It’s time to bring on the schnitzelbank

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schnitzelbank
The schnitzelbank was a tool widely used on the frontier of the Ohio Country for rough-shaping wood, and especially for crafting wooden shingles. Pressure on the large wooden head — the height of which was adjustable — was generated via the foot clamp. (Collection of the Buckeye Agricultural Museum & Education Center)

Ist das nicht ein schnitzelbank?
Jah! Das ist ein schnitzelbank.
Ist das nicht ein kurtz und lang?
Jah! Das ist ein kurtz und lang.
Oh du schone, Oh du schone, Oh du schone schnit-zel-bank!

— Opening of an old German beer drinking song

The last column was spent describing how logs were hewn into beams that would become building material for the envisioned barnhouse. Now, with enough trees converted into beams — the lowest layers of which were ready to be perched upon the rock corners that had been constructed — it was almost time to think about having a raising bee. The event was a time to invite all of the men and women from the neighborhood for a day-long social gathering that would result in the actual assembly of the structure which would provide shelter for both people and their livestock during the coming winter.

But not quite yet. There were still a couple of more important jobs to be completed.

Roof poles

The first of these was to make the poles that would support the roof. This job necessitated going out into the woods and finding a bunch of straight trees about four inches in diameter.

These were always referred to as “pole trees.” They were trees that grew up underneath the primary forest canopy which was often 100 feet high. These trees, in their quest for light, tended to grow straight up with few side branches, often reaching 80 feet. But because they could not penetrate the overarching canopy, they grew with what little light was available, their trunks becoming denser and heavier with the passage of time.

The pole trees, which were always quite heavy, would be sorted into pairs of roughly matching size. The bark would be stripped off using a hatchet or a drawknife. Then the roof poles would be hewn flat on one side only. This would be the top-facing side to which the roof boards were attached.

Next, the opposite end of each of the roof poles would be cut at a 45-degree angle so that when they were leaned against the matching pole, they would form a 90-degree angle at what would become the peak of the roof. They would be notched so that they could be permanently fastened together with a sharpened wooden peg called a “tree nail” or “trunnel” — if you say it fast. Of course, several dozen trunnels had to be whittled out in advance of the raising as well. The so-called “tail” portion of the poles that overhung the edge of the roof would be skillfully notched so as to fit into a corresponding pocket cut into the uppermost logs, called the top plates. The tails of the roof poles would also be secured to the top plates by trunnels.

Shingles

froe
This grouping shows both a common L-shaped splitting froe and a rarer knife froe, both of which did the same job. The tool at the bottom is a drawknife. (Locher collection)

But the big job — the really big job — still on the to-do list was to make shingles to cover the roof. This was no small job because many hundreds of shingles would be needed to sheet the roof of this structure which often would be about 24 feet wide and 30 feet deep.

Crafting the shingles took some very specialized tools and materials. If the settler was thinking ahead during his initial tree harvesting endeavor, he put aside some nice, straight-grained, oak trunk sections, each about 20 inches long, for later use as shingle material.

To split shingles required the use of an implement called a froe. The L-shaped version of this tool which was most commonly used in the Ohio Country consists of an iron blade and a wooden handle. The sharpened edge of this approximately foot-long blade faced downward toward the ground while the handle was set upright at one end at a 90-degree angle to the blade. The blade’s sharp edge was stood on top of the piece of wood that would be split into shingles, starting about an inch from the outer edge. Then a wooden “froe club” was used to pound on top of the blade, driving it down through the log section until approximately an inch-thick section split off. This would become a shingle. Another kind of froe, more often used by the New England settlers, was the knife froe, which resembled a butcher’s cleaver.

Oftentimes as the user of the froe drove its blade down through the wood, he wiggled the handle back and forth — or to and fro (hence the name) — to help separate the wood fibers. A skilled froe user could split hundreds of rough shingles in a day.

But that wasn’t the end of the process.

Schnitzelbank

Another tool also figured into the job. It is what the Germans call a schnitzelbank (literally translated: shaving bench).

The schnitzelbank, in its most basic definition, is a foot-operated clamp or vise for holding wood. Its primary member is a heavy horizontal plank, 6 or 7 feet in length, supported by four legs high enough to allow the user to sit on it comfortably. Through the middle of the main plank runs a second plank which is loosely held perpendicular to the main plank by a stout wood or iron pin. This allows the second plank — which has a large wooden “head” or “dumbhead” at the top end and a foot pedal on bottom end — to swing freely back and forth.

The plank with the head on it has numerous holes drilled the length of it so that it can be adjusted up or down, depending on the size of the work it is clamping. While the schnitzelbank could be used for rough shaping all kinds of wooden objects, its use in crafting shingles was so commonplace that it is often referred to as a “shingle horse.”

Once a shingle was split off the main piece of tree trunk, there was still more work to do to ensure that it functioned effectively. The newly split shingle was clamped under the head of the schnitzelbank, using pressure on the foot pedal. The craftsman then used a drawknife to shave down and clean the surface of loose splinters of wood. In addition, the shingle was tapered from one end to the other so that the thin end could be inserted beneath the row of shingles above it. Also, the edges of the shingle were slightly rounded off, increasing its ability to shed water toward the sides.

The drawknife is an ancient tool which still finds purpose in today’s construction methodology. Drawknives ranged from large and heavy — some having blades that would almost qualify them for inclusion in the axe family — to tiny examples used in crafting fine musical instruments.

Drawknives had a sharp blade that faced toward the user. A tang equipped with a wooden handle curved off each end of the blade. The user grasped the handles to pull the blade across the work clamped in the vise and toward him, shaving it to the desired configuration.

Although the blade was pulled toward the user, the tool was considered remarkably safe because the user had only to pull his elbows slightly into his sides to stop the blade from further traveling toward him.

When the hundreds of needed shingles had been crafted this way, they were stacked neatly into piles to dry. Logs were placed on top of the stacks to prevent the singles from warping as they dried out.

A roof crafted of hand-split “shakes” would typically last about 20 years before having to be replaced. Many buildings went through multiple sets of such shingles before converting to standing-seam metal roofing, and later asphalt shingles.

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Paul Locher, of Wooster, Ohio, is a lifelong journalist who spent 45 years as a writer for a daily newspaper. In addition, he spent decades covering significant antique auctions and shows for major antiques publications. He is an ardent collector of early American antiques, a lecturer, an author of numerous books, a co-superintendent of the antiques department for the Wayne County Fair and is a director and the curator of the Buckeye Agricultural Museum and Education Center in Wooster.

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