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Millstone Dressing Tools

Millstone Dressing Tools
Theodore R. Hazen

One of the mills I often visited when I lived in Pennsylvania stopped operating about 15 years ago. The then-current miller had only ever known the mill to have Case Roller Mills for the grinding of buckwheat flour. Earlier, his father had stopped grinding corn and wheat and had removed the mill stones to stand outside. The last time I was in the mill was a couple of years ago after it had started to deteriorate and fall apart. I discovered a 4-foot proof staff in its wooden case and a paint staff on the level above the grinding floor. I mentioned it to them, "Oh, I see you have an old proof staff and paint staff up on the second floor from when the mill still had millstones!" They did not know what I was talking about. "Oh, you mean the water wheel level." They insisted it was used to level the old Fitz Water Wheel. I am not sure I convinced them it really was used for something else or not. I at least wanted them to know it was more valuable than they thought and should stay with the mill. Proof staffs are hard to find. They are most often broken up for scrap metal. People just don't know what they were used for.

A Proof Staff.

So the first type of tools used by the millstone dresser are the Marking Tools, the PROOF STAFF and the PAINT STAFF. Most staffs were made by John T. Noye of Buffalo, New York. Printed on the sides with raised letters was: JOHN T. NOYE, BUFFALO. They were made in 3 1/2, 4, 4 1/2, and 5 foot lengths for different diameter millstones. They came in a hardwood case and are covered with a light coating of oil. A wooden paint staff of the same length is made of a solid piece of maple or of 2 or 4 lengths glued together, with the grains of the wood running in opposite directions. The proof staff is used only as a gauge to check the level surface of the paint staff. The paint staff is rubbed back and forth over the proof staff. High spots are identified by a light coating of oil and scraped down with a piece of glass. The process is repeated until the entire surface picks up the oil evenly, then the surface is wiped off. Afterwards, the level surface is coated with a mixture of water and red iron oxide. Today, powdered carpenter's chalk is used to mark the high spots on the millstone surface. The high spots can then be taken down to create the desired dished effect in the millstone grinding surface. Merchant mills had dished millstones, while custom mills had flat stones and would not get that fancy in working the millstones.

The second type of tools are the BALANCE TOOLS, such as the TRAMMEL and the JACK STICK. Both of these tools use a feather quill. Sometimes the millstone dresser uses a T-LEVEL on the bed stone. The trammel or jack stick is used to test the millstone spindle for running true. As the spindle is rotated, if the spindle is not true (perfectly upright), the quill will not scratch evenly around the leveled bed stone in a full circle. The trammel is a flat single piece of wood with a series of round holes in a straight line that allows the position of the feather quill to be adjusted to the diameter of the millstone. The other end has a square hole so it can be wedged onto the millstone spindle. The jack stick is also a piece of hardwood. The spindle end is thicker and extends half of the length of the jack stick. The wood is sawed back 4 to 6 inches, separating the upper from the longer lower length which holds the feather quill. The jack stick has a wooden turn screw in the wood at the end of the upper length, so it can move the lower length up and down. This enables the feather quill to be moved closer to the millstone surface without repositioning the device. The MARKING TOOLS and the BALANCING TOOLS are also known as TRUEING DEVICES.

The third type of tools used by the dresser are the DRESSING TOOLS. The BILLS or PICKS (as they are commonly called in America) are of two types: the CRACKING PICKS and the FURROWING PICKS. Cracking picks are thinner and lighter in weight than the furrowing picks. Traditionally, the bill has no hole in its center. It is placed into a wooden handle called a THRIFT, and held in place with strips of leather. The mill pick has a hole in the center for a wooden handle in the style of a hammer or similar tool.

The wooden handle of the thrift or pick is rested on a BIST. A bist is a small cushion of chaff or bran in a cloth sack. It is laid on the millstone, which the dresser leans over. He holds the handle against the bist and with the other hand raises the tool. Then he allows it to drop on the millstone. All cutting work is done by the dropping action in order that the entire stone will be struck with the same amount of force. This is why the bill and its wooden- handle thrift work best. They have more weight than the mill pick and wooden hammer handle. The weight of the tool is what does the work. The dresser simply directs the tool. If the dresser used his wrist power to hit the millstone, his wrist would quickly tire out or he would hit a soft spot too hard and do damage to the millstone.

Other dressing tools are the FACING or BUSH HAMMERS used to take down high spots on the millstone surface. They look like meat tenderizers. Most dressers today just use a furrowing pick on the high spots. Many of the high spots on a millstone are small raised areas and the pick cutting edge works the best. The facing and bush hammers are meant to remove large areas, as would be done in changing the millstone pattern. Tools in little use today are the CHISEL and the PRITCHELL. They are used with a hammer to dress millstones with holes or depressions in them, such as wheat chaff millstones which are used to clean the wheat before it is ground into flour. These pairs of millstones are also called "rubbers" or "ending" stones.

The fourth type of tools are the LAYOUT and GAUGES. The most common in use today is the FURROWING STICK. It is laid on the furrow to identify the correct width of each furrow and to mark it with a pencil. A layout is a tin stencil, much like the old barrel stencils. Some are even made of thin hard wood fabricated in the same manner as a wooden paddle. They are used to lay out the furrows in each quarter.

The furrows in a millstone are laid out in sections called quarters. Each quarter is identical to another all the way around the millstone. There are usually 10 sections on the millstone surface in a "quarter" dress pattern, but at times there may be 12 quarters. The layout is used to mark out the pattern in a new millstone, or when the dress pattern is changed. At times the millstone manufacturer would mark out the pattern in advance if he knew the desired pattern and the turning direction of the millstones. The tin stencil of the layout might contain: the first furrow, the "Master Furrow"; second furrow, the "Journeyman Furrow"; third, the "Apprentice Furrow"; and the fourth and shortest furrow, the "Butterfly Furrow". Some millstones are dressed only with the first two and others only with the first three, and have no butterfly furrow. Gauges were something given out by the millstone companies at one time with the sale of new tools. They could be laid in the center of the furrow, at the eye or at the skirt, and used to check the correct depth of the furrows at each point and along the furrow's side profile. These have become few and are hard to find today.

The fifth type of tools is for SAFTEY PROTECTION, often not thought of long ago. Today it means proper EYE PROTECTION from stone and steel chips. The old time millstone dressers had only his beard, gloves, long sleeves and hat for protection.

After the millstones are dressed and reassembled they must be purged of stone chips. A vacuum cleaner and brush won't do a complete job. You purge the millstones with 75 to 100 lbs. of grain and throw it away. The proof is in the pudding: how good a job the millstone dresser did. In this case, it is in the quality of the flour ground by the millstones.

Today there are very few places that make millstone dressing tools. The old tools were often kept near the millstones on a beam which formed a shelf for them. Sometimes they were hung in leather loops on the millstone crane. In one of the last mills I visited with Charlie Howell, we saw a paint staff, near where the mill once had its millstones. Many years ago they were removed. The mill had been converted to grind only animal feed. However, the owner wanted to keep the old tool where his relative had kept it hung: in its proper place of importance.

The illustration depicts various tools used in millstone dressing,
including in the foreground a metal proof staff, or "prover,"
used to test the accuracy of the paint staff.

In England there was the itinerant millstone dresser. In America, on the other hand, the poor miller most often had to dress his own millstones. Properly maintained and dressed millstones could mean the difference between a mill making a profit or losing money. The well-dressed millstones will give the miller better control over the quality and quantity of the flour ground. The art and skill of millstone dressing varied from mill to mill. One dresser may think cracking lines are useful, while another thinks they are totally useless. Traditionally, millwrights did not dress the millstones. Today the independent itinerant millstone dresser is almost unknown. The skill will not die out as long as mills still use millstones. Today as yesterday, not all millers know how to dress millstones. The late Charlie Howell said that he had dressed millstones in 33 states and 7 countries. Some of his tools had been passed down through his family. Charlie kept these tools alive by inserting modern carbide tips in the picks. Mill picks when removed from the mill are often not recognized for what they are. If they are recognized, it may not be fully understood how they were used. They are simple tools used on hard stones. The job of the millstone dresser is hard work.


"Dressing Stones, General Instructions for Meadows Mealmasyer Stone Burr Mill," Meadows Mill Company, North Wilksboro, North Carolina, pages 26-28, no date.

"Types of millstones, lifting a millstone, the working face of the millstone, (stone-dressing, skilled work, leveling the stones, the mill-bill)," by Stanly Freese, chapter 7, The wind mill at work, Wind mills and millwrighting, Cambridge University Press, 1957, David & Charles Newton Abbot, Devon, 1971, pages 99-107.

"Milllstone Dressing," by John Seymor, chapter, The Forgotten Crafts, a Practical Guide to Traditional Skills, Alfred A. Knoff, New York, 1984, pages 136-138.

"The Tools of the Millstone Dresser," by Kenneth Major, T.A.T.H.S. (Tool And Trades History Society), Newsletter, no. 8, 1985, pages 24-37.

"The Tools of the Millstone Dresser," by Martin Watts, T.A.T.H.S., Newsletter, no. 12, 1986, page 39.

"A Query Regarding Millstone Dressing Tools," by J. Kenneth Major, T.A.T.H.S., Newsletter, no. 18, Summer 1987, pages 36-38.


1. Millstone Dressing- Part 1 :
appeared in the Winter 1996 issue of OLD MILL NEWS, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Whole Number 94, page 16-17. ISSN 0276-3338.
It has been reprinted on HAMPSHIRE MILLS GROUP NEWSLETTER, Number 36, Spring 1997 pages 6-7.

2. Millstone Dressing - Part 2 :
appears in the Summer 1996 issue of OLD MILL NEWS, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Whole Number 96, pages 8-9 and 11. There are additional photos and a reference source list for more information on millstone dressing and tools of the millstone dresser.
It has been reprinted on HAMPSHIRE MILLS GROUP NEWSLETTER, Number 35, Winter 1997 pages 6-7.

3. Images of the Millstone Dresser: various images of the millstone dresser.

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Copyright 1996 by T. R. Hazen