Small Into Large

Paul Hamler's Diminutive Tools Were the Talk of the December Meeting
By Bill LaHay

(Webmaster's note: This article was scanned from the April 1995 issue of ToolTalk. It appeared originally in the February 1995 issue of Woodshop News, and was reprinted with permission. )

It's not unusual for experienced woodworkers to become hand tool connoisseurs, to discern and admire fine workmanship in their implements as much as in the wooden furnishing crafted with those tools. For Georgian Paul Hamler, the fascination with tools went further, prompting him to become a skilled maker of both full-size tools and some incredibly complex miniatures.

Hamler's woodworking origins sound a familiar ring among both professionals and amateurs -- learning carpentry alongside a skilled and inventive father, then an inauspicious beginning in a garage with a radial arm saw. Driven by curiosity and a well-nurtured mechanical ingenuity, he became an accomplished woodworker, then taught himself the metal casting and machining skills he now uses for his tool reproductions. It was unfamiliar territory, but that didn't slow him down much. "If I can read something and then try it, I can usually manage pretty well," said Hamler, "plus I met people at tool clubs. I got fascinated by what you can do with hand tools, and how well they work."

Leonard Lee, president of Lee Valley Tools of Canada, is among those who've become enthusiasts of Hamler's work, and his company's 1995 woodworker's calendar features 12 color plates showing Hamler's miniatures. Also, Veritas Tools, the company's manufacturing arm, will be producing several Hamler designs (of "user" tools) for new Lee Valley and Veritas catalogs.

"Paul's a good craftsman and he's got good judgment on tools," said Lee. "He's paid attention to hand. what makes a tool feel great in your hand. He listens to the sound a tool makes, and that's very important in getting it to work right. Very few people are sensitive to tools like that."

Sought by tool collectors and fellow woodworkers, Hamler's miniatures are remarkable in their attention to precise detail. Even the 1/2"-long block planes he casts in brass, silver, and gold feature a hardened steel cutter that will curl a tiny shaving from a wood surface.

Most of his planes and other tool reproductions are made to 1/3 or 1/5 scale, and all are completely functional. Since 1980, he has produced diminutive replicas of over 50 different hand tools, often making between 15 and 40 copies of a single piece.

What makes this achievement even more remarkable is that, until mid-1994, this was a part-time hobby for Hamler, who worked full time as an engineer for IBM in Atlanta. He credits his IBM experience, especially working with the electro-mechanical systems on early mainframe computers, for honing his how-to savvy.

In those days, woodworking and tinkering in the shop was Hamler's relaxing sideline. Now 50, he recently retired, and tool making has quickly become a second career. He's also taught seminars on basic metalworking and casting skills for miniature and full-sized tools, and says once someone understands the basics, it's easier than it looks.

When Hamler started at IBM nearly 30 years ago, his woodworking hobby involved a favorite pastime-rebuilding antique billiard tables. After several restorations, he made his own table, then tackled the cue sticks in a manner than can only be called resourceful.

To figure out how manufacturers created the complex geometric patterns on cue sticks, he soaked one in a bathtub of hot water until it came apart. With the joinery exposed, he was able to see and reproduce the tapers and angled faces of the stick's component parts.

Hamler also did general woodworking, making furniture for himself and his family. When his wife asked for a dining room set with Chippendale-style chairs, he realized his power tools and machine-centered skills had their limits, and shopped for some old hand tools to do the finer work.  

Like many woodworkers who've learned the craft without the benefit of formal training in traditional furniture making, Hamler had to rely on intuition and a few good books (particularly A.W. Marlow's Classic Furniture Projects to make the transition to extensive hand tool work.

When he did, it didn't take long for the uncertainty of new techniques to give way to enthusiasm.

"There's just so much you can do with scrapers and beading tools that you can't duplicate with power tools," Hamler said. "Or maybe you can, but it's quicker and a lot more satisfying with hand tools."

Once Hamler got hooked on hand tools, he never looked back. His woodworking projects involved tools more hand work, and he scoured flea markets and auctions for more old and unusual tools.

Unfortunately, the rarity of many fine old hand tools made acquiring them an expensive habit, with prices driven up by seasoned and well-heeled collectors.

With the legacy of a father who built his own table saw using a washing machine motor and a pair of pillow blocks, Hamler again got inventive. If he couldn't afford to buy a genuine Norris plane or other rarities, he would make his own.

This got Hamler past the obstacle of outrageous price tags, but it was by no means an inexpensive alternative. Many of the tools most prized by collectors are fashioned from exotic or expensive materials, so even reproducing them oneself isn't cheap. As a challenge, and a way to indulge his hobby without breaking the bank, Hamler started experimenting with miniature reproductions.

  While small 1 /3-scale models do solve the problem of high materials costs, the approach introduces an entirely new set of difficulties. A 3/4"-wide thumb lever on a plane's adjustment mechanism, for example, becomes a mere 1/4" wide, and for authenticity Hamler casts the part rather than machining it. "Part of the fun in doing miniatures is solving these problems of scale," Hamler said.

While cutting and shaping the wooden components of Hamler's small tools involves some skills he was taught in his early years, he had nowhere to go to learn the necessary metalworking techniques, especially lost wax casting. After tracking down a " I few old texts on the subject, he bought some basic bench-top equipment and learned by trial and error.

  He begins with the original tool itself if he can obtain one. After disassembling it, he makes full-sized tracings of all the components, then reduces them to the desired scale on a photocopier. These drawings guide Hamler as he carves wax masters of each component by hand, using numerous edge tools, small files, and even a rotary tool designed for dentistry.

Hamler sometimes combines several components in a single casting form, attaching the masters to a wax plug called a sprue. Then he creates a casting flask by coating the masters with investment casting compound, which he describes as similar to plaster of paris in texture, viscosity, and working properties.

The compound hardens over the wax, and after about an hour the piece can be placed in a small electric burnout oven to melt and evacuate the W 0 U C wax. When it's gone, Hamler has a perfectly formed mold into which he can pour the molten metal for  the actual parts.

After the casting has cooled, the mold is placed in water until the investment compound dissolves, which means he must make a new wax master and mold for each piece. Hamler then trims and polishes the metal parts before assembling the new tool.

When his work is shown, Hamler's precise miniatures tend to generate a demand that outpaces his production, something that happened when his first efforts made their public debut. "After I made two or three, I took them to tool shows, and I was amazed at the level of interest," Hamler said.

Now that he has more time to make tools, the supply and demand issue may ease up a bit, but there is a certain irony to it all. The collector's market that priced many originals beyond his reach is likely to do the same for his reproductions.

Still, while Hamler's pieces aren't cheap, they are affordable, and those who want a piece of hand tool history do see the genuine article faithfully reflected in his work. One particular piece-a Sandusky center-wheel plow plane-offers a clear example of the appeal these reproductions have.  

Original Sandusky center-wheel planes, produced during the late 1800s in rosewood, with brass and ivory trim, are highly prized by collectors. A prime specimen recently sold at auction for $8,000, and Hamler said he's seen some bring as much as $10,000. Even reproductions (full size) sell for $2,000 or more. Several years ago, Hamler took a stab at the legendary plane. With 54 separate components, the Sandusky requires a lot of work, and Hamler even had to fashion a right- and left-hand thread cutting box for the plane's rosewood center spindle, a mere 3/16" diameter when done to 1/3 scale.

He made 20 planes, and brought them to a tool collectors' show in West Virginia. An hour and a half into the show, Hamler had sold them all (at $450 each), and before he left he took orders for 15 more.

Other shows and reproductions have brought similar responses, including a $3,500 sale to a n single collector at one event.

Hamler's repertoire includes miniatures planes, bit braces, backsaws, and other tools, with prices to buy starting at around $200. His most expensive single piece was a miniature ivory plow plane, adorned with scrimshaw and sterling silver fittings, that sold for $3,000. (A bucket of old billiard cue balls provides Hamler with the ivory he occasionally uses.)

Though he still produces miniatures, Hamler's recent efforts have been directed at making full- size hand tools and accessories. He developed a he simple depth stop for cutting dovetails and other joinery with a backsaw, and a "chair scrape," which resembles a spokeshave but houses a small, steeply-angled scraper blade.

Hamler is adamant about the fine surface quality scrapers produce, and he used to modify bench ..planes so he could mount the blades vertically for scraping. Now he's also developed an insert for converting standard metal bench planes into scrapers with few or no modifications.

Once the prototypes have tested to satisfaction, Veritas Tools will be manufacturing and selling the production versions, according to Leonard Lee. "Retirement" might be the wrong word for this phase of Hamler's life, because increasing demand for his work means he won't have much spare time. What little leisure he does claim is, not surprisingly, still devoted to tools.

  The Hamler living room, once appointed with furniture he made, now serves as the home for a growing collection of antique, foot-powered machinery. Several Barnes "Velocipede" jig saws and two treadle-powered lathes are among the current holdings, and Hamler has bigger plans for the group.

In the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Georgia is a cabin Hamler built five years ago, and when his teenage son and daughter enter college, he and his wife will call it home. A two-story outbuilding will join the cabin, Hamler said -- one level for his shop, and a tool museum upstairs. It will be open to others who might share his love of old tools and his fascination with what they can do.

For further information, contact Hamler at 2632 Club Drive, Snellville, GA 30278. Tel: (404) 972-2727.