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.


Tool or historical artifact?

Many people collect things, in some ways it is our individual attempt at preserving the past. I collect block planes because they interest me. Not all are in pristine condition, few will likely ever be used, and over time they have really transformed from being active tools to historical artifacts. That’s not a bad thing, some tools continue to have historical value, or aesthetic value, but just aren’t as useful as working tools anymore. Some of my vintage block planes aren’t very usable, are finicky to adjust, have fragile parts, or less than optimal (often skinny) blades. They are still objects of beauty, but to woodwork, I prefer to use more functioning tools – my Lie-Nielsen or Veritas block planes for example. They retain their edges superbly, and function perfectly for the tasks they are needed to perform. Vintage saws are also  tricky because they require straight blades, and straightening blades isn’t trivial.


Other tools, like chisels are a little different. Old wooden planes often work extremely well, and with a little tuning can become workhorses. The form factor and use of chisels has not changed in eons. Many chisels made in the past 100 years are good quality, and easy to both sharpen, and use. Of course some people collect chisels because they are rare, or because they collect tools of a certain manufacturer, e.g. Stanley, Swedish chisels from Eskilstuna, like E.A. Berg. Is it right to turn a rare, historically significant plane into a working tool? That can only be answered by the person who owns the tool. Would the Victor block plane above make a good tool in the modern shop?

Buying vintage planes online

Buying tools online can be a tricky experience. Buying them from a reputable dealer like Jim Bode Tools is always a great experience (you just have to be fast sometimes!).  Other selling sites are a mixed bag. It’s not that there are people trying to falsely sell items, but rather people who maybe don’t have the knowledge to advertise items properly. It’s usually a case of advertising the plane based on what information they find on the plane. Take for example a recent ad I saw on eBay for a “Hearnshaw Brothers John Bull brand wooden 2¼” plane”. The blade certainly was a Hearnshaw.

The Hearnshaw Bros trademark

The body of the plane however was an EMIR, made in the UK. From the stamp it indicates a No.404. EMIR is a trademark of Emmerich(Berlon) Ltd., which made planes  in the UK from 1932-1965 (Emir still exists and makes workbenches and looms). Hearnshaw Bros. was a plane iron maker from Sheffield which operated from 1881-1960 (or from their advertisements “Manufacturers of light and heavy edge tools, of every description“. It seems from some exploration that the EMIR planes contained blades from numerous manufacturers.

Plane toe markings.

The same can happen with metal block planes, that on closer inspection show signs of being cobbled together from different planes. This happens with block planes, where a newer lever cap has been added to an older body, maybe as a replacement – with the end result being a plane which is no longer representative of the time period it was built. It can also be found on British infill planes where an iron and lever cap from a well-known company has been coupled with an unknown makers body.

The worst thing is when they try and sell a tool as “rare” – rare because it never existed. A good example is a wooden plane with a metal sole. They may have been added to extend the life of a plane which likely needed resoling. The problem is that they are most often attached using screws (6-8) in countersunk holes. These countersunk holes provide a perfect place for the plane sole to snag – not ideal. Easier to resole with a hard wood like lignum vitae.


An example of a steel-soled wooden plane, and a badly repaired sole split.

You also have to watch out for repairs, especially on wooden planes. One example are wooden inlays used to repair plane mouths that have become too wide because the sole has been worn down (repaired properly there is nothing wrong with this). Repairs like splits in wooden plane bodies are more problematic. With metal planes, cracks in the sole that have been welded should be avoided.

Genealogy of a wooden plane – Veit

Probably about 10 years ago I bought a lot of four wooden planes on eBay. One was marked from plane manufacturer John Veit, so let’s explore its genealogy a little. It’s a 22″ (fore?) plane, made of either beech or applewood, with plane makers mark on the toe. It has a double-iron. John Veit was a plane maker from Philadelphia (whose address is clearly marked on the plane), from around 1860 to about 1904.


Smaller plane makers like this probably didn’t have their own catalogs, and therefore often sold through dealers. One such catalog was J.B.Shannon – the planes of John Veit appeared in the 1873 “Illustrated Catalogue and Price List of Carpenters’ Tools“, as “Veit’s City Made Warranted Bench Planes”.



The blade and cap iron are from W. Greave & Sons. William Greaves was a cutlery manufacturer, anf razorsmith in Sheffield, who started in 1787, with his sons joining the company in 1817. In 1823, the Greaves family built the Sheaf Works, the first integrated steel works in Sheffield. They were manufacturing table knives, razors and edge tools. The company was dissolved in 1850, and steel and tool side of the business was bought by Thomas Turton & Sons, who continued using the Greaves & Sons’ mark. The cap iron is stamped “SHEAF WORKS”.

So how did an English plane blade and iron get onto an American made plane body? Well it turns out Greaves & Sons exported a good amount of their production to America, and the Sheffield directories actually listed them as “American merchants”.


Carl Bopp, “Made in Philada: No. 4”, The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, March (2004)

Wood for historic renovations

With the fire that severely damaged Notre Dame in Paris comes a dilemma. The wooden roof structure and spire were destroyed, a 12th century oak frame that was made of trees that themselves could have been 300-400 years old. Now the question is how do you replace these historic wooden structures? Clearly not with old-growth 400 year old French oak, because that just does not exist. Old growth forests are now few and far in between, and even less so for species like oak. We have spent a millennia pillaging the forests of the world for their largest trees, with little thought to their replenishment – true we do replant trees, but often with more economical, fast-growing species like pine. Hundreds of years ago few thought about replanting the towering trees of the world.

So the dilemma – replace the wooden roof structure with oak, or maybe modern laminated wood (LVL), or something like steel?  I have read that people have already offered oak, like 100-year old oaks from the oak forests of Normandy to help rebuild, and I get that the rebuild should mimic the traditional building techniques as much as possible in order for Notre Dame to maintain its historic nature. The question of course is should we harvest 100 year old trees? Should their longevity trump the needs of a historic building? The actual wooden roof structure is only visible to those who walk through the attic space, no one else. The main roll of this roof structure is to maintain the 210 ton lead roof. How far do you take renovation using original methods and materials? I saw an example of this in Bergen, Norway, where they are restoring the houses of Bryggen, the Hanseatic League’s trading empire from the 14th to the mid-16th century. The techniques are old-school, but then again those hoses only date from after the fire of 1702.


The stone of Notre Dame would have been cut by 12th century stone masons – by hand. The trees similarly would have been hewn, by hand. Would we go so far as to replicate these techniques? It works on a small scale building, that’s for certain, but something requiring the rebuild of an original roof supposedly constructed of 13,000 original trees, one per beam – unlikely. Just as unlikely as we would not cut stone using a machine (an exception is the recreation of a 13th century castle in France, Guédelon Castle where original techniques are being used). What about integrating some modern technology – using glue laminated, or mechanical key laminated oak beams?  They could still be oak, but made from smaller trees, from sustainable forests. Or maybe awesome Glulam beams made from more sustainable timbers. The tight grain of a 400 year old tree cannot be replicated, and certainly not by a 100 year old tree.

The reality is that rebuilds like Notre Dame will never be 100% historically authentic – they are too large to be done that way. The ancient beams are burnt and lost, and they can’t simply be replicated in any easy manner. Modern techniques will have to be used, failing some attempt to travel back in time to procure both materials and 12th century artisans. The spire wasn’t even medieval, and dated from 1859, replacing an earlier spire. Oh but please keep those modern glass and aluminum infused architects away from it at all costs – find someone who is able restore its historic qualities, using modern materials in a manner that respects the buildings history.

Oh, and maybe, just maybe, we should plant more trees like oak for future generations.

Copying tool makers marks (ii)

Apart from the smoke prints, which seem quite magical, I experimented with another couple of techniques which work in different situations. Often the imprints on metal tools aren’t perfect, so it may be impossible to produce a good print with the smoke technique. These techniques involve the use of a very soft pencil or graphite stick (both at least 6B) .

Graphite sticks like this soft 6B can be found at art stores.

One technique involves using graphite in a similar manner to the smoke print. Rub the graphite stick over the imprint. Apply the clear tape to the mark, in the same way as for the smoke print. This doesn’t work so well with fine lettering or details. A second technique is often used to make rubbings of objects with texture, like coins. Place a piece of white paper over the imprint and rub with a pencil. This technique works well with defined imprints, but those with fine details will not work very well. The example below shows some successful (left) and not-so-successful attempts (right). The biggest problem is that due to fine imperfections on the surface, the background will not be uniformly dark.

Rub prints using a 2B pencil

One final technique uses a graphite marker as a glare suppressor, and simply involves rubbing it over the mark. This has the effect of helping to reduce the amount of reflection produced by the surface. I then use natural light, and photograph the imprint at a slight angle.

Photographed tool marks using graphite to suppress potential glare.

The ease of copying marks is also dependent on the type of marking. Markings that are imprinted with U-shaped straight furrows are easier to imprint than those that are V-shaped.

Copying tool makers marks (i)

One of the more challenging things to do is properly document a maker’s mark from a tool by means of photography. I’m not talking the ones on wood, but rather the imprints in metal. The problem sometimes lies in the metal producing reflections, which are difficult to photograph, or even post-process. One way of reproducing stamps is by using ink to imprint the mark on paper. The problem with this technique is that it can be quite messy.  Another technique is to use a smoke print which uses soot from a candle.

Smoke print

Firstly clean the mark. This can be done using a rag to polish the metal, or some 000 steel wool if extracting the imprint from a wooden plane. Light a candle, and hold a piece of fine metal mesh (metal fly-screen) over the flame to interrupt the combustion, and produce black smoke. Let the soot (i.e. carbon particles) from the smoke deposit on the mark.


Examples of using soot from candle smoke to copy the manufacturers markings on a chisel (left) and plane blade (right)

When sufficient soot has been deposited, apply a small piece of clear adhesive tape, pressing down slightly (I used a folded cloth to apply pressure). The soot will adhere to the tape. Peel off the tape, and press down on a piece of white paper.


The soot image on the clear tape, and the scanned version.

The trick is that the carbon is able to cover the surface uniformly, and even if it gets down into the impressions, only the carbon on the surface will adhere to the tape. This makes it perfect to pick up fine detail. The smoke prints can then be easily digitized using a scanner, and cleaned up.


The smoke print of the plane blade mark showing the fine details (left), and the digitally cleaned up version (right).

I have tried this technique on plane blades and chisels, and have to say it works really quite well. I haven’t tried it on a wooden plane, but I suspect it will work in the same manner (maybe in the future).