The 12 tools of Christmas

What are some tools for Christmas gifts? Here are twelve of my favourite tools of the year. Many are from Lee Valley, but hey, they do produce some good tools at different price points, and are available all over Canada (and the US).

  1. Veritas Drill Stop Gauge – a gauge with a V-shaped cross-section, this is an ideal jig to set the depth stop on a drill bit. (Lee Valley, C$8.95)
  2. A plumb bob, vintage – Laser levels are nice, but honestly you can’t beat a good old-fashioned plumb-bob. If you can’t find a vintage one, then Lee Valley makes has designed some new ones.
  3. Awls are a great tool for any woodworker, for laying out, or starting a pilot hole. Veritas has a great Japanese-style awl – in two sizes. The benefit of these is the replaceable tip.  (Lee Valley, C$26.50-32.50)
  4. A Japanese tool, more specifically a plane (kanna). I recently bought two from Tokyocraft on Etsy. They took a month to arrive from Japan (probably too late for Christmas), but are exceptionally well priced.
  5. A Japanese woodworking saw (like the Nakaya Douzuki Super Fine 210mm, C$51.99) or arborist saw from the Canadian distributor Big Bear Tools.
  6. Forged in Fire too much for you? Start with making one of the Japanese Knife-Making Kits from Lee Valley. (Carving knife kit, C$49.50).
  7. It may be tempting to build your own shooting board, but its almost better to spend that time actually building a project, and besides, the Veritas Shooting Board is pretty awesome. (Lee Valley, C$249.00).
  8. Need a plane small enough to carry around the workshop all day long? Look no further than the Veritas Pocket Plane, which is only 4½” in length. (Lee Valley, C$109).
  9. Need an outdoor saw? You could try the Boreal21 from Agawa Canyon, in Uxbridge, ON. The saw has a bunch of blade options, and starts at C$79.50. For a wooden buck saw, Canadian Outdoor Equipment Co. carries the Esker Folding Wooden Bucksaw, which is made in Canada (C$129.95).
  10. Some good hempseed oil for an alternative to Linseed oil – Canadian made BADGER Wood Oil (C$12.95 for 237ml).
  11. An instant-multi screwdriver from Canadian company Picquic. I have the Stubby, and it’s an awesome screwdriver to have around. You can get them from – the Picquic 44503 3 Multi-Driver Family Pack is only C$29.52.
  12. What about set-up? Veritas has a bunch of set-up block sets. The Primary Set is C$56.60, and includes 1/16″, 1/8″, 1/4″, 1/2″ and 3/4″ thick 2″ long blocks made of anodized aluminum plus a steel 1 2 3 block.



Why we should build smaller houses

With the gradual intrusion of the effects of climate change into our lives, people are coming up with interesting ways to reduce its affects. The reality is that some of the schemes are a not exactly well thought out. People need to start living more sustainably, and part of that is building sustainable houses. What does this really mean? It means the houses should be energy efficient, and built using as many renewable/low environmental impact products as possible. But it also means building smaller houses. You know, like the kind they use to build, before North Americans decided to binge on the size of houses?  Sure everyone wants bigger houses, or additions to houses, but few people stop to think about how they use the space in their homes properly. You don’t need super large bedrooms, just like you don’t really need multiple living areas, massive kitchens, or four bathrooms. Smaller houses are cheaper and easier to heat, cool, and maintain.

There was a time, before WW2 when house sizes were economical – we’re talking around 1000 ft². Consider the house below from the catalog of Scouton-Lee Co., 1927.


A house from a 1927, “Book of Home Designs”.

Here is the floor plan of the house with, two living areas, and a kitchen on the main floor, and three bedrooms on the second floor. Total space about 1000 ft², not including the basement. There are of course things that could be improved to 21st century standard: the kitchen could be enlarged, a second bathroom added in the basement, storage space (or another living space) in the attic. The house could be easily built from lumber, clad with lumber, insulated with rock-wool, and roofed with a metal roof.


House plan information

By reducing the footprint of houses, there would actually be more green space surrounding houses, which is better, especially from the perspective of water runoff, and of course potential for more trees. This house also has a large porch, a feature often overlooked in modern houses. What it doesn’t have is environmentally unfriendly things like stucco, and asphalt tiles. To reduce our impact on the environment we just have to learn to think differently, and think beyond what our wants are, thinking more about our needs and the needs of the community around us.

Which Sorby you ask?

One tool manufacturer which appears a lot in the British vintage realm is Sorby. But which Sorby? This post will provide a bit of insight into the different Sorby’s. There are three principle tool companies with the name Sorby: “I. Sorby”, “John Sorby & Sons”, and “Robert Sorby & Sons”.


“I.SORBY” was the mark used by Isaac Sorby, established in 1810, and trading under his own name until circa 1814. The company is best known as a plane-iron maker, and the irons can be found on numerous independently manufactured wooden planes. The company then became Sorby, Turner & Skidmore, until 1825 when Skidmore dropped out, and the company continued as Sorby & Turner. In 1833 Isaac Sorby died, and Turner continued the business. In 1854 John Turner died, and his son Joseph Turner continued. In 1860 he took Joseph Naylor into partnership with him, and in 1871 Northern Tool Works was bought jointly by Taylor, Naylor, and William Marples (for his youngest son Charles). In 1875 the company traded under the name Turner, Naples, and Marples. The company changed names numerous times over the coming decades, and by 1909 it was a subsidiary of Marples ( in 1893 they were bought by Turner, Naylor and Co., which was in turn bought by Marples in 1909, however Turner, Naylor and Co. continued operations until 1963).

“I.SORBY” had a number of distinct trademarks. One, “Mr Punch” was added by Joseph Turner in 1859.

The company did manufacture its own planes.



This company existed in Sheffield and was established in 1797 by John Sorby (uncle of Robert Sorby). Its trademark was the “hanging sheep”, or Golden Fleece, registered by John Sorby in 1791.  The company was engaged in the manufacture of edge tools, saws, sheep shears, and files. However they were not plane makers, but rather manufacturers of plane irons. After his retirement, the business was taken over by sons John and Henry, hence the trademark “I & H SORBY” (I and J were not separate at the time). This company was acquired in 1845 by Lockwood Brothers (cutlery manufacturers).

In 1932, the trademarks of John Sorby & Sons were bought by Turner, Naylor and Co., who continued to use the trademarks.



The forbearers of Robert Sorby had been cutlers in the Sheffield region, dating from the mid 17th century. Robert Sorby and Sons were registered in Sheffield in 1828 as a manufacturer of edge tools, saws, scythes and hay knives. In addition to manufacturing tools, they also diversified into the manufacture of crucible steel for tool manufacture. From circa 1860-1967, the Sorby factory in Sheffield was known as the “Kangaroo Works”. The Kangaroo Brand of tools was made by Robert Sorby & Sons. During the 19th century, they had a large trade in Australasia. By the early 20th century, they were manufacturing carving tools, planes and plane irons, circular saws, wood saws, butchers saws and cleavers, garden tools, pruning knives, coopers’ knives, bricklayers tools and joiners tools. In 1923 Robert Sorby & Sons was bought by Sheffield company Hattersley and Davidson. They are today one of the few remaining British tool manufacturers.


A Black & Decker space age drill

Years ago I bought a corded drill, manufactured by Black and Decker in Brockville, Canada. It is the ubiquitous Black & Decker U-3, ¼” utility drill, an atomic-era electric drill which appeared in the mid 1950s. It sported some innovations for the home user –  a three-pronged plug with an “industrial-type” ground wire, and a geared chuck, which although was being used in industry hadn’t yet been widely adopted on residential power tools.


Ads describing the powerful U-3 drill!

These 1950s era tools were often constructed of aluminum. This could have been in part because of the ease in casting it into various shapes, and its extensive use during WW2. The increasing use of plastics in the late 1950s would eventually see the number of aluminum components diminish. The 1950s was an excess of aluminum, as it found its way into every aspect of people lives – toys, cookware, cameras, tools, flashlights, etc. Why did aluminum reign? Tools made of aluminum have a gleaming, almost delicate beauty. Aluminum is also strong, and highly resistant to corrosion.


It was one of those drills that could power a multitude of different add-ons, from a jigsaw, to an orbital sander or paint mixer. These tools were extremely common up until the 1980s, made especially for the home handyman who didn’t need separate tools. The early tools were likely quite well built, but by the 1970s the mix-and-match add-on tools being manufactured had become cheap (we had a set at home). The drills had gone from being constructed of metal to mostly plastic.


Some of the available attachments.

The beauty of this drill is one thing, the ergonomics are a completely different story. As you can see in the photograph below, the handle is quite short which means it is challenging to grip. It was advertised as having a “slim, trim handle”, which I think was more marketing spin than anything else. More short and stubby! The other downside to the all-metal construction is that it is heavy.


Too hard too handle?

The Sargent No.3426 transitional bench plane

A while back I bought a very unique transitional bench plane, a Sargent No.3426. This 26″ long jointer plane is a V.B.M., or “VERY BEST MADE” marked plane. This was a marketing slogan used by Sargent on bench planes between the years 1908 to 1918, so it is really quite easy to date the plane. There were 16 forms of transitional planes built between 1891 and 1941. The Sargent transitional planes had a cast iron top casting, and a body, handle and knob made of beech. The castings were Japanned, and the wooden parts shellacked. The lever caps on this plane have a very distinctive arrow feather pattern.


Now this plane is unique because it has three wooden inserts on the sole: an ebony insert in from of the mouth of the plane, and a what seems like a rosewood insert at the toe and heel of the plane – all areas that would typically suffer from wear. So either it came from the factory this way, as a sort of  one-off, or somewhere someone customized it for some reason. The problem is that the plane looks like it has never been used… there are no signs of wear on the sole of the plane. The plane doesn’t even have the traditional “dirty” look one would expect after 100 years… almost like it came out of the box sometime recently.


Various views of the hardwood inserts on the sole of the plane.

These planes are very aesthetically pleasing, mainly because the lever caps have a very distinctive arrow feather pattern cast into them. The other thing about this plane is that the blade has been replaced with a Samurai brand laminated steel blade (which is slightly narrower than it should be). Someone has also shaped the handle to make it somewhat more ergonomic.


The ebony? throat piece insert.

What I’ll do with the plane? Just replace the blade with a Veritas reproduction to add some extra oomph to the place and then use it for those long jointing activities.



Old tunnel tech

In the Toronto subway there is the University segment of line 1. The part from Osgoode Station to Museum Station was tunnelled, and as they do remediation work in the station, you can see how it was built… early 1960s style. Both Queen’s Park and St. Patrick stations have unique tube-like appearances that are reminiscence of the London Underground. What is interesting is that they pre-date the use of concrete tunnel linings, and instead use curved sections of cast iron tunnel lining, held together with bolts.


For tunnels that are nearly 60 years old, the sections of cast iron almost look as if they were installed a couple of years ago. Concrete likely trumps cast iron from the viewpoint of speed, versatility, and strength, but there is something intrinsically appealing about the nuts and bolts of cast iron – almost Meccano-like.