You’d think that Kay’s cooking would be enough to land her the title of “Life-long Friend.” And you’d be right. Her Thanksgiving spreads are legendary in our social circle. But then she shows up one day with a nice Millers Falls No. 9 smoother from an estate sale. In my book, that earned her a hefty deposit into her Karma account…plus my beaming and grateful smile.
But this is the real world and I’m a woodworker addicted to vintage hand tools. So what was Kay’s reward when her back was turned to chat with my lady? My tip-toed retreat to the shop to inspect my loot. She took it well. I’ll make it up to her. That’s what friends do.
“Estate-fresh” from the previous owner’s garage
Here’s my prize as-found.
A straight-edge confirmed that the sole was pretty flat with no wind or obvious issues. For the second time in five minutes, I smiled broadly. “Not bad at all.”
I’m a marketer by trade (copywriter.) So I appreciate Millers Falls’ approach to differentiating their products in what was a crowded marketplace at the time. Take the lever cap. The recessed lettering proclaiming “Millers Falls” on it was a great start. So was emblazoning their brand name in bright red letters—though my example lacks that eye-catching detail. Which makes it a Type 3 made around 1941—1949 according to Old Tool Heaven’s type study.
Inspecting my 65-year-old plane
Overall, I was impressed. Let’s see…some surface rust on the sides and sole.
Add to that some minor pitting in insignificant areas.
After a minute or so, I got the inkling that this plane hasn’t seen much use. Why? For one, the blade is at full length and had but one minor nick in the edge. The back was untouched, showing prominent machine marks from the day it left the factory. The bevel wasn’t polished either. That alone doesn’t prove the plane was hardly used, the blade could have been a replacement. But it’s what I saw next that clinched it in my mind.
When I first inspected the cap-iron and iron assembly something struck me as queer.
Then it hit me. The chip breaker was affixed backwards to the iron, with the bevel up rather than down. ***shudder**** I can only image how crappy the plane performed with that setup. I’ll bet the owner cursed it too. I can just hear him saying, “I must have bought a lemon. This thing doesn’t work worth a damn!” And so it sat around his shop unused for the next 65 years, preserving its excellent condition before making its way to me. Thank you kind sir!
The jiggered iron assembly aside, the overall condition of the plane is excellent. The japanning sits at about 98% and the plating on the cap iron and chip breaker is 99%. The stained hardwood knob and tote are in great shape too, so I let these be. The brass adjuster knob got a basic polishing while the knob/tote retaining nuts kept their patina. With the cosmetic bases covered, it was time to focus on making this a good user.
By definition, a smoother needs to have a very flat sole. So to identify potential low spots, I marked it up.
After a few strokes on a granite plate, I discovered a slight hollow spot in front of the mouth as well as a deeper one on the left heal portion of the sole.
Five more minutes of lapping—checking—lapping on 150 grit paper was all the flattening it needed. The edges show a few remaining low spots, but nothing to get worked up over. In fact, they will help prevent catching an edge in use.
After progressing through 220, 320 and 400 grits I had this.
Next, I sanded the sides. I did not sand them square to the sole because that would have taken far too much material off. Plus, I won’t be using this plane for shooting so there was no need to do it. I simply sanded the rust off free-hand using the same grits as the sole.
Here are the after shots.
The iron had a nick in the middle of the cutting edge which took a minute at the grinding wheel to remove. After that I reestablished a 25 degree bevel using my Veritas honing guide and polished it to a mirror finish using the scary sharp method. The back was also lapped to a mirror finish followed by a few strokes on a naked leather strop. That was sufficient to shave hair off my arm.
How does it measure up to a Stanley smoother?
I’ll be honest. I was so eager to compare this baby to my trusted Stanley Type 11 that before I did any of the sole lapping described above, I sharpened the iron. Then I plopped it in to give it a test run.
Hmmm. It was not good. And a few minutes of playing with it didn’t help any. I didn’t want to give up on it just yet so I finished my tuning activities and dropped the iron back in.
What a difference lapping the sole made. And closing up the mouth (duh!) to 1/32 of an inch. How did I miss that before? The mouth was set to 1/8” wide—yet another indicator that the previous owner didn’t know how to properly adjust his plane.
Now that the plane is properly tuned and set up it takes some very nice shavings.
And it leaves a near-mirror finish, though it’s difficult to see that in this picture.
It feels as comfortable to use as my Stanley No. 4, Type 11. And even though their date of manufacture is separated by about 25 years, there are a lot of similarities.
There are several differences too. For example, the Stanley side walls are thicker than those of the Millers Falls (MF.)
The MF’s lateral adjustment lever is much looser than the Stanley, though this doesn’t seem to affect performance. The MF’s depth adjustment feels like it has less back lash than the Stanley and it is easier to dial in the desired shaving thickness.
Based on my experience, I’d have to give the MF’s No. 9 the nod over my Stanley #4. Despite hours of fettling, I’ve never been able to get my Stanley to perform to my satisfaction. Compare that to an hour of tuning with the MF smoother which resulted in nice, fluffy shavings floating over the chip breaker.
It’s a good thing too. Because that leaves me more time to tune up my friendship skills. So the next time Kay comes over, I can practice being the attentive friend she deserves. I think I’ll start by asking, “What would you like to drink?” Yes. Marketing friendship with liquor is always a good start.