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I'm not sure if anyone really knows where or how winding sticks came into being, but I would be willing to bet it was in ancient boat building. Boat builders use all sorts of tricks to figure out the best angles, curves and lines on boats and to do this they need to start with straight lines, which is where winding sticks would be helpful.
Winding sticks are used to help show where boards are warped or twisted and the way they work is simply to set them up on a board which is lying on a flat surface, then sight down the tops of the 2 sticks. If they line up perfectly, the board is flat, if the sticks are uneven, then the board is warped.
Oddly enough, it is boards that are only slightly warped that are the hardest to determine and this is where winding sticks really shine. Boards that are wildly warped are pretty easy to see, it's the ones that "look" flat that can be challenging ones to work with.
In the past winging sticks were useful to a woodworker or carpenter who was hand planing boards to make them flat, and that really hasn't changed, only now we often use machinery to make boards flat, and winding sticks are still useful in ...