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

“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.

 

JOHN SORBY & SONS

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.

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ROBERT SORBY & SONS

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.

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Tools of the Trades – fall ’19

Need some woodworking tools? It’s time again, tomorrow, Oct.6th for the Tools of the Trades show in Pickering. A treasure trove of planes, chisels, oversized vises, and axemen type axes. Join us, come to the dark side of the toolshed.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.