Modern hand tools are something we take for granted because they’re widely available in a variety of shapes, sizes and price ranges. There’s also many, many tools that are suitable for just as many specific jobs. The market is flooded with many types and brands of tools. This wasn’t always the case, the wrench, pliers, cutters, screwdrivers and more didn’t always look as smooth and professional as they do now. Even if it doesn’t measure up in quality, even a modern day “cheapo-dollar-store-tool” can look more developed and fine-tuned than many tools made even into the 1800s or early 1900s. Certainly the industrial revolution, modernization and process improvements after the Second World War played a huge role in the development of hand tools as these elements created a need for stronger and more precise tools. Many toolmakers around the world, but especially in America and Germany rose to fill that need. So, how exactly have modern hand tools changed from primitive looking jury-rigged pieces of metal to finely tuned hand tools over the centuries? Read on!
Tools of course were around a long time before iron, and some ancient tools even resemble our modern tools, but it wasn’t until iron was used that tools began to become capable of harder jobs. The first iron tools appeared sometime around 400BC and one of the first of these was tongs for working in fires and these eventually became today’s pliers. From that time until the industrial age tools were made primarily by blacksmiths. Right around this time is when small tool forges started to appear on the scene.
In something of a prelude to the industrial age, the mid to late 1700s saw the start of tool companies like Witte and Ocshenkopf who were both relatively small shops before they became associated with tools. Ochsenkopf started with, and has pretty much kept with forestry tools for all of this time, and Witte made pins and needles for tailors until the 1800’s which is when modern tools started to take off. Witte of course wisely jumped into making tools at this point. While the first companies focused on tool production were starting in Germany, the first modern tool that was manufactured and patented in America is recognized as the monkey wrench which appeared in 1835. The monkey wrench ruled the toolscape until the 1870s, and was used to “monkey off” a bolt or nut when the proper tools to do so weren’t available. Alongside the monkey wrench other tools became available, like the linesman pliers, which are believed to have appeared in the 1850s and are believed to have been invented by Matthias Klein, a German immigrant to America and founder of Klein Tools.
Klein Tools started in 1857 in America when Matthias Klein invented the linesman pliers while repairing a linesman’s side cutting pliers – both halves of them – thus creating a whole new tool. Klein’s pliers were obviously superior as his company supplied tools to linesmen all over America. As a testament to their quality, Klein recently held a competition to locate the oldest pair of Klein pliers. The oldest set found were on sale for $10 at a California swap meet and these pliers were made in 1904. The pliers were found to be still in good working order. Klein’s quality and innovation caused them to be one of the leading names in tools from their start until today, and you can bet that they played a major role in making modern tools what they are today.
Meanwhile, in Wuppertal, Germany, the year 1862 saw the foundation of Stahlwille who focused on making pokers and fire tongs but they soon moved on to other forging other steel tools. Other companies like Hazet and Knipex in Germany popped up after this, many starting in small forges in Wuppertal, Cronenberg and Remscheid. Each of these companies has grown over the years and is widely recognized for their quality. Stahlwille and Hazet have a somewhat diverse catalog of tools, whereas Knipex has carved out a nice place in the niche of pliers and wrenches. While none of these companies are widely known for a specific tool, but you can tell by looking at their catalogs that they have done their fair share to improve the most common tools.
While there were many German tool companies sprouting up, and creating tools, there was quite a lot of action in America in terms of tools being invented and patented. The alligator wrench and the cast wrench appeared in the late 1800s. The alligator wrench was used for turning pipes and rods, often on locomotives and the cast wrench would have been perfect for working on wagon and other wheels. The stamped wrench appeared around the same time and looks relatively close to the modern wrench in design. The 1900s saw the introduction of the forged wrench which for the most part looks like the modern wrench you would expect and perhaps marks the beginning of the modern era of hand tools.
With the evolution that tools had undergone, and the Industrial Revolution having helped streamline production and design, tool companies continued to appear as did innovations with tools. The years 1916 and 1919 saw the appearance of Ideal Tools in the US and Gedore Tools in Germany respectively. Ideal is well known amongst electricians and Gedore is pretty much known for making the most common tools as well as a number of specialty ones. The year 1920 saw the introduction of one of the most game changing tools known to man, the introduction of the ratchet/socket. This tool would allow for far easier turning of nuts and bolts allowing work to become more efficient and therefore faster and cost efficient. The 1930s saw another major innovation with the combination wrench, a tool which gets much use even to this day. Amidst these innovations, the 1930s also saw the birth of tool giants Wiha and Wera in Germany. Wera’s quality has come to be recognized throughout the world, and they’re best known for making highly precise tools. Wera, in addition to making tools for “rebels” with unique designs has come to be known for unique innovations to longstanding tools. Wera’s Zyklopp ratchet has done some incredibly novel things for a tool that hasn’t changed much for most of its history.
With the economic boom of the 1950s, tool companies have gone to great strides to increase precision, usability, ergonomics and durability. They have honed their craft to make the best quality tools. Tool makers have focused on making the best and most innovative tools even better. Technology has advanced, materials and manufacturing techniques have been fine-tuned, and as a result incredibly durable, balanced and smooth looking tools are available today.
Looking back at how far tools have come in such a relatively short time is rather amazing. Tools have gone from rough tools made by blacksmiths or custom made in small forges to highly precise, uniform professional looking tools. While there is always room for innovation and quality improvement, the modern era of tools is probably at the peak of development and it will be interesting to see what the future holds. Sign up for our newsletter down below to be the first to hear about amazing news in the world of tools!