The term “old iron” is one that warms the heart of many diehard woodworkers who feel that the venerable cast-iron behemoths of former days represent the golden age of machinery manufacture. Though loving them is one thing, keeping them running is quite another. Luckily for us, there is a pair of websites, both called “Old Woodworking Machines,” where we can learn about them, buy and sell them, or even just chat with others who share our mania. To get the lowdown on the origins and workings of the two sites, I spoke with Keith Bohn.
“I founded OWWM on June 29th 2000,” Keith recalled with surprising specificity. “I had bought a Unisaw that was different than the typical one. It had four feet instead of a plinth, and I was curious about its origins. To find out more, I started collecting old catalogs and scoured eBay. Eventually, I learned that it was a 1939 model, the very first year Delta produced the Unisaw.
“By that point, I had begun to feel a bit like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, but after casually mentioning my quest to a few friends, I was convinced that others would be interested in a discussion forum about old woodworking machines. I started one on e-Groups, a forum system which was eventually taken over by Yahoo, and found that a couple of people were already doing similar things. One member of the forum, Keith Rucker, had a website devoted to Crescent machines. Jeff Joslin, another member, had one that was a comprehensive listing of old manufacturers.
“Keith Rucker suggested we start a website to be able to post pictures and upload manuals, and we did, in 2001. In a sense, it became the library for our discussion room forum. We called it Old Woodworking Machines, and Keith Rucker ran it. Jeff became the site’s historian and patent librarian.
“I continued to focus on the forum, which is also called Old Woodworking Machines, but is at a different website. Granted, this makes it a bit confusing, but the two are linked to one another, and its easy to switch back and forth. The website is at www.owwm.com, while the forum is at www.owwm.org. To add to the confusion, the two of us who proctor the website and forum respectively are both named Keith. The reason the two sites are separate was that initially, the software for the two were incompatible. Now it’s more tradition than anything else. For the sake of convenience, we can refer to them as the forum and the website.
“The forum started with six members and got 31 messages the first month. We now boast about 11,000 members and have about 340,000 messages posted to the forum site. As active as it is, it is still a hobby activity for me. By day, I am a draftsman for an architectural woodworking company, though I have been a hobby woodworker since I was 12, something I learned from my father. The problem is that once you start into old tools, and specifically get involved with a website dedicated to them, it pretty much takes over your life.
“Like the forum, the website is also a massive repository of information. On the left side of the home page of the website you will see a list of manufacturers, young and old. Click on a manufacturer and you get a short history of the company seasoned with hyperlinks, photos of old machines, user manuals, parts lists, serial number lists, exploded drawings and stories. You can then sort a search by types of machine, year, patents and so on to find whatever you are interested in.”
At Keith’s suggestion, I clicked on Oliver, and up came a page with their history, products, machine information, publication reprints, a machine registry, patents, and a photo index with over 500 photos of old machines of every type. The Delta page boasts over 1,000 photos and hundreds of publication reprints. There’s an almost endless array of information and photos on the two sites.
Neither site sells anything, charges any money or takes advertising. “We do get donations on the website,” Keith admitted, “but the forum is funded completely by me and Tony Schmaling, a computer geek who acts as our IT guy. Tony was the one who convinced me that it was time to move from Yahoo to a permanent Internet site in 2006.
“There is no buying or selling allowed on the website, but the forum site has an area called ‘Bring Out Your Dead,’ an obvious reference to Monty Python. There members can buy, sell, trade and even give away tools. In order to get into that area, you must be a registered forum member, but it’s free to become one. All it takes is signing up and filling out a profile form. There have been over 17,000 posts to the ‘Bring Out Your Dead’ section of the forum alone. In other words, it’s a very active site. You can also register on the website, but you don’t have to unless you want to upload photos or information.
“Woodworkers should know about these sites,” Keith insists, “because we discuss machines, how to properly maintain them, and how to repair them. In some cases, we also talk about how to use them. Shapers, for instance, are often the last machine a woodworker buys, and there’s some important information about safely using that machine that many don’t know. Beginners will learn how to take care of their machines, people on a budget will find bargains galore, and history buffs will be in their heaven. If nothing else, it’s a great place for camaraderie.”Beware, though,” Keith warned, “once you come here, it is a slippery slope. You buy your first machine, and before long, you’re one of us.”