The “Diamond” Foot-Power Mortiser

I added a new tool to my shop the summer. I don’t buy much for myself these days. I have my small working set of tools that I use and my collection of Harvey Peace saws, some of which I use, others are purely wall-hangers. I don’t “need” a lot in terms of tools at this point. In fact, I have to be very careful about becoming too attached to tools I find because it’s easy for me to convince myself to keep something. There’s a fine line between collecting and hoarding. I never want to be considered a hoarder.

However, every once in a while I come across something that’s so unusual and so interesting that I just can’t pass it up. It’s the kind of thing that makes you say “wow” and get that tingle of excitement that you might have a chance of owning it. This is the type of tool that you only have one chance at and will probably never see again. I’ve learned over the years that when something like this comes up you jump at it and so what you can to get it. I still regret my decision seven or eight years ago to pass on a dead mint Harvey Peace P-70 handsaw because it was just a little too much. At the time I didn’t realize how rare that saw was, never mind in that condition. I’ll never have a chance at that saw again. So, whenever possible I try to go for those one of a kind tools.

This brings me back a few months to the end of July. I was up in Avoca, NY at MJD’s three day old tool extravaganza up at his HQ in the Finger Lake region of upstate New York. This event featured a 3,000+ lot auction spread out over three days. Many of these lots had dozens and dozens of items, 10 Stanley planes, 30 molding planes, 100 saws. This auction doesn’t have a lot of his high-end stuff, it’s a lot of “TLC needed tools” and frankly some real junk. It’s good junk though, and there are always some real diamonds in the rough. There were more old tools than one person could possibly look at over the course of three days, never mind inspect. While perusing the second day’s auction lots, I came across a machine in the “big items” tent that made me say “wow”. It was a “Diamond” foot-powered mortising machine made by the Seneca Falls Mfg. Co in the late 1800s. The machine was in great shape considering that it was well over 120 years old. All of the cast iron work was complete with no cracks. The machine moved perfectly and the adjusters were all present and accounted for. It had most of its original paint. Even the set of five original bits were there. It was just plain cool. I really wanted it for my shop.

I went back to my hotel that night and did some research. I found a few examples on the Internet, most of which were in pretty poor shape. I did some poking around on the Vintage Machinery website and found some great information (Vintage Machinery, formerly OWWM, is a fantastic site if you haven’t’ found it already.) including some original advertisements and catalogs. I learned that the Diamond mortiser was originally sold for $25 in 1890. This is close to $600 in 2011 dollars according to the inflation calculator. It featured all iron and steel construction and weighed in at 145lbs. The spring-powered “chisel reverser” can be easily adjusted for tension. It has screw-operated hold-downs on the table to keep the work flat to the bed. The entire bed can be moved up and down by loosening  a hand screw and sliding it along a giant dovetailed way. Coolest of all, the table could be rotated 45 degrees in either direction to allow it to work at almost any angle.  It came standard with three bits. Additional bits in sizes from 1/4 to 1in. were offered at additional cost. An optional tenon cutter was also offered for this machine as well as a “blind slat” mortising tool for making blinds. From what I found in the catalog, the machine was complete and in excellent condition. I decided to go for it.

Original Advertisement for the Diamond Mortiser

Original Advertisement for the Diamond Mortiser

The next day I inspected it again and still found no flaws. It wouldn’t come up for sale for a long time- there were 1,250 lots to be sold that day, a good six or seven hours of auction. As I sat there, I tried to figure out ways to justify the cost. The auction estimate was $750-$1,500 but large things like this tend to slip through the cracks at auctions. The absentee bidders can’t afford to bid high and pay shipping on top of the cost, and the floor bidders may not have much interest in it. Still, you never know what’s going to happen in an auction.I figured I could sell a few things out of my collection to raise some funds, and if it really worked as advertised I’d sell my hollow-chisel mortising machine which hasn’t done much but gather dust these past few years.

Late in the afternoon the lot came up for sale. It opened  with the high absentee bidder at about $300. I jumped in and ran the absentee bidder out at a surprisingly low number. The auctioneer then turned to the floor looking for bids and found no other interest. Why is it that when you have the high bid on something you _really_ want the auctioneer seems to slow down and take 5 minutes to search for a new bidder before hammering it down? In reality, the bidding took all of 20 seconds for this lot to sell and I wound up winning it for what I think is a very reasonable price, slightly less than those 25 1890 dollars would be worth today taking inflation into consideration. Another way to look at it- it cost about half of the going rate for a Stanley No.1  in good shape and I’ve seen probably a hundred of those over the years. I don’t think I’ll ever see another one of these. There are lots of ways to self-justify new acquisitions, trust me.

After the auction I conscripted two of MJD’s younger, larger auction helpers to assist me with loading it in my truck. It’s only 145 pounds, but it’s all awkward angles and moving parts, and there is no good way to lay it down without putting lots of weight on one fragile part or another. After a few minutes of careful loading, followed by a healthy and well-earned tip, I had it loaded to my satisfaction, propped on top of layers of Styrofoam and cardboard. I covered it with a tarp and hoped for no rain or major potholes on the way home. It arrived home safe some seven hours later. I convinced my wife to help me unload it and we managed to get it into my shop without any damage to the machine or our marriage.

The Diamond Mortiser in its New Home

The Diamond Mortiser in its New Home

Close-Up of the Fence, table, and Hold-Downs

Close-Up of the Fence, table, and Hold-Downs

Showing the Adjustable Chisel Reverser, Embossed Frame, and Sliding Height Adjustment

Showing the Adjustable Chisel Reverser, Embossed Frame, and Sliding Height Adjustment

At top- the Chisel Reverser and Drive Shaft with Morse Taper Chuck.

At top- the Chisel Reverser and Drive Shaft with Morse Taper Chuck.

Massive Foot Pedal and Cast Iron Legs

Massive Foot Pedal and Cast Iron Legs

The Bed Tilts 45 Degrees or More In Each Direction

The Bed Tilts 45 Degrees or More In Each Direction

Four of the five Original Bits That It Came With.

Four of the five Original Bits That It Came With.

I’ve had the machine in my shop for almost two months now and I’ve played around with it quite a bit. I can’t resist showing it to everyone who walks through. It’s certainly a conversation piece- hard to miss and everyone asks about it. So, how does it work? It actually works very well. The technique is just like chopping a mortise by hand with a mortise chisel except that it’s much faster. You start at one end of the mortise and work your way down, then reverse the bit and sneak-up on the far side of the mortise. With the bits freshly sharpened it makes short work of smaller mortises in most hard and softwoods. Wider, deeper mortises require a few passes which is to be expected. The major benefit for me is that the mortises are always square and plumb. The mortise bottoms need some clean-up work afterwards, but the vast majority of the work is done by the machine and much faster than I can do by hand. In fact, I’m pretty sure it does a better job than my Delta benchtop hollow chisel mortiser, but I may be a bit prejudiced. It’s a hell of a leg work-out as well.

The Machine in use cutting a 3/8in. Mortise in Cherry

The Machine in use cutting a 3/8in. Mortise in Cherry

I’ve found a bunch of fun stuff the past few months. I hope to have more time to share some of them with you. Keep an eye out for more tools coming up later this week. As always, thanks for looking.


14 Responses to “The “Diamond” Foot-Power Mortiser”

  1. Josh,

    That’s a real beauty and fortuitous bit of serendipity! Looking forward to seeing your other treasures and finds!

    Best Regards,
    Albert “Afghanus” Rasch

  2. Pete says:

    What a great find, Josh – congratulations!

  3. Nice find!
    May me hope a video someday?

  4. Paul Ebert says:

    Very Cool! And in great shape.Congrats.I’ve got to keep track of that auction site.That one was close to me.

  5. Michael Blair says:

    A marvelous machine! I saw one of this style of mortiser years ago, but one of the three legs was missing. It was probably from a different manufacturer, as the legs ended in lion paws. It’s great to see one on the job.


  6. Steve Massie says:

    Josh …….. What a great find and what a super tool, it is hard to beat these OLDIE’s but GOODY’s isn’t it.

    Congratulations on your new tool and enjoy !


  7. Mike O'Brien says:

    Josh, Great story and find. You won’t regret it. Your wife will like it too after she gets her diamond necklace. ;-)

  8. Chris k says:

    Great find Josh! Congratulations!

    It seems to be in mint condition given it’s age.

  9. Wesley Tanner says:

    Wow, that’s great. About 20 years ago I went to an auction in a sports car and couldn’t bid on an even older one than yours. As it turned out no one else could either, so everyone there just shook their heads sadly, and the auction continued. I’ve always regretted the “one that got away.”

  10. Tim Henriksen says:

    Impressive machine in both size and style! I agree a video is in order. I hope you keep up the ‘big item’ hunts so you’ll have to part with more of your collection meaning more chances for guys like me to get ahold of good tools at very fair prices. Thanks for sharing.


  11. Shannon says:

    Josh this is really exciting to see. At the museum where I volunteer at a period Joiner we have a what we feel is a prototype to one of these foot mortisers. After extensive research we managed to find a patent application with reference to our prototype. Honestly it is a royal pain to work with because the way the feet were positioned making the piece feel off balance whenever the foot pedal is depressed. I was excited to see your production version with the heavy iron splayed feet. It is also interesting to note all the added bells ans whistles that our prototype does not have. Thanks for sharing!

  12. *drool*

    Wouldn’t that be a lovely addition to a hand-tools only shop?

    It’s good to recognize these golden opportunities when they happen, and not a month later, when it is a moot point. Well done, Josh!

  13. cliff says:

    came across one of these machines today in a ladys celler when i was changing her water meter.she said it was her grand fathers.same one in your photos.very nice

  14. [...] it wasn’t one of those cool old foot powered machines, like Josh has.  I would love to have one of those.  Unfortunately, the one I used had a tail.  If electron [...]

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