unsure, but I was sticking to that position. However, every definition I could find for widget had no bearing on a woodworking tool.
Furthermore, after consulting the Oxford online dictionary, I could find no evidence of witchet as a real word. (This is perhaps the reason why the editor of my articles claims I have a tendency to invent new words.) The word witchet is said to be American in origin and first appears in Henry C. Mercer's book Ancient Carpenters' Tools, originally published in 1929.
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.