Bees & Beekeeping: Present & Past

Historic Comb Foundation Mills

- May 1, 2022 - Wyatt A. Mangum - (excerpt)

Dunham mill

Building new frames in the winter, immersed in the pleasant scent of wax from the comb foundation, is when beekeeping renews itself for a new start come spring. On a larger industry level, comb foundation was a crucial invention needed by modern apiculture to abandon the old box hives with fixed combs and fully embrace self-spacing frames completely based on the bee space.

In this article, I want to focus on the historic diversity of comb foundation mills. The development of comb foundation mills follows the invention of comb foundation, generally attributed to J. Mehring of Germany in 1857. Both of these follow Reverend L.L. Langstroth’s crucial discovery of the bee space, and its practical consequence, the movable-frame hive. With foundation the beekeepers could direct the bees to build strong combs straight in the frames while reducing the amount of drone comb.

Given the fundamental importance of comb foundation, beekeepers of the late 1800s devoted much attention to producing it, which can be complicated and time-consuming. Today most beekeepers do not think much about making foundation, given that high-quality mass-produced foundation is so readily available at reasonable prices, considering its return in benefits. Reflecting that automation, modern beekeeping books devote little space to the technical details of producing foundation since it is more economical just to buy it.

Searching back into the old apicultural books, I saw no technical specifications on producing comb foundation until I found one old beekeeping book with unusual detail on the subject. The book’s title gives no hint of foundation production, “The Beekeeper’s Handy Book: Or Twenty-Two Years’ Experience of Queen-Rearing,” by Henry Alley. Alley was a famous beekeeper from Wenham, Massachusetts, who had a queen-rearing system that gained some popularity several years before the larval grafting method was introduced by Doolittle in 1889.

Alley’s book first appeared in 1882, but the comb foundation information is in his enlarged third edition published in 1885. (When collecting old beekeeping books, collecting the different editions of a book can be decisively important because the editions record different information. Obviously, some differences should be in the content of the book editions themselves, but also in the material binding around the books’ texts. That material was sometimes advertisements or smaller publications. A digital reprint of a book may be only in one edition.)

The third edition of Alley’s queen-rearing book has an entire chapter devoted to making comb foundation and shows a roller-type foundation mill of that time period (as opposed to a flat press-type machine). To use a roller mill, the wax is first formed into a blank sheet using a dipping tank. The technique is similar to making candles by repeatedly dipping a wick into melted wax. The wax layers accumulate to produce candles of varying widths. For the wax sheets from a thoroughly soaking wet dipping board, the number of dips builds up in a similar way, fewer dips for thin comb honey foundation, additional dips for thicker base brood foundation (see Figures 1 and 2). When the wax cools, two sheets are peeled away, from each side of the board.

Figure 3 shows a more modern dipping board and wax tank from when I was in Bolivia years ago. The partition in the middle of the wax tank allowed wax to flow under it. When the wax level became too low for a full-length sheet, and no additional wax was available for melting, the wax level could be raised to produce several more full-length sheets. The beekeeper inserted the large (black) wooden block in one side of the wax tank. With the wax level raised, the dipping board could be used in the regular manner from the other side of the tank, until most of the remaining wax was gone.

With the wax formed into sheets, the next step was to emboss the hexagonal pattern on them by squeezing the sheets between a pair of the foundation mill’s rollers. Although it sounds simple, the process is actually fairly involved, at least until one gains the required experience. The rollers of the foundation mill must be lubricated to keep the wax sheet from sticking to the rollers and gumming them up to a stop. Various recipes containing flour or baking soda mixed with water were used to keep the wax from sticking to the embossing rollers.

Adding to the complication, the wax sheet typically varies in thickness as it cools because the last of the melted wax runs to the lower end, unless the sheet was allowed to cool in opposite vertical orientations (between dips), equalizing the thickness toward the ends, producing a more uniformly thick sheet. The rollers of a foundation mill are set at a certain distance between them and emboss foundation at that thickness. On most foundation mills, the distance between the rollers is adjustable by a set of screws. Therefore, foundation thickness depends on the number of dips at the wax tank and the spacing between the mill’s rollers. The comb-building bees also have a say. By softening the foundation with their warmth and by pressing on it, the bees thin the midrib (cell floors) (and extend out the sidewalls of the cells, beginning the combs).

Warmth is important right from the creation of the foundation. The foundation mill’s lubricated rollers and the incoming wax sheets should be kept warm in order to form distinct impressions of the cell floors (the comb’s midrib) and with high sidewalls (the beginning of the cell walls). Comb-building bees work from well-defined edges, otherwise they just ignore poorly-made foundation with indistinct features. (The bees just walk over it for days, even in a crowded hive during an intense nectar flow.)

According to Alley, two factory workers should do the sheeting and embossing. One turned the crank and the other guided the wax sheet through the rollers. Together, working one hundred pounds of wax to foundation would be considered a good day of labor.

In the late 1800s several manufacturers sold foundation mills. In trying to reconstruct a more complete history of the comb foundation development in America, one of my most sought-after items continues to be old foundation mills. Just hearing that somebody had an old foundation mill for sale would call for a foundation mill trip, the longest from North Carolina to Iowa. Along with collecting the mills, I am sifting through the old beekeeping literature to learn the history of the mills.

Figures 4 and 5 show a foundation mill made in the late 1800s by Charles Olm from Wisconsin. This is a rare mill. In all my travels collecting antique beekeeping equipment, I have only seen one other, and it was in Canada.

Though obscure, the Olm foundation mill had a large but quiet influence on manufacturing comb foundation in America. Why? Because A.I. Root bought the rights to the foundation mill and mass-produced it. A.I. Root was the founder and proprietor of a large and prosperous bee supply company located in Medina, Ohio. Over the decades, he modified the mill, mainly to simplify it for mass production. Root also sold different sizes of mills for making the foundation sheets for different sized frames.

Given the importance and prominence of Root foundation mills, I’m always searching for them. And little by little, I have managed to find several different models. In the 1880s, the Root mill was still similar to its predecessor, the Olm mill, though some of the extra gearing had been removed (see Figures 6 and 7). By the 1890s Mr. Root had greatly streamlined its design (see Figure 8).

Interestingly, in the 1880s a small mill was sold that only made a foundation sheet about four inches wide. This little mill made foundation for the four-and-a-quarter-inch square comb honey section box (see Figure 9).

One of the foundation mills came with an unexpected bit of history, but first a little background information. The foundation mill was made by John Vandervort of Laceyville, Pennsylvania, who acquired quite a bit of fame producing mills in the 1880s and at least into the early 1890s. Aesthetically, his mill design is very pleasing to the eye with its bold arching legs and fancy ironwork at the ends of the rollers (see Figure 10).

Even the Dadants, who publish the “American Bee Journal” and manufacture bee equipment, were many years ago purchasing Vandervort mills to make their foundation. In addition, Vandervort mills came in (at least) two sizes for making foundation for brood and super frames.

Now for the unexpected bit of history. In general, shipping foundation mills to customers presented problems. The rollers are made of lead mixed with other metals, making them very heavy. The legs and most other parts of the supporting frame are made of cast iron. Old cast iron is strong but fairly brittle. For handling and shipping, I regard old cast iron more like ceramic, particularly when it held a pair of rollers, literally heavy as lead. I do not recommend shipping these old mills. Ironically though, one of the Vandervort mills survived with its original protective wooden cover that fits over the rollers. A mill’s heavy rollers supported by a brittle cast iron frame seemed to beg for the latter to shatter, except over a hundred years ago freight agents knew how to handle cast iron items in transit. Figure 11 shows a Vandervort mill with its protective wooden cover, meant to protect the rollers from damage.

Historically, women have made fundamental contributions to American apiculture, including here in the technical machine production designs of manufacturing comb foundation mills, including comb foundation itself. From Wisconsin, Mrs. Frances Dunham gained fame as a producer of foundation mills, including high-quality comb foundation. Figure 12 shows her catalog for 1880. For rapid identification, her foundation mill is very distinctive with its thin legs and supports forming semicircles. Below the pair of rollers is a drip pan to catch the lubricant for reuse. (That keeps the wax from sticking to the rollers, a common device on mills, but nicely drawn here.) The V-shaped trough above the rollers apparently dripped lubricant on the rollers from above with an unusual and clever device.

Figure 13 shows a rare nine-inch Dunham mill, mounted on a wooden stand similar to the catalog picture. The gearing on this mill is simpler than the catalog picture, I think, because the nine-inch is a smaller (narrower) mill. The wider foundation mills may have had ….