On display at the Western Illinois Museum as the Artifact of the Month for May is a tool that is known by many names. Some call it a beam drill or a barn beam drill, while others call it a boring drill or wood boring machine, or just a boring machine. Others might call it a drill auger, barn beam borer, barn beam drilling rig, borer tool, barn beam boring machine, timber beam boring drill, barn beam auger, or an Adjustable Angle Barn Beam Boring Machine. Regardless of what name the tool is called, its purpose is to drill large holes into large beams.
The typical use of this tool was in the construction of large timbered structures. Before 1920 and the development of power drills, this tool was essential in building barns. In the past, the barn was often the first, largest, and most expensive structure built by a family establishing a new farm. Barns were essential for storage of feed and the keeping of horses and cattle, which were an inseparable part of farming.
Before there were sawmills, it was difficult to create thin boards like the 2 x 4s and 2 x 8s that we use today. It was easier and more common to use whole timbers and square them off. Nails were also hard to come by. Barns were usually constructed using timber framing, also known as post and beam construction. Timber framing has been around for centuries and was favored because it minimizes the amount of sawing and nailing.
Until the late nineteenth century, timber framing was the most common type of construction in the United States. Structures were created by using heavy squared off and carefully fitted and joined timbers, the timbers are held together with wooden pegs. The beams were precut to fit in place before they were raised. This type of construction formed very strong, solid structures that could withstand storms and support heavy loads of animal feed.
However, constructing a barn this way required a huge amount of skill and labor. Hundreds of holes would have to be drilled in all the beams in the barn. Every joint where two beams came together would have a mortise and tenon joint which required a hole be drilled for the peg to hold the joint together. The mortise and tenon joint provides a very strong connection and this method of joining wood together has been used for thousands of years, all around the world.
The mortise and tenon joint consists of a piece of wood projecting out called the tenon on the end of one timber and a corresponding slot or hole called the mortise on the other timber. The two pieces of timber are joined as the tenon (the projection) fits into the mortise (the hole). The joint is similar to the children’s plastic Lego toy in the way the pieces snap and fit together.
The final part of the mortise and tenon joint in barn construction is when a hole is drilled through the mortise and tenon joint. A peg is then slided into the hole, through the entire joint, which locks the two pieces of timber together. The barn beam drill makes the holes for the mortise and tenon joint.
The drilled holes were large, up to 2 inches in diameter, and the wooden pegs would be driven deep into the hole in the beam. The pegs locked the joints together providing the strongest, permanent type of joint. This solid type of construction is why so many old barns still stand today.
Introduced around 1860, the barn beam drill was used until around 1920, with the invention of power tools its use was discontinued. Beam drills, such as the one on display, are no longer manufactured.
The beam drill could be adjusted to drill a hole at an angle, and it could be folded up, so it would not take up much room for storage. Folded up, the barn beam drills were portable and were easily transported to job sites. Before the beam was put into place, holes for the mortise and tenon joint would be drilled. The beam drill would be placed on top of the beam needing drilling. Straddling the beam, the operator sat on top of the wooden base of the tool to hold it steady in place, and using both hands on the “egg-beater” style handles would hand crank the drill to the appropriate depth and make the necessary hole.
With both hands turning the crank to run the drill, the tool could easily bore big holes in hard timber. It was known as an aggressive drill. If necessary, it also could be chained or strapped into place on a beam. The entire tool is approximately 29 inches long, 7 1/8 inches wide, and 25 inches tall with a wooden base and the machine parts are metal, possibly cast iron. No manufacturer's name on the artifact can be found.
A number of companies made beam drills, the best known were: The Snell Company in Fiskdale, Massachusetts; The Miller Falls Company, Millers Falls, Massachusetts; the R.L. Orr Company, maker of the Ajax, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and The James Swan Tool Co. Seymour, Connecticut; Antique tool collectors especially covet beam drills from these companies for their fine workmanship.
So the next time you find yourself inside a barn built before the 20th century, take a look around and look up at the ceiling. Examine the vertical posts up from the floor to where they meet a horizontal beam and look closely for a round peg jutting out from the joint. This little peg in all the joints of that barn is what holds the barn together, and is probably why that 100-year-old barn is still standing. Keep in mind that a beam drill like the one on display at the museum made all the holes for all the pegs in all the joints in that barn, and the beam drill contributed to the barns strength and permanence.
From an essay by Heather Munro. Special research assistance provided by Leon Clements, George Wanamaker and Linda Cox.