If we remember any names involved in the history of the tool industry, it's usually those of the companies' founders whose names hang over their front door -- like Black and Decker, Fein, Bosch, or Stanley. Although these names are synonymous with their inventions, the tools they're famous for often were invented by people working behind the scenes. It's these stories we try to uncover each year in our Hall of Fame research.
Welcome to Tools of the Trade's third annual Hall of Fame. This year's class ranges from a Civil War-era metal worker tinkering with cast iron levels to a modern engineer working with laser beams and power saws.
This time, we've found some true unsung heroes whose inventive genius changed the way we work with tools. Do you ever think about Ed Niehaus when you toss a 2x4 onto your chop box for a fast cut? Probably not, but Niehaus designed the first power miter saw in 1964. Surprisingly, his first saw had most of the features you see on popular saws today, including a blade guard, dust port, and blade brake.
Our research uncovered some extraordinary Americans -- people who brought life to the entrepreneurial spirit. Like the man who packed an empty room with people and machinery and filled an order for 12,000 saw blades in one month.
You've probably never heard their names before, but we honor them here for their contributions to the tool industry. We had a lot of fun researching the histories of these extraordinary people and their accomplishments, and we're sure you'll find their stories compelling, too.
On the following pages you'll find the stories of five men who changed the way tradespeople worked in their eras, and whose influence is still felt on our jobsites today.
Developed technology leading to the first affordable carbide-tipped blades for carpenters.
Carbide was invented in Germany in the 1920s. Easily machined, super hard, and able to hold an edge, its potential was quickly apparent. It was introduced at an industrial fair in 1927 and bore the trade name "Widia," meaning "like diamonds."
Until the late 1940s, carbide-tipped circular saw blades were used almost exclusively for cutting metal. The carbide tips were brazed onto the teeth by hand and the saw plates were also flattened or tuned by hand. An eight-tooth blade might cost $60 or more -- a substantial sum at the time. That's where Gene Cowley came in.
W. E. "Gene" Cowley already had a reputation for accomplishing impossible tasks at Vermont American. In 1947, company founder Lee Thomas Sr. agreed to supply Sears with 12,000 steel circular saw blades. He then sent Cowley to a nearly empty factory in Louisville, Ky., to produce them.
Thomas advised Cowley to throw away his cot, because he wasn't going to be sleeping much. Cowley must have gotten the message, because he started shipping the blades just one month later.
In 1950, Cowley examined a German-made, eight-tooth, carbide-tipped saw blade that retailed for $41. He set himself a nearly impossible task -- produce a blade of equal or better quality for one quarter of the price. Knowing he'd need some help, Cowley hired engineer Mac McCord.
"The first thing he did was send me to Detroit for two weeks to learn everything I could about brazing metal by hand," McCord recalls. "When I got back we figured out a way to automate the process."
Under Cowley's leadership, they designed machines to cut and flatten blade blanks, braze carbide tips onto the blade teeth, and grind the tips to uniform width and razor sharpness. The automation increased production speed and lowered costs. In late 1951, Vermont American shipped the first carbide-tipped blades to market. The eight-tooth blades retailed for $9.99.
Designed the first power miter saw for Rockwell in 1964.
Early in 1964, Rockwell Manufacturing Co. gave one of its tool design engineers a unique challenge: create a whole new tool category. The project fell to Ed Niehaus, who worked in the company's Pittsburgh facility.
"They asked me to design a tool that would do the same jobs as a standard handsaw miter box, using a motor-powered saw instead," recalls Niehaus. The company specified that the tool must be able to crosscut and miter a 2x4 and must also miter a piece of standard crown molding.
"They showed me a sketch of an idea from somewhere. It showed the saw moving in an up-and-down motion, and I think it was on tracks of some kind," says Niehaus. "I thought it might be difficult to keep that design stable, so I tried mounting the saw on a pivoting arm that brought it down into the wood in an arc."
Niehaus added a spring that returned the saw's arm to the top of the arc after the user let go. He also invented a housing that kept the spring in place and working even if it broke, and designed a clear plastic blade guard that slid out of the way as the blade plunged into the work. The table was made of wood to allow the blade to plunge through the work. If the table got too chewed up from cutting lots of miter angles, the user could simply replace it.
Niehaus's design also incorporated some pretty advanced features, such as a dust port for a vacuum pickup and a blade brake. The blade brake is that button you can see on top of the handle, where you might find a safety switch on a modern saw.
After three years of product development and production tooling, Rockwell introduced the model 34-010 power miter saw. It sported a 9-inch blade. The new tool quickly became a best seller, outselling all the other tools in Rockwell's line.
"We couldn't believe the sales numbers," says Niehaus. "They increased every year. That's when we knew we were really onto something." Amazingly, the company didn't actually patent the idea, which would have protected it from the competition for several years. When rival companies realized the miter saw's staggering popularity, they all brought out their own versions of the tool. That wave of innovation continues today, and power miter saws of all sorts are fixtures on jobsites around the world.
Tool designer, industry innovator, and leader; led Porter-Cable's product development program.
Late in 1981, 12 people walked into a warehouse full of tools and started opening boxes. They removed each tool from its box, changed one thing, and put it back. What were they changing? Every single nameplate on every tool in inventory. Rockwell's portable power tool division had just been sold to Pentair and transformed into Porter-Cable Power Tools.
One of those 12 people was Dennis Huntsman, chosen by Pentair to help create a new Porter-Cable brand. Huntsman started his career in the tool industry in 1966, working his way up to portable power tool product manager.
When he was tapped for the Porter-Cable project, he gravitated to the new-product development program. Hunts-man realized he faced tough competition from Black & Decker, Milwaukee, Bosch, and Skil. He decided Porter-Cable would specialize in woodworking tools, like routers, saws, and sanders.
"You've got to know who you are and who you're not," says Huntsman. "I felt this was our strength." He set out to identify the needs of the tool users he wanted to serve.
"I'd go out on the jobsites, see how they were doing things, and come up with a product or a new feature to make the job easier," Huntsman says. He also examined foreign tools for new technology. That's how Porter-Cable brought plate joiners stateside.
"Lamello invented this great joinery technique in Europe, but had almost no distribution in the United States," says Huntsman. "If you could find one, the tool still cost a bundle. We recognized the value of the system and designed a tool that used a belt drive instead of a grinder motor. That brought the price down and opened a huge new market."
Huntsman developed the first router with integrated circuitry to maintain speed under load. He also made an electric version of the random orbit sanders used in auto body shops; a palm-grip sander using a direct drive instead of gears (which lowered the price); Porter-Cable's Saw Boss line of circular saws; and a detail sander. He's lost track of how many patents bear his name.
Huntsman completed his favorite project before retiring in 1999. Looking for new business, he thought it was time for Porter-Cable to get into pneumatic nailers and staplers.
"We used our own designs, always kept the price point in mind, and launched competitive products that forced everybody else's prices down," says Huntsman. "I'm very proud of that." This year's Hall of Fame honors Dennis Huntsman not for a specific invention or innovation, but for his life-long commitment to finding better ways to do things.
Invented the folding rule, a precursor to modern tape measures; product launched Stabila.
In 1851, Anton Ullrich was working in his family's store in Maikammer, Germany, when he noticed a carpenter making his own fixed-length ruler. That inspired him to make the first folding rule. Ullrich's new tool folded up small enough to fit in a pocket, but stayed straight when extended to take accurate measurements like a standard fixed rule. A spring hinge added in 1886 enhanced the original design. The folding rule revolutionized jobsites, making it much more convenient to take construction measurements.
In 1858, Ullrich's brother Franz joined Anton in the rule-making business. The brothers continued refining the design to make the tool even easier to use. They made and sold the tools from a store where they also sold wine and supplies. In 1889, Franz's son Gustav turned the rule business into a full-time entity and founded Stabila, which today remains a prominent manufacturer of measuring devices and all types of levels.
Leonard L. Davis
Pioneered techniques for casting stable level bodies out of iron; brought adjustable level vials to carpenter's levels.
Leonard L. Davis first "retired" from the tool manufacturing business in 1864, when he was 26 years old. Born in New Hampshire in 1838, Davis first sought a career as a blacksmith's apprentice. He soon moved on to the repair shop of the Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad.
In Davis, the Industrial Revolution found the mind it was waiting for. The overachiever soon had a few more trades under his belt. He manufactured safes, made steam engines, and did a stint at a scale manufacturing plant in Vermont.
In 1862, Davis started his own company to sell his patented bolt-heading machinery to railroad companies and locomotive manufacturers. When he sold the business in 1864, the young tycoon took a very early retirement.
The retirement didn't last long, of course. In 1867, Davis founded the Davis Level & Tool Co. in Springfield, Mass., which made machinist's tools and railway supplies. Davis also started registering patents for his ideas and improvements to the tools his company produced.
Like most level manufacturers of the day, Davis made wood levels out of Cuban mahogany. Drawing on his vast metal-working experience, he began experimenting with casting level bodies out of iron.
He found the iron level bodies incredibly stable and soon marketed several sizes of iron bench levels and iron inclinometers. His inclinometers, which determined roof pitches and other angles, vastly improved on existing technology. Instead of using weighted needles or liquid-filled chambers, he put a standard level vial in a brass disc and allowed the disc to rotate in the iron body. A graduated scale on the iron showed the angle.
He also developed an improved method for recalibrating the level vial.
Davis's tools reflected his impressive metal-casting skills. He pioneered the intricate filigree casting found on some of his carpenter's levels. Today, many tool collectors prize his works for their intricate designs and their place in our industry's history.
Bill Brockway is a freelance writer living in New York's Hudson Valley, and is former senior editor of Hanley-Wood's Tools of the Trade.
Rick Schwolsky is editor and Mark Clement is senior editor of Hanley-Wood's Tools of the Trade.