The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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No Sargent!

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I haven’t written about woodworking for some time for reasons that I have tried to explain in prior posts. I would also add that I have been woodworking less, but I have hardly stopped. Considering that I have no real need for any new furniture, and there are only so many small boxes a person can make before they become a burden, much of my woodworking has revolved around home maintenance.

 In the meanwhile, I have restored, or have attempted to restore, a large number of old tools, most of which I have given away, a select few which I’ve kept for myself to use, and some others which were beyond the normal range of repair that still have a nice appearance I’ve used as decorations on bookshelves. And it is these repairs that I want to write about briefly if for no other reason than to help out people who may be attempting a tool restoration. And it doesn’t hurt that these sporadic posts may add a Bobby Fischer-esque mystique to my once too great and now too diminished popularity (with apologies to John Dickinson).

 But it is Sargent transitional planes that I would like to speak of…

 To date I have restored five Sargent transitional planes to various states of workability, one jointer and four jacks. Do they all work? Yes. Would any of them be a “go-to” tool? Not even close. All of these planes were in some level of disrepair when I received them, some bad, some worse, but all  needing a decent amount of work. While I cannot claim to be an expert or even accomplished tool restorer, I do know enough to repair an old tool into working condition in most cases. I’ve found Sargent transitional planes to be by far the most difficult hand planes to restore that I’ve come across. Initially I’ve chalked this up to both the nature and age of these planes, but after a few years I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe Sargent transitional planes just aren’t very good. So when a friend had me look at a Sargent transitional smoother that appeared to me to be barely used, I went against my better judgment and decided to give it a try.

IMG_3214[1]

The plane finished, or at least finished as far as I am willing to take it…You can see some walnut shavings behind the plane.

 

Initially the plane was very dirty and had a dull coating of rust over the entire metal portion of the tool. Like every other Sargent I’ve come across, the wood body portion of the plane was unrefined but serviceable. But I was very pleasantly surprised to see the mouth of the plane pretty tight, and the iron I could see had never been ground or sharpened. I took apart the plane, which was a little difficult considering all of the threads were rusted, but I was careful to be very gentle. As the metal parts were soaking I got to working on the iron. The initial grinding was done on a powered grinder. I flattened the back using 220g sandpaper, 1000g diasharp plate, and an 8000g Waterstone. The bevel was worked on with the same sequence minus the sandpaper. I finished it all off with a charged leather strop. Happily, the iron sharpened up beautifully, and it only took around 30 minutes to go from rust to razor. With this early victory my hopes were up. So after cleaning up the other plane parts and reassembling the tool I clamped it in the vice and flattened the sole, which didn’t take much work because it was actually in pretty good shape to begin with. Once again I disassembled the plane and gave the threads another gentle cleaning and applied some 3-in-1 oil on all of the moving parts, and this is where the plane reverted to the Sargent planes I’ve come to know and dislike.

 Every Sargent transitional plane I’ve come across adjusted roughly and this one was no exception despite being the cleanest one I’ve ever dealt with. I always blamed the adjustment screws, which I’ve found to be a bit rough, but, I believe I’ve finally discovered the real issue with Sargent transitional planes: the lever cap. The lever caps on these planes are quite frankly junk. Before, I blamed the poor lever cap performance on beat up frogs and chewed up bevels, but with this plane both the metal and wood portion of the frog were in pretty good shape. As with other Sargent transitional planes I’ve used, the lever cap would not properly clamp even though I had the cap screw perfectly clean and threading smoothly. This has been the same problem I’ve had with all of my Sargent restorations: the cap is too loose, turn the cap screw a hair, the cap is too tight for a smooth adjustment of the iron. In fairness, I was able to get the Sargent adjusted to the point where it took transparent and even shavings, but it took an unacceptable amount of time and effort, and each time I readjusted the plane it took several minutes of fussing with the tool to get it to work properly again. In comparison, I retrieved both my coffin smoother and plain Jane Stanley #4, both of which needed extensive restoration work when I received them, and in a matter of seconds both were adjusted and taking beautiful shavings.

 So in short my advice is to stay away from Sargent transitional planes if you are looking for a tool to restore to top working order. A basic Stanley #4 is a far better option, and if you are looking for “wood on wood” planing stick with a traditional wedge based plane such as a coffin smoother. While the idea behind transitional planes may be sound: wood on wood planing with the adjustment ease of a metal bodied plane-I have found these planes lacking in several areas, the lever cap being the most obvious defect. I finished up the restoration yesterday, at least as far as I am planning on restoring it. The plane does work decently, but I can say with utter certainty that Sargent transitional planes are not worth the effort to restore.

 

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8 Comments

  1. Jonas Jensen says:

    Hi Bill, glad to see that you are back in the shop.
    I have never seen a transitional plane in real life. Somehow they never seem to have made it across the Atlantic.

    It is interesting that old ideas can be bad too, as it is often perceived that all old tools were better than tools produced today.

    Brgds
    Jonas

    • billlattpa says:

      I think when it comes down to it, these planes are pretty much dogs, and not good dogs 🙂
      Every transitional I’ve ever used has not worked correctly. I would go as far as to say that a new woodworker would be better off buying a brand new Stanley #4 with plastic handles and tuning it up rather than attempting to restore a transitional plane. They are a classic example of an idea that looks great on paper, but in practice just does not work.
      Thanks!
      Bill

  2. Brian Eve says:

    Transitional planes look so cool. But, every time I have tried one, I felt like I wasn’t getting the most out of it and never bothered to figure them out. Maybe that’s as good as they get.

    • billlattpa says:

      Agreed. I think they just aren’t very good when it comes down to it. As far as “wood on wood” is concerned, my coffin smoother is far better than any transitional plane I’ve come across. In fact, it’s not even a competition.
      Thanks!
      Bill

  3. Steve D says:

    Are the Stanley transitionals the same? Not sure if your trouble is Sargent based or from the transitional design of the plane.

    • billlattpa says:

      I’ve honestly never used a Stanley. I’ve seen them and held them, but never had the chance to put one to work. I would like to think (or hope) that the Stanley is better, but I did a some quick checking when I read your comment and on the forums the Stanley versions don’t seem to be much better from what I am reading.
      So I definitely think the design itself is part of the issue, and not just the Sargent brand. I was only singling them out because I’ve come across so many of them.
      Thanks!
      Bill

  4. Sylvain says:

    After reading your post, I went to my “workshop” ( 2 or 3 square meter in the attic) to try something on my Chinese? No4.
    I rounded/sanded the lever-cap where it meets the chip-breaker;
    I rounded the edge of the elastic lamellae under the cam;
    I sanded the chip-breaker where it meets the lever-cap (top and bottom);
    I put a little bit of oil between the frog and the iron and between the chip-breaker and the lever-cap.
    (The edges of the frog were already rounded).

    The adjustment of my plane is now much smoother (without changing the screw setting).

    I don’t know if you already had done this on the Sargent but anyway thank You for triggering my reflection.
    Sylvain

    • billlattpa says:

      Unfortunately I gave the #4 Sargent back to the owner already, but I do have several #5’s to try your method. Initially I did clean up the lever caps and sanded away any burrs, but I did not attempt to remove any more material than I needed to smooth them out and flatten them, so there is a possibility that this could work.
      When I get a chance I will make an attempt and let you know what I find out.
      Thanks!
      Bill

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