Friday, April 29, 2016

The Great No. 2 Knock Off Showdown - Part I - Introduction and Totes

At HandWorks last year, I bought a type 9 Stanley #3. I was on the lookout for a small smoother. That plane turned out great, but I really wanted something like a #2 - the only problem being they are a lot more expensive. I think the reason for this is they are cute, resulting in them being collectible.

I was discussing this dilemma with Jonas one day and we both decided that we were determined to get one. I got lucky a coupla months back and found on eBay a Sargent VBM 407. Then last week I found two more that were affordable - both Fulton 3708s. One is going to Jonas on the condition that I get to do this review first.
The two on the left are Fultons, the two on the right, Sargents. The right one is a 409, the size of a #4 included for scale.
It is always amazing to me how two planes made by the same company can looks so different.
Another view. The top one is the number 4 sized plane.
Stanley #2s can go for insane amounts on eBay. Even in poor shape with obvious rust and broken or missing parts. I decided to broaden my search to include planes that looked like Stanley #2s, which is how I wound up with these.

The Contenders

For the sake of full disclosure, I will divulge how much I paid and in what condition these planes came.

Sargent #409

This is a #4 sized plane, not a little #2. I am using it in this test as the control - something on which to base the other planes.
Sargent 409 right after rehab.
This is the shape it was in when it arrived.
It is now tuned and works freaking awesome.

I got this on eBay last year in a group of planes. I wanted one of the others, and this was in the group. It probably only cost a few dollars. I decided to use this plane as the control because it is reasonable a quality plane could be made to work this good.

Sargent VBM 407.

Sargent VBM 407 - I think it was built between 1910-1918 - type 4 body with type 3 blade.
This plane showed up on eBay "Buy It Now" listing for $100. I jumped on it right away. This plane was in good condition. I suspect someone cleaned it up for me, but you can't have everything. All I did to this was sharpen the blade and it now takes very fine shavings.

Fulton 3708 BB

The 3708 BB is on the right.
Like the VBM, this one came in great condition. I won the auction on this one for $117 including shipping. Unless the frog reveals that it needs work, I will do nothing to this one other than sharpen the blade.

Fulton  3708 BL

This one arrived a hot mess.
I'm happy with how it cleaned up.
This plane I won for $62. I think it was priced less than the others because it looked like it had been half laying in a puddle of water for who-knows-how-long.

Competitor In Absentia: Lie-Nielsen #2

Photo courtesy Lie-Nielsen ToolWorks.
I don't have one of these, so it is not really fair that I include it. I did see one recently at the Dictum shop, and I had a few impressions of it based on the few minutes I held it in my hands. Where appropriate, I will mention it. Brand new from Lie Nielsen they are $275. It's weird to me that if you want a Stanley user, you could easily pay the same as for a new LN.

What Little I Know About Fulton Planes

I've done a bit of online research. Fuller planes were made for Sears by proper plane making companies. It let Sears sell their own brand of tool (of quality) for a lower price. 

Sears (if you don't know) was a huge American retailer that did a lot of sales with a big-ass catalog. I remember looking through it when I was a kid to make out my Christmas list. Anyway, it looks like most of these planes were made by Sargent, but some of them were made by Millers Falls.
From what I can tell, BL is a Sargent made version, while BB denotes manufacture by Millers Falls. Of this I am 99.95763% certain. 

One guy on a forum said the handle on the BB is the only one made that fits an adult hand, and indeed, it is a bit taller and roomier than my Sargent VBM. 

Other differences between the BB, BL, and Sargent VBM are the casting is a bit more substantial and even on the BB than on the BL. Everything is nice and tight.
The BB and BL both have nice big, flat frog beds, and laminated blades (at least the BL does, I haven't yet investigated the BB). 

I think once they are both fettled, they should both work great.

I have found that some people on some of the forums (fori?) really do not think highly of Fulton planes. I think this is because the later models of these planes (which are bright red) were designed for economy above all else, by looking at them. I haven't seen one of these in person, so I will not comment about those, but these older versions, probably pre-1950, seem to be quality tools so far.

If you come across one of these older Fultons, realize that you are really looking at a Sargent, Millers Falls, or perhaps a Union plane.


All lined up.
Strangely, I am starting this review on a part I don't have many photos of. We'll work with what we've got.

I was surprised when I was given a Lie-Nielsen to hold. The handle is shaped such that an adult can't really get fingers around the grip. The only way to hold it (for me) was to wrap my fingers along the casting, similar to how I would hold a coffin smoother. I felt this a bit awkward and uncomfortable for a tool in which every other aspect looked perfect.

The first of this size that I got to hold was the VBM.
Well, I found this picture of the VBM's handle.
The handle is well shaped and allows you to put your fingers around the handle like the #4 sized 409. Only this one is just a tad undersized for my large hands.

The Fulton 3708 BL (Sargent) has a handle that feels nearly the same.
This one still has the sticker!
The 3708 BB (Millers Falls) has the world's most perfect shaped #2-sized handle. It is just a little bigger than the others, and my mitt fits around this handle like a glove. I was so impressed with it, I removed it and scanned it for your use. If you don't like the handle on your #2, print this out to scale and use it as a template to make your own. The orange pipe cleaner shows the angle of the threaded rod, so you may need to make adjustments for it to fit your plane.
It is 4" x 2 3/4".
If the most important part of a #2 user plane to you is how it feels in your hand, I think you will be happiest with the Millers Falls made Fulton 3708 BB.

Next up: Castings and Frogs

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