The humble beetle.
It looks like a mallet on steroids. It’s associated with pitching circus tents and feats of strength at the local fair. Derisive terms like beetle-headed make light of its utilitarian nature. It has a cousin by the same name which is used to pound filthy laundry. It strikes iron wedges with great violence and its head can be easily shattered. Sometimes, iron rings are heated to an ominous shade of red and beaten onto its ends. Can’t a tool get any respect up in here??
But in spite of its homespun, misunderstood provenance, the beetle is an essential addition to any carpenter or joiner’s tool kit in the 17th-century. There isn’t any riving of clapboard, lathe, panel or shingle without a beetle. After the ax but before the froe, the beetle drives the wedge into oak and cedar and ash to divide the timber into manageable sizes, often for building materials, sometimes for firewood. It can be augmented with iron rings at each end of its head to keep it from splitting from the force of the blow.
Between 1633 and 1663, there are 11 references to beetles and beetle rings in Plymouth Colony wills and inventories alone. They are almost always listed alongside wedges.
In 1668, the Widow Silvester, in addition to her “Grindstone and Cranke” (didn’t they tour with Hope and Crosby?) leaves behind “2 beetle ringes”. In the mid-1660s, Robert Abell and John Joyce have listed among their worldly possessions “betleringes”. Such disembodied rings imply a couple of things: First, though the iron rings are separated from the beetle, yet they have their own intrinsic value–perhaps greater than the wooden beetle itself–and are worth keeping. Also, it’s a royal pain in the tuckus to keep those bad boys on the beetle-head.
Our blacksmiths will take a heat on the rings in order to expand their circumference. Then the rings are driven onto the head from either end in a process called sweating. As they are cooled, the rings contract, leaving a tight fit. With a hammer, we’ll sometimes break the very edge of the beetle over the iron rings to further secure them.
We’ve studied examples of beetles with wooden wedges struck into the end grain of the beetle-head. We’ve tried this on a piece of elm recently and we’ll let you know how long this works for us.
Sometimes, a beetle is made from a single piece of a tree. The image below seems to record this in figure 8:
We’ve made beetles from a single piece of wood before with mixed results. If the grain at its head is particularly gnarly and hard, say from a tree root, the beetle may have a good many blows in it. But such a beetle is impractical to ring and is likely to check along its handle over time. For the ex-Little-Leaguers out there, remember those stinging foul balls on a cold day? It’s like that.
Moxon weighs in on the subject, but his beetle is called a “commander”:
There may be a qualitative difference between a beetle and a commander. Moxon’s commander has no rings. Might a commander be somewhat heavier for knocking house parts together? A beetle too-heavy is unwieldy for repetitive work like driving wedges into an oak log. A commander too-light doesn’t have the ooooomph to marry the tenon into the mortice. We’ve used heavy, commander-type beetles to drive pointed studs into the ground in a few of our houses.
John Evelyn’s Silva speaks of Horn-beam as serving for the “heads of beetles…for which purposes its extream toughness commends it…” ( chapt 12) . We lack an abundant source of horn-beam locally, but we do use oak, elm, and hickory for beetle-head stock. White oak and ash make suitable handles.
From an elementary school visit to Plimoth Plantation’s Education Department: