Dressing, An Interpretive Program.
"Millstone Dressing An Interpretive Program," by Theodore
R. Hazen, Master miller (mill operator), Millwright, Curator of Molinology,
NPS Site Supervisor, and Lead Interpreter, Pierce Mill, Rock Creek Park,
National Park Service, Washington, D.C., 1987.
Theme & Goals: A hundred years ago the mill was a common sight,
So much so it was hardly noticed. Compared to the numbers of mills today,
there are very few left. A lot of people in this country today have never
seen a mill at work. Also they have never been inside of a mill, working
or idle. To give the visitors an understanding of millstone dressing, his
tools and techniques he used, skills once in demand and today much unobtainable.
To give the visitors a glimpse of what it took to put the mill to work.
This was often work that was done when the mill was closed and not in operation,
to safeguard the secrets of the craft of milling.
Background Information: Millstone dressing once done by traveling
millstone dressers (in England and elsewhere). Nowadays, redressing is done
by the miller. When I began working in commercial flour mills in Pennsylvania,
in the 1970's, the going rate to have your millstones dressed was 75 dollars
The expression, "Show your mettle" or "Is he worth his mettle?"
comes from the days of the traveling itinerant millstone dressers. They
would travel the countryside, from mill to mill, seeking short time or term
work. The mill owners or the miller would ask the prospective worker to
"show his mettle!" The millstone dresser to show his mettle, he
would roll up his sleeves, to reveal his forearms. In dressing millstones,
the metal tools used, caused chips of metal to embed themselves under the
dresser's skin. If it was not removed, it would cause a bluish discoloration.
The bluish discoloration did not mean that he was a good stone dresser,
but only that he had experience at dressing stones. If the metal chips were
not removed, they would cause a bluish discoloration (much like a tattoo)
of the skin. And there was always the chance of metal chips getting into
the blood stream.
Lifting and Moving the Runner Millstone: A strong pinch bar and a
big triangular wooden block (wedge) inserted underneath the runner millstones,
is the traditional method of upturning a millstone. The runner stone was
raised as high as it would go and place it on two wooden strips. The triangular
wooden block was driven between the two millstones. The pinch bar was inserted
through the eye to flip the runner millstone on its side. Either a rope
sling was placed though the millstone eye to lift the stone to its round
edge. Then a very gently and cautiously it was lowered onto its back, face
up. Read for dressing. This was done by either lowering the rope sling or
inserting a pinch bar into the eye from the opposite and side and gently
lowering it downward. Remembering at all times that a slip might bring a
ton millstone down on some one's foot or go through the floor. Show the
visitors the tools used, but not actually use them. This is not a recommended
method of moving a millstones while the public is in the mill. (Item #1)
The Mill Stone Crane: A (very) few windmills and early custom mills
were equipped or furnished with a stone crane. It consisted of an upright
pillar, with a large swing bracket or beam. From the end of the bracket
is suspended a pair of curved arms or bales. Each termination in a loop,
hook or pin. The two hooks are inserted into sockets or holes on the opposite
side of the runner millstone.So when they lift the stone it is symmetrically
balanced and be then slung over, face up or downwards, when so wanted. (Item
The early screws of the millstone crane were made of wood. Then later they
were made of metal threads. The threads are flat on each side. This is different
than on a wood screw. If the threads were tapered on both sides like that
of a wood screw the weight of the stone would cause the screw to lower the
millstone constantly. Or you could not leave the stone raised at any given
Dressing the Millstones: Dressing the millstones was often work that
was done in the night or in the dead of winter. A merchant mill would dress
a millstone once a month or when it grinds between 100 to 200 thousand pounds
of grain. A custom mill would dress the millstones once a year. A restored
mill open to the public and demonstrating the art of milling, would only
require dressing the millstones once in a ten year period. They are often
dressed on a more regular basis or as part of the interpretive programing
at the mill.
The Working Face of the Millstones: The working face of the bed stone
is either flat, or slightly concave, while the runner stone surface is sightly
concave on the working face. This is to improve the grain feed thus the
grain is progressively passes through a narrower and narrower space. The
grain enters the eye of the center of both millstones at the "bosom"
of the stone. The bosom is the area immediately surrounding the eye of the
millstone. In a French millstone, the bosom includes the first circle of
pieces around the eye. As it is worked from the "waist" (waist
of a millstone is the middle of the millstones) to the "skirt"
(skirt of a millstone is the outer edge of the stone). (Item #3)
The upper and lower stones have smooth surfaces, made by the makers called
the "land" (the lands are the flat surfaces between the furrows
on a millstone or the millstone's surface face) The land has to be dressed
with furrows or grooves. The stones are laid out in usually ten segments
The longest furrow (the master furrow) is about 1 1/4 inch wide. A furrowing
stick is used to check the width of this furrow. One edge of the furrow
has a feather edge, that is cut as sharp and as clean as possible. The straight
edge is chamfered to obviate the cutting up of the bran. The lands between
the furrows are finely grooved or feathered from 6 to 12 crack lines per
inch. Like a file, they skin off the wheat kernel of grain so it can be
ground by the furrows.
Note: there was no reputed millstone dresser who previously dressed
these millstones (at Pierce Mill). They were incorrectly and wrongly dressed.
Also they don't have all of the tools associated with the dressing of millstones.
A good millstone dresser can put as many as 16 stitches or cracks per inch.
No sticking is necessary on millstones used for grinding corn. Some say
stitching is gone after a week of grinding. Others say stitching should
be deeper towards the skirt. Cracking or stitching should be parallel to
Laying out of the furrows depends upon the rotation of the upper runner
millstones. The lands between the secondary furrows are where the stitching
is to be put in.
The upper and lower stones are dressed alike,. the grain is cut with a scissor
cutting action, as it moved down the furrows, until it emerges at the skirt.
Then it is sweep around to a spout or chute by the draft or turning motion
of the runner millstone. A single kernel of grain takes 2 1/2 revolutions
to travel through the millstones in a spiral motion.
It is easier to dress the upturned runner millstone than the bed stone,
because the bed stone is flush with the floor. When two men dress the millstones,
the master dresser usually dresses the runner and the helper, apprentice
or lesser man must deal with the bed stone.
Millstone Dressing: Millstones are dressed with a mill pick, a tempered
steel pick with a wooden handle. These are usually a double ended wedge
made from cast steel that has been tempered with chisel like edges to cut
the stone. Mill picks are usually 7 to 9 inches long with a hole in the
center for a handle and used much like a hammer. Mill bills are fitted into
a wooden handle called a thrift. This is a turned wooden handle 12 to 15
or even 18 inches long. The head is about 3 inches in diameter with a mortise
cut to accommodate the bill. They are used to peck the surface of the millstone
and the furrows.
The tap-tap-tap of the millstone dresser bill or pick was once a familiar
sound in the quite countryside. (play tape of millstone dressing or pick
the stone for the sound of the process). It was audible to the passerby
if the mills was near the roadway.
A pair of stones provided a full days work for the miller and his helper.
Dismantling, dressing and reassembling ready for grinding. Two pairs might
take up to 3 days to dress. Inexperienced men might take up to 3 or 4 days
to dress for one badly worn pair of stones.
Traveling millstone dressers were semi-itinerant workers, they were individualist,
characters, only recognized by little blue-black bits of steel, larger than
a pin head embedded in the hands and some times their faces. Safety goggles
to protect the eyes and a leather shield on the pick or gloves on the hands
should be worn. (Item #4)
A millstone dresser has a number of picks. The resharpening is done by hand,
or foot powered sharpening stone. An electric grinder may remove the temper.
An experienced millstone dresser can tell by the ring or dull tung sound
when the pick strikes the millstone if the temper is still in the pick or
it has gone out of it.
Skilled Work: Mill picks become dull and must be resharpened. They
become blunted and must be sharpened or redrawn out by the blacksmith. They
loose their temper and must be carried to the blacksmith for retempering.
They are heated to a cherry-red color and then plunged into cold water or
a chemical bath.
A staff or wooden paint proof is a long dead straight level mahogany or
maple bar smeared with red oxide, lamp black, black iron oxide or today
powdered chalk form a carpenters plastic bottle. They are moved over the
stone in all directions to find uneven, unworn high spots, to be chipped
away for preliminary leveling, before dressing. The paint staff is kept
dead level with a metal gauge called a proof staff. High spots on the wooden
surface is hand planned down with a piece of glass.
Mechanical millstone dressers have never been found to be effective. Oliver
Evans did not do any thing for the millstone dressing.
The metal proof staff is carefully protected in a case, for checking with
the paint staff, before use.
Custom mills had often dead level surfaces on both stones. They would not
take the extra time and trouble to get the runner and bed stone concave.
Dead level stones flattens rather than grinds the grain. The millstones
on vertical mills are dead level.
The old school method of millstone dressing says, that custom was "no
flour milling" The farmer and the millers believed in very shallow
furrows. We are making meal rather than making flour.Thus the term for milling
for a long time was "mealing."
In a mill usually 12 to 15 to 50 pick each would only remain sharp for 10
to 15 minutes of work. They usually do the stitching or cracking first,
while they hare sharp, then use them for the furrows later when they become
dull. (show visitors how the pick is held and then used)
The millstone dresser tap-tap-tap or chips at a rate of 120 strokes per
minute. In doing stitching or cracking, to make sure when pausing that the
grooves are parallel to the furrows, and only as laid out in an area as
wide (thickness of the cutting edge) as the pick. So that there might be
a dozen grooves crosses the width of the land, along the lands from the
Cutting Action: The millstones are not dressed with up and down action
of the muscles. The stone dresser uses a "bist" a cushion, usually
made of a partly filled sack of meal or bran. This is used by the millstone
dresser to rest the handle of the millstone dressing pick or thrift. One
hands holds the handle to the bist, while the other hand lifts the handle
of the dressing tools just behind the mill pick or head, then allows the
tool to drop on the millstone creating a cutting action by its own weight.
If the miller used his muscles, he would wear out his arms before too long,
and more importunately, if the miller uses his muscles behind the strikes
to the millstones hitting a less dense portion of the stone would take too
much away. So if the cutting of the stone is always done by the weight of
the tool alone, the cutting action is always the same.
Oliver Evans, one of the first mill writers on milling in this country,
insisted that the cutting edges of the furrows always be sharp. A dull stone,
he wrote, "Kills or destroys that lively quality of the grain, that
causes it to ferment and raise in baking, it also makes the meal so clammy
it sticks to the cloth, and chokes up the meshes in bolting (sifting)."
Leveling the Stones: Before replacing the runner stone, it is necessary
to check the head of the millstone spindle protruding through the bed stone
to see it it revolves dead true, in relation to the level bed stone. Otherwise,
the top runner stone will flop from side to side and grind the lower stone
and create sparks and fire. Whole grains will emerge on one side and hot
over ground flour will come out the other. (Item #5)
To check this, a wooden trammel is fitted onto the millstone spindle with
an upright quill. It is wedged though a small square hole that fits onto
the spindle. The quill stub or point comes in contact with the bed stone.
The master millstone dresser watches and listens to the sound of the quill
while the helper down stairs turns, revolves the spindle. If in correct,
adjustment screws or wedges in the bridging block are adjusted until perfectly
trueness is attained.
After repeated dressing of millstones, it wears down and must move or remove
the first ring or hoop.
Mill picks: In the days of the traveling stone dresser, a boy would
be used to turn the grindstone to sharpen the picks to keep the dresser
supplied with sharp picks. (Item #6)
Important job and skilled knowledge to temper the picks. Tempering was done
by heating the picks to a cherry red color and plunging them into cold soft
water (rain water) until cool. Important to plunge into water at right time
so not to get chips or fly to pieces. Should be resharpened with rough file
before cooling.Sometimes a stone dresser would collect mill picks from several
mills and spend a day using a blacksmith's forge to do the job himself.
Because the average blacksmith did not always have the knack of doing it
correctly or pleasing the millstone dresser. (see: "The American Miller
and Millwright's Assistant," by William Carter Hughes, Harsha and Hart,
Detroit, 1850, for problems between the millstone dresser and the blacksmith
as to how mill picks are tempered)
Flour Milling: "The proof is in the pudding," (how good
the millstone dresser did his job is found in the pudding. (Item #6)
Balancing the Runner Millstone: Runner stone cannot be balanced unless the
stone spindle is true. Two types of balance are done. Static balance (a
standing balance) and dynamic balancing (a running balance and is best)
The millstones must be first purged with 50 to 75 pounds of grain that is
thrown away. No mater how good a job is done of sweeping and vacuuming the
stones, it does not removed all of the stone chips. This ground flour or
meal must be tossed out and not used. Some Native American tribes wore away
their teeth by grinding grain on stones that were too soft. They got huge
amounts of ground stone in their meal.
Conclusion: Most individuals have no idea who the millstones grind
the grain into flour or meal. They think that the millstones touch each
other, mashing up the grain down into meal. The millstones never touch each
other. If they did the mill would stop, because of the weight of the two
millstones would over take the weight of the water and it would act as a
break. If the millstones touched each other it would send a shower of sparks
that could ignite the dust in the flour. The dust from wheat, rye, barley
and oats is a problem. The dust from just wheat flour is more explosive
than gun powder and 35 times more explosive than coal dust. The dust contained
in corn and buckwheat is not explosive.
The meal coming out of the millstones should be slightly warm to the touch.
Millstones retain the natural flavor and goodness because the stones naturally
dissipate the heat towards the coolers sides of the millstones where it
is lost to the air. If a millstone becomes cracked or broken, it will no
longer dissipate the heat properly generated in the milling process. A crack
will build up the heat because the stone does not realize that the crack
is not an outside edge. The heat will be drawn towards the crack and built
up causing the flour to become burned. With burned flour the gluten is destroyed
and it looses its ability to rise and make good bread.
The miller used what is called the "miller's touch" to
judge the quality of the ground meal coming out of the millstone chute.
First the miller used the "fist method" to tell if the grain contained
the right amount of moisture. The miller would collect a handful of ground
meal, and then close his hand. When opening his hand the meal should slightly
cling together, but not hold together as if it was a handful of clay. It
should not fall through the fingers when he opens his hand like it was made
out of sand. The second is the "finger method" which the
miller rubs a test amount between the thumb and the ends of the index and
middle fingers. This method judges the size and fineness of the grind. The
fingers should be kept soft and velvety, and free of grease and dirt. The
miller should never do any hard work that would harden or destroy this sense
of touch. Remember the flour should be as soft as your ear lobe and the
meal as course as the bottom of your big toe. Finally the "palm
method," which the miller catches meal in the palm of his right
hand. He slowly spreads it back and forth. This tends to settle or filter
the middlings and the flour to the bottom and raise the bran to the top.
This way the miller can see the size and shape of the bran. Is the bran
in nice broad flakes, or is it torn into small size particle. The miller
knows that the millstones need to be dress when he can no longer see the
bran as it should be. The ground material should feel alive, and never lifeless
or dead in the hand.
Traditional folklore that is associated with millstones, is that if they
fall, kill or injure someone, they become like wild animals out for more
taste of human blood. So perfectly good millstones were retired out of the
mill. They would go into banks, and bridge abutments, or become doorsteps
so others would take their evil or bad luck away with them.
In one part of the country, they think that only good millers would have
one eye. They have taken the mill expression, "Keep your noise to
the grindstone" to mean that in dressing your millstones you would
accidentally put out one eye. The expression, "Keep your noise to the
grindstone" means that in keeping your noise to the grindstone that
your ear is in that direction. It means pay attention to your work. You
use your senses to operate the mill. The sense of smell to know then the
millstones are burning the flour. It may be that they are too close together;
too little grain is going between them and they are running hot; or they
may be out of balance and they are rubbing on one side. One mill has a wooden
jointed man standing on the millstone cover (much like a lumberjack) so
when the millstones become out of balance, the man begins to dance. The
dancing man. You also use your senses of hearing, touch and vibration to
operate the mill.
Millstones are man's second oldest method of grind grain besides his teeth.
Not all stone makes good millstone material. The French millstones were
the best material ever discovered for grinding wheat and producing white
flour. French millstones hold their cutting edge much longer but are harder
to dress, and therefore, require less frequent dressing like other types
of millstones. Some think that the French millstones can grind flour without
dressing because of their natural pours. Up until 1890 most flour was still
ground with millstones. In recent years stone ground flour has regain popularity
because of its association with organically grown grains.
The increasing use of vertical motor driven millstones mills has made stone
ground flour and meal more available. But speed kills. They run at higher
speeds than the traditional water and wind powered mills. The meal exits
the mills warmer and the modern metal housings hold more heat into the millstones.
The modern milling system that uses metal rollers destroys and removes 12
of the natural nutrients in just the milling and sifting process. Steel
rolled oats destroys or kills all of the natural nutrients in oats, and
thus eliminates any problems associated with moisture in its storage. Modern
oat meal is mainly eaten as a source of fiber than anything else. Many health
officials think that any thing that is made associated with wood and stone
can never be free of filth and vermin.
Questions for Discussion:
How do you tell when the millstones need dressing?
What is meant by the term "stone ground?"
Does "stone ground" also always mean "water ground?"
Do you get pieces of millstone in your flour and meal?
How is flour milled today?
Which is better stone ground or the modern method?
1. Take a quantity of corn or wheat. Have the students search outside
for pieces of stone that will work as a saddle stone, and see what happens
when they try to grind the grain.
2. Take two pieces of broken millstones or two blocks of French millstones
and try to grind grain with furrows on the stone surface. Does it make a
3. Use a hard surface, like a counter top and a rolling pin to grind grain
or crackers into flour and meal. How many fine particles are produced in
just one pass of the roller. You can use a household hand sifter to sift
out the finer particles. How many passes does it take to reduce all of the
material to the same size and consistency? Is this a similar action to that
of the roller mill?
4. Use a table top hand mill to grind grain into flour or meal. Catch the
particles in a bowel, tub or bucket. Then use a household hand sifter to
sift to separate the finer particles from the coarser particles. What happens
when you regrind and sift the material over again?
5. Make a wooden version of the millstone pick to allow small children to
try the action of dressing the millstone. The tool would be lighter and
less likely to injure themselves or others.
Mill Speak or Sayings: One children's version of the "Jolly
Miller" goes, "he crushed a flea upon a stone and there he
let him be........" Is there any other sayings in literature, legend
or folklore about the trade of milling?
"Wait your turn.," or "waiting your turn,"
was more than likely the business of the day at Anderson's Mill. This comes
from a time long ago when people took a "turn" of corn
(thrown over a horse's back) to the mill. A "turn" of corn
was a partly filled sack of grain that could be easily carried over the
shoulder or on a horse's back. "Waiting your turn" was
to wait for your grain to be ground. People were told to "wait their
turn" or "wait for their turn," by being told
when to come back and picked up their finished ground grain. At times it
may be several hours, later that day or the next. At times people camped
out or slept in the miller's house waiting for their grain to be ground.
"Fair to middlin" is an answer when someone is asked how
they are feeling. Fair means fine flour and middlin or middlings is the
mediocre grade of flour. The saying means that your are not doing real good
or really bad, but somewhere in the middle.
"Back to the old grind," This refers to what the miller
has been doing. To get back to work.. It is always the same old grind, no
matter how you look at it. The only saving grace is once you set the millstones,
they will grind the same all day interrupted and without changes as long
as they get the same amount of water and grain.
"Run of the mill," or "run though the mill."
Run of the mill is the product and process of the milling operation. What
is run through the mill, this product is often labeled as "mill
run." The term "mill run" refers to what a mill
grinds, can or has ground. It can also refer to some one who looks tired,
as if they look like they have been run though the machinery and the milling
process of the mill.
"No mill, no meal; no will, no deal," in other words, "where
there is a will, there is a way." If there is no meal, there is
no meal. If you can't make a deal with the miller to have your meal ground,
their is no meal. They are all interconnected in "where there is
a will, there is a way."
Films: There are several films that could be purchased and shown
on 16mm film or video. One is "The Mill at Philipsburg Manor."
It is a 20 minute film that shows the year-round operation of a colonial
mill by the miller and his apprentices. This was filmed and produced by
Sleepy Hollow Restorations, Sleepy Hollow, New York, 1973. The late Charles
Howell dressing the millstones in a portion of this film. "Water
Mills Monuments to the Past," is a 6 minute 40 second film that
shows why water mills were important, why they disappeared and why they
should be preserved. This film is produced by the education department of
John Deere in Moline and it is part of a longer film called "Farming
Frontiers." The late Clyde Kethner dress a millstone in a portion
of this film.
Webmaster's Note: There is also a video tape of Charles Howell dressing
the millstones at the Atlas Mill, Crossroads Village, Michigan, April 22,
Program Variations: You can discuss in further detail the different
types of millstone dressing tools: Mill picks, facing hammers, cracking
hammers, bush hammers, etc. Trammels and all of their various names. Also
the different types of millstones, where they are quarried and what they
are best suited for milling. Then the different millstone dress patterns
can be shown. In this discussion, what happens when you mix one millstone
dress pattern on one millstone to another, and what happens when you install
a pair of millstones that are dressed backwards for the rotation of the
Millstone Dressing Program: A Bibliography.
"Flour for Man's Bread," by John Storck and Walter Dorwin
Teague, Minneapolis, Minnesota Press, 1952.
Types of millstones, lifting a millstone, the working face of the millstone,
(stone-dressing, skilled work, leveling the stones, the mill-bill),"
by Stanley Freese, chapter 7, The wind mill at work, "Wind Mills
and Millwrighting," Cambridge University Press, 1957, David &
Charles Newton Abbot, Devon, 1971, Cranbury, New Jersey, A.S. Barnes and
Company, 1972, pages 99-107.
"Millstone 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
"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.
"Buhrs, disc mills, scrolls & grinders," by Prof. B.W. Dedrick,
chapter 11, pages 259-277, "Practical Milling," National
Miller, Chicago, Illinois, 1924.
"The stone and the grain," by Charles Howell and Allen Keller,
chapter 3, pages 67-91, "The Mill at Philipsburg Manor Upper Mills
and A Brief History of Milling," Sleepy Hollow Restorations, Tarrytown,
New York, 1977.
"A few words on millstone dress," by Jon A. Sass, chapter, pages
61-65, "The Versatile Millstone, Workhorse of Many Industries,"
Note: Item numbers refer to the original handouts given out with
this program. There are a number of variations on this program which deals
with millstone dressing. There is no "whole number" given to this
interpretive program on the above copy, or when the original date of this
program and number of variations.
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