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W. F. & John Barnes Company Woodworking Machinery

"The application of foot power is not new. It has been used in different ways for centuries. ... There are two classes of foot power machinery, one embracing those designed for amusement and recreation, and the other those for use in the workshop."

So begins many of the W.F. & John Barnes Co. catalogs, setting the stage for the description of their line of foot-powered woodworking and metalworking machines. The W. F. & John Barnes Company (referred to as simply Barnes from here on) of Rockford, Illinois was established by the brothers William Fletcher and John Barnes in November 1869, organized as a formal partnership in 1872, and incorporated in 1884. The company operated in Rockford until 1964, when it was bought by Babcock-Wilcox. Between 1869 and 1937, Barnes specialized in the class of machine tool intended for use in the serious workshop - their professional-grade machines are man-sized and robustly constructed, as opposed to the plethora of boy or toy sized machines of the same period. (However, Barnes also had an amateur line of smaller machines.) The Seneca Falls Company was the other major competitor in this class of machine. In about 1890, Barnes started to specialize in drill presses, and this business really took off with the acquisition of the Thomas Farmer friction-plate drill press patent.

In 1920, the Barnes company was taken over by John S. Barnes, a son of the founder John, who started veering the company more toward the more lucrative automobile machinery trade, especially assembly line tools. Within seventeen years, by 1937, their production of foot-powered woodworking tools had practically ceased. Today, Barnes is still remembered for their line of high quality foot-powered machinery, although they sold many more drill presses (first line-shaft driven, and later electrically driven) in the years after the foot-powered equipment was dropped.

There is not enough space here to do justice to the entire Barnes saga. Therefore, the entire detailed historical account of the Barnes company principals, Barnes family history, and corporate chronology is deferred. Even more, a study of the patent records for Barnes innovations, although tempting, is not attempted here. This article, then, deals strictly with the foot-powered woodworking machinery made by Barnes, and leaves other manufacturer's products for another time, author, or publication. It also ignores the metalworking tools, upright drill presses, emery tool grinders, and other products the company produced or sold, which included Stanley tools (in 1883, at least), W. Butcher cast steel turning chisels, Griffin's patent scroll saw blades, circular saw blades, and chucks, faceplates, and centers for turning lathes, among other things. Having sufficiently (I hope) narrowed the scope of our study, let's begin.

Machine Categories

One of the few areas where Barnes machines were inferior was in their ability to easily fit into type studies done one hundred years later. As we will see, there are numerous exceptions and special cases in this study. In general, though, Barnes woodworking machinery can be divided into four categories: scroll saws, lathes, circular saws, and miscellaneous tools.

Scroll saws were the company's first offerings, with the circular table saw, rip saw, and combination saw being later products (see Table 1). Barnes' saws are generally characterized by rugged, heavy castings. The circular saws tended to have lighter castings in earlier types, and heavier castings later, but were always well-made throughout their product line. Maple was usually used for wooden components, with exceptions that included the ash scroll saw table on the early (pre-1876) #7 scroll saw and the walnut table on the #6 scroll saw.

Within their machine categories, Barnes experimented with two forms of foot power, and their machines include examples of both:

  • Treadle powered machines provided a treadle of metal or wood under the tool. The Barnes tools used a patented ratcheted flywheel mechanism to reduce the amount of physical coordination necessary to drive the tool. The ratchet allowed the flywheel to turn in only one direction. The operator placed a foot upon the treadle, and just by pumping the treadle up and down could set the drive belt in motion. The big selling point of these machines was that no special training was necessary, and this feature clearly separated the Barnes machines from the other treadle machines prevalent in the early years. In some cases, the treadle on the Barnes machines was returned to a starting position by a wooden or metal spring.
  • Velocipede (or pedal-powered) machines used two (or more) foot pedals and require both of the operator's feet, rotating as bicycle pedals do around an axle to provide rotary motion.

Additionally, some Barnes machines offered alternative methods of drive, such as hand cranks (sometimes operated by an assistant) or line shaft belt drives.

Except for the hand cranks, which were direct drive, the human foot power was transferred to the business end of the machine via one or more leather belts. Barnes' machines had several varieties of belting, with the earlier machines generally using a round leather belt spliced and glued together to form a continuous strand. Later machines generally used a perforated flat leather belt. The perforations fed onto a pin (or spur) drive pulley and this design transferred much more of the operator's energy to the tool than did the round belt. Barnes patented the flat perforated belt in 1886, and started using it on its machines immediately that year.

Early Barnes machines were sold in a multitude of painted colors, with examples observed in light brown, chocolate brown, red, light gray, and dark green. After about 1890, the light gray became the standard color. Pinstriping was always added to legs and flywheels, usually in two different colors and in various patterns seemingly determined by the artist at the time. Most patterns, however, were a stripe that followed the contours of the machine, and intersected at the corners where components came together.

Most Barnes machinery was sold packaged in shipping containers; in fact, the majority of machines found today are located outside of the Rockford area. Mail order was doing very well during the late nineteenth century, and Barnes customers could be found in England, Scotland, South America, continental Europe, Australia, and Africa as well as throughout the United States and Canada. Because the machines were designed for shipping, Barnes machines found today can be transported via parcel or freight services without too much trouble. Care, however, must be taken in packaging, as the machines were typically built from cast iron which is notoriously fragile if dropped.










#7 Scroll Saw

Small Saw

#1 Scroll

#3 Scroll

#4 Scroll


#6 Scroll


#4 Saw


#1 Lathe

#2 Scroll Saw

#3 Lathe


#5 Scroll




Combo Saw

Rip Saw



Table 1: Barnes Product Introduction Timeline
(* Former and grinder introduction dates are for the type 2 dedicated models. Type 1 of both machines was introduced in 1877.)

Scroll Saws

To make our type study more challenging, Barnes didn't number their scroll saws chronologically - they started with an early unnumbered saw that was actually first used to help in William Fletcher Barnes' main line of business at the time, which was patent preparation and model making. This saw was subsequently named the #7, and pre-dates the #1, #2, etc. Even later, in 1876, they began adding the circular saws, first in the light weight amateur style, and later in heavier-duty types.

Barnes also made a lathe attachment for their #1, #2, and #3 scroll saws (the velocipede models) - unfortunately, there are no known examples. According to catalogs, these lathe attachments had about a 4 inch swing, and about 9 inches between centers.


Barnes made only 2 wood lathe models, the #1 and the #3 lathe. The #1 used the treadle drive method, while the #3 was a velocipede type. The #1 was an early model, discontinued by 1880. The #3 then became the company's only wood lathe, and it endured through several type changes. Both lathes were made of cast iron and steel, except for a wooden bed (ways). Barnes also experimented with an early form of assembly line production in their early years, attempting to use the same (interchangeable) legs for the #1 lathe, combination saw, and rip saw. They discontinued this practice by 1880, for some reason.

Circular Saws

The Barnes company made three kinds of circular saws: a combination saw, a rip saw, and a table saw. All worked amazingly well for their designed purpose.

Miscellaneous Machines

The Barnes company produced several machines which fit neither into the scroll saw, circular saw, or lathe category. I've placed these into a fourth, miscellaneous category. These machines included a former (shaper), mortising machine, tenoning machine, and a grinding/polishing machine. All were primarily heavily-built cast iron.

Dating Barnes Woodworking Machines

Dating a specific Barnes machine is an imprecise science at best, but can be approximated using the details described in this type study, Barnes catalog information, and shipping information from the Barnes company. Years of manufacture are provided in this study for each of the Barnes machines. Dating a Barnes machine is often facilitated by both the belt and pedal design, as well as additional type peculiarities as described for each machine.

For machines manufactured between 1920 and 1937, Table 2 shows the year of shipment for specific machine serial numbers. You can use this information to get a rough idea of when your Barnes machine was manufactured. The shipping records are complete for those years, but machines sold before 1920 and after 1937 don't appear in the table, and there are also entire years when apparently no machine was sold (indicated with a blank spot in the table). Time was limited while compiling this shipping information, so the numbers shown in this table aren't guaranteed, but all possible diligence was used in transcribing the information.

On any Barnes woodworking machine, if you can read the serial number, you can look down the appropriate column to roughly estimate when it was shipped. For example, if you have a #2 velocipede scroll saw numbered 12620, checking the #2 column shows that serial number 12618 shipped in 1924 and serial number 12680 shipped in 1925. Therefore, your serial number 12620 most likely shipped in 1924 or 1925. Note that this method is not fail-safe; machines often were sent out of the factory before others with earlier serial numbers - Barnes was not a strict first in, first out manufacturer. Careful study of the table will verify this. If you have a machine with a serial number in the ranges specified in the table, you can find out the original shipping address by contacting the Earl W. Hayter Regional History Center in DeKalb, Illinois (part of Northern Illinois University).


#2 Scroll Saw

#3 Lathe

#7 Scroll Saw

Comb. Saw



















































































































No #




No #


No #



No #


No #



No #


No #

Table 2: Dates of Shipment for Specific Barnes Machines
Table Notes:
  1. "No #" means a sale was recorded that year, but no serial number.
  2. "2ea. No #" means Barnes sold only 2 of these machines that year, but the company didn't record serial numbers.
  3. Finding Serial Numbers:
    For those machines that included them, you can find serial numbers on Barnes machines in the following locations:
    • On #2 and #7 scroll saws, serial numbers were generally found in the end grain on the front of the wooden table.
    • On the amateur scroll saws and former, serial numbers were often stamped on the working surface of machine, but they are usually worn and hard to read.
    • On wood lathes, serial numbers were generally found stamped on the ways near the headstock, at the back of the machine.
    • On combination saws, serial numbers were generally found in the end grain on the front of the wooden table.
    • On mortising machines, serial numbers were generally found stamped in the castings, but are usually very light and hard to find. On earlier mortising machines, most often no number can be found, possibly because it was stamped on the wooden table, few of which survive today.
    • On tenoning machines, serial numbers were generally found in the end grain at the back of the table.
    • On rip saws, serial numbers were generally found on the wooden cross member under the machine.

Locating Barnes Machines Today

Finding a Barnes machine today is not too easy, especially a machine in decent shape. In its day, Barnes was the leading supplier of foot-powered machinery, so the numbers of Barnes machines produced were fairly high (30,000 to 40,000 scroll saws alone). Also, due to their heavy construction, the Barnes machine tended to last longer than competitor's models. However, time has taken its toll, and tens of thousands of Barnes machines were junked after the invasion of electric power and during war metal drives. The vast majority of well-maintained, complete Barnes machines are in the possession of collectors and museums. The Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC has a good display of repainted Barnes equipment.

Prices for these machines vary tremendously depending on condition, relative scarcity, and location. Machines complete with all known attachments are more highly prized. Machines in the midwest part of the United States tend to sell for the highest prices, perhaps because they are closer to the source (Rockford, IL) and thereby more popular. The east coast has the next highest pricing tier, and the west coast enjoys lower prices, but definitely less supply.

In terms of scarcity, the earlier round belt models are generally more valuable. #3 lathes and #4 table saws are also highly sought after. #2 saws and the mortising machine are probably the most commonly found, and you can expect to pay from $150 to $300 for the mortiser and $900 to $2500 for the #2. The combined saw is also more common, but people seem to like it so the price is most often higher. Scarcer machines such as the rip saw, second type of grinder, tenoner, and former can also fetch high prices.

As with most antique tools (Stanley being the notable exception), price guides for Barnes machines are almost impossible to codify. There are few machines, and fewer collectors. Trades happen infrequently, and are rarely recorded. Top condition machines may sell for three or four times what an average machine sells for.

The information in this study, and the opinions of the authors, are based on the examination of almost all the available historical information on the Barnes company, a thorough patent search, shipping records of the company, and numerous personal observations of specific machines. Whenever a date is mentioned, it is the first verifiable date for that event. This doesn't mean that these dates are absolutely accurate and all-inclusive. As with anything where records are incomplete, errors and omissions may occur, and we welcome additions or corrections to this information. If you have a Barnes machine, or knowledge of the Barnes company or family, and wish to add to the database of information, please contact one of the authors (whose addresses are in the EAIA membership list). We are planning future articles delving more deeply into the fascinating world of foot powered manufacturing, and your information may help us bridge a missing link in the history of human-powered machinery.


This article was first published in the summer, 1996 edition of the Early American Industries Association (EAIA) Chronicle.


Bob Horner, Green Valley, CA. Bob's first interest in Barnes machinery was sparked at a woodworking show 20 years ago, when he saw a #2 being demonstrated. Later, Bob discovered his aunt had been the maid of honor at one of the Barnes family weddings. Bob provided almost all the raw data for this treatise, and has spent years poring over library records and journeying to check features of various discovered machines. Technical details of each machine have been verified personally by Bob, and he has completed a Barnes patent study of meticulous detail. He is currently employed as an orthopedic technician for Kaiser Hospital in L.A. He has a collection of the heavy-duty Barnes machines, and builds furniture, doors, and windows with them.

Steve Johnson, Redmond, WA. Steve's interest in Barnes machines came as part of a general interest in woodworking and the early tools used by woodworkers. Steve has a strong interest in the historical aspects of woodworking, and the cultural events that paralleled the technological developments. Steve organized Bob's data and authored this piece. His writing services are available to other researchers who share this interest, have verifiable tool facts accumulated, wish to share this information, but have no will to write. Steve is currently employed by Microsoft Corporation, where he writes about tools used by software developers.