Starting with this post I'm taking a break from woodworking tools. For the next few posts I will be looking at monkey wrenches and other adjustable wrenches in the Tison Tool Barn.
Monkey wrenches are adjustable nut wrenches. They have flat, smooth, and parallel faces on their jaws, so that the jaw faces are flat against each other when the wrench is fully closed. A monkey wrench has one jaw fixed to a bar, rectangular in cross-section, which extends to a handle. The second jaw is fixed to a shorter piece that wraps around the bar, which slides along the bar while keeping the jaws aligned. In some early adjustable nut wrenches the jaws were locked into place by a wedge inserted between the bar the and the surrounding piece attached to the lower jaw. In screw or monkey wrenches, the opening between the jaws is adjusted with a screw mechanism.
Monkey wrenches derived from 18th century coach wrenches, which were used to tighten or loosen nuts on coaches, including nuts holding wheel hubs on the end of axles. Coach wrenches that were adjusted with a screw mechanism were called monkey wrenches from early in the 19th century. Monkey wrenches were in wide use well into the 20th century. They were made in a range of sizes, from 5 inches long to six feet long. By the 1960s, however, they were disappearing from the workplace, As the new kid on a construction job in the summer of 1962, I was sent off to find a left-handed monkey wrench. I figured it was a joke, but I didn't know what a monkey wrench looked like.
The origin of the name "monkey wrench" has been lost. One theory is that the sliding of the lower jaw up and down the bar reminded people of the monkey-on-a-stick toy. (A monkey-on-a-stick consisted of a wooden puppet of a monkey with articulated legs, with the front paws fastened to the top of a stick, and the rear paws fastened to a block which slid up and down the stick, making the monkey jump around.) Another theory is based on the fact that with early screw-mechanism monkey wrenches adjustments were made by twisting the handle, suggesting a connection with twisting the tale of a monkey. The old and often repeated legend that the monkey wrench was invented by a man named Monk, Monck, or Moncky was proved false in the 19th century.
As noted above, monkey wrenches in the first part of the 19th century were adjusted by turning the handle. The handles were hollow with internal screw threads which engaged screw threads on the bar. This arrangement meant that workers had to use both hands to adjust the jaw opening. In 1841 Loring Coes received a patent for a screw wrench that could be adjusted with one hand. All of the monkey wrenches in the Tison Tool Barn are derived from that design. Loring Coes and his brother Aury Gates Coes dominated the screw wrench business in the United States for many years. They eventually split the company, and operated independently for many years. The two firms merged again in 1888, forming the Coes Wrench Co. Wrenches made by the Coes Wrench Co. were stamped "Worcester". Bemis & Call, another major manufacturer of wrenches, bought the Coes Wrench Co. in 1928. Wrenches made under the Coes brand after 1928 were stamped "Springfield." The Tison Tool Barn has four monkey wrenches stamped "Coes Wrench Co." and "Worcester," and which means that they were made between 1888 and 1928. They all have "knife" handles, with a flat iron or steel core and wood pieces fastened to each side.
I will continue this exploration of monkey wrenches from the Tison Tool Barn in my next post.
I have been a volunteer at the Matheson History Museum. Feeling an affinity with old hand tools (some of which I remember from my youth), I have tried to learn more about the history of the tools in the Tison Tool Barn, and how they were used.
All text and photographs by Donald Albury in this blog are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. All illustrations taken from Wikimedia Commons are either in the public domain, or have been released under a Creative Commons license.
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