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Updated: May 4, 2023

By John Verrill, Executive Director, Early American Industries Association

One of the pleasures of working in the EAIA office is getting frequent requests to identify tools whose purposes are unknown to the inquirer. We call them “whatsits” for obvious reasons, i.e. “what is it?” I have several sources in the office to look through including Knight’s American Mechanical Dictionary, but that is good only if you have some clue as to what industry in which the tool is used. Then of course there are several tool auctioneers to call upon including Martin Donnelly, Jim Gehring, and Mike Urness. Or I might call upon some tool dealers such as Jim Bode or Jane Butler. All of these folks have long exposure to antique tools and one (or all) of them will usually have some idea of what use the tool is, but not always. When they don’t immediately identify it, my next “go to” is either our newsletter, Shavings, or Facebook. Posting it on the EAIA Facebook group page or Shavings is almost always fruitful, as we have a pretty broad readership.

A recent example is the object pictured here. We published this in the spring issue of Shavings. “A member recently donated this tool for inclusion in a future silent auction. The main body of the tool revolves and has pyramid-shaped knobs covering the surface; it is 7 inches long and 3 inches in diameter. The cylinder is solid and appears to be made of brass or bronze; it weighs a bit more than 10 pounds. The cylinder has an iron and wood handle, the wood handle is 4-3/4 inches long. There are 26 rows and each row has 15 pyramidal knobs. We were given no context as to what industry this tool may have been used in so we are hoping that you can identify this mystery tool.”

This "whatsit" is a concrete stamper

We did receive a number of identifications from readers Art Dean, Tim Bonelli, Mike Urness, and Jane Rees. It is a concrete stamper "made of bronze and was used to create texture in concrete either to provide a decorative feature or, more usually, a non-slip surface for concrete paths, etc." Here is an ad from a tool catalog showing the object in question.

Catalog Page of Buck & Hickman showing concrete stampers

So if you have a “whatsit” to identify, send me a message and picture and we will see what we can do to take the mystery out of the tool!


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