My Grandfathers Sargent VBM

June 30, 2007

 

In the hectic last few minutes of a visit to my fathers farm in Maine – we go through the usual ritual. The giving of the stuff.  

“Do you need  any of this”? My father asks handing me a large coil of stainless wire.

 I think of stuff already in the trunk of my car. I think of the Panavise, the sheet brass door kickplate, the tiny tin opaque projector, the fat bindle of dull files…chisel-making stock, the plastic duck decoy, Kodak Duoflex 620 camera…

“I’m OK on stainless wire – thanks”.

We are in the “hoop-house”. A plastic sheeting greenhouse which has been turned into an impromptu storage shed.  The floor — old wood pallettes — is getting spongy. The plastic sheeting is holding up admirably.

“The wood is over here”.

I climb over a couple of tangled compressors, mysterious looking tanks, stainless pipe, the chrome skeleton of some long frogotten piece of lab equipment. Coils of thick copper grounding cable, un-startable looking chainsaws. The wood is buried, but not too deep. We pull a pair of beautiful figured mohogany planks with weird glue-up on the edges. Some fat white maple sticks.

“The big one is under here.”

Honduras mahogany cut-offs. Cherry strips. Bark edges that were cut from some 8/4 birch planks. A strange paduk block – looking like a botched structural piece. Mortise holes at weird angles – partially carved and cleaned-up, but still with obscene looking drips of glue-snot on one side – a massive lump of readymade cubist sculpture.

 We get the plank standing up. It really is a “big one” just under 6 feet long, about 16 inches wide and around 3″ thick. Its a dark dense wood. Old growth mahogany most likely. I brush some crud from the plank – mouse shit? chipmunk shit? or some other mystery- critter shit. The huge saw that rough cut this plank from the log must have been 3 feet in diameter.  I feel a twinge of pain for the tree. 

The wood was all liberated from a spiral staircase shop. One of my fathers ex-girlfriends ex-boyfriends had worked there. A laborer working on unbelievably-expensive custom spiral staircases crafted from exotic woods. He wasn’t the laborer type. He wasnt really the boyfriend type either.

The couple had a falling out. He eventually got fired from the shop and moved away. The purloined wood was cluttering her garage. By that time my father was on the scene it was a case of…”please take it away!”  This happened at least 15 years ago.

I rub my hand over the rough board and try to clear some puffs of mystery fuzz out of the rough fibers. I already know that I’ll never be able to cut this board into pieces. Yeah sure…there are bigger mahogany planks at Yankee Pine. People buy them and cut them into bits every day.  But I don’t think I can personally do the deed. This plank has ducked so many bullets. It has come a long long way. Probably a tabletop.

We hoist the plank over the compressors and chainsaws and out of the greenhouse. We lean it against a tree.

“Nice one”!

“I’ll never use it. You should take it”

“I’m not even sure that it’ll fit in the car. Actually I am pretty sure that it won’t fit in the car”.

We duck back into the greenhouse.

“In that corner over there. That box.”

I see a vaguely familiar handmade wooden carpenters tool chest. It has cast brass victorian hinges looted from some defunkt piece of furniture. The top of the box is half missing – smashed or came unglued 50 years ago.

“There is a plane in that box – I think it was your grandfathers plane.”

Inside the box I pull out a Sargent VBM #5 plane.

I have never owned a Sargent plane. I know that they were sort of second fiddle to Stanley, but I dont know much more. 

“It’s a bit rusty”

I hold it up. “Naaaah – just surface rust. Not that bad at all”  I pop out the cutter. “Its almost sharp, only one tiny chip on the edge”.

Sargent  VBM means Very Best Made – which seems like a bit of hyperbole. It is a decent replica of the Bailey patent style plane. Castings are solid to the point of being a bit clunky. There is no screw to adjust the frog – which is might actually be smart, because when was the last time that you needed to adjust the frog on one of these? The tote and knob are birch or maple rather than the more swanky rosewood used on many of the Stanleys.

Of course none of that matters. It’s my grandfathers plane.

I don’t have much from my grandfather. Actually I’m not sure that I have anything from him – other than this plane. My father was the youngest son – so my grandfather on his side was a lot older that anyone else I had known as a little kid. Also, we lived in Maine and the old homestead was just outside Chicago.

My earliest memory of my grandparents is their 50th wedding anniversary. After that about all I remember of him is that he really enjoyed watching baseball while sitting in his lay-z-boy.  

My Grandmother went first – stroke – she recovered a little so we visited. I wanted to talk to her, but at that point she could only say the word “house”.

I really dont remember when grandpa died. A while afterward. I was wrapped up in some crisis of my own. I just don’t remember.

The plane has a corregated sole. This is another first for me. Supposedly this reduced friction when planing. Especially on oily wood or wood with pitch in it.

The tote is a work of art. It was smashed to pieces several times and reglued. There is even a filled spot. Grandpa the tinkerer. Grandpa the busy guy. I can feel the connection.

The repaired handle feels good in my hand. Warm and smooth – despite it looking demolished and fragile. It seems corny, but the tote feels especially comforting against my palm. This plane means more to me than the half a dozen photos of my grandfather that I have.

Most of the photos of my grandfather were taken late in his life. I can see the ghost of those photos in my fathers face a bit today, but unfortunately the pictures don’t really capture anything grandfatherly for me.

Whenever I look at the pictures, I catch myself thinking. “Hey…that guy looks like you dad.”

 I tuned the plane up a bit. As a plane, it isnt an artifact, so I give it a once-over with some 220 grit sandpaper to knock the worst of the rust down. I hone the cutter, but I don’t hone the tiny chip out. I hope that the chip will leave tiny lines in the wood wherever the blade passes.

 

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3 Responses to “My Grandfathers Sargent VBM”

  1. anonymous Says:

    That was wonderful i have some old tools of my grandfathers (only a couple) and i feel the same way about them. thanks

  2. Luis Says:

    Sorry to hear you could not spend time with your grandpa, it was not my case. I had the privilege to learn the right way to use that very same tool (Stanley version) with my grandpa. he left when I was 12, but in a way he remains alive in my memories and specially each time I grab any of the many tools he left me. I use them for weekend garage projects and it feels the same way you describe. It´s an honour for me.


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