Patternmakers v 3D Printing

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There are many tool making processes to enable a woodwork tool available for sale & use. Some processes are the same they were 100 years ago and some have changed dramatically.

Many years ago I was able to spend a week at Lie-Nielsen Toolworks in Warren, Maine USA. It was the occasion of their 30th year anniversary, a fantastic week with an impressive list of ‘celebrity’ woodworkers and toolmakers.

We had a few tours of different sections of the LN foundry, one was a visit to their patternmaker-designer, Mark Swanson. It was breathtaking to see the attention to detail Mark used to develop a new tool. At the time he was working on the LN tongue & groove plane. The hand scaled drawings were fantastic, no computers, just mechanical pencils & erasers, very much hands on. All of their tools started this way, drawings, checking, re-drawing, and then, producing a wooden model from the drawing specs. This model would be checked over and eventually replicated 2, 3, or 4 times to make casting patterns.

Ten years later we embarked on making tools in Australia using nearly the same process. Our patternmaker, Dave Weston, was, and is, a genius. I took him an old plane, gave him some verbal changes, and in a few weeks he would present a perfect wooden model. A second generation patternmaker, Dave designed with his hands & specific tools, no scaled drawings here! From there he would make a mould of the wooden tool to use to make hard resin replicas to mount in a sand casting box.

After the tools are cast they need to be machined. Our CNC machine guys reverse engineer the tool with sophisticated software, they basically redraw the tool and then add their machining process to the program.

One day, our casting foundry misplaced our pattern to make one of our block planes, problem! I was explaining the problem to Jimmy, our head machinist . He said, no problem, we’ve already made that tool so we have a model we can 3D print in hard material that can be mounted directly on the casting box. The process was quick and accurate, and, a quarter of the price of making moulds, new models etc.

It was a revolution to me, an example of how our industry benefits from modern technology. But, we still hand cast the tool in sand as it was done a century ago.

Another of our tools did not have our brand ‘Henry Eckert’ in the casting, it was very expensive to get a patternmaker to mirror make the letters, add them to the models etc etc. We had the brand on the bronze cap iron so we gave the plane body a miss, brand wise.

I was talking to Jimmy about the ‘brandless’ plane body, he said, no problem, I can 3D print a sheet of your brand 2 mm high, on, wait for it, 0.1 mm printed film base, so the brand could be adhered to the casting body model without any sign of the process. We got 50 or so ‘brands’ on the sheet for a few dollars, great modern technology solution.

So, our tool business is a mix of old & new. To me, computer-aided design(CAD) and computer-aided engineering opens many doors for tool manufacturers. Fascinating future, but, it needs a mix of old school to work. Who would want a finished 3D printed plane in hard resin (plastic), fitted with a blade, not me, or you! Unless they can 3D print ductile iron or manganese bronze, which they can’t, yet…

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