Bevel – A Haiku
Rainy day today
Old sliding bevel measures
Better than new tool?
Hard at work today on a rainy Saturday. Hard steady rain until at least lunch. Hard to go for my morning hike with the dog so I spent even more time in the basement than normal.
As I was working it struck me again as it often does that I enjoy working with old tools. There are some great new tools out there, but there is something about a well made old tool that just fits in your hand like a familiar friend. I won’t go on and on about how they used to make them better, but it is often true. Or perhaps it’s as simple as the ones that remain were maintained because they were better to begin with than other cheaper versions that were neglected after they started showing any sign of failure.
And then there is price. In the past a much larger portion of the population worked with their hands for their livelihood and the quality of the tools made pre-WW2 was excellent so there is probably enough old good tools still around and fewer folks that actually use them that in general old tools can be had for a bargain compared to new prices from the very few makers even still making new tools. There are some fantastically excellent new tool makers today, but take a look at the price of a bespoke sliding bevel from one of these makers and you’ll likely spend 10 times the price of what you can find at an antique store or on e-bay for an old Stanley.
Regardless I think the biggest reason I enjoy the old ones is because they have a story. Maybe I will never know the story, but I like to wonder whose tool it was previously. I have many tools that were gifted to me from relatives and neighbors, many of them I know exactly who used them and I remember them fondly every time I use a tool from my Grandma’s neighbor Mr. Frank from San Diego as I was just starting or my Father in laws old tools from my wife’s grandfather and others that came over after many years in Australia. So when I see a good old tool at a swap meet, flea market or estate sale I grab it regardless of whether I have something similar already. I can easily rationalize that I can use at least one spare if the price is reasonable and even 2 spares is ok, because maybe you’ll gift one eventually.
I’ve long had at least one sliding T bevel like the ones shown above. I think my first had a very cheap plastic handle and some stamped thin metal in-between. They are amazingly simple and yet to find a really good one is actually harder than you might think. They are often either too loose, the mechanism that holds the blade firm might protrude awkwardly or they are simply cheap. But fortunately they are not particularly difficult to find in good quality especially if you know where to look.
When I started making chairs it became quickly apparent (and it was often recommended) that it was useful to have two or three handy. The best rationale for having several (especially in different makes or sizes) was so that you could set each one to different required angles and assuming the blade mechanism was firm you would lock it in at the required angle and never re-set it until the project was complete.
The reason I show you the four of these is to show the differences between the old and the new. Starting with the newest version I recently bought a Japanese Shinwa brand version because they are reportedly very well accurate and reasonably priced. They do seem to be accurate and I can’t really complain about how it functions. These are actually considered good tools by today’s standards for most woodworkers and better than the typical big-box tools most readily available. But this will never be a beloved tool for a few reasons. It simply has no soul – the materials are likely steel for the blade and I assume aluminum for the body. And then there is the “blah” blade holding mechanism or screw at the bottom. This is ok, but uninspiring. A simple twist of the rod forms the thumbscrew. Simply uninspiring. It doesn’t feel substantial at all. Functional – but way too light and average to inspire long term trust and love.
The second one is the old faithful Stanley #18. This is perhaps the archetype for the perfect sliding T bevel. Very substantial, In function it is almost identical to the Shinwa, but where the Shinwa merely does the job, the Stanley tells you from the moment you pick it up that it is ready for another 100 years of service. There is a presence to this tool, it has weight. This tool feels like you should be wearing flannel and suspenders. There was steel sacrificed for the handle. The handle is knurled, it feels like something that won’t slip out of your hands. This was made when the Stanley name meant something, this tool is probably 1930-1950s vintage. These are also fairly common, as are all tools made by Stanley 50-100 years ago. You will see this version or very similar at swap meets frequently. I’ve picked up similar ones to this that were almost but not exactly the same. I had one slightly longer that I kept for 2 years and decided to pass it on to a departing coworker as a going away gift when I acquired the next two. If you find a well made pre-WW2 Stanley, grab it, you’ll reach for it frequently.
The third one is also made by an iconic tool maker. This is a Starrett. And if you know the name Starrett you will know this is a brand that started at the highest tolerances and maintains a great reputation to this very day. I grabbed this one for a few reasons. I never turn down a Starrett tool if it is reasonably priced. Unfortunately , many sellers inflate prices as soon as they see the Starrett name. But the main reason this one caught my eyes is because it is so small and thin. And despite being very small and thin this one still feels more substantial than the Shinwa. There is steel here, but it is surgical, rather than fancy. But the size is perfect for a pocket. And being so thin it is also very convenient to lie almost flat if you don’t have a reference face to index. But the one flaw is the raised knob that means the knob will likely get in the way often. But I find the knob is reasonably excusable because the thinness of this tool makes any other mechanism impractical.
And finally there is the beautiful Southington sliding T bevel that I found at a tool swap meet 3 years ago. This one I had to have for a few reasons. When you compare it to the others in the top picture, it is much larger than the others which sometimes comes in handy. It also has the same gravitas as the Stanley, just more so. Similar quality of steel and heft, but again – more. The handle itself is beautiful where the “Southington” name is etched into the metal. but the most interesting feature to me was the unique blade tensioning lever. It is completely intuitive and your finger reaches for the lever without any effort as if every sliding bevel should have a lever and not a knob. The lever can also be tightened with a screwdriver, but I’ve only had to do it once. It holds! Best of all the lever is precisely machined into the handle so that when closed it is completely flush. You can lay this bevel handle down in any direction without worrying about if the mechanism is protruding. That is not the case for the other three.
And finally – I just love wondering where this tool has been and what jobs it has worked on. An internet search of Southington tools doesn’t come up with much except the one factory I could find closed in the 1920s. So this is at least a century of service. I wonder how many houses and furniture this tool has seen. How many hands it has passed through. One maker felt strongly enough to leave his initials on this tool. I will have fun wondering whose initials were FLA and how they would feel about their tool still being used regularly.