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In my early years working as a tool designer, I had the opportunity to work alongside some traditional old-school tool and die makers. They all took great pride in their tools, i.e., the tools of their trade. They treated their tools with great care and respect, day in and day out. Their felt-lined toolboxes were models of what we call “5S” today. Everything had a place, and everything was in its place when not in use. Their tools weren’t hit with hammers unless they were designed to handle a hammer’s blow. Sharp tools were always kept that way, before, during, and after use.

A few months back, I was again reminded of craftsmanship and tools of a trade when I recognized parts of an incredibly old woodworking plane in a box of discarded, long forgotten woodworking tools. As shown in the accompanying, though, this was no ordinary “old tool.”

The main parts were constructed of dark rosewood, smooth and shiny with a rich patina from decades of use and care. All fittings were made of carefully shaped brass. The previous owner’s name, “S.T. Evans,” had been stamped with pride on both ends of the rosewood body. And the maker’s mark, stamped in tiny letters, was clear: “Mockridge & Francis – Newark, N.J.”

Unfortunately, all pieces of this once precision woodworking plane didn’t seem to be there. I kept digging through the box and found the narrow blade marked “Sheffield, England,” that was just the right width to make a ¼-in. rabbet groove in a cabinet frame. But the small wedge to hold he blade at the proper depth wasn’t missing. To me, that didn’t matter. While this old tool was incomplete and couldn’t be used for its intended purpose, it represented a marvelous piece of old-school craftsmanship.

Weeks later, however, while sorting through and cleaning up the pile of debris dumped out of the old box of tools, I noticed a strange-shaped piece of very dark, broken wood in the dust. That was it! The missing rosewood wedge from the plane. But it was a bit worse for the wear. After all, this was the part of a wood plane that would be tapped with a mallet to lock the blade in place. At some point in its apparently long life, a small piece at the top (known as a finial) broke off, but not enough to stop the craftsman from using and caring for this fine tool.

With all of its parts put back together, the hand tool is a work of industrial art and craftsmanship that we rarely see anymore. Made between 1835 and 1868, and still fully functional, this self-regulating, three-arm plow plane may be one of fewer than a dozen in the world today.

Mr. S.T. Evans took great pride in his beautiful wood plane. That was obvious. At some point, though, the tool was inherited by others, who, over the course of roughly 150 to 180 years, didn’t have a use for it.  Yet the plane survived. Maybe it ended up in an auction, an estate sale, or a great-great grandson’s tool shed. Regardless, this tool has been put back together and will likely end up in the hands of an old-school cabinetmaker or in a premiere antique tool collection.

What does this have to do with the rest of us? The tools of our trade, regardless of what they are and what we do with them to maintain the reliability of industrial equipment today, are important not only to us. They’re important to pass along to future generations of RAM professionals as learning tools. That must be a foundational best practice for improving reliability, availability, and maintenance: Let’s preserve and value our history so others can learn from it (and from us).TRR

Bob Williamson is a long-time contributor to the people-side of the world-class-maintenance and manufacturing body of knowledge across dozens of industry types. His background in maintenance, machine and tool design, and teaching has positioned his work with over 500 companies and plants, facilities, and equipment-oriented organizations. Contact him directly at 512-800-6031 or bwilliamson@theramreview.com.


Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM, tools, tool management, workforce issues, training and qualification