I have been building with my dad since I was a little girl. I remember building my first big project with him at about six years old, most of the tools too large for my small hands, his oiled apron folded up and swallowing me as he tried to keep the glue and stain off me. Since that time, we have worked many jobs and done many projects together. So who did I call when it was time to build a reproduction of an 1860s hospital tool? Why, Daddy of course!
As a medical reenactor, I focus not just on the war, but on the wounded and the ways they were treated. That includes everything from the length of time on the field, to how they got water, to how surgery was done, and how the wounds were bandaged. Since the wounds were numerous, and the damage of a Minié Balls quite extensive, bandages were a vital necessity to their treatment.
According to the hospital Steward Manual and records from the time, the standard bandage could range from 1-inch to 6-inches wide and averaged around nine to fifteen feet in length! Some were shorter and might be six to seven feet in length. Rolling these bandages by hand into tight rolls takes some time. For me to roll this whole pile of bandages this tight by hand took several hours!
There were specific guidelines in the 1860s hospital Steward’s manual about how to roll the bandages by hand, but found within those pages I also found the specifications and use of a bandage roller. I had hit the jackpot! With a bandage roller, one single person could do the work of many in a fraction of the time and still end up with a tightly rolled bandage. I decided I needed one for my medical talks and demonstrations. Armed with pictures of bandage rollers in museums, and the pages out of the 1860s hospital Steward manual containing all the specifics, I packed up and went to my Dad’s workshop.
The first thing we needed was a set of full scale drawings. Since the examples I had brought were of slightly varying styles, we had to create our own within the confines of the period, and it had to be mobile so I could take it from one demonstration and event to another. We decided on a mobile style like the ones we had seen in the museums, but with the stability of the ones in the Steward’s manual. We created our own diagram, including measurements, and went to work.
It was hard not to fall into the habit of using modern tools to build, but we both consciously discussed and decided to use hand tools, particularly tools of the period when we had them, and make it just as it would have been made in the 1860s. The first thing to do was decide on the thickness of boards we wanted for the sides and bottom of the bandage roller. We quickly decided on 1/2-inch thick boards we would cut to the size we needed. Then, we rounded the top corners with a hand saw, having secured each side piece to our work surface with wooden clamps tightened with metal screws.
Once each corner was trimmed, it was hand sanded it until it was smooth. At times we needed a harder edge on the sanding surface. In that case, we wrapped the loose sandpaper around a wooden board to give us a harder surface and a more exact edge for things like the flat sides.
Before we put the sides together it was time to make our cross-pieces. One of these was to run the cloth under so it would be kept straight and provide tension as the bandages are rolled. We decided to add another on the far end as a support, based on the drawings in the Steward’s manual. To do this, we took thin pieces of wood, cut them down even farther, and then hand planed them until they were the size we needed and roughly round.
Then we drilled small holes in each side piece where they would be placed, just deep enough to hold the pieces but not go all the way through. Each cross-piece was measured for the length, including what would go into these holes, and then cut. Once we had the length, each end was hand whittled and then filed down to fit in the hole. A touch of glue and each cross piece was forced down into its hole, effectively connecting the two sides.
Once that was done, it was time to connect the bottom so that we could make sure everything dried square. We had drilled pilot holes due to the hardness of the wood we were dealing with, and making sure that the nails went in straight without splintering anything. Each bottom piece was lined up squarely with the sides, glued in place, and then hand nailed into place. Once the bottoms and sides were connected, we clamped them to make sure they dried in the correct shape and measurements and went on to the next piece-the handle and cross shaft.
The way the bandage roller works is by placing the folded over edge of a bandage in the groove of a cross shaft which is controlled by a handle on the outside. When the cloth is placed in the groove, the handle is turned, thus turning the bandage and rolling it tightly against the cross shaft. Once the bandage is finished, the rod is pulled out of the center, and the bandage lifted out, before replacing everything and starting on the next one. (If you want to see this in action, come to the reenactment at Hurricane Shoals Park on September 17-18th!). Now it was time to make the cross shaft.
We planed down a longer piece of wood and cut a grove the length of it. Then we sanded that grove by hand. The length was measured from halfway through the left side to hanging out the right side of the roller body. This was so that we could imbed the shaft into the left wall of the roller and attach a handle to the end hanging out the right. We debated back and forth about whether to make the handle out of metal or wood, but wood finally won out. Each piece was carefully measured so that it could be used on the table (without busting knuckles or getting hung up), and then cut. The connecting shaft was measured to ensure that it could hold the diameter of the shaft and handle without breaking or splintering. The piece was cut and hand sanded. Inside each hole was also sanded by wrapping a piece of sand paper around a pencil and rubbing it back and forth through the hole.
Connecting piece done, it was time to do the handles. We determined the length needed for the handle based on who would be using it in demonstrations. Then more wood was cut down and planed until it was the right size and shape. More filing and sanding was done, and then the pieces were all glued together.
We then turned our attention back to the roller body. The pieces had dried in place and everything was aligned just as we wanted it. The clamps were removed and the support pieces were sanded by hand, sliding the sandpaper around each one like shining shoes! With those smooth, it was time to create the holes for the cross-shaft. We had fought for a little while about where the best location would be, based on proportion, best use, and making sure we could do large enough bandage rolls. With that finally decided, we drilled a hole in the right wall of the roller and slightly into the left wall, making sure it would not go through. I sanded the hole in the right wall and then Dad hand carved out the place for the shaft to imbed in the left.
He used a carving tool called a palm carving gouge from his father’s carving set. It was done and tested many times until it was the right size and shape so that the cross piece fit properly without coming out or binding.
Everything was sanded, including the end of the cross piece. For some pieces, we hand sanded it with the sandpaper against the wood in our hand. For others, like the end of the cross piece, we held the paper down on our work bench and then rolled the end of the shaft against the sandpaper so that we could shape it the way we needed.
When we were finished, no splinters remained which could catch or tear the cloth. We let the pieces rest that night so that the glue could dry all the way.
On our return, each piece was checked and determined to be correct. Dad had surprised me and made a special clamp which would keep the bandage roller from moving while in use, which was locked in place under the edge of the table by using wedges (Isn’t he smart!).
Then we stained the completed roller. In the 1860s, the finish would most likely been more a lacquer than a stain, but since it is hard to work with, we were out, and on a time limitation, we decided to go with the stain so we could still keep the authenticity of a finish. I chose a more historic color stain in a penetrating oil stain base which helps condition and seal the wood. We applied it all with rags by hand just as would have been done.
(See the difference in wood color?)
Once we were satisfied with it, we let it dry once again. With the finish dry, all that was left was to check the roller, and make sure it worked properly. I brought one of the many bandages I have rolled over the months and we tried it out. It worked!
Come out to our upcoming reenactment at Hurricane Shoals Park, or to one of my future speaking engagements to see it at work, or to ask questions!