A plastic “more durable than wood” (but actually made of wood)

From the mid-1930’s there was an increased use of plastics in tool manufacture. One of the earliest used was cellulose acetate, made by the Hercules Powder Company. It is found predominantly in Millers Falls tools of the late 1930s – in a plastic they called permaloid – a smoothing plane, a hacksaw, a bit brace, screwdrivers, and chisels. Cellulose acetate was one of the first plastics made from a renewable resource – it is based on cotton or tree pulp. The screwdrivers were described as “high grade steel bits permanently imbedded in red, transparent, indestructible, shockproof, plastic handles”. Why was it used? According to the ad below – durability, toughness, ease of fabrication, and permanent finish. I would add to that – cost. It was probably cheaper to mold some plastic parts than make them out of wood. Stanley had it’s own version, “Stanloid” – “the toughest non-metallic substance known”. They used it on their chisel and screwdriver handles in the mid 1930s. They were also touted as being break-proof and shock-proof, and will not soak up oil or water. Read the caution however that states “do not permit handle to come into contact with an open flame, as it will burn rapidly“. Oh what fun.


This later gave way to a more opaque red plastic handle material known as Tenite – another cellulose acetate based plastic made by Eastman. Millers Falls used Tenite in its “Buck Rogers” line of tools. Even Disston advertised a line of saws using Tenite handles in the late 1930s – the “toughest, strongest molded material ever developed for practical industrial purposes. Perfect in feel. Will not chip, shrink, or swell …New, rich permanent colors …Blade can never work loose… ‘Hang’ and balance are always right.”



A “Buck Rogers” era food grinder?

It seems as though some companies may have copied the design features of Millers Falls. Here is a food chopper (No.62) from the Ebaloy Aluminum Casting Company (Illinois), who produced a number of different kitchen items including a lemon squeezer. Not the sleek lines, aluminum casting, and red plastic handle – a MF ring-in for sure!


Below in a picture of  the inner workings. It had a number of unique design features, not least of all that the side wall could be removed, I guess for easy clean-up without having to remove the auger. The auger is also graduated, and there is a drainage line to siphon off juices. A very space-like, streamlined design – or maybe more like a ray-gun?


P.S. I could find very little about the company – it seems like one of the smaller metal casting companies who produced consumer items for a period after WW2, then were bought out, or disappeared. There are a number of patents online for metal processing (1940s to mid 1950s), but very little else.

Atomic era “Buck Rogers” tools

The 1950’s heralded the atomic era, which from a design perspective brought in many sleek, futuristic objects built with the use of plastic and aluminum. No tool manufacturer embraced this more than Millers Falls. The primary identifiable features – the opaque red plastic handle material known as Tenite (MF also used a translucent red permaloid plastic in circa late 1930s tools such as the No.5010 Parsons De Luxe brace, and the #209 De Luxe Smooth plane), and the widespread use of aluminum. Tupperware had it’s debut in 1948 and plastic became a major force in the clothing industry – polyester, lycra and nylon. The basic benefits of plastic – easier to mould, “unbreakable”, through-body colour, and cheaper to manufacture than their natural alternatives. Aluminum too, could be easily cast, is light, and won’t rust. The 1950s also signalled the age of mass consumption – and both  aluminum and plastic helped drive this new way of life. There was an increase in spending power, and suburbs were rapidly expanding, bringing an investment in items based around home and family life.


The following tools are identified as “Buck Rogers”-era Millers Falls:

  • No. 100 Automatic drill
  • No. 104/308 Hand drills
  • No. 300 Hacksaw frame
  • No. 525 Metal cutting keyhole saw
  • No. 709 Smoothing plane
  • No. 714 Jack plane
  • No. 1220 Plane-’R-File
  • No. 1950 Bit Brace

Most of these tools can be readily identified by their unique red-gray colouring. Only the No.525 contained no plastic component. These tools were designed by industrial designers Francesco Collura (104, 308, 300), L. Garth Huxtable (100, 525, 1220), and Robert W. Huxtable (709, 714, 525).


These tools may have been meant to represent more futuristic implements. Who would want a hardwood handle on a plane when one could have an “unbreakable” Tenite handle. The reality is of course that hardwood handles rarely “break” in the true sense of the word – and plastic handles do have a tendency to fade over time due to UV exposure. The real rationale for using Tenite may have been the ease of injection moulding rather than some form of machining to create a hardwood handle. There were similar objects being designed in other industries, for example the “atomic espresso machine” designed by Giordano Robbiati of Milan, Italy in 1946 – pure aluminum and a sleek, streamlined appearance.


The atomic era may have been the last great foray into tool design before the resurgence brought about by the likes of Lie Nielsen, and Lee Valley/Veritas. Were the MF tools luxury items? In 1950, the average monthly US salary was roughly $250, in 2012 it’s about $4,200. A No.709 smooth plane sold for $8.50 – roughly 3.4% of a months salary. A Stanley No.4 sold for $8.25. Today, a similar No.4 smooth plane from Lie Nielsen sells for $300, or 7% of a months salary. Although $8.50 in 1950 has the same buying power as $82.37 today. Here’s the No.1950 with a close-up of the Tenite handle.

mf_brace brace_tenite

Psst… Is there a secret society of Millers Falls collectors out there somewhere?

European wooden planes (study ii)

This next study featuring a European wooden plane – it’s 22 1/2″ in length, with a width of 2 1/8″. Judging by the length, it is a varlope or jointer. It seems to be made of some type of fruitwood and has a blade which is 1 9/16″ in width and a thickness of a little over 1/8″. The blade is rounded, which would indicate some form of scrub plane, however this is not unusual in longer European planes, where the curved edge speeds wood removal.


The plane has the form of a European wooden plane, but is devoid of any trademarks or significant markings – except for a large “1900” stamped on the toe-end of the plane. This is not that unusual, and may signify a non-commercial plane, or that the identification is provided by the markings on the blade.


This plane may be from the manufacturer Peugeot Freres of France, one of the more notable French tool manufacturers. It was founded in 1810 as Peugeot Frères et Jacques Maillard. By 1842 the company had split into smaller companies. One had a trademark of a lion on an arrow, another with the distinctive elephant shown on the above blade. This blade has two names on it: Peugeot-Jackson and Peugeot-Aîné. In 1842 four sons of Jean-Frédéric Peugeot joined four Jackson brothers from England forming “Peugeot Aînés Jackson et Frères”. In 1866 the company changed its name to “Peugeot Jackson et Cie”, Peugeot Aînés in 1877, and to Peugeot et Cie in 1894.

Interestingly it seems like some European plane makers marked the blade with their trademark rather than the plane body. This could be confirmed using catalogs – but they are challenging to find. A good book may be “Les Rabots”, by Pierre Bouillot and Xavier Chatellard, 2010 (ISBN: 9782851011152), but it is written in French and difficult to find.


Now *thats* a piece of furniture

A couple more pictures from the Open Air Museum, from the farmhouse shown in the last post. The farmstead is from Eiderstedt, South Schleswig (now a part of the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein. Campaign furniture is one thing, but these certainly are not transportable, in any sense of the word. The first piece is likely a wardrobe, the second one a dining room cupboard. These pieces were common in the Germanic and Scandinavian countries, yet sadly most of them are relegated to museums these days.

cupboard2 cupboard1

Workbenches in Denmark

On a trip to Copenhagen this past August we spent a day visiting Frilandsmuseet, the Open Air Museum, just outside the city. It’s one of the largest open air museums in the world, featuring rural buildings from 1650-1950. It is a part of the Danish National Museum, and is free. Here’s one of the uber-cool buildings – part barn, part house.


Whilst exploring the buildings, I came across a couple of woodworking workshops – here are some pictures. Most of the photos come from a building circa early 1800’s where craftsmen made baskets, wooden tools and barrel hoops. Many of the photos show European-style workbenches.



Check out the holdfast on the bench below!

wshop2 bench4c

Tools of the Trades – Tips

Here are some things I’ve learnt along the way over the past three years attending Tools of the Trades.

  • Don’t haggle too much – if an item is marked at $40, don’t offer $20. With something tagged as $42, a $40 offer might be accepted, but low-ball offers are distasteful. Don’t forget, the tool sellers have spent time scouring flea-markets and the like looking for tools so you don’t have to – you have to take this into account.
  • Use Frank’s method from “American Pickers” and bundle. You’re often likely to get a couple of bucks off if you bundle 2-3 items together.
  • Check plane bodies (and all tools) for cracks, welds, and missing pieces. Some parts can be replaced from parts resellers such as “New Hampshire Plane Parts” on eBay – cracks and welded parts detract from the usefulness of a plane, and are hard to repair. Fixing cracks in cast iron requires brazing, and is not for the faint-hearted – you basically need a welder and machinist.
  • Don’t spend too long waiting to make a decision on an item – next time to the stall it may be gone.
  • Don’t be surprised if the plane you buy isn’t “ready out of the box” with a perfectly sharpened blade. Even Lee Valley plane blades need to be sharpened. Sharpening a blade is something you have to learn to do yourself. The same with restoring tools. I’ve listened to the stories from sellers about people that have run their fingers across the blade and almost severed them- yeah it’s stupid but apparently it happens. Best to sell planes with blunt blades than razor sharp ones.
  • Do a little homework on what you want to buy. There are sometimes so many tools it can become somewhat overwhelming. Looking for a basic set of hand planes – block plane, smoothing, jack? You don’t have to limit yourself to Stanley – Millers Falls are good too, and even a brand like Craftsman are okay – they were often made by the likes of Sargent and just branded Craftsman.
  • If you’re looking for a particular tool and you don’t see it – ask. Sometimes not all the tools are on display, or the seller may not have brought their entire inventory with them.
  • Oh, and bring a bag, or something to carry the tools you buy in. I’ve forgotten it before, and schlepping an armful of tools can become tiresome quickly.