Aluminum block planes

Aluminum block planes are the odd ducks of block planes. The problem with early cast-iron planes was the fact that were they to be accidentally dropped on the floor, they likely would not survive due to their brittleness. Pressed-steel block planes helped alleviate this problem, however there is still the issue of rust. So for a period of time, manufacturers turned towards building aluminum planes. Aluminum as a metal was first isolated by Danish physicist and chemist Hans Christian Ørsted in 1825, although in a impure form. German chemist Friedrich Wöhler furthered this work, isolated aluminum in 1827. French geologist Pierre Berthier discovered aluminium in bauxite ore. However, large scale production of aluminum was not possible until the development of the Hall-Heroult process – American chemist Charles Martin Hall and  French chemist Paul Héroult  developed the process simultaneously in 1886. Their process extracted aluminum from aluminum oxide, however it consumed a substantial amount of electricity. In 1888, Austrian engineer Karl Josef Bayer developed a process by which alumina could be extracted from bauxite.

The 1890s saw the production of the first aluminum boats, and 1899 saw Karl Benz present the first sports can with an aluminum body. By 1915, the first all metal plane, the Junkers J1 had appeared, made of Duralumin, an aluminum alloy which included copper, magnesium and manganese. After WW1, the use of aluminum in consumer products increased. By the mid-1920s, Stanley began production of its bench plane series using aluminum – the A4, A5, and A6. The Stanley A18, an aluminum version of the No.18 knuckle-cap block plane was produced during the two world wars from 1925-1935. In the bench planes, the bodies and frogs were made of aluminum, whereas on the A18, only the actual body of the plane was aluminum, with the remainder constructed of nickel-plated metals.

A BOSTON aluminum block plane


The core benefits of aluminum planes are: (i) they are light weight, (ii) they don’t rust, and (iii) they don’t crack or break when dropped. However they have an equal number of limitations. Firstly, when they appeared, they were 30% more expensive. In 1926, the A18 sold for $3.50, while the No.18 sold for $3.00. This was likely one of the factors of their limited success, that and their introduction before the Great Depression. Next, because aluminum oxidizes, when the planes are used, they leave black marks on the wood, discolouring it (the same thing happens with aluminum ladders). Finally, because aluminum is a soft material, its sole is susceptible to scratching, and denting. Aluminum is often thought of as being rust-resistent, however corrosion can actually be a big problem in aluminium blocks. One reason for this is that contact between aluminium and steel can cause galvanic corrosion.

The aluminum block planes include the following:

  • BOSTON No.1
  • BOSTON No.2
  • BOSTON No.2A
  • UTIL Plane (Chicago)
  • Foster Mfg. Co. No.1(?) (1 Kinsey, Buffalo NY)
  • Stanley No.A18

For some of the planes, such as the UTIL, and Foster, there is little information. Foster Mfg. Co. sold woodworking machinery for the home user in the late 1940s (the company was gone by 1953), and so this hand plane seems to be a one-off? Maybe a give-away? They didn’t manufacture any of the tools they sold.

There were also a couple of planes from the Stanley Model Shop, aluminum versions of the No.110, and No.220 (they were never put into production). Stanley may have produced the greatest number of aluminum planes in total, also producing A4, A5, and A6 bench planes and the A45 combination and A78 rabbet planes.

P.S. I wanted to post some images of aluminum degradation, but none of my aluminum block planes have any!


An afternoon at Exotic Woods

If you ever want to spend a couple of hours in a forest of wood, head down to Exotic Woods in Burlington. It’s not quite the same as walking in a living forest, but it is an awakening of the visual senses. Every conceivable type of wood product can be found here. They have a great selection of D4S, domestic and exotic woods, sheet goods, veneers, live-edge slabs, turning blanks, burls, and wood for musical instruments, stains, epoxy, banksia nuts. What don’t they have? Not much.

Firstly, *lots* of lumber, of every conceivable species you may desire, domestic and imported.

An incredible amount of dressed lumber (D4S), for those of us who don’t have the capacity to dress large boards. Exotic Woods also offers machining and finishing services, so it is possible to have anything milled.

Sheet goods… baltic birch, marine ply, ply that is 1mm thick.

Live edge slabs – want to build a coffee table? dining room table?

Square and round turning blanks in maple, birch, ash… large enough to turn your own baseball bats! Or make your own woodworking planes from the birch blanks?

A bundle of shorts (12-16″ long) D4S in exotic species for small items, e.g. cutting boards and hobby work. (They have small live edged boards for cutting/cheese boards too).

They are conveniently located next to the Appleby GO station, so they are easy to access (if you don’t have a car), and they can also organize delivery. Well worth the visit (usually very busy on a Saturday).


ToT show wrap-up.

Tools of the Trades was today. I got there 10 minutes after opening… but there seemed to be fewer people early on – probably the nicer weather? I walked the tables a couple of times, but didn’t find too much that really tempted me.  I was honestly looking for some European tools, always a hard task… but I found one.. There were a couple of nice sets of E.A. Berg chisels, but they are still a bit pricey for me – C$350 for a set of eight. Quite a few router planes about as well.

Also in abundance were small vises, and boatloads of files – mostly metal files… sometimes as cheap as $1 a piece. I usually don’t buy used files, mainly because the task of finding a good one is too much trouble.

There is a good Japanese tool merchant, beautiful genuine tools – but expensive.

Lots of combination plane sets, from Craftsman, Record and Stanley for reasonable prices – C$200-$400. I’m on the fence with these… (1) Do I need one (I have a couple of plough planes and a smaller Craftsman), and (2) What about the Lee Valley’s new combination plane offering? It seems to be getting good reviews so far – Furniture & cabinetmaking magazine (Issue 262 Oct-17).

Also the usual chisels and planes, hammers, and a new seller with vintages axes, which was kind-of cool. There are always a few gems as well.

Of course the coolest thing was this huge coopers plane. If I had the space it would have looked great in my workshop. Heaven knows how anyone used these planes… even two people!

In the end I ended up with a nice Millers Falls No.45 block plane, a No.207 Sargent block plane, and a Rapier pressed steel smooth plane for my pressed-steel plane collection. The latter two were only C$15 a piece. The last piece I got was a 60cm long plane from Austrian tool manufacturer Joh. Weiss & Sohn. I’ll be writing a blog post on this in the coming week. It needs some work, part of the sole needs glueing, but was a bargain for C$20.


Restoring things the old fashioned way

In the Norwegian coastal city of Bergen, there is a historic portion of the harbour known as Bryggen. Bergen was established as a centre of trade in the 12th century.  In 1350 the Hanseatic League (a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds) established a “Hanseatic Office” in Bergen. Bryggen is medieval in origin, with the buildings providing living quarters, offices, and storage for trades, particularly in stockfish. Bryggen has been destroyed by fires over the centuries, and has been rebuilt every time using the same plan and building techniques.

Bryggen was declared a UNESCO World heritage Site in 1979. Many of the buildings in this vintage complex of 62 buildings are slowly sinking into the ground, at the rate of 8mm per year, which makes from some interesting architectural lines. The houses are built using traditional log construction, and galleries with column and beam construction with horizontal wooden panel cladding.

Cross-section of the building being restored.

The buildings are slowly being restored, but one of the conditions of this process is that traditional handcraft techniques are used, and only the same tools can be used as those used when Bryggen was rebuilt after the city fire of 1702.

Work progressing on the ground floor (the restoration is open for viewing)

The wall construction is quite interesting. Both inner and some of the outer walls seem to be constructed of planks, of varying heights. The inner wall plans seem to be joined together using a Swedish style cope. The outer walls use a Scandinavian notch (or Norway notch), with the wall elements likely additionally held together with wooden pins.

New construction interior walls vs. historic outer walls


Need some tools? Sunday is Tools-of-the-Trades

Looking for some tools for your workshop? The fall edition of one of the best tool shows in Canada is nearly upon us! This Sunday, it is time for the fall “Tools of the Trades” at the Pickering Recreation Complex: October 1st – 10am to 3pm. Whatever you are looking for, there is something for everyone, from wooden moulding planes to whole sets of metal planes. Stanley, British Record, Millers Falls they’re all there. There is no better collection of vintage tools available anywhere in Ontario or Quebec.

If you’re heading along for the first time – a couple of tips. If you see something you like, buy it quickly. In 5 minutes it may be gone. I learned this the hard way once or twice. I have picked up a few good bargains over the years… last spring a large frame saw for $55, and another time, a series of four wooden clamps for about $10 a piece. Secondly, don’t haggle too much. If a No.5 Millers Falls is marked at $70, then don’t offer $40. Remember the time and energy it takes to find these tools. Lastly, old tools can easily be restored. Don’t let a Swedish E.A.Berg chisel encrusted with rust for $7 stop you. Rust can be removed, and edges can be sharpened.


Making rust

Rust is ubiquitous.

So about six weeks ago, I submerged a steel plane blade into a jar of tap water, about half way up the blade. I then sealed the jar loosely. The idea is to see how rust forms on the blade – both the submerged and exposed halves. The blade was rust free to begin with. This follows on from some experiments I ran a few years ago.

Blade in the water.

The rust that formed on the submerged portion of the blade coated the blade in a bright orange precipitate, which settled on the bottom of the jar. Removing the blade from the water revealed  two distinct regions.

Lower (left) and upper (right) sides of the blade at the end of the rusting process.

Above the water, the steel was subject to atmospheric corrosion, using the condensing moisture from within the jar, and oxygen. The rust likely ran deeper than that of the  submerged steel. This rust is brown rust, which tends to form in an environment with high oxygen and low moisture content. There are also elements of red rust in places where the condensate accumulates. On the top of the blade there is a spot of flash rust.

The upper portion of the blade exposed to humid air – it is dominated by brown rust, with some spots of yellow (flash) rust.

In the grooves at the back of the plane blade, condensation from the jar has accumulated in the grooves, causing what is likely red rust.

Red rust forming in the grooves of the plane blade.

On the submerged portion of the blade, where there is only dissolved oxygen, immersive corrosion occurs forming yellow rust. This results in a yellow precipitate which continually sinks to the bottom of the jar.

Rust after one day of drying and just after removal from water.

After the corrosion has been cleaned off, and the blade dried, the submerged portion of the blade is now darkened (Fe3O4).

The blade after cleaning off the rust.

rust by colour

  • Black rust – Iron(II) oxide – Fe3O4   limited O
    Rust forms in a low-oxygen environment, e.g. underwater
  • Brown rust – Oxide Fe2O3  (high O, low H2O)
    Rust is atmospheric, and forms in high oxygen and low moisture environments (e.g. humid air)
  • Yellow rust – Iron oxide-hydroxide FeO(OH)H2O  (high H2O)
    Rust forms from constant exposure to high moisture, e.g. submerged in water
  • Red rust – hydrated oxide Fe2O3.H2) (high O, high H2O)
    Rust forms due to constant exposure to oxygen and water exposure

For anyone who wants to read more, there is an interesting book titled “Rust: The Longest War”  by Jonathan Waldman. I haven’t read it, but it looks interesting.