Antique Tool Market: The Igloo Workshop

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This article is from Issue 5 of Woodcraft Magazine.

the lead page for “The igloo workshop,” from the November-December 1933 issue of The Home Craftsman.

Frigid conditions couldn’t stop members of Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s Antarctic expedition from spending some quality time in the woodshop. 

Sawdust at 70 Below

the woodworking machines so familiar to all of us can sometimes appear in unfamiliar places. I recently discovered one of the strangest – Antarctica, perhaps the coldest and most desolate spot on Earth.

As part of my research for a 10-volume series on the history of American manufacturers of woodworking machinery, a few years ago I acquired long runs of various woodworking magazines dating from the early 1930s through the late 1940s. I had known that the various polar expeditions of Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd were the big news events of that time just as NASA missions are in ours, but imagine my surprise to find them covered in woodworking magazines of the period.

Byrd’s first epic Antarctic expedition set out in 1928 equipped with aircraft to fly to the South Pole. They established their famous base camp, Little America I, on the Ross Sea ice shelf at the Bay of Whales in January 1929. The following November, Byrd and chief pilot Bernt Balchen were the first to fly over the South Pole. Three years earlier, Byrd and Floyd Bennett had been the first to fly over the North Pole.

The second expedition, 1933-1935, undertook many scientific research projects – studies of meteors, cosmic rays, weather, geography, the Earth’s magnetism and seismography of the ice cap. Byrd himself would man an advance base most of one winter.

An article in the November-December 1933 issue of The Home Craftsman entitled “The Igloo Workshop” (probably written by editor H.B. Burnett) described the woodworking shop planned by the expedition: “They may have to work in mittens; they may have to draw their Eskimo parkas over their heads, and stamp their feet to keep warm, but they’re determined to have a workshop at the South Pole!”

a 1933 walker-turner co.’s advertisement for its Driver Tool line boasts the use of the company’s equipment on Byrd’s expedition.

Cold cargo

The expedition’s cargo vessel, an old sailing ship called Bear of Oakland, planned to break through the ice pack in the Bay of Whales sometime during the Christmas holidays and deposit its strange cargo of 38 U.S. Naval officers and Norwegian skiers, 160 sled dogs, three milk cows, one bull, scientific instruments, airplanes, an auto gyro, food, fuel and nearly 14,000 other items, all aimed at re-establishing the old base camp at Little America during the “mild” summer season.

 The weather, 15 degrees below zero and requiring dogsleds to handle the supplies, would still be in stark contrast with the coming winter season, where temperatures could hit 70 below and blowing snow would completely bury the base’s houses, radio station and even airplanes, leaving only smokestacks and radio towers to mark its lonely location.

Burnett conducted an hourlong interview with Victor H. Czegka, chief supply officer and general manager of the expedition, shortly before it left.

Czegka’s secret to helping the members make it through the hardships and isolation was simple, according to the interview in The Home Craftsman. “We cannot allow the men to be idle. There has been plenty of work planned and provided to keep them busy. Of course there will be time for recreation, but even during their leisure they must be occupied.”

Burnett asked what the workshop would be used for. “Everything!” stated Czegka. “I cannot begin to tell you all the things we can do with it.”

The base workshop would be one of the first crated items landed, since it was the core of all future activities. The first objective was to dig out and rehabilitate, if possible, two houses left buried in the snow on the previous expedition. Two others saved from that expedition, stored in sections in New Zealand, would be picked up en route and reconstructed. Three new houses would be built from materials brought to the coast by ship and sledded inland by the dogs. Next would come 22 double bunks to be fitted and assembled within the first few days on land.

this page from the December 1933 issue of The Deltagram shows Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s supply ship, the Bear of Oakland, at the Boston Navy Yard shortly before sailing.

Digging out, then digging in

When they reached Little America only 30' of its 60' radio tower was visible. Little America II was built directly on top. By sinking tunnels about 8' deep they were able to make use of the old tunnels and some of the old buildings. Before the end of the year, Little America II had also been completely buried by snow.

Built down the center of the mess hall was a massive 4' x 12' workbench weighing 350 lbs. Here would be built smaller items such as trail boxes for the cookers carried on the dogsleds, small tables for supporting the navigational instruments in the planes, and dogsleds.

For the larger workshop projects a special shelter would be provided, probably a rebuilt airplane crate covered with “snow bricks.” The woodworking machines would be set up in this makeshift igloo, while gasoline-powered generators elsewhere would provide the electricity through underground tunnels.

In addition to its official duties, the workshop would also serve as a place where the men could pursue various hobbies to help fight off boredom.

And what were the machines? We know what some of them were from the back cover of the same magazine: a “900” bench saw, drill press and jointer built by the famous Walker-Turner Co. of Plainfield, N.J.

“Byrd Selects Driver Tools for Use in Antarctica,” states the ad. 

“In selecting power tool equipment,” explained the advertisement, “these scientists were faced with the problem of finding tools that would withstand hard use under abnormally severe conditions without breaking down. Their approach was from a purely technical standpoint, influenced neither by persuasion nor propaganda, and their decision to equip the expedition with Driver Tools was the result of careful checking of construction, quality, mechanical efficiency and utility. Driver Power Tools fulfilled each of their strict requirements.”

Walker-Turner also added that “Every Driver Tool taken to the Antarctic with Admiral Byrd was strictly a stock model – identical with the tools shown here, and exactly the same as those on display in your local Driver store.”

De-icing Deltas

However, Walker-Turner machines weren’t the only ones chosen by Byrd’s expedition to make the long voyage to the bottom of the world. An article in the December 1933 issue of Delta Mfg. Co.’s publication The Deltagram described the expedition’s plans and proudly detailed the role Delta machines would play.

“Included in the vast array of equipment and supplies which the expedition carries are over 75 pieces of Delta tools, including every major unit. After the expedition reaches Little America, about six different camps or buildings –

airplane, radio, dogsleds, etc. – will be set up, and Delta tools will do their bit in making the erection of these camps as simple as is possible under the extreme weather conditions. Weather conditions are largely accountable for the large number of Delta tools taken along, since it is not practical to transfer the tools from one camp to the other, or even to carry the simplest job to the tool when this can be done right on the spot by carrying extra equipment.”

Czegka commented to James Tate, editor of The Deltagram, on the important jobs for which Delta tools would be called upon.

“Many of these jobs are quite common building problems,” wrote Tate, “but of more unusual aspect is the use of Delta tools in sanding and mortising the hickory dogsleds for assembly, and cutting and finishing materials for airplane work. The drill presses furnished were expected to do a larger variety of work than any other tool. An odd item in the Byrd Expedition order was a call for extra pulleys and belts to build photographic developing equipment which they could not secure to proper specifications before leaving.

“We wish the expedition and South Pole flight every success, and we feel well content in the assurance that Delta tools will perform as nobly in Little America as they do in shops of thousands of home craftsmen.”

Walker-Turner’s follow-up advertisement in the January - February 1934 issue of The Home Craftsman contained a copy of the message sent to the company by Stephen Corey, Assistant Supply Officer of the Byrd Antarctic Expedition, on Dec. 5: “DRIVER POWER TOOLS SET UP IMMEDIATELY WE PUT TO SEA WORK BEYOND CRITICISM BEST WISHES.”

“That these Driver Power Tools were of necessity to the expedition,” boasted the advertisement, “is exemplified by the fact that they were set in operation (aboard the Ruppert) before they reached the Antarctic base at Little America.”

Clearly, if these 1930s light-duty machines were good enough to be taken to the South Pole where authorized service centers and replacement parts were a bit scarce, they still have a place in our woodshops.

The ultimate fate of Byrd’s workshop and its machines is unknown. The Delta and Walker-Turner machines may have been left behind when the base was abandoned, and may well be entombed in the ice in pristine condition waiting to be uncovered by a thaw or an archaeologist’s pick thousands of years from now.

Dana Martin Batory

Formerly a geologist, Dana Martin Batory is a cabinetmaker who runs a one-man shop (filled with antique machines) in Crestline, Ohio. He is the author of “Vintage Woodworking Machinery: An Illustrated Guide to Four Manufacturers, Volume II” published by Astragal Press.


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