I discovered a love of old tools early on in life. There was something about the worn wooden handles, marked with the years of sweat from its prior owners, or the rusted metal that inevitably could hide the most beautiful body beneath, or the jammed up moving parts that one almost couldn’t imagine ever coming back to life again – that hooked me. That’s why whenever I am perusing the antique shop’s aisles, or meandering through the stalls at the local swap meet, I’m keeping a sharp eye out for what I refer to as “the king among antique tools”- the vintage hand planes.
“what happens when you hold a tool – your fingers form an intimate bond between you and the tool. It is a marriage of intellect and an inanimate object. Suddenly the tool becomes alive and performs…” R.J. DeCristoforo – Handtool Handbook for Woodworking (USA 1977)
Recently, I found an old Acorn No. 4 hand plane at a swap meet, which I promptly picked up for $25. Before this purchase, I had never seen an Acorn hand plane before, and I do confess to not knowing too much about the brand or company in general. This is surprising given how popular their parent company Chapman Ltd’s braces are.
However, after much in-depth research, I was able to dig up a bit of information on the history of the company and a few pictures that helped me nail down what I believe to be a relatively accurate ballpark age for this specific plane I had come into possession of. If anyone has a better understanding of the age and history, I would be absolutely happy to hear of it!
History of Chapman Ltd
The Acorn brand name was first used by James Arscott Chapman who is simply listed as a “tool and metal plane maker” from 1924-1939 in Goodman’s guide. Chapman Ltd was located in Sheffield England and was known for its range of steel braces, but later started making hand planes under the “Acorn” name in 1934. Around 1936 Stanley Works Ltd (Yes, THE Stanley) bought out Chapman Ltd and used the factory as its base for moving into the UK market.
After its take over, Stanley kept the Acorn line, some say as a second, cheaper version of their own Stanley line.
Early Acorn Hand Plane Design
In terms of early design, the Chapman Acorns were made with black japanning on the body, no frog adjustment screws, a brass blade adjustment nob, and from some reports a dark red colour on the rear and fore handles. As for the fixtures, the front handle was attached with a single plain bolt with a slotted head, and the rear was attached with a threaded rod and brass nut. Later models, under Stanley Works, had burgundy japanning with even later models moving to what I see as a ghastly firetruck red. Both the front and back handles on the later models were attached with threaded rods and nuts.
These are all details that I took into account when trying to accurately date my hand plane.
I’ve got a new hand plane, now what?
Upon getting this hand plane, which I have affectionately dubbed “little nut,” home, I was able to get a much closer look at the components. The initial ‘once over’ gave me most of the info that I was looking for – there are clearly no frog adjustment screws and the front handle is attached with a single slotted bolt, both good signs if I’m hoping for a plane on the older side of vintage!
The japanning itself is a bit difficult to tell. I thought it to be black, but it perhaps could be a dark burgundy. Further cleaning of the tool will be needed to give a better assessment.
The handles, though well worn, definitely appear to have a dark cherry colour to them! Another good sign, if what I dug up during my research is correct.
Given all the above info, including the potentially black japanning, red handles, no frog adjustment screws, and a single plane bolt for the front nob I would initially date this Acorn hand plane to be from the era of Chapman Ltd or shortly after the Stanley took over – somewhere from 1934-1945 perhaps. During the restoration, I may come across some aftermarket parts, or other indicators that could change this assessment. But, part of the fun in any restoration process is doing the research to know what to look for and proceeding to make an ‘educated guess.’ Now to see if that educated guess is correct!
Stay tuned for my restoration of this Little Nut!