John R. Gerwig Jr., 80, builder, gave extensive tool collection to Smithsonian

August 20, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John R. Gerwig Jr., who donated his prized collection of 18th- and early-19th-century tools to the Smithsonian Institution, died Aug. 12 of kidney failure at St. Agnes Hospital. He was 80 and lived at Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville.

Until he retired several years ago, he was owner and president of J. Raymond Gerwig Co. Inc., a homebuilder.

His interest in old tools began as a young man after a fire in his father's office damaged his grandfather's tool chest, which contained several moulding planes.

"So, I just cleaned them up to see if they'd clean up, and now I have in excess of 200 planes," Mr. Gerwig told The Sun in 1978, the year he donated his collection to the Smithsonian.

His collection -- gathered over 30 years -- came to represent about 30 trades practiced in the United States in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. It contained several thousand tools, many of which he displayed on Pegboard in his Morton Street offices.

Pieces from Mr. Gerwig's collection are displayed throughout the Smithsonian in Washington, but most are in the Hall of Everyday Life in the Smithsonian's National Museum of History and Technology.

What makes the collection valuable, according to experts, is the lack of restoration, allowing students of hand tools to see how they were used and how they were worn down or shaped by their former owners.

"I was awed by the size of the collection," said David Shay, specialist in history of crafts and trades at the Smithsonian, whose first assignment was to come to Baltimore and take possession of Mr. Gerwig's collection. It was the museum's largest acquisition of hand tools.

"It is a collection of national stature," said Mr. Shay, who added, "I learned my business from the Gerwig collection."

The collection is representative of tools that were once used in the Northeast and New England, some of which included shipwright tools, drills, saws, hammers, transits, spoke shaves, dividers, adzes and work benches. Mr. Gerwig also had such instruments as a cooper's cruz that was used to cut grooves around the tops of barrels for the lids.

The tools in the collection were used by wheelwrights, farriers, blacksmiths, joiners, carpenters and tinsmiths.

A plasterer's 1765 crown moulding template used for ornamental cornices is signed: "Tules ove James S. Hansell, sinr."

The collection includes many tools once commonplace but now rare -- a frow used for splitting shingles, a painter's sand bellows for texturing walls and ceilings, a schnitzelbank, or shaving horse, that was used to feather shingles, twillbills for chopping mortises, witchets for making round tool handles and fret saws for making fancy scrawls. He also collected measuring tools, such as rods that were used to determine the amount of liquids in barrels.

Mr. Gerwig's interest also included such early machinery as a 5-foot-high mortising machine with wooden springs that was used to cut square holes in timber.

Foot-operated lathes, sewing machines and jigsaws -- considered great technological improvements in their day -- helped craftsmen to produce better work and relieve them of the drudgery of handwork.

"He was a meticulous collector and had great reverence for his tools," said Mr. Shay, who also praised Mr. Gerwig's "public spiritedness" in donating the collection to the Smithsonian.

Mr. Gerwig, a former Homeland resident, was born in Baltimore and educated in city schools. He earned a bachelor's degree from the Maryland Institute and served in the Navy during World War II.

He was a member of the American Industries Association, the Boumi Temple and the Baltimore Association of Retarded Citizens.

He was a lifelong communicant of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, where services were held Thursday

He is survived by his wife of 50 years, the former Jean Chandler Knipp; a son, John Raymond Gerwig III of Catonsville; a daughter, Mary Ann Chapman of Cumberland; and a granddaughter.

Pub Date: 8/20/96

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