Tradesmen and contractors today enjoy almost unlimited choices of tools and equipment, but it wasn't always this way. Only a generation or so ago, the tools used in construction and in many other types of work were restricted to relatively few options. When a carpenter or mason arrived on the job, he generally carried every tool he needed--or owned--in one toolbox.

That's not to say those tools were primitive or that workers were under-equipped for the jobs at hand. The tool-making segment of the hardware industry in America was well-established 50 and even 100 years ago, but mainly it produced tools based on traditional, time-tested designs. New ideas developed slowly, one tool at a time. Individuals, not R&D departments, exercised their creative impulses both inside and outside the manufacturing centers. Often, when a tradesman saw a need for some specialized tool, he would get help from a local metal shop or fabricate it himself. Self-reliance was the order of the day, the tools were simpler in design, and the materials used to make them were readily available. Inventors and inventions abounded.

Of course, not every great idea stands the test of time--many of those early, one-of-a-kind tools never got much further than their inventors' toolboxes. But some of those inventions earned their keep on the job, claimed their place in history, and are still helping tradesmen earn a living today. The Tools of the Trade Hall of Fame celebrates the original thinkers whose vision, creativity, and persistence brought those ideas into the world, helping to make our work easier, more satisfying, and more productive.

Steve Wilson
Engineer responsible for the development of the Paslode SK 312, a milestone in pneumatic nail drivers.

Every once in a while, a design or invention comes along that changes everything--the way work gets done, the way the competition follows instead of leads, the designs of future products from that point forward. Sometimes the ripple effects of such a change spread far beyond an industry, resulting in improvements on a vast scale, such as in the economy and production of--in this case--home building itself.

The Paslode SK 312 pneumatic framing nailer was, according to its developers, that kind of tool design. Before it came along in 1973, pneumatic nail guns had reached a developmental threshold. Due to design limitations, even the best nailers could adequately handle only up to 2 1/2-inch nails. Beyond that length, the guns became too large, heavy, and cumbersome for practical, everyday use. This meant that they could not be used for stick-frame production home building, which by code requires 3-inch and longer fasteners (10d to 16d nails).

At the time, Steve Wilson was a young design engineer working for Paslode. The manufacturer already had a highly respected pneumatic nailer in its GN 212, which fired 2 1/2-inch common nails and gave rise to the term "gun nailer." Despite its usefulness, says Wilson, like most air-powered nailers of its day, the GN 212 had a long spool-type piston that required an elongated tool body. A tool that could handle longer nails was possible using this system, but early designs proved less than satisfactory. Paslode and its competitors were working furiously to overcome this barrier.

"My first project was to figure out how to come up with a tool that was better than what our competition had," Wilson recalls. "Paslode absolutely had to develop a tool for 3 1/2-inch inch nails." He and his crew worked on the problem for three years before finding the solution--the SK 312, a totally new design for a disk-type piston that not only did the job but was more compact, lighter in weight, and had significantly better reliability than other nailers available at the time. "It was a one-of-a-kind tool at that point, and it became the workhorse on the job" for carpenters and house framers.

The tool was so successful, it earned both the manufacturer and Wilson a longstanding reputation in the home-building industry. Wilson even had a special "SK 312" license plate made for his car. According to Bob Bellock, senior marketing development manager at Paslode today who was originally hired by Wilson, the SK 312 "was the first practical, high-powered, high-speed [nail] gun in the market." Paslode produced the model for more than 10 years, replacing it only when manufacturing advances made newer tools even smaller, lighter, and less costly to build.

William Petersen
Danish immigrant blacksmith who hammered out the invention of the Vise-Grip locking pliers in his Nebraska workshop in 1921.

Bill Petersen embodied the quiet individualism and pioneering spirit that built America. As a 20-year-old journeyman blacksmith, he emigrated from Denmark in 1902 to make his future in the Land of Opportunity. His trade skills served him well, enabling him to start a family and build moderately successful businesses in one Midwest town after another. But the horse-and-buggy era was ending, and old-time blacksmithing was rapidly making way for modern machinery and manufacturing.

An indefatigable optimist, young Petersen saw possibilities all around him, but his early attempts at success in other fields were disappointing. He tried his hand at farming, and even designed and built early motorcars with a partner. One of his inventions was a "spring wheel" for automobiles that combined an iron-and-rubber ring connected to metal spokes with shock-absorbing springs. When each of these ventures failed, he always returned to metalworking.

Another invention he experimented with over a number of years was an adjustable locking wrench that would hold a nut "in a vise-like grip." Although unschooled in mechanical design or engineering, he created a number of prototypes using first cardboard, then wood, and finally metal hammered into shape on his own forge.

Petersen eventually refined his design in 1920, then journeyed from Nebraska to Washington, D.C., to patent the first Vise-Grip in 1921. The tool proved its usefulness over the years, spawned a number of different versions, and grew into a successful family business. The brand continues today as part of American Tool Cos.

Abraham "Abe" Rosenberg
Founder of General Tools Manufacturing Co.; organized the first National Hardware Show in New York City in 1946.

In 1946, the hardware industry in the United States, like the rest of the nation, was just emerging from a wartime economy. Business was brisk, and although the postwar boom was still on the horizon, many in the industry could see it coming. As a result of the war, manufacturing was already in high gear, servicemen were returning home in huge numbers, and new-home construction was well on its way to unprecedented records.

At the time, most of the larger, and many of the smaller, producers of hand tools, hinges, locks, and other metal home-related products and appliances had offices in the traditional "hardware district" of lower Manhattan, an area now known as Chinatown. People in the business today recall that, back then, the New York City hardware trade was still very much a collection of family businesses, and competitors by day often shared meals, school, and social functions with their downtown neighbors after the shops closed. But with so many small operators, the industry was fragmented. One of those friendly competitors, Abe Rosenberg, who with his wife and partner Lillian wholesaled specialty tools under the General Hardware brand name, realized that he and everyone else in their business could benefit from a trade fair that displayed the industry's collective strengths.

Rosenberg enlisted manufacturers such as Disston, Hyde Tools, Camillus, Great Neck, and Ace to join in the first national gathering of hardware makers and sellers in America. With the help of an uncle, Charles Snitow (who would go on to promote some of the world's largest trade fairs, including the Consumer Electronics Show), Abe held the original exposition in the city's Grand Central Palace in March 1946.

The Hardware Show was a success from the start and it became an annual event in New York City until 1974, when it moved to its present home at McCormick Place in Chicago. General Tools still exhibits at the show, alongside many of the other original manufacturers. The 2002 National Hardware Show included nearly 3,000 American and international exhibitors and was attended by some 42,000 industry professionals.

William H. Barber
Inventor of an "elegant" bit-and-brace design in 1864 that formed the foundation of Millers Falls Manufacturing Co., one of the most successful American toolmakers of its time.

In the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution was rapidly reshaping the United States, and nowhere was this more evident than in New England, a region blessed with water power, wood, and the raw materials needed to support its industries and inventors. The entrepreneurial spirit seemed to be everywhere, and when two young Massachusetts men, Levi Gunn and Charles Amidon, quit their jobs building hand planes at the Greenfield Tool Co. to strike out on their own, they believed their idea for a better washing-machine wringer would bring them success and fortune.

It didn't work out quite the way they expected. According to a history of the Millers Falls company by Randy Roeder, the partners couldn't afford to hire laborers, so they first had to build their own workshop and even construct a water wheel for power. By 1862 they had barely begun producing wringers when their warehouse--a barn belonging to Gunn--burned to the ground along with their entire inventory. Facing ruin, the partners were fortuitously introduced to a young inventor from Windsor, Vt., named William H. Barber, who held a patent on a unique tool design but could find no one willing to produce it. Barber convinced the pair to purchase the manufacturing rights to the tool, a bit-holding brace (also known as a "bitstock") with a unique iron-jawed chuck. Other early braces were becoming available at that time, but it was the "elegant" chuck design that made Barber's tool superior to them all.

Production began at 18 braces per day, but within two years several hundred tools were being turned out daily to keep up with demand. Amidon was issued a new patent in 1868 for an improvement to Barber's original design, which helped to establish the fame and fortune of the new Millers Falls Manufacturing Co., as the firm was renamed that year. According to Roeder, "Although the firm would continue to build the traditional Barber brace for decades, Amidon's 'Barber Improved' brace became far and away the company's best-selling boring tool and probably had as much to do with the firm's eventual prosperity as any single product."

Millers Falls went on to invent or acquire patents on a wide variety of innovative tools, including push-drills, rotary hand drills, and other types of bit braces, including the Goodell and Rose braces. The company history ended in 1982 when it was sold. Today, original Millers Falls tools are prized by collectors as fine examples of 19th and 20th century tool making.

Milton Friedman
Early air compressor manufacturer whose many innovations helped spur the "pneumatic revolution" in construction tools; co-founder of Emglo Products, 1957.

For someone who reportedly felt that "patents were a waste of time," Milt Friedman certainly didn't let time or the U.S. Patent Office stand in the way of creativity. An engineering graduate of Emory Tech (later Carnegie Mellon University), he and a school chum, Daniel Glosser, founded Emglo Products in 1957 and began manufacturing "everything and anything," from portable heaters to fans to ski rope-tow machines.

By the mid-1960s, they could see the growth potential of one particular product, the air compressor, and began to focus their manufacturing business in this area. In those days, compressors consisted mainly of large stationary equipment used for ventilation, air conditioning, and industrial shop work. Friedman had another idea, however, and in 1968 Emglo introduced the first low-profile wheeled portable unit that could be taken to the jobsite. The rental industry helped popularize these go-anywhere units, and soon the use of air compressor-powered tools in construction was off and running.

Dale Mishler, a sales manager at Emglo today, describes the rapid growth in air tool use as a "pneumatic revolution" that swept residential and commercial construction in the 1970s. "Every year, the company would build a new addition to our plant, and while doing it they would build and bury [foundation] footers for the next addition, which would be added the following year." Innovations also followed at a rapid pace: According to a company history, in 1977 Emglo introduced multiple engine options on its compressors; in 1984 it created the first stacked hand-carry portables and the first high-pressure wheeled portables; and in 1991 the company's "authentic blue" colors adorned the industry's first gas-powered hand-carry units.

Today Emglo maintains a 50 percent share of the commercial/industrial marketplace, says Mishler, along with a sizeable share of portable air compressor sales. In December 2000, Emglo became a division of DeWalt Industrial Tool and continues to manufacture under both the DeWalt and Emglo brand names.

Michael Morris is a contributing editor to Hanley-Wood's Tools of the Trade.