Most old tools are anonymous–unless you knew the previous owner personally, there’s no way to tell who owned them before you did. But there are happy exceptions. Two of my handplanes have a previous owner’s name on them. And while the names don’t exactly give me a full history of these tools, they do tell me something about the men who owned them.
Mr. A. Robertson
My wooden jack plane was once owned by Mr. A. Robertson.
I know Mr. Robertson only by his name stamp on this handplane. I got the plane from a guy in Alaska, but I have no way of knowing whether Mr. Robertson lived in Alaska, or whether the plane was brought up there by someone else later.
Mr. Robertson really liked his name stamp.
I mean, he REALLY liked it.
He stamped his name on this plane no fewer than 26 times!
There are at least four name stamps on every side except the sole. On the top, there are six.
Mr. Robertson also stamped the wedge, and he punched his initials into the top of the iron.
At first, I thought that this was just a guy who was excited about a new name stamp, and that he got carried away marking his name on his handplane. But the more I look at the stamps, the more I think differently. This man was methodical–to the point of being obsessive.
If he had been merely trying out a new stamp, I would expect more irregularity in the depth of the stamps. But the depth is quite regular. Plus, he always stamps his name in pairs, and in each pair of stamps, one stamp is inverted. That suggests a very deliberate method. I think that Mr. Robertson was determined that nobody would steal his tool and be able to sand off (or otherwise disfigure) all the name stamps. After all, it would be relatively simple for a thief to do away with one or two stamps, but not 26. It wouldn’t be worth a thief’s time to erase that much evidence. The fact that Mr. Robertson had a name stamp at all indicates that he was a professional, probably working alongside other professionals–a situation in which it is all too likely for tools to disappear.
The general condition of the plane confirms Mr. Robertson’s meticulous character. The tool is quite well cared for, given its probable age. It was made by the Sandusky Tool Co., which operated from 1869 to 1929. That would place this wooden plane at over 88 years old at the very least. The iron has not been ground down very much. In a plane this old, I would expect more of the iron to be gone due to regrinding. But if the user is careful–as I think Mr. Robertson was–an iron need not be ground very often.
Yet the plane does show wear from regular use. The ends have been tapped regularly with a mallet, which is how these wooden planes are adjusted. When I acquired the plane, the sole was not quite level. It had been inexpertly resurfaced after some wear. I doubt that the sole had been planed down by Mr. Robertson, who was far too conscientious a man to have done a job like that.
I wish I knew more about Mr. Robertson. I wish I could compliment him on taking such good care of his tools. I hope that he would be pleased to know that his old jack plane is still in regular use, nearly a hundred years later. But I really, really want to know why he stamped his name on his plane 26 times. I’m sure there’s quite a story behind that.
Mr. R. Kendall
The second handplane is about the same age as the wooden jack plane. I picked up this Stanley #3C smoothing plane at an antique mall in Indiana. The plane is an early type 9, which means it was made sometime between 1902 and 1907. (Note for handplane nerds: I know it’s an early type 9 because it has a type-9 frog and body, but the lateral adjustment lever is that of a type 8, which means that the plane was probably one of the first type 9s produced, and the factory was still using the last of some of its type-8 parts.) The plane was in remarkably good condition for its age–it merely required some cleaning and the gentle removal of a little surface rust.
This is what the plane looks like after some cleaning.
And this is what it looked like before the cleaning, but after total disassembly.
When I first bought the plane, I didn’t even noticed it was marked. But as I was cleaning off the tote with some Murphy Oil Soap, I noticed something on the top. It seemed to be some initials punched into the wood:
I could just make out an RK. Perhaps you can, too.
I was intrigued. What could RK stand for? I thought it must be the original owner’s initials. I didn’t think much more of it until I started cleaning the rest of the parts.
As I cleaned the lever cap, I found that under a light coating of rust, there was an etch, faint but distinct. It was difficult to photograph, but in just the right light, you can read the name R. Kendall.
Now I knew what RK stood for!
Like Mr. A Robertson, Mr. R. Kendall is mostly a mystery. Yet I can deduce a few things about him from this tool. Like Mr. Robertson, he cared for his tools very much.
I would guess that Mr. Kendall was a small man, or at least that he had small hands. The #3 is a fairly small smoothing plane, and my average-sized hands are not altogether comfortable on the tote. It is true that the #3 cost a little less than the #4, so it could be that Mr. Kendall was merely pinching pennies when he bought it. In Stanley’s 1934 catalog, the #3 with a corrugated sole cost $7.10 and the #4 cost $7.45–not an insubstantial price difference back then. Yet Mr. Kendall opted for the corrugated sole, an extra expense that a true cheapskate would have avoided. I think that the #3 fit Mr. Kendall’s hands, or perhaps his usual scale of work.
I do know that Mr. Kendall was a craftsman. The plane is expertly cared for. Despite its age, the wooden parts are in excellent condition, and the Japanning (the black paint on the inside of the body) is almost completely intact.
Also, the neat, cursive etching on the lever cap suggests a solid grammar-school education. His penmanship is precise. And the fact that this is a neat etch rather than, say, a shaky engraving indicates that he cared for the general appearance of his tools.
Mr, Kendall also knew how to adjust his plane for maximum performance. When I got the plane, the frog had been set pretty far forward, making the mouth very tight. Set that way, the plane will produce a fine shaving with minimal tear-out. While it is possible that a later owner re-set the frog, I doubt it. Frogs are not normally repositioned unless there is trouble with the plane’s performance. If Mr. Kendall was the one who positioned the frog, it is clear that he was knowledgable and experienced with handplanes.
It is highly likely that Mr. Kendall, like Mr. Robertson, was a professional woodworker of some kind–perhaps a furniture maker or a trim carpenter. An amateur has little need to put his name on his tools. But on a job site or in a busy shop, tools have a way of “taking legs,” as they say. Mr. Kendall valued his tools too highly to let them go easily.
One of the biggest changes in woodworking over the last century has been the de-professionalization of the craft. There are still a lot of professional cabinet shops as well as a few individual artisans carving out a living for themselves (sometimes literally), but I would guess that, today, the vast majority of woodworking tools, and especially high-quality hand tools, are bought by amateurs, not by professionals.
That means that, when we find high-quality, antique tools for sale today, there’s a good chance that they were originally owned and used by professionals. These were men who knew the value of hard work and good tools, and that’s why we have so many good antique tools available to us today. Without perhaps realizing it, these bygone professionals have left us a rich inheritance in their tools.
So here’s to you, Mr. Robertson and Mr. Kendall! I’m much obliged to you.