Tools Then and Now
I've recently acquired a couple of new tools, some new, some old. And I've noticed a striking difference in how these are made.
One is a Stanley No. 66 Hand Beader shown here.
It's a glorified scratch stock designed to cut a short length of low relief moldings directly on the edges of boards. That method of work was common in the late Renaissance before dedicated molding planes started to appear. It was still done on vernacular furniture and detail moldings into the 20th Century, hence Stanley's production of this specific tool.
Scratch stock (and this beader) functions similarly to a scraper. The cutters are filed straight across, not beveled like a plane iron. The tool carries the cutter with a slight tilt (off perpendicular), and the tool is pushed or pulled with the cutter leaning toward the direction of the tool's movement. You aren't going deep or wide with something like this. It's meant to provide some decoration and visual interest without taking a lot of time.
To the left here is a typical 19th Century shop-made example. Lee Valley sells a cast iron version similar to this one. With a set of blades, it's $30 or $40.
The Stanley tool shipped with 8 double-ended "blades", a variety of beads and flutes, a router, and a blank one you can file into whatever profile you like. In addition, the tool came with two fences, one with a flat face for straight work and one with a convex profile for curved work. These are pretty common on the used tool market, I buy and resell several a year. But you will very rarely see one complete with all the blades and both fences. The difference is like $60 versus $350.
I am actually going to use mine, or rather the one I kept from this latest batch of tools. It came with a straight fence and a packet of reproduction blades. I may actually just sell off the blades since the profiles I want to create aren't turn-of-the-(20th)-century motifs, but 17th Century English ones. So I will need to file new ones anyway. Though I could see cutting bead here or there, fluting? No.
Stanley produced this from 1886 to 1941. Before 1900, the frame was japanned as this one is. After that, it was nickel-plated and the handle has this art deco look (see image). I don't care for the look, and the plating is usually flaking off some (they are 100+ years old) and therefore a little sharp until you scrape off the damaged areas.
This gets at the point of this screed.
The earlier No. 66 that I have (pictured at the top right of this page), is a joy to hold and use. It fits my hand well and has a nice mass to drive the iron through the wood. Its smooth curves put your hands in the right place to cut even profiles. The later model No. 66 (shown here on the left) has a similar profile and, if the plating isn't flaking off and getting stuck in your skin, it's fine.
The other tool is a small fence for my new drill press. It's all the latest in fences, this extruded aluminum number that can be configured in various ways and whose price in no way reflects the cost of production. And it sucks to use it. The fence itself was clearly cur to length from a larger extrusion (makes perfect sense), but the tool was shipped straight off the saw. Those edges were so sharp I had to relieve them with a file for my own safety. Even the long edges are uncomfortably "crisp". And the fiddly toggles that lock the fence down also suffer from these crisp edges.
As a result, my first long session in the drill press ended with several small cuts on my hands from the tool. I'm used to making myself bleed through carelessness or stupidity, but my tools shouldn't be this bloodthirsty.
Molded plastic knobs on my new band saw are similar, they have these sharp edges on their castings that make it unpleasant to use turn them. It's a blemish on what's otherwise a great saw.
We've focused on function and low-cost production, but have forgotten that someone actually uses these things.
Look again at that beader. You Want to pick it up and use it. You are certain there are no sharp edges except for the cutter itself. It's a pleasure to hold and works better than you'd expect. Sure, a tool needs to be affordable, but it needs to be something you want to use, or what's the point?