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Millstone Dressing, An Interpretive Program.

Sharpening the mill stones at the Grist-mill, Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Grinding grain is one of the activities of New England's rural past brought back to live at the Northeast's largest living-history center.

Millstone Dressing
An Interpretive Program
Theodore R. Hazen

"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.

Millstone Dressing

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 per hour.

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 #2)

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 point.

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 or harps.

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 the furrows.

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 skirt.

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) (Item #7)

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 difference?

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, 1992.

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 spindle.

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 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.

"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," SPOOM, 1984.

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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Copyright 2002 by T. R. Hazen