the tales that old tools tell

Some people who restore old tools are interested in the details and minutia of the tools themselves. Others, in the people who used them. I am eternally grateful for the first lot and for all the work they do cataloging this kind of information so that I can reference it as I’m working. The work I enjoy, however, is somewhere between archaeology and anthropology. I want to know when and who and how and if I’m having an exceptionally good day, I may even venture to ask why?

I will never cease to take joy in the interesting things you learn about previous owners while you’re breaking tools down for the first time in ages to begin cleaning and restoring them. Sometimes you can venture a guess as to the last wood the blade has seen by the shavings trapped under the frog. Every once in a while you see a chip in a blade that tells the tale of a hidden nail and a woodworker so exasperated at hitting it that they never picked up the tool again.

More often than not the details are more subtle. How much of the blade is left? That generally tells me how good the tool is in the first place. Pristine collector examples sometimes end up that way because they weren’t great users. Was the tool well loved and cared for?  If so you can probably also make some assumptions about the level of care and detail that the worker put into their work as well.  Is there a nail hole in the sole of your no.7? The unmistakable mark of an eminently practical soul.

I love to see the wear pattern of hands on totes and the dark gray patina of well oiled cast iron; To try the depth adjuster to see if it still moves. To notice the few spherical rust spots on the top of the blade and chip breaker that were probably drops of sweat left unattended.

You’re either with me by this point or you’re wondering at these crazy rantings of a mad man.

Yesterday I stopped by the open air flea market on my way home for lunch just to have a look around. I walked past a couple of saws and a draw knife or two, when my attention fell on a pile of old planes laying on a tarp. There was a newer model Stanley 78, Something that looked like a Stanley no. 22 or 25 (honestly I didn’t look too hard), a couple of off model block planes and this:

A no.3 sized Handyman.

I was already holding a chisel and combination rule body in my hand that the man said he would sell me for a dollar.

“How much for the plane?” I asked

“Five Dollars”

“Well, I’ll have to come back another time,” I said as I dug in my wallet. “All I have is four ones”

“I’ll take it,” he replied.

I wasn’t trying to drive a hard bargain. I thought I had another dollar or two. But I took my treasure and went home.

This is the first handyman I’ve had my hands on, and I know the low regard in which these planes are held by many, so I was surprised to see how good it actually was when I looked under the blade.

The casting was solid and machined adequately, The frog was better than I’ve seen on many a Bailey copy. The blade was thick and the chipbreaker was in good shape. A nice depth adjuster (though not brass) and smooth lateral adjustment made for an entirely serviceable tool.


Honestly, there are marks that this was a ‘budget” line, but it’s still better than what you would find in a big box store today. It will certainly make a good starter plane for my daughter when she’s old enough for it. One obvious mark of this is the lack of a tensioning mechanism under the lever cap.


Another is the lack of a frog adjustment screw and the fact that the frog isn’t on any kind of track in the casting to keep it straight. All of the frog adjustments are done with the two screws that hold it down.

That’s a pain, but once it’s set, how often do you really adjust the frog? I hardly ever touch it.


The sole will need to be flattened and cleaned up a bit, the blade will need to be lapped and I’ll do something about the chipping paint on the knob and tote, but really, I put it together and managed to hog off a few savings with it as is so I have hope.

So, that’s the archaeological dig, what about the anthropology?

Before I bought the plane I popped the lever cap to see what condition the blade was in, and look for any obvious damage under the hood. It looked nice and clean inside, like it really hadn’t seen much use, and it was immediately apparent as to why.


See if you can spot the problem here:

That’s right, the blade was fixed upside down like a bevel up block plane. It looks like whatever “handyman” put this together last was either looking for a 75 degree bevel or just had know idea what in the heck they were doing. I vote for the second.

I can only imagine the look on that person’s face thinking, “It worked a minute ago. What the …?” All of this just before they threw it in a box and called someone else to come in and fix their sticking bedroom door.

I admit it could have happened anytime and in anyone’s hands, but at some point it was broken down and reassembled without the understanding required to do so and instead of living on as a tool it became a relic of a lost art. Hopefully it remembers what it was like to shave wood. I’ll give it a tune up and see. 


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