“Buck Rogers” planes (part 2)

The smooth and sleek lines of the Millers Falls No.709 – a product of the streamline moderne era of the 1950s.


Fig 1: Millers Falls No.709

Millers Falls described the 709 and 714 as “The Finest Planes in the World”. The brochure that Millers Falls distributed outlined eight major characteristics.


Fig 2: Back of the advertising sheet for No.709 and 714.

The core components of the plane body are discussed below (leaving out the iron and finish):

1. BED – Cast iron, with substantial weight forward of the throat, and 25% more strength in the throat region. “freer chip and shaving clearance”.


Fig 3: The toe of the No.709

The bed of the plane is made of cast iron, with the 709 weighing in at 3 7/8 lbs. Unlike similar planes, like the Stanley #4, there is substantial weight forward of the throat. The overall weight is marginally more than an equivalent Stanley #4, but the weight is likely distributed differently, with less weight in the knob and tote (plastic), and the frog (aluminum), than the hardwood and cast iron used in the Stanley. The toe of the plane bed below the knob (Fig.3a) is hollow, with the circular depressions on either side of the plane (Fig.3c) being the ends of a rod which holds the thread for the screw which secures the knob to the plane (Fig.3b).

2. FROG – Aluminum hollow die casting, providing a stronger, more rigid support for the handle, and encasing both blade adjusting mechanisms. The bedding is 3-4 times longer than any other plane and is anchored by three screws giving increased strength and rigidity.


Fig 4: The frog of the No.709

The frog is complex, enclosing both the lateral, and blade length adjustment, and the rear handle assembly. This does provide for a very rigid structure, however to adjust the frog requires removing the Tenite handle (not that the frog should need to be adjusted that often).

4. LEVER CAPRoller clamping mechanism in combination with three-point bearing locks the iron to the frog to “entirely eliminate” vibration or chatter. “Clamping and unclamping is almost effortless”.

The lever cap is the unique Millers Falls double-jointed, 3-point design (Patent No.1,822,520). The point of this is to provide a clamping action which not only clamps the lower and upper ends, but also in the middle so it is clamped throughout its length – eliminating any bowing and chattering action during operation.


Fig 5: The double-jointed lever cap

5. DEPTH ADJUSTMENTFinger-tip control secured through much larger knurled adjustment knob, and “powerful” linkage.


Fig 6: The depth adjustment mechanism and thumbscrew

The depth adjustment knob is extremely large, and ergonomically designed (Fig.6b). The knob moves a screw which pivots the adjustment mechanism inside the frog (Fig.6a), moving the blade up and down.

6. LATERAL ADJUSTMENT“New accessibility and with ore comfortable and greater ease of operation”.


Fig 7: The lateral adjustment lever

The lateral adjustment mechanism is a simple pivoting lever which adjusts the blade from side to side (Fig.7).

7. HANDLES“Guaranteed unbreakable in use”, the handles are made of Tennessee Eastman Tenite #2. It provides a “pleasant touch” and “surer, more comfortable grip”. The inside of the bed and frog are finished in gray, baked-on enamel. The lever, cap, and knurled adjusting nut are polished, nickel-plated.


Fig 8: Holding the rear handle or tote

The handles and knobs of the planes were made of Tennessee Eastman Tenite #2, a cellulose acetate butyrate molding composition. This hard, “unbreakable” plastic was used by Millers Falls in many of its “Buck Rogers” era tools. Aesthetically, the shine of the metallic surfaces, the streamlining, and the red handles gave the planes a unique feel. The red handle is comfortable, although there is limited space between the handle and the frog, as shown in Fig.8a because the lateral adjustment lever almost touches the handle. Fig. 8b shows an alternative way of holding the plane.

The No.714 is similarly constructed. How functional are these planes? Stay tuned, I’ll do some testing sometime in the future.


One vise to rule them all.

We are lucky to live in a new age of tool design – yet some designs seem timeless. There are many new takes on older designs for vises – but what of the Zyliss? You know the Swiss army knife of vises, now called the Z-Vise. I picked one up a few years ago in its original packaging – seems like it was never used. There is very little written about these vises online, or maybe nobody wants to admit to actually using one. They advertise them as being four devices in one, 4×1=1 – a vise, a bench for planing, a clamp and a glueing press. It really is a versatile device.

It could be used as a standard vise, or by reversing the vise obtain a “low-jaw grip”. As a clamp it could be used as a bar clamp (reversing the moving jaw and using the end stop, or as a G/C clamp. The Zyliss vise/clamp appeared circa 1970, apparently commissioned as a field vice for the Swiss Army. It is made of cast magnesium alloy, with stress points reinforced with Swedish steel. The original is no longer manufactured in Switzerland, although an improved version SwissRex still is.


zyliss_pg23eS zyliss_pg45eS


Buying vintage tools online

I have been buying vintage tools for quite a few years now – both from vintage tool shows like “Tools of the Trades”, online tool sellers, and even *shock-horror* – eBay. My experiences have been mostly positive – even though some people decry buying tools from eBay.

When buying a vintage tool, the primary concern (excepting the price of course), is its condition. Buying online, tool sellers often have some sort of classification system, e-Bay however is a little trickier. The most commonly used tool rating system was established by Vernon Ward and the Fine Tool Journal (FTJ). Reputable sellers will post multiple photos of the tool, clearly showing any defects, and possibly either describing the defects, or posting them as “for parts or repair”. In a recent eBay post for a Stanley No.62 plane, photos were posted showing the defects associated with the plane, i.e. the pitting on the sole, and the chip in the throat opening, and marking the plane as “for parts or repair” in the posting description (I annotated the figure below). Both these defects are challenging to fix, but the plane still has parts that are usable, and as a show-specimen, the plane isn’t that bad (it sold for close to US$100).


Here are some general guidelines for purchasing off eBay:

  • If a tool on eBay seems too expensive, then don’t buy it – remember that you will have to factor in shipping as well.
  • If a tool seems like it is damaged, but isn’t marked as such, query the seller – you can always ask for more pictures to be posted.
  • Be wary of tools where there is only one picture posted, or the picture is low-resolution or blurry.
  • Be wary of posts where the postage is extremely high – except of course if the tool is very heavy.
  • Wait until near the end of an auction before bidding – best to jump in quickly at the end, than have the bidding escalate by putting in an early bid.
  • Check out the average price of the tool elsewhere.

Sometimes you can get a really good bargain on eBay. Other times you really have to read the ad. Here is a case in point. I found this ad for three “antique” block planes – marked as being from circa 1900. The ad made the following statements:

  • “tools are in good condition but have heavy wear due to age and use”
  • “there is surface rust, and peeling paint”
  • “they are all complete with blades and no missing parts”
  • “all levers and knobs work too”

The planes are Stanley No.’s 120, 220, and 18. Now look at a photo of the planes:


Clearly the tools are not in good condition – the No.220 has a reasonably heavy coat of rust, the knuckle lever-cap on the No.18 has maybe 50% of the nickel plating remaining. The block planes have all their parts, however there is a large piece of the lever cap on the No.220 missing. The No.18 has a patent date of 2013, and a SW (“Sweetheart”) trademark, dating it between 1920 and 1934 (the years the Sweetheart trademark was used). The other two planes are too generic to date properly (i.e. No.110 – 1876-1973; No.220 – 1898-1973). I would likely classify these as Good- (18), Fair (220), Good- (110) according the the FTJ classification system. The asking price was $125  – which is a lot considering the No.18 may be worth between $30-40, and each of the No.120/220 about $10 each (unless they were early types, which they are not).

Note that recently US eBay starting adding “import charges” to their  listings for buyers in Canada – all to “make life easier for the buyer”. The thing is with all the “used” tools I have bought on eBay and had shipped from the US, very few have arrived with import charges. So watch the import fees. Listings from the UK, and other countries don’t seem to add these charges on. One last trick – sometimes there are excellent tools to be had on overseas eBay sites like Germany, France, and the UK. They don’t always show up on the local eBay site – partially because they use different search terms. Search on the eBay website of the particular country you are interested in using the local search term, for example on eBay.fr use the French term for plane – rabot. Then select a tool and copy the eBay item number into the search box of your local eBay. It will tell you if they ship to your country or not. Sometimes there are good bargains to be had. Even better if you can find someone in Europe to ship to as an intermediary – often large collections only ship within Europe. Here’s a real bargain, 40 wooden planes for €90.25 – but they only ship to the European Union.


If you still don’t trust eBay, then try one of the online resellers like Liberty Tool Co. (who sell online, but also have three locations in Maine packed with vintage tools), Rose Antique Tools, (online only) or Walt Lane at the The Great Adirondack Tool Co. (online and a store in Johnstown, NY). Walt is great, I bought a Sargent No.306 off him a few years back. His prices are very reasonable, and customer service is excellent.

Unbreakable smoothing planes

As a side note to the “the block planes of superheroes”, apart from the Stanley S4 (1926-1942), there is also Stanley’s two metal “Liberty Bell” planes.  The “Liberty Bell” planes were introduced in 1876 as five wooden models (122, 127, 129, 132, and 135), and two metal models (104, 105) – and sold until 1918. Both the Liberty Bell No.104, (Fig.1b) and No.105, were designed by Henry Richards and Justus Traut (Patent #: 176,152/RE7,565) and have a pressed metal sole (Fig.1d) – advertised in the early Stanley catalogs as “wrought steel stock”. There are two cast metals sub-structures which are riveted to the bed of the plane to facilitate the addition of the (i) front knob (Fig.1a), and (ii) the plane handle and frog (Fig.1c). These sub-structures are cast (solid) rather than pressed to provide much needed weight to the plane –  even though “lightness” was one of their advertising values.


Fig.1: The Liberty Bell No.104

They were reputedly made “for outdoor work where tools are apt to get knocked around and are subjected generally to more or less rough usage”. Due to the thinness of the sole, and the space between the pressed sole and the cast sub-structures, it is likely these planes were susceptible to corrosion, especially pitting.

Knives from the depths of Hell

One of the more interesting knives in my collection is a knife from Le Creux de L’Enfer – The Depths of Hell. I bought it from Lee Valley many years ago, from old stock they found supposedly from the 1920s. The knife is 12″ in length with a 7 3/4″ blade, is hand forged, double tapered (Fig.1b) and has a handle made of wood held in place by brass rivets and roves (Fig.1d). The knife is marked “L’Enfer”, and has the trademark devil running with a trident in his hand (Fig.1a). Double tapered implies that the blade tapers to either end from the thickest part – near the knife choil (Fig.1c).


Fig.1: Parts of the L’ENFER knife

The factory was named “The Depths of Hell” because it was at the foot of a waterfall in Thiers – noisy and damp.


Fig.2: The Depths of Hell (to the left)

So what happened to L’Enfer? Apparently the owners of L’Enfer collaborated with the Germans in the Second World War, and were shunned afterwards. The factory declined, and was absorbed by “Emouleur RC”, which in turn was absorbed by Sabatier Theirs-Issard.

A very cool knife store

Knives are tools too – in fact they were likely one of the first things humans designed when they began making tools (of bone, stone, and even wood).

A couple of days ago I visited hacher & krain – a very unique knife store in Toronto. Unique because they have a nice mixture of hand-made knives, from pocket knives to kitchen knives, from places all around the globe – Japan, France, Germany, and Finland – they don’t restrict themselves to one particular region. They also have some solid, thick cutting boards. Greg, the stores owner, doesn’t sell online – which makes real sense, because to get a real feel for a knife, you have to hold it in your hand – check the weight, balance. I decided to buy three new knives: a paring, a boning, and a filleting knife – with the ultimate goal of retiring my Wüsthof knives. hacher & krain carry an excellent selection of K-Sabatier knives from France. The word Sabatier is derived from two knife makers who worked in the French town of Theirs at the beginning of the 19th century. There are many Sabatier brands, but K-Sabatier is the original.

I decided to buy from the K-Sabatier Carbone series – French pattern carbon steel. Having a multitude of woodworking tools – very few of which are made of stainless steel – I have no issue buying carbon steel knives. Carbon steel contains smaller carbide granules, giving it a finer grain which ultimately holds a keener edge that can be better retained, and can be honed with greater ease. The one caveat with carbon steel knives is that if neglected they will rust if left wet or damp, so they should be wiped and dried after use – they will develop a dark patina over time. The knives are tempered to Rockwell 54-56 HRC.Getting a feel for the knives, it is apparent straight away that the Carbone knives are noticeably heavier than their stainless steel equivalents, making for a much better balanced knife.



Once I selected the type of Carbone knives, Greg brought out three of each knife, and I selected the one which felt best. Overall it was an excellent knife buying experience, Greg obviously has a wealth of knowledge and a close affinity with the tools he sells.

the Nest Protect – a usable smoke/CO detector

This isn’t technically under the guise of working by hand – but good product design deserves to be reviewed. I don’t like technology much – I find it pervades far too much into our lives – yet there are exceptions. One exception is a product which enhances a task, but is not impeded by being too complex to use. One such product is the Nest Protect – combined smoke detector and carbon monoxide (CO) detector. I have been wanting to buy the Nest Thermostat for a while now, the only thing holding me up was a wish to install it during warmer weather. Installing a thermostat in winter is not the best plan – and I guess I missed the boat this year – so it will be next spring. But the Protect, well that’s another matter altogether. The problem with traditional smoke/CO detectors is that testing them is a pain – they suffer from huge usability issues. Smoke detectors also suffer from false-alarms, especially those situated near kitchens – and hushing them is problematic. When we have raclette in the dining room the previous smoke alarm would always go off, which required unplugging it for the duration of the meal (120V).


The Protect is C$129, (C$155 with tax and shipping) which some people naturally baulk at – for 7 years of service – or $22 a year. Note that all such devices have a lifespan, usually printed on the device somewhere – they don’t last forever. Why only 7 years? The Protect contains a Photoelectric smoke sensor which likely suffers from a reduction in sensitivity over time. Sure a good smoke alarm, and separate CO detector together may cost you $60-70. But this is about a usable product. My main floor CO detector is taking up a plug as well, so having this in the same unit is great.

Installation is a breeze. I bought the 120V unit, and it comes with everything needed to install it. Directions are easy to read, and it maybe took 20 minutes – half of which the device spent hooking up to the wireless network. The people at Nest obviously know how to create an easy install.


What do I like about it?

  • It’s sleek – just because something performs a utilitarian task does not mean it has to have bad aesthetic design.
  • It combines two logical functions together.
  • Testing it is a breeze. Push the blue button and the Protect does the rest.
  • It talks to you – and not in the way Siri does. It’s a pleasing voice, guiding you through the test phase.
  • It checks itself through self-monitoring, which basically means it tests its internal sensors (every 10 seconds), backup battery, and wireless connection (once a day).
  • It is easy to hush – just by waving your arm.
  • There is a Nest App, to check the Protect’s status (and that of the thermostat).

We lost power here for three days due to an ice storm, and having the Nest Protect was great extra insurance. In the dark it senses when someone walks underneath and illuminates. I will likely install a second (battery) unit in the basement. One of my neighbours has a Nest Thermostat, and was checking the temperature of the house while on vacation in Europe.

The next thing which would be nice from Nest? – A usable sensor to detect flooding in the basement.