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Millstone Dressing

Millstone Dressing
Theodore R. Hazen

Oliver Evans greatly improved the milling business through his inventions and did a lot to better the life of the miller. However, he did nothing to improve things for the millstone dresser. Evans advocated sharpening the millstones twice a week, instead of the usual once a month. but perhaps because of his inventions, he provided them with more opportunities to work thus requiring more frequent dressing. In Oliver Evans time, most mills had no more than 2 pairs of millstones; a few mills may have had 3 pairs of millstones. Because of Oliver Evans devices it was then impossible, with improvements in gearing systems, for mills to have more millstones and therefore grind more grain. The traditional itinerant millstone dresser was an independent man who has wanderlust. Many millstone dressers has beards. This may not have been just a fashion statement or to protect them from the cold as the miller did, but beards did double duty to protect their faces from flying stone chips. The miller was always glad to turn this laborious job of dressing his millstone over to a millstone dresser. They wore the mark of their trade in their hands and forearms which were speckled blue from embedded steel chips lodged under the skin. A miller or mill owner would ask a millstone dresser to demonstrate his skill by pulling up his shirt sleeves, "To Show His Metal." This did not mean he was highly skilled at dressing millstones, but that he had experience in dressing millstones. (OMN Editor.Note. This phenomenon also showed the picks were tempered too hard).

I first learned to dress millstones from an old miller named "Paul". I visited the mill years after his passing and saw that the mill pick that he used was still laying next to the millstones, perhaps where he last used it and laid it down. It was homemade with a handle made from a piece of pipe. It had a V-shaped piece of iron welded to the end to hold the mill pick or bill. The pick was held in place with two U-bolts, as it rested in the "V". The first time I heard that he was going to dress his millstones, I arrived just after he had finished. I was so disappointed, but nothing stopped me the next time. I guess at the time I was so happy to be shown how to dress millstones, I didn't think about how working with a metal handled tool was no fun; however, that is where the gloves came in. I soon realized that you needed the weight of the tool to help do the work. When I last went by the mill and learned he had died 5 years before, I looked at the pair of millstones now taken apart which had been used to grind sifted buckwheat chop into buckwheat flour. The surface of the two millstones were nearly smooth with only faint traces of furrows on them. Obviously, no one had dressed them since Paul.

A couple of other people also showed me how to dress millstones. I asked "Harry" one day to show me. He said, "We got a mill pick around here somewhere....I don't know if I am doing it right or not. I just do it the way my father-in-law, Clarence, showed me." Harry too has now passed away, and with the passing of those men, their specific knowledge and skills have also disappeared. Hopefully, that knowledge won't die out entirely, even as many of the big mills are now closed. At one time there were 17 water powered mills at Saint Anthony Falls on the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The largest water powered flour mill in the world was in Minneapolis. It has 42 pairs of millstones, There was a wet corn mill in Chicago that had 75 pairs of millstones for grinding corn oil.

In the 1870's with the increasing use of the roller mills replacing millstone grinding, there appeared a number of devices invented to improve the work of the millstone dresser. Only a few have survived. There millstone dressing machines were good ideas, but suffered greatly when it came to practical use. They can be found in ads of professional mill journals of the day. One was called a Diamond Mill Stone Dresser. It was a large tool with a sliding diamond cutter which was laid over the furrow being dressed. There were other millstone dressing machines that sat over the furrow. The more elaborate ones were powered by the millstone spindle. The slow turning of the spindle would power the dressing machine on the bed stone. An even stranger mechanical device was invented that could reach the inverted runner stone for dressing. Again, a good idea, but without much practical feasibility.

The old steel mill picks used by the dressers needed constant sharpening. A dresser would sit down to dress a pair of millstones with a pile of picks and go through them quickly. Each of them had to be resharpened several times in order to dress a pair of millstones. A millstone dresser needed the services of a good blacksmith to retemper his picks. When the temper ran out, it would be necessary to occasionally draw out a worn down pick. A pick with a good temper in it produces a good ringing sound when striking the millstone. You know instantly when a pick has lost its temper by the dull sound it makes against the hard quartz of a FRENCH MILLSTONE. I asked one millstone dresser when did he start using carbide tipped mill picks? His answer was immediate, "When I could no longer find a blacksmith who would temper mu mill picks for me." A proper traditional book on blacksmithing will give an expert's recipe for the cooling mixture to quench heated bills. The process often outlines how to make the cooling liquor, taking into account the seasonal times of the year. It may difficult today to find someone to temper mill picks. On the other hand, two sharp carbide tipped mill picks will do a pair of French millstones without sharpening. When they are sharp, you can use them to put in the cracking lines. Afterwards they are still sharp enough to then dress the furrows. Cracking lines are thin line grooves placed on the lands of the millstone. These shallow lines increase the grinding effect. The general rule is less cracking lines for grinding corn, more for grinding wheat. A good dresser can place as many as 16 to an inch.

Electric and pneumatic hammers can do the job of dressing millstones faster, but if you make a mistake, it's in there for a long time. The traditional hand pick used by the millstone dresser is a better method.

The first task in dressing millstones is to uncover the millstones and lift the runner stone. For many centuries, mills did not have millstone cranes (some small rural or custom mill still do not have cranes). Without a crane,many a miller or millstone dresser has gotten hurt or killed when the millstone got away from them. Also, it was not unusual for the millstone to fall through the floor. In the days of superstition, it has been a common belief that once the millstone tasted human blood, it was an evil omen and that it would want to taste human blood again. So often perfectly good millstones were retired from the mill to become door steps (so the walker would carry the bed luck or evil away), or become tombstones of the person they killed to remind others of what they could do. Another superstition was that metal taints the taste of flour. One good consequence of this superstition was that it reduced the chance of an accidental spark and dust explosion. For centuries, mill explosions were attributed to supernatural forces.

If the mill did not have a millstone crane, a large wedge was used to separate the millstones. A crow or pry bar was then used to lift the runner stone up on its side. Using a bar through the millstone eye from the other side, it was then lowered to the floor. Another variation on this is to lift up the runner stone from one side with a large wedge and instead of using a bar to lift it by the eye, it is raised and lowered over with a rope or chain hoist. At times some mills like wind mills where space is a problem may use a 'clam' for lifting the millstone off the wedge. DO NOT TRY ANY OF THESE METHODS UNLESS YOU KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING! The millstone crane with screw, bales and pins in the runner stone is the best and safest method to lift a runner stone if they are in sound condition to do the job safely. Always inspect the millstone crane before it is used to lift the millstone,especially if you are not familiar with it. It may be necessary to lift up and inspect the cranes bottom pin. A rotten pin on the crane may fail,kicking out the crane when lifting the runner stone. Never stand next to the post; stand at a right angle with both hands on the wrench of the screw. The millstone crane can even be used to replace a bed stone when necessary.

The bed stone is dressed in place. It is easier to dress the upturned runner stone than the bed stone is nearly flush with the floor. When two men dress a pair of millstones, the master stone dresser or more experienced man would dress the runner stone. His helper would dress the bed stone and keep all the mill picks sharp.

The Millstone Dresser.
He wears a full beard to protect his face
and his sleeves are rolled down and buttoned to protect his forearms.
Design from a piece of French ceramic pottery.

In England and Europe there were itinerant job seekers or dressers who took the work of the poor miller in dressing millstones. In America however, the miller usually dressed his own stones. He did not have to deal with the careless dressers who often tried to pose as a good stone dresser. Larger merchant mills in both England and America had specially trained stone dressers employed in their mills full time


"Grinding with stones," by J. Schoonhaven, T.I.M.S. paper, 10 pages, no date

"Buhrs, disc mills, scrools & grinders," by Prof. B.W. Dedrick, chapter 11, pages 259-277, Practical milling, National Miller, Chicago, Illinois, 1924, reprinted by SPOOM.

"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 Milllstone, Workhorse of Many Industries, SPOOM, 1984.

"Millstones, a few thoughts on the subject," by Duncan Breckels, Proceeding of the Fifth & Sixth Mill Research Conference, the Mills Research Group, November, 1990, pages 68-75, Cambridge, England.

"How to turn a 2 ton runner stone," by Alas Wellings Drawings, Poul Hanson Architect, Molinology Laboratory, DenDanske Molle, January/February/March, No. 1, pages 180-184, 1989.

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.

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Copyright 1996 by T. R. Hazen