"Blessed are the grinders." – Ashley Iles
Some days it’s overwhelming to think about all the woodworking and toolmaking knowledge that’s been lost. Last weekend at the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association national meeting it was astounding to see all of the quality tools that simply have vanished from the shelves. And today, while tuning up a plow plane for the next issue of Woodworking Magazine, I was reminded again of the amazing work that came out of Sheffield at one time.
For a good while I’ve been a fan of the Record 043 plow plane, a small metal plow that is sweet for drawer-bottom grooves and other small-scale work. So last month I picked up a Record 044, its bigger brother. The Record 044 comes with seven irons and mine were neatly packaged in a blue cardboard sleeve.
I’ve been avoiding setting up all the irons because seven cutters can take a long time to flatten the faces, grind and hone. But today I had a spare couple hours and decided I could tweak one or two of the irons to get things rolling. I started with the widest irons, which I don’t think were ever used in my set. They looked completely untouched.
I took a deep breath and started flattening the unbeveled face. This part is usually drudgery because there’s a lot of metal to be removed. The first iron was bowed a bit from heat-treating, but the bow worked in my favor , pressing the cutting edge against the stone so it polished up immediately. A lucky break.
So I did the next iron. Same exact bow; same luck! The next two were exactly the same. The grinder or heat-treater or both knew what the heck they were doing because they had oriented the tooling so the bow worked for the woodworker. In fact, in the entire set of seven cutters, only the smallest two were messed up. And that was because they had been used and the face had been dubbed by a lazy sharpener. Within two hours, all seven cutters were polished, ground, honed and ready to use. That’s a record (no pun intended).
This reminded me of a chapter from one of my favorite books about toolmaking: “Memories of a Sheffield Tool Maker” by Ashley Iles. Iles made two statements that have stuck with me to this day: “You sank or swam on your hardener; his reputation was always on the line, and he knew it.” Iles then recalls a chisel maker that went out of business after one batch came back soft. And later in the chapter, Iles states: “Blessed are the grinders.” He says it’s from Ecclesiastes chapter 10, but I can’t find it.
Both statements are so true. Even if your steel is great, it’s no good if it’s heat-treated, tempered or ground poorly. During a test of new chisels about six years ago I set up almost 100 chisels; probably more than half were warped so that the face was bellied. We’ve forgotten something.
One last post-script. The Record 044 is an excellent tool. And the nice kicker to the story is I had bought it from Ashley Iles’s son, Ray Iles. Ray always has a few of these tools in stock. You can visit his site and drop him a line for details.