A robust low-maintenance aluminum deck

A bit off topic right? Well, putting in a deck is still technically working by hand, so here it is. A few people have emailed me about my experiences with LockDry Aluminum decking, so I thought I would write up a post. I initially posted a comment on www.ahousebythepark.com last December which prompted the initial request.

When we moved into this house in 2001, I naively installed a 10 x 12 deck with a cedar top. After about 3 years of yearly maintenance, I decided to nix the cedar in lieu of Ipe. In 2004, Ipe was still an “exotic” and somewhat unknown quantity. I ordered mine from “Oliver Lumber” who generally carry the best supply of Ipe (and probably the best price in southern Ontario). I installed the deck thinking that it would be “low” maintenance, and look beautiful if I maintained it. After 4 years of cleaning and oiling twice a year, I had had enough. Left to it’s own devices, Ipe will naturally turn gray – that’s quite fine, but I guess I thought I could keep it the rich dark reddish-brown colour of newly-milled lumber. The truth of the matter is, and something only experience and trolling through forums will tell you is that there is no finish, not Messmers, not Penofin, not Australian Timber Oil that will last – well not in Canada anyways. The brochures often show beautiful decks with rich colours that hold up to the elements…  in Arizona, or California or where ever they don’t get 3-5 feet of snow a year. Snow compacts on a deck and ends up rasping off any finish. If you put in a deck made of exotic wood and aren’t prepared to let it go gray – then you will be re-finishing it twice a year. The benefit of Ipe-like woods is that they pressure-wash really well, but tropical hardwoods also build-up a film of gunk due to leaves falling, pollen and all the wonders of nature. And the end of freshly cut hardwood should be waxed to avoid end checking. Ipe has the same fire-resistance as concrete, and is wickedly bug resistant. I also used Ipe on my front porch (deck and railings), and with a quick clean and oil with Tung oil, it looks great – but it is covered.

So in 2008 I look for options other than exotic wood. One of the requirements for the deck replacement was that it was waterproof – I needed water away from the house, and some provision for storage underneath. A closed deck would also prevent the messy build-up of flower buds, leaves and sticks between the boards. I don’t like composites, so I decided not to go that path. At the end the best option seemed like aluminum. The problem with many of the products available in the US, is that they are not always available in Canada. After some deliberation, I decided to go with LockDry. As to why LockDry? A local distributor. Couldn’t find one for the LastDek waterproof product. The look is great, I went with the beige type colour… easy to maintain, doesn’t matter how much snow sits on there (it’s easy to clean off using a plastic shovel). I did the steps (24″ wide platforms really) going off the deck as well.


LockDry deck during construction – facia on the PT sub-structure is cedar.

We’ve had the LockDry deck for over 4 years now. Couldn’t be happier with it. Because it is metal, it will expand and contract, so it will occasionally make the noises associated with this, however there have never been any leakage problems… as long as you seal between the deck and house properly. In the summer it is cooler than a hardwood. Installation-wise it slopes away from the house so water runs off from the house out. My joists were running perpendicular to the house, so I had to block in between them because the LockDry runs perpendicular as well. No big deal though.

Some FAQ:

  • Is it DIY?  Certainly – obviously easier if you build the deck base from scratch. Once the first piece is installed, the rest snap into place easily, and are held down with stainless steel screws.
  • Is is really waterproof?  Yes… so far anyway. Any water that does penetrate the deck passes down one of the channels and out the end. I have watched the deck from underneath during summer downpours and no issues. The one problem area is where the deck joins the house. I used silicon, and a piece of angled aluminum along the wall to ensure no water seeps through. The deck slopes on an angle, so all the water naturally flows away from the house.
  • Is the deck loud?  I would say not really, and I have listened to it during downpours. It probably depends somewhat on the distance of the deck from the ground. My deck is less than 2 feet  off the ground, and therefore the  noise is likely dampened by the constrained space underneath (closed off somewhat as well).
  • Is the deck low maintenance?  Ab-sol-ute-ly. The deck does get dirty over the winter months, and I clean it  once in May and again in August. A scrubbing brush, some washing detergent and 30 minutes brings it up as good as new.
  • Is the deck hot in summer?  No hotter than hardwood, which itself can get quite hot. It is cooled by the baffles underneath, so it maintains a reasonable temperature. (check here for some experimental testing on how hot decking materials get). A lighter deck colour also reduces the ability to absorb heat.
  • What about snow load?  Not a problem. I usually push the snow off the deck with a plastic snow shovel before it compacts and turns to ice. Just personal preference.
  • Is the deck slippery? No, these decks usually have a non-slip coating.

I can’t find the distributor I used anymore, but I been told that a similar product is sold by Craft-Bilt in Ajax.

Bottom line – if you live in a more arid climate, tropical hardwoods are great, if you live in the big-white North, aluminum is king. It is low maintenance, doesn’t require refinishing, and doesn’t rot. Got a cottage – it’s apparently great for docks, and is not affected by the stuff that falls from the trees. More expensive yes… but what is the cost of maintenance or deck replacement? If the deck substructure cannot get wet, it can’t rot. I paid roughly $2800 for enough decking for a 12′ x 13′ deck and 20 ft² worth of stepping platforms (plus screws, and trim).

P.S. I turned the Ipe into wall cladding on either side of the deck. I have oiled it for two years (and vertical surfaces keep finish *better* than horizontal ones), but the past winter’s ice storm has started to strip the oil, and they are turning gray – I might just admit defeat – nature has worn me down!

P.P.S. Update June 2018. Eight years of the deck now, and it’s as good as it was on day one. A good scrubbing with a brush in the spring is all the maintenance needed. Aluminum decks are truly next-to-no-maintenance decks.



Degrees of restoration

What degree of restoration does a tool need? Does it just need a clean, or are you going to sandblast every speck of rust and residual japanning off, repaint it (or re-japan it), and painstakingly restore every single component, sourcing original parts for those that are missing. The degree of restoration depends partially on the state of the tool, the amount of effort to be put into restoring it, the quality of the end result, and whether the tool is a collectible or a user. For example, using an authentic “Pontypool Asphaltum” formulation for re-Japanning a plane is to be commended, but it won’t make that much difference to a workshop plane – Dupli-Color Engine Enamel seems to work just as well.

If a plane has a considerable amount of its original Japanning/enamel, and just some surface rust, then there is very little restoration that needs to be done. Some tools are naturally beyond the point of being restored. The body of the Stanley No.103 below is considerably corroded, has extensive pitting, and a seized up depth adjustment mechanism (this mechanism can’t easily be taken apart). The rust can certainly be removed, but the pitting has caused irreparable damage to almost every surface of the plane. Considering how common the plane is, it’s not really worth saving.


In between, there is the gamut of restoration. With some tools, restoring it *may* be a challenge. It could be that the tool has been sitting in a barn for the last 50 years, and requires extensive restoration – it may be heavily rusted, have little of the original Japanning left, parts broken or missing, or a worst case scenario – it has a broken casting. In most cases the tool can be restored (except for the broken casting) – but it will require rust removal (chemical, abrasive, electrolytic), restoring the finish (remove the Japanning and replace with paint, or new Japanning), lapping the sole, refinishing parts (e.g. handles), replacing missing or broken parts (or fixing them), and sharpening.

If the tool has parts missing, there are certainly places for obtaining some original parts, for example Stanley parts are relatively commonplace, but others may be extremely challenging to find. The Millers Falls No.714 “Buck Rogers” jack plane is an aesthetically beautiful plane – but its challenging to buy parts like Tenite handles, and even replacing the blade takes away from the aesthetic value of the plane.


Anything is possible, given time and perseverance.

Refurbishment of a Stanley No.104 (part 2)

The “Liberty Bells” are unique for a number of reasons. Firstly, because they are made from steel, and as such as are considered “unbreakable”, and secondly because of their unique blade holding and adjustment mechanism. There are two cast metals inserts which are riveted to the bed of the plane to facilitate the addition of the (i) front knob, and (ii) the plane handle and frog. 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.


The steel body and cast metal inserts

The patent invention (No.176,152) was the “device for holding and adjusting the cutting iron”. The purpose of the invention was to “cheapen the manufacture, and produce a simple, sure, and effective mode of adjusting and holding irons”. However it was never adopted beyond these planes. The central idea is to adjust the blade by means of compound levers and a rocking spindle. Depth adjustment is achieved by means of raising or lowering a two-pronged thumb-lever on the side of the plane, which moves the blade up or down. Whilst this makes for quick adjustment whilst working, it lacks the ability for fine adjustment, or even locking the blade into position.



Blade depth adjustment mechanism

The original patent showed the thumb lever attached with a screw, something that was later changed to a ball-and-socket type joint.

As for the blade and chip-breaker, they are held together with a special screw that extends into a “spur” at the back. The spur or little plate fits into the groove of the depth adjuster. Only Liberty Bell planes have this particular mechanism. In the earlier version (Type 1)  of the plane the spur is attached by means of a slotted nut, whereas later versions (such as this plane) were attached by means of a hex nut.


Blade assembly depth adjustment “connection”




Restoration vs. refurbishment

In the world of woodworking, we talk about tool restoration. We generally use the term to describe the process of taking an old tool, and returning it to a former semblance of itself. However, in the traditional sense of the word, a restored tool is one that has been rebuilt exactly the same way the manufacturer first assembled it at the factory. Replacing the Japanning, refinishing the wooden handles, or lapping the sole, are not really restoration per say – refurbishment would be a better word. To do a restoration justice, the tool would have to be stripped back to bare bones, i.e. all old Japanning stripped off and replaced with new Japanning (not spray painted). Wooden pieces would have to be refinished as they were originally, with original paint colours used on painted parts. An excellent example are the beautifully restored braces and hand drills of Wiktor Kuc (Millers Falls, Goodell-Pratt, Yankee) (see pic below).

Linked from “Hand Drill No. 2A Transitional” by Wiktor Kuc on http://www.wkfinetools.com/



When should a tool be restored?

When should a tool be restored? This is a question a lot of people ask when they buy a vintage tool. The answer is partially dependent on the type of tool – is it a tool to collect and showcase in a cabinet, or use. Is it rare?

Is the tool a collectible or a user?

When it comes to tools, at one end of the spectrum there are the usable tools, and at the other end, the collectibles. From the collectors perspective, there are the blue-chip tools that are usually in near mint condition – these can be expensive and usually require very little restoration. Next are the superior tools – these are well maintained tools with only trace corrosion, minimal wear, no damage or defects. The metal may be darkened, and the wood dirty, but the tools have character, and only need a light cleaning. The third level of tool are the collectable-users. These tools show signs of use, and generally have areas of corrosion. They usually need extensive cleaning, de-rusting, restoration of finishes (e.g. Japanning), and replacement of missing parts. The final category are the salvageable-users. These tools usually need extensive restoration, and may have little finish left, considerable corrosion, or parts broken and/or missing. The tools beyond this category, the so-called “unsalvageables” really should only be used for parts.

This is similar to the three levels of tools Kerry Pierce cites in his book “Hand Planes in the Modern Shop“: (i) Tools that should not be used at all, (ii) Tools that may be gently used, and (iii) Tools that may be used. The first category includes the “collectibles” – rare planes which have a significant historical and/or financial value. The second category are as Pierce puts it “not sufficiently rare to be revered“. These tools are often quite common, and can be more rigorously restored. The last category includes tools which are very common and have practically no financial and/or historical value. These are tools which will be actively used, restored and modified with little issue.

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If you buy a rare plane like the Sargent No. 1506½ Lady Bug “Bull-nose filletster rabbet” plane, (which often sells for upwards of $1000) chances are you bought it for its collective value. It’s a beautiful piece, but there are better shoulder planes out there for practical use. If you buy a plane like this, don’t restore it – its value is based on its current condition, and restoring it may impact its value. Collectable pieces don’t have to look new, shiny, or have new paint – unless you want them to. If a tool comes in its original box – then it may be even more collectible. It’s similar to those Star Wars figures from the 1970s – unopened they are worth a mint – but the same figure with the box discarded has practically no value. Tools that cost a small fortune, and are in prime condition don’t need restoration. The exception to the rule is finding a rare vintage plane in a corroded (but salvageable) state (with a value of say $500), and buying it for $100. Buy it, and restore it – I can’t believe it won’t go up in value.

What makes a tool rare?

There should be some simple means of determining how rare a tool is, but this isn’t usually the case. A rare tool could be one which was only produced for a short period of time, has an ornate finish, or was made by a company which only existed for a few years (e.g.  in the mid to late 19th century). Tools from the earlier half of the 19th century may be rarer, i.e. wooden planes manufactured before the emergence of metal planes. Rare tools need a gentle dusting and nothing else. Sometimes rare planes were manufactured quite recently. A nice example is the Record No. 0100½ model makers block plane – a strange little block plane (3½” in length) with a convex sole in both length and width. It was produced from 1938 to 1943. Similarly, planes like the Spiers Ayr 5″ iron block plane and 6½” adjustable block plane are rare because they were only made in small quantities (and are valued between $2-3K).

Spiers block planes (www.antiquewoodworkingtools.co.uk)

Another example of a rare plane? Planes manufactured by the Buckeye Saw Vise Co. from  1907-1912 (value $300-500), or the ornate Challenge Iron planes manufactured by Tower & Lyon around 1885 (value $700-1000).

P.S. Darrell Chapnick makes replicas of the Sargent 1505½ and 1507½ in bronze for anyone interested. They look pretty cool.

Refurbishment of a Stanley No.104 Liberty Bell (part 1)

A while back I bought a Stanley No.104, a metallic smoothing plane of “Liberty Bell” fame. Truth be told, it was only the body and handle being sold “for parts” – for $11. From looking at Robert Ziegler’s Stanley “Liberty Bell” Planes Type Study, it appears to be Type 1 or Type 2, manufactured anytime from 1876 to 1904. The trick is that the type study realize in part on the lever cap, and as it is missing a more conclusive determination cannot be made.


The “original” No.104

Recently I bought a”donor” No.104, in less than good condition for $70 – but it should provide the parts needed to refurbish the original No. 104. I had sourced the parts on another site, but the lever cap alone was selling for $90. This plane will provide the missing front knob, lever cap, and blade assembly. The base is in much worse condition than the one I already have, so I may clean it up and post it for sale (at a reasonable price). The rear handle is broken in one place, and the horn is missing, so it’s more likely than not a throw-away. Referring to the type study, the lever cap has a shallow elongated hex shape between ribs, making it a Type 3 (1905-1909).



The “donor” No.104

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 produced until 1918. The “Liberty Bell” planes have a “76” and bell cast into the lever cap – made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ringing of the Liberty Bell in 1776. 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”. The plane body is made of 1/16″ steel, bent up to form the side walls.


The “76” on the Liberty Bell lever cap

Removing the parts from the donor plane, and fitting them on the original gives a hybrid plane – a Type 2/3. So what needs to be done? The Japanning on the plane is in reasonable shape, and there is only trace rust on the sole of the plane. In fact the sole is in extremely good condition. Both the lever cap and blade assembly have a light coating of rust. The rear handle needs to be repaired at the base, where there is a small crack. Both handle and front knob need to be refinished.


The “hybrid” No.104

Refurbishment task-list:

  1. Disassemble the plane.
  2. Clean the plane body, and lap the sole.
  3. De-rust the lever-cap and blade assembly.
  4. Sharpen and polish the blade and cap-iron.
  5. Re-finish the front knob.
  6. Repair and refinish the handle.


A history of early block planes

Legend has it that the term “block” plane comes from its use resurfacing butcher blocks, which are end-grained (or at least the good ones are). However it may also have been because of the block-like nature of the wooden mitre planes which were a precursor to the modern block plane.

The Dictionary of Tools describes a block plane as:

…a range of metal planes about 3-7 in long with a variety of devices for holding the iron and adjusting the cut or mouth.

As to their purpose, it goes on to say:

These planes are designed for use with one hand for trimming small work. The low-pitch iron is especially suitable for end grain.

Why metal planes, were there not wooden block planes? As it turns out, very few. This may be in part because of the deteriorative nature of wood, but also due to the smaller size of these planes – it may be that few survived from earlier periods. Most early block planes (pre-1800), were actually made of iron. A “shoe-shaped” Vergatthobel made of iron, and 4 inches in length is described in “A History of Woodworking Tools” (Goodman) from the 16th century. Goodman also describes an iron block plane from circa 1570 (Historical Museum, Dresden) – a small iron block plane, with the ends bent around in a semi-circular fashion. The interesting thing is that the blade is secured with a small thumbscrew threaded through a bar across the mouth. I suspect these planes were made of metal due to their small size, and conversely metal was only used in small planes due to the difficulty in construction and the cost involved.


A 16th century Vergatthobel

With respect to all-wooden block planes, one of interest is the Novaya Zemlya plane (or Nova Zembla in Dutch). In 1596 a Dutch expedition sailed for China via the North-east Passage. The expedition was wrecked near the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, in Russia, and had to over-winter on the ice. Some of the stores they left behind, including this plane, a hand drill and chisel were found in the early 1870s. The plane is made of beech, is 6¾” in length, and 2½ wide, with the blade set at 45°. But was it a true block plane?


Novaya Zemlya plane (courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Smaller wooden planes did of course exist, in the guise of carriage-makers, or piano-makers planes, up to 7 inches in length, however these rarely fit the overall characteristics of block planes. Sometimes they were merely specialized smoothing planes – termed “smooth plane for end grain”, (or RABOT  pour le bois debout in French).

Apart from these few specimens, there is little to say about pre-1800 block planes. Wooden planes that do feature more prominently are mitre planes – a descendant of the medieval block plane, the metal variants of these planes were the starting point for the design of English metal planes. The mitre plane is used mostly for shooting mitres, and performs particularly well on end grain. These mitre planes had the low-set blade, characteristic of block planes. There were of course wooden mitre planes, but these usually were much longer than their metal counterparts – up to 12 inches.


A wood mitre plane

The first “block” plane offered by Stanley, the No.9 in 1870, was a mitre-plane. It had a “block” shaped body with a sole that had semi-circular ends, and a blade bedded at 20°, similar in style to the mitre plane shown below.


A metal mitre “block” plane

In great Britain, early block planes may have gone by another name – the Chariot plane. These planes were 3-5″ in length, and used in end-grain and cross-grain work, and were named because of their appearance.


A chariot plane

It is hard to fathom why the block plane went from apparent obscurity to having its own category, with plane manufacturers from the late 19th century onwards to about 1950 producing copious forms of block plane with different blade adjustment (lateral and depth) mechanisms, as well as varied means of holding the blades in the plane, mouth adjustment mechanisms, and construction methods. It could be partly attributed to the cabinet-makers increasing need to build and fit cabinets onsite, making the use of a plane which could be carried in their apron highly beneficial.

Next – The evolution of the modern block plane.