Friday, December 9, 2011

Old Spool Mystery

Here's a bit of a mystery. I picked up this old spool, but I'm not sure how it was used. It has a bit of what looks like green chalk on the line, but it could just be grime. It has about 50 feet of line on it now. The hollow through the axle would most likely be for an awl - used to hold the spool in place while the line was drawn out. It has a great patina and looks like it was turned from maple.

If it was a chalk line, how was the chalk applied? If it wasn't a chalk line, what was it? Any thoughts or ideas?


  1. Dan,

    That is indeed a chalk line. The modern chalk box that uses a reservoir of powdered chalk is a 20th century concept. Before 1950 most carpenters used a simple spool of string like the one you have. The line had a loop tied on the end that was fixed to the work by a scratch awl tacked with a hammer. The chalk was purchased in a half-spherical cake and was held in the carpenter's hand while he unwound the string over the cake. He had to be careful to rotate the chalk while he walked backward or the string would cut a notch in the cake and ruin it. Although not so common these days, you can still purchase carpenter's chalk cakes in multiple colors from Dixon Ticonderoga.

  2. I used a Chalk line like that in museum work. Mine has a handle that goes through the hole.

    I've use chalk cakes, ground charcoal in water and pokeberry juice, designer purple lines :)

    Here's a picture of a similar one.

  3. Jeff and Erik - Thank you - great information guys! It all makes sense. Now I'll have to find some chalk cakes - or ripe pokeberries!

  4. Also read about old chalk lines like this where you dragged it through a box of charcoal dust that had two notches cut in the side to apply the "chalk." Definitely a chalk line, though.

  5. Could also be a Plumb Bob reel - check this one:

    Also, just wanted to say I read your blog often and really enjoy it. Reading about your saw till project inspired me to build my own. Thanks and keep it up!

  6. That is definately a chaulk line.

    Along with the fine suggestions above, you can also use the charcoal on a burnt stick, the willow branch was preferred during the colonial era, as the burn had just the right consistancy. Other woods were too brittle to leave a good line. (source-Homebuilding and Woodworking in Colonial America by C. Keith Wilbur)

  7. Mark, Austin and Dan - Thanks guys!

    And Dan: I have that book! I'll have to check it out...


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