Chris Schwarz's Blog

Another Stunning Drill from Wiktor Kuc

For those of us who buy old tools, one of the fantasies involves time travel. Wouldn’t it be cool to walk into a hardware store in the late 19th century and buy a new Stanley Bed Rock plane off the shelf? Or how about an entire set of chisels from James Swan?

Until we build a time machine, we’re just going to have to be satisfied with the work of Wiktor Kuc, who rebuilds hand drills to better-than-new glory.

Back in April I wrote a blog entry about a Millers Falls No. 5 that Kuc restored. Last week he loaned me a Millers Falls 2A for evaluation. I was so blown away by the tool, I had to show off some photos here on the blog. And I also decided to break the color barrier to do it.

And I wasn’t the only one who was impressed. This drill was sitting on my desk a few days ago when Publisher Steve Shanesy stopped by. He picked up the hand drill and had a confused look on his face.

“Did Millers Falls start making these again?” he asked. “This is incredible.”

Then Steve did what I did when I got the drill: He looked at the knurling on the chuck. I have a beloved 2A that I use all the time in my work and I thought my drill was minty. Apparently I don’t know minty. The chuck on Wiktor’s drill looks like it should still be covered in lubricant from the factory floor. It’s just that perfect.

The entire frame has been repainted and baked. Not a flake or worn spot can be found. The wooden parts have been replaced with new turned parts , plus new ferrules. The only evidence I can find on this drill that it is not 5 minutes old (instead of 40+ years old) is that the drive gear has the slightest evidence that it was once pockmarked by rust. The rust is gone, but the tiny pits remain, if you look close enough.

In use, the thing is as good as it looks. All the gears mesh tightly and the crank handle spins with very little effort thanks to the thorough de-gunking from Kuc.

Of course, there is an ethical issue here to be debated. When I posted my last blog entry I received a fair number of private e-mails from people who were worried that restoration work like this could easily get out of hand. That anything other than a gentle cleaning ruins a tool’s status with collectors. And even if it were a user tool in question, one should only do what it takes to get the tool running again. Removing the patina of use erases the tool’s beauty and the evidence of the craftsmen who used it before.

These are good points that should be debated. Here’s my take: I see these drills at every tools sale and flea market I haunt. They show up on eBay like clockwork. As far as I know there are enough of these drills for 100 museums dedicated to the great hand drills of Millers Falls.

Even someone with Kuc’s work ethic shouldn’t be able to deplete our supply of Millers Falls drills.

And Kuc is providing a service that might not be obvious. I love old tools and their patina, but there are lots of customers who will buy only new tools. I once spent a half hour begging a guy to buy an old brace instead of a new one. No matter how excellent (and inexpensive) the old ones were, he had to buy new. And this guy isn’t alone.

So if you like old tools and want a vintage hand drill, here’s what you should do: Visit OldToolHeaven.com , the best site for researching Millers Falls products. Pick out a few of the drills you like and start haunting the flea markets and online auction sites. I guarantee you’ll find a decent drill for about $25 that will work with little or no restoration work on your part.

Or, if you like new and shiny, then visit WKTools.com and browse through his selection. Kuc has excellent taste in drills; I didn’t see any of the low-rent hand drills that were intended for light-duty on his site. Just the premium iron.

- Christopher Schwarz

11 thoughts on “Another Stunning Drill from Wiktor Kuc

  1. Christopher Schwarz

    Peter,

    Thanks for leaving a comment. You are one of my heroes!

    The oak is for an Arts & Crafts plant stand. I wish it were riven and I wish it were for a Jacobean chest….

    Chris

  2. James Watriss

    I think this whole thing gets out of hand a little too easily. I think there are things that are worth preserving in their inherited state, and there are things that are worth restoring or repainting or rebuilding. How many car collectors do you see maintaining their babies in a "patinated" state? (clunk, clunk, cough, sputter, gasp)

    One of the virtues of old wooden furniture is that it can very often be repaired, refinished, and reused. In certain rare instances, it may be desirable to have a particularly pristine piece maintained, as a way of preserving the record, and maintaining our history. But there are many other examples which may not have survived, or have certainly not survived in a condition that’s worth maintaining. I say repair, restore, refinish, and reuse. The alternative is to go for particle board furniture that doesn’t hold up, isn’t designed to last, and when it has broken down, is too toxic to even use as firewood. Bah!

    For old tools, particularly ones of quality, it’s a similar thing. If a tool has patinated, but is in good condition, then keep it that way. But in the end, I think it depends on what you wanted to use the tool for. If you’re decorating your mantel with a piece of rusty junk, then fine, leave it. If you’re a serious tool collector, methinks thou dost protest too much, but have at it, and keep buying up the pristine ones, to preserve the record.

    As for the rest of them… this is recycling at its best. These tools were made to last, and in another 100 years, if the human race is still around, then Wiktor’s work will be part of the legitimate history of these tools, and proof that we saw enough merit in these neglected or worn down tools to spend the time making them new again. In an age when the quasi-disposable big box tool market is thriving, (show me a patinated cordless drill, I dare you.) I think it’s more honorable to take a worthy tool and restore it to as pristine a condition as possible, if it can be done. Wire wheel, new coat of paint, and whatever else he’s done… Wiktor is giving new life to old tools that deserved to have a longer useful lifespan. Collectors can carefully save all the dust they like. A tool is built and exists on this earth to work, and it’s good karma to put a good tool back into rotation, to make it more usable and useful again. I, for one, will buy one of these drills very, very soon.

    Maybe the old tools didn’t stay shiny and pristine in their owner’s hands. But I bet they didn’t collect much rust or dust, either.

  3. Peter Follansbee

    Chris: I’m enjoying catching up on your writings, I have many comments, but for now will keep it short. The drill is obviously very nice, but I coulnd’t help notice all the perfectly quartered oak on the bench. What is it for, and is it riven??

    Regards,
    Peter Follansbee
    http://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/

  4. Dave Brown

    I agree with Dale Smith in the post above. I have collectable tools that have all the old marks and patina from bygone days. I also use some of them and those I have cleaned and repaired to make them look like newer tools. I want to leave my marks and the patina I will have accumulated on them for my 3 young grandsons, who will have watched me work with them, instead of some unknown craftsman from the past.

  5. Wiktor Kuc

    I agree with David and his post above. Like with everything, there should be a balance with bringing old tools to a state that will transform them from rusted “pile of junk” to either collectable item that contributes to our history or usable tool that can still serves its original purpose.

    I have a dozen or so drills (among other tools) that are truly collectable items and a testimony to history of drills development. I have done cleaning and made them function again. This is all what these tools went trough after I received them. They are beautiful as they are and their value is in historical arena, rather as a “user” tools.

    As to the restoration techniques, there are many books and articles that can give excellent guidance to those who want to try it. What I learned however from my own experience, it is an arena where experimenting and continuing learning is a must for successful restoration. There are many new developments now in tools and materials that were not available even ten years ago. These new tools and materials provide for much more accurate restoration as well as for protection of tools of historical value.

    Regards, Wiktor

  6. David

    The issue with antique tool restoration is more complicated than romantic notions of old-time craftsmen. There are certain tools that will not function without some restoration (Wiktor gives a good example). However, the zeal to make something shiny again is misplaced – no tool ever stayed shiny in a craftsman’s tool box in the days before hand tools, and there’s substantial evidence that they didn’t spend the time necessary to "restore" tools to new condition in the manner that many current tool enthusiasts seem to want.

    There are different classes of tools in this regard. Some tools (particularly old molding planes) have a lot to tell those interested in how they were produced, and who made them. Taking sandpaper to those planes not only makes them ugly, it erases those marks of their manufacture. And in some cases, the zeal to make something look new has done tremendous damage to our ability to discern how something was made and how it was used. Ultimatum Braces are excellent examples. Reg Eaton correctly surmised that his customers wanted "shiny", and since most Ultimatum braces passed through his hands over the years, there are very, very few that have not had the marks of their manufacture and use obliterated.

    It’s impossible for Wiktor to produce a similar situation with Millers Falls eggbeater drills, as there were just too many produced, but readers of your blog should not get the idea that such restorations are a good thing with all tools. Wiping down an early 19th century British backsaw with a bit of oil to remove the rust and restore it to usable condition is perfectly acceptable. Taking a wire wheel to the same tool is not, period.

  7. Wiktor Kuc

    I always hesitate to put enything here, since the story is about my wor, but…

    I will refrain form my views on patina, collectability, rarity, etc. of tools. I want to give you a test of correspondence I have at least once a week.

    Here is one:

    Hi,
    I have what I think is a 5 1/2 Goodell-Pratt hand drill. I did some basic cleaning.
    I bought it because it looked like a work of art. Here is the reality:
    The main wood handle is great but is stripped of its threads.
    The 2 speed knob does not turn.
    The chuck springs are shot.
    After seeing your work and especially the 5 1/2 you restored I would like you to restore mine. Can you give me a ball park price?
    You responded to a thread I started on SMC a while back. Since then I caught the bug and now have about 10 drills. There are not many places around here to hunt for them so I have been keeping an eye on eBay. I do use them on occasion and find them, in some cases, better than grabbing a power or battery operated drill.

    The second (my abbreviated version):

    The gentleman is trying to learn and build musical instruments. He has a box of drills he purchased in different places at different times. None of them work well enough or some don’t work at all. His cry is: Can you provide me with set of well working drills? I am not a collector and simply need well working tools so I can do what I want to do – build instruments.

    These two examples from my correspondence tell the story…

    Best regards,

    Wiktor

  8. McKay S

    How much restoration? Well I am a user, and I look used but I do not want to look used. Same with my tools. I do not want them to look old and beat up. (that’s my job)If I could, I would take every one of my stanley planes and make them look like they came out of the box this morning. In my mind and heart, It kills me to see a tool as a knick-knack.

  9. Dale Smith

    I love this topic: How much work is the “right” amount of work to do on an old tool to make it function and look “right,” whatever that means. And then there’s the patina. On it goes.

    I once heard an academic talking about invented tradition. It’s basically the stories we tell ourselves about the past that feel right to us, that somehow symbolize what we think of as right values and behaviors. For instance, the Pony Express is a powerful symbol of bravery and inventiveness in Wild West days, but it only lasted 18 months. We love to identify with it, but it’s really just a footnote.

    I’ve noticed that some people who like old tools place high value on patina and certain kinds of marks that tools accumulate in use. I, for one, have found it very easy to look at an old tool with that certain patina and markings and then dream up a pleasing image of craftsmen and their work, and perhaps the time they lived in. If that makes us happy, I doubt there’s much harm in it.

    But one day I got to thinking: These old tools were new once. If they were well cared for in certain ways, they may not have had much of a patina during their working lives – the same lives I’d found so comforting to romanticize about. In fact, I’ll wager that a lot of craftsmen liked new and new-looking tools better than worn ones.

    Pretty soon, I fell out of love with patina and markings. I still like them. They still whisper to me some pretty stories about skillful hands and bygone days. But for me the romance is over.

    Sellers of collectible tools make money on patina and so prosper, at least in part, on the invented tradition. But I’ve never figured out what is the right amount of patina for paying the rent. Will a 20-year patina do? Is 75 years better? Can there be too much?

    An architectural historian once told me of a related problem in his field. Some very old cathedrals were destroyed during World War II (to take an example). These structures were hundreds of years in the making. Various renovations to the churches over centuries switched historical styles altogether. Once a bomb has turned the cathedral into rubble, architects have to ask themselves, “What is the ‘right’ style to use in restoring the building?” To one particular style? A certain moment in history? To the last moment before the bomb hit?

    These days I think that, if you like patina, that’s great. Enjoy. But for myself, as I stand at the wire wheel removing the color and some markings, I feel no guilt, no ethical qualm. Instead, I feel like I’m taking the tradition in hand and making it my own.

    Dale Smith

  10. J.C.

    Ditto on your take about "restoration" as it means to collectors. What makes something "collectible" and possibly "conservable" is rarity. Who cares if I restore a Stanley #26? They’re as ubiquitous as ear hair on an old guy. Wait a minute, I’m not that old! But seriously, folks, if restoring an old tool makes the owner happy and it’s not a "rarity", I say let the, "Oh don’t, you’ll ruin it" crowd keep to their quest for an original box for their Stanley #1. The rest of us just want to get some work done perhaps with a shiny new old tool.

    Most of us just want our "old stuff" to work as designed and looking cool is just a bonus. It took me years to come up with a few decent looking Millers Falls eggbeaters. They’re just show-offs, but they do not work any better than the battered beauties I used for years in between.

    Bravo to Mr. Kuc, for some gorgeous restorations. I can also vouch for his replacement knobs, they’re first rate.

    always,
    J.C.

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