The Superior Works: A Better Mousetrap? William Steers

William Steers was a native of Sherbrooke, Quebec and it's there where he received the patent (September 11, 1883) for his interesting entry in the deadend plane contest. Steers, realizing Canada's fortune lay in beaver pelts and lumber, soon moved to Brattleboro, Vermont where he went into a partnership with a native of the town to form the Brattleboro Tool Co. Some might think it odd that Brattleboro would be home to a toolmaking firm, especially when the town is viewed in today's light as the dirt-eating, tree-hugging druid capital of the USofA, but back during the late 1880s the entire Connecticut River Valley was abuzz over technological innovation and manufacture. Pioneer rulemakers S.M.Clark and E.A.Stearns had gained fame decades earlier in the same town with their manufacture of folding rules and similar measuring devices much in demand by tradesman throughout the flourishing Union. During that time, rulemaking was one of the most exacting industries, requiring elaborate machinery to guarantee accuracy of the rules. So, Brattleboro was once a major cog in this country's tool development.

Back to Steers. His planes are made very well, and were one just to look at the tool sitting flat on the bench, the tool's coolest feature would easily be overlooked. Flipping the plane over reveals one of the strangest ideas ever to be applied to a metallic plane. The sole is a composite construction, where rosewood strips are dovetailed, yes dovetailed, into the sole! I kid you not. Just have a look at the image, to see for yourself. The sole has four strips dovetailed into the sole ahead of the iron and 3 strips dovetailed behind the iron, and all of these strips are flush with their surrounding metallic surfaces. These strips were touted as preventing "the plane clinging to the work." In other words, it was this company's version of corrugations.

The planes use a fairly conventional means to secure the iron in place, a screw activated lever cap that slips under two inward projecting lugs that are fit into the side walls. The lever cap screw is brass or steel, with diagonal knurling. The lever cap also serves as the cap iron so that the shavings can be broken as they are lifted from the wood's surface. There is a slot milled through the lever cap, and it's through this slot that a round head screw passes to thread into a rectangular bar. The end of the screw is machined to form a nib. This nib fits into one of a series of holes drilled through the iron. By adjusting the position of the screw, and the hole in which the nib fits, the lever cap can be positioned nearer or farther from the cutting edge. Many guys found this arrangement rather cumbersome to adjust, so they simply filed off the nib.

The iron make use of a nib that engages it from below. This nib fits into one of the holes in the iron, just like the lever cap's adjusting screw does. This adjusting nib is machined at the end of a captive pivotting bar. On the opposite end of the bar is a series of teeth machined to engage threads of an adjusting screw, which is housed in a casting - this plane's frog - that acts as the bed. The iron's adjusting screw sit right near the toe of the tote, making it easily accessible for setting the iron. The frog is screwed to the main casting with two round head screws. The bed portion of the frog is very small, and resembles an inverted U. A strange, fin-like projection, which appears to have no function whatsoever, sits before the frog.

Because the frog is not designed to be re-positioned for fine or rough work, like the Bailey design allows, Steers decided to provide a different means to regulate the mouth's opening. Riveted to the main casting's cross rib, just ahead of the mouth, is a rectangular piece of flexible steel. This piece fits down into the mouth. In front of the cross rib are two round head screws, which thread into the cross rib. The screws bear upon the flexible steel piece, and depending upon how deeply the screws are set into the cross rib, the mouth is opened or closed. This is a rather simple way of controlling the mouth's opening, but it does have a drawback in that shavings, and other bench crud, can jam between the casting and the steel. If enough stuff accumulates there, the toe will lift some, causing the iron to stop cutting. Good oral hygiene must be practiced to keep this tool cutting smoothly.

Apparently, many guys thought composite soles to be a worthwhile feature, and the design sold rather well (when compared to other manufacturers' planes). The company offered the plane in #3 through #7 sizes, using their own numbering system where the Bailey number is preceded with a "30"; e.g. the 303 corresponds to the #3, the 304 corresponds to the #4, etc. The iron is stamped with the patent date, Steers' name, and the size. The company also made block planes many of which have elaborately cast and fragile lever cap screws that are reminiscent of Leonard Bailey's Victor block plane lever caps. Ultimately, after the Bailey patents had expired, the company took to manufacturing Bailey-style planes but with dovetailed rosewood strips in their soles.

The years of use show real wear and tear on the rosewood, as wells as on the planes themselves. The rosewood strips, both at the toe and the heel, are often split and/or badly worn. The tote of the plane is very slender and very fragile. Nearly all the planes have the horn of the tote sheared off, with the rest of the tote broken roughly about its midpoint.

Something caused Steers to redesign the plane as he was granted another patent on January 6, 1885. This patent is a radical departure from his earlier, and somewhat successful, design. The new design dispensed with the dovetailed rosewood strips into the sole (the manufacturing cost of this feature alone must have been tremendous). The dual purpose lever cap was dropped in favor of the common double iron arrangement (a separate and dedicated cap iron is screw to a slotted iron). The lever cap screw is now cast of a design with petals radiating from the center. The model numbers were changed with "40" being the new prefix; e.g., 403, 404, etc.

The major redesign is found in the frog and its adjuster. The angled frog, which is non-adjustable, is screwed to a cross rib behind the mouth. At the apex of the frog is a pin, which accepts a flat, lugged cast iron adjusting wheel . Slightly offset from the center of the adjusting wheel is a large nib over which a elongated raindrop-shaped piece of steel slips. At the end of this steel piece is another nib (it's obvious by now, or should be, that Steers had a nib fetish), which engages a hole drilled into the cap iron. As the adjusting wheel is turned, the iron is raised/lowered due to eccentric motion of the nib on the adjusting wheel. It's a rather clumsy mechanism, but it works.

What's interesting about this design is that it is very similar to Leonard Bailey's Victor line, which uses the same principal to adjust the iron. The Victor design even has a separate frog screwed to a cross rib, and Stanley manufactured a frog nearly identical to the Steers' second design some dozen years earlier. This idea of a small frog screwed to a cross rib must have been all the rage back then as it cut down on machining and materials. However, the design is very fragile, and many planes, of all makes, suffered cracking to the cross rib where the frog is screwed. The damage owes itself to overtightening the lever cap screw as well as the additional force placed on it during heavy duty planing. Stanley's solution was to drop the idea, and go back the regular style frog. The Victor line didn't receive any modifications. The Steers' design made a change that's rather effective, but definitely low budget. The solution on this design is a small rod threaded into a cast boss on the underside of the frog. The other end of the rod butts against the receiver of the frog, making the tool look like it has a wooden leg or something to buttress it.


Copyright (c) 1999 by Patrick A. Leach. All Rights Reserved. No part may be reproduced by any means without the express written permission of the author.

pal December 28, 1998