Monday, July 18, 2016

Answer: Tools!

Tools adapt to fit the task... 

... so it's no surprise that there are some really interesting tools to fit to unusual work tasks.  

1.  A tool that's been used by stained glass workers since medieval times is a  fid.  What IS a fid?  And how would you use it? 

I thought this would be harder than it was.  A quick search for 

     [ define fid ] 

reveals that its primary definition is as "a stout bar of wood or metal placed across a lower spar so as to support a higher one" (such as between the topmast and a lower mast).  

Is there any connection to stained glass?  Not yet.  We must go deeper.  

A secondary definition is as a "conical tool used for splicing rope."  But what does this have to do with glazier work?  

I modified my query to be: 

     [ fid use stained glass ] 

and found that this is also the name of a simple tool used by stained glass artisans.  (You can tell it's a specialized too because I got a couple of ads for fids!)  

It's a little widget that's used to it open up the lead channels in the "came" (the lead channels between pieces of glass), then used to push them back down.  It's also used to clean off excess cement, and to "burnish" (or push down) copper foil.  

Here's a video talking about the use of a fid (which is also sometimes called a lathekin): 

While (stained glass) fids can be beautiful and elegant (as in the above images), I just whittled one out of an old clothespin I had lying around.  

My daughter and I working on her first stained glass project.
My fid is just to the right of my right hand.
I'm using an Xacto knife to trim the copper foil.

2.  What's this tool?  What would you use it for?  For scale, it's about 2.5 cm (1 inch) wide.

Once again, easier than I thought: Search-by-Image is the way to go here.  Most people very quickly discovered that this is a freewheel removal tool.  Different bike makers have slightly different versions of this.  An excellent tutorial (with a good video) can be found at The Bike Tube site.   You can watch him put this kind of tool over the freewheel and rotate it to pull it off the wheel.  (Which you'll need to do when repairs are necessary.)  

3.  What is a languid depressor, and how do you use it?  (And why is does it have such a strange name?)  
With such a strange name, this isn't hard to find either, but it's a bit tricky to determine exactly what it is.  

The query: 

     [ languid depressor ] 

is pretty clearly a term of art for pipe organ building, but once you've figured that out, you need to refine your search to get to a clear idea of what this tool might be. My next query was: 

     [ languid organ ] 

Why this query?  Because I figured that a "depressor" was a generic term--that is, like a "tongue depressor" and the "languid" was the thing being depressed.  

Aha!  With that query, it's easy to see that the languid is an interior component of a pipe (in a pipe organ), and that a depressor would be used to adjust the height of the languid.  I did a search for [ languid organ ] on YouTube, and (a little bit to my amazement) found the following video (which is the same one that Regular Reader Remmij found), showing a languid depressor in use.  


4.  When, why, and where would you use a kelp iron?  Can you find a picture of one? 

As everyone discovered, this was a much more difficult Challenge than the others.  No surprise, as it's a tool used for an unusual job in a far-off and distant land.  

My first query: 

     [ kelp iron ] 

This turns out to be useless for our goal (of kelp iron as a tool), but very useful if you're trying to figure out how much iron is in your daily serving of kelp. 

The next page or two of results are all like this.  What now? 

Remember that what we're trying to do is to find what a kelp iron is and how it's used.   So I modified my query to include words that would be in an article about how it's used.  (And, just as importantly, NOT in any articles about kelp as a source of nutritional iron.)  

This is simple, but works: 

     [ "kelp iron" use ] 

I did a phrase search using double quotes (so the words kelp and iron wouldn't be separated) AND I added in the word use.  This turned out to give me some great results fairly far down on the SERP. 

The fact that these results are all in Books suggests that I repeat this query in  I did that, and found these three same results.  By reading these three works, I learned that the kelp iron it is a long, thin pole round 10 feet (3 meters) long with a 3 foot (1 meter) iron rod with a hook on the end.  It's used to stir up kelp as it is burned to produce a kind of brittle, bluish slag that is rich in the chemicals used for creating soap and glass. Burning kelp become an important industry along the coastlines of Scotland, Ireland, and the islands all around the northern parts of Britain.  

The kelp-iron is used for working the ash as the kelp burns, in order to make the burning ash of consistent consistency, leaving a high quality product without unburned chunks of kelp.  

In one of the  books in our hit-list,  Agricultural Surveys: Inverness (1808) by the Great Britain Board of Agriculture, we read that "This instrument [the kelp iron] consists of a wooden handle, similar to that of a spear or a hayrake, and of such a length, that a man can work it, standing upright: the shaft is fixed into the socket of an iron head which is six-inches (12 cm) long"  and that "the kelp is thus wrought into a liquid mass without intermission, until it become stiff, which is very hard labour..."  

This is great, but continued searching with "kelp iron" isn't especially productive, there just aren't that many books with this term in it. How can we expand our search terms to find more about this difficult topic? We need to find another term that's more common, but just as precise, to find more content about the kelp burning process.  

If you read just a bit around the description of the kelp-iron in this book, we find several other unique terms we can use, the most likely of which is: 

     [ "kelp kiln"]

 which is where the kelp was burned.  

If we repeat our search using this new term, we find:  

These results are starting to look promising, surely the kelp kilns were worked with a kelp iron!  

By doing a bit of reading through these results, I learned a bit more (including the promise of an image of a kelp iron in the book "Highland Folk Ways" by Isabel Grant on page 115), and found many more descriptions of the process, including many (many!) photos of kelp kilns, where the kelp was burned, and lots of pictures of people working the kelp kilns with shovels and pitchforks... (another photo of kelp workers with shovels)...  but NOT the kelp irons.  

But so far, I haven't been able to locate an online copy of "Highland Folk Ways."  (I've requested it via inter-library loan, but that will take more than 1 week.  Will report back when I get it.)  

Like Regular Reader Jon the Unknown, I managed (after a couple hours of browsing the results from the [ "kelp kiln"] query) to find the book General View of the Agriculture of the Hebrides, Or Western Isles of Scotland, With Observations on the Means of their improvement... by James McDonald (1811).  In that text we find (p. 801) this description of the process and a tiny sketch: 

And this seems to be the best image (so far) of a kelp iron from Celtic lands.  

Interestingly enough, Regular Reader Kathe Guste found some remarkable images from a Norwegian digital history museum site: 

P/C DigitalMuseum.no
 CC by attribution

The hand-tinted photo and the black-and-white both look a lot like a kelp iron, but they seem to being used to harvest the kelp (not to stir it up in the kiln).  So I suspect these are staged photos, but even so, they certainly give an impression of what a kelp iron might be. 

I was just about to give up on this search when I tried one last thing... 

At this point, after a couple of hours of low-quality reading through search results, I was thinking to myself "How can I search through just museum websites?"  

This is when the INURL: operator becomes useful.  Not all museums have the word "museum" in their title (think of the Smithsonian, a great museum that's found at SI.ORG), but enough do that it's worth the effort.  

My last query in this search was:  

     [ inurl:museum "kelp burning" ] 

(Another variation on the "kelp" + frequent word association.)  

Lo and behold, this query has two results (!), yet this is how I found the Shetland Museum site: 

This site has it's own internal search tool (see the upper right corner).  So, I dropped in the term "kelp" to see what general kinds of things they had.  This is what I found

By this point, I'd read enough about kelp irons to know what one should look like (especially with the helpful sketch from McDonald's book. Here's the closeup of their image

P/C Shetland Museum Archives.
Obviously, this is just the iron part of the kelp iron--you'd attach a 9 foot (3 meter) pole onto this. Also notice that the Shetland Museum calls this a "kelp rake."  

Odd thing worth knowing: if you do a query like this:
[ kelp ] you WILL NOT find this kelp iron.  This is why you sometimes want to use the on-site search tool--most, but obviously not all, pages on a site are indexed by Google.  

Search Lessons

There are several things to pick up here.

1. Some searches require additional context terms in order to focus in on the target.  The fid example required that we add in use and stained glass in order to get good high quality results.  Sometimes context terms are needed to clarify the particular meaning.  

2. The right context term is sometimes the general area.  This was the case with the languid depressor.  To get decent results, I had to eliminate the word depressor and add in the word organ, once I figured out that a languid depressor is part of an organ pipe.  

3.  Remember to check other media types.  The best way to learn about how to use a languid depressor is to watch the video. 

4. Finding your goal often means figuring out the other ways people talk about your target.  In the kelp iron case, the query evolved from
     ["kelp iron"] to ["kelp iron" use] to
     ["kelp kiln"] to ["kelp burning"] to
     [inurl:museum "kelp burning"] 

5. The INURL: operator can be used (imperfectly) to limit your search to a specific kind of location (e.g., museums).  This doesn't always work, but in this case, it was exactly the right thing to try. 

This was a difficult last Challenge--but completely fun!  Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.  

Search on! 



  1. nice, methodical find on the k-iron, Dan… how did you know about them to start with?
    this might be fairly close…? all hand forged variants - just needs the pole…
    antique iron pike-pole hook
    a mod made to use with fire
    a harvest pic with kelp rake on a long pole
    …a rose is a rose is a Tari Grep (Kelp Fork)
    Sesame Kelp Brittle

    fwiw; the broader fid-verse can be quite artful… no doubt, your hand carved folk fid is worthy… and a rope jack & heaving mallets to boot… how did the stained glass turn out?
    fids & spikes
    stainless steel

    1. I first learned about them from a friend who lives on the island of Tyree, a place that has a long history of kelping.

      And the stained glass project turned out really well... Thanks!

    2. am thinking it was an early, rudimentary 2 iron prototype…
      kind of interesting - says his father made his own kelp iron - if I'm hearing him correctly - ~ 2:40 into the first segment…
      The kelp industry in Tiree - at the bottom
      …that's a challenging environment
      santa nai e José, onde están as árbores?
      "The island is known for its vernacular architecture, including 'blackhouses' and 'white houses', many retaining their traditional thatched roofs, as well as its unique 'pudding' or 'spotted houses' where only the mortar is painted white."
      "puddin' haa"
      other pics
      nearby - shows a wee bit of the crofting…
      Findhorn Foundation