Laroy S. Starrett
Invented combination square; established family-run company as leading manufacturer of steel tapes and precision measuring devices
Laroy S. Starrett was a tool-loving farm boy in China, Maine where he learned the meaning of hard work and the value of a day's wages. As a young tenant dairy farmer, Starrett looked for better ways to do things. Some of his solutions were unconventional, and earned him a reputation as being reckless, but he succeeded.
The seeds of Starrett's fertile mind took hold at his farm. There, in a workshop in his barn, he developed his first machine–a hand-cranked meat chopper. He later said that getting his machine ready to market made farming look easy.
Starrett relocated to Athol, Mass., an important tool-manufacturing center at the time, and began work at the Athol Machine Co. There he invented and patented a number of products including a line of bench vices and an ingenius hook fastener. His relationship with Athol Machine deteriorated, however, so Starrett went out on his own.
That's when he began work on a combination square with an adjustable square and miter gauge. As a pattern maker, Starrett found existing fixed-bladed tri-squares clumsy, so he began working on a new design at his kitchen table. While developing the prototype he had to overcome the challenge of placing a sliding blade in square stock, and the effects of heat generated by grinding, which made it difficult to produce a perfectly straight edge on the blade. But he ultimately succeeded.
At first, solving the production problems seemed easier than finding a market for the new tool. But Starrett developed a scheme to get the combination square into the market, and then sales took off. Athol Machine, his former employer, didn't like the success his tools enjoyed and threatened patent suits against him. Starrett bought out the company that produced his combination squares, prevailed in court, and was on his way.
By 1882, L.S. Starrett became one of Athol, Mass.'s cornerstone companies, producing precision measuring tools like calipers and micrometers in addition to the combination square. Starrett later produced what he called "flexible" rules, and established the company's well-known line of steel tape measures.
Laroy Starrett's contribution to the tool industry and to tool users worldwide could be called "immeasurable." Just look in the tool pouch, box, or bench of any serious woodworker and you'll find a combination square that says it all.
Invented first jigsaw in 1946
Nobody knows or remembers much about Albert Kaufman, except that he worked for Bosch-owned Scintilla AG in Switzerland where he made his own bit of tool history. In 1946, Kaufman removed the needle from his wife's sewing machine and replaced it with a blade so he could make intricate cuts in wood. In the process, Kaufman came up with the world's first jigsaw, a tool that remains at the core of Bosch's design strength. We don't know how his wife took this, but we're glad Kaufman selflessly risked her wrath for the good of tool users everywhere.
Father of lightweight woodworking tools founded Delta Manufacturing Co. in 1919; held 84 significant patents for woodworking equipment including the Unisaw
Herbert Tautz was already a skilled toolmaker when he emigrated from Germany to the United States after World War I, so getting a tool and die job in Milwaukee, Wis., wasn't much of a problem. But it wasn't long before Tautz began creating new tools in his garage. In 1919, he founded the Delta Manufacturing Company. Introduced in 1923, the new company's first product was the American Boy hand-cranked scrollsaw.
Tautz's real genius shone through as he developed a series of woodworking tools for light-commercial and home-shop users that were based on massive stationary tool designs prevalent at the time. Over time, many of these tools became classics, but Tautz originated the concept of lightweight equipment.
In 1928, he came out with the Delta Handi-Shop, which integrated a 9-inch lathe, an 8½-inch disc sander, a 6-inch table saw, and a 12-inch scroll saw–all running off of a ½-hp motor. The unit sold for $99.50. In 1929, Tautz introduced Delta's 4-inch jointer and an 8-inch table saw, followed by a 12-inch bandsaw in 1930, and a bench-top drill press in 1931. Each year, Tautz added a number of new tools to Delta's growing lineup–from lathes and shapers to larger table saws, drill presses, and bandsaws. In 1939, Tautz invented the Unisaw, a belt-driven, 10-inch table saw with a tilting arbor instead of a tilting table. It set a new standard for the tool industry and created an icon. This tool is still revered by woodworkers today.
Tautz racked up 10 design and 74 utility patents by the time he sold Delta Manufacturing to a man named Rockwell in 1945. But his influence on tool design remains one of the most significant shifts in tool history.
Rick Schwolsky is chief editor of Hanley-Wood's Tools of the Trade.