Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Buck Rogers Plane-R-File No 1220

Most of you are probably more familiar with the equivalent Surform Stanley models.
Stanley No 6070 adjustable flat file holder, introduced in 1934, was the predecessor to the ubiquitous Surform tools of today. File holder of this type, using Vixen files, and Surform tools are still in use in the auto body refinishing industry.

The Buck Rogers No 1220 original design was for a convertible holder for the newly invented abrading blade, that we know today as surform, which could be set up as a plane or a straight file holder. The Plane-’R-File was developed by noted industrial designer L. Garth Huxtable and is considered such an outstanding piece of work that an example has been included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art. This tool had probably the shortest run of all the Buck Rogers's tools. It was made from 1957 to mid 1966.

Convoluted history
The first Surform tools were the invention of a British company. A patent for a Surform tool blade was obtained in 1949 in Australia by Firth Cleveland Pty Ltd of Wolverhampton England. An affiliated UK company, Simmonds Aerocessories Ltd., was an early manufacturer of Surform tools. They made 3 planes using this blade.  These were marketed by another affiliated UK company, British Lead Mills Limited, in or before 1956.

An early Surform tool holder made by Simmonds Aerocessories Ltd.

The original Surform type of blades were patented in Australia by Firth 

Stanley Works (Stanley) first bought United States manufacturing rights, then bought the company. Stanley began marketing its first surform tools, a plane and a rasp that used the same blade, in 1956. Bad timing for Millers-Falls. By 1959, Stanley offered a choice of fine and coarse tooth blades. By 1966, the product line had grown to include pocket plane, files (round, half-round, and flat), and an electric drill drum.

Various Stanley Surform types.

Reflecting their many uses, Stanley used the slogan it shaves everything but your beard.  A feature of the product line was that on all the tools the blades were replaceable;  this was important because they could not be sharpened.

Ad in Popular Mechanic Apr 1957 announcing the new Surform tools. 
Note that they used 2 separate tool holder, unlike the MF No 1220 

The name Surform has been registered since 1953, it is currently still own by Stanley

Stanley used the name Surform from the start of its marketing campaign in 1956, and became owner of the Surform trademark in Australia in 1967.[tbc]

Stanley, Surform blades. Mounted by clips

The blades used in the MF 1220 were of a different construction, since Stanley had monopolized the Surform blades and did not wanted to play nice :-).

Millers Falls, Tresa blade. Mounted by holes

The Millers Falls tool’s replaceable blades were manufactured by the Tresa File Company of England and could be flipped over to provide a new cutting surface as they dulled, unlike the Surform blades which are single sided uses. Standard blades were available in coarse and medium cuts. Tungsten carbide blades in fine, medium and coarse grades were also available.

My example came with an original Tungsten carbide blade.

You would be hard pressed to  come up with the original Tresa blades for this tool, but fortunately, the Stanley Surform blade can be made to fit.  And truth be known, the Surform blades are better performer than the Tresa, and if you could fit a Microplane blade it would be even better.

Surform blades, now available as generic, uses a metal tab to secured them.
In contrast the Tresa blades are secured thru small holes.

Tool overlapping the 10 in Surform blade, it could be made to fit.

There was holders made for these Surform blades since first introduced in the late 40s, but they were all of a plane type or a file holder type, This Buck Rogers tool was the first to combine both into a single tool. Huxtable’s contribution lay in the rotating handle, blade locking mechanism and outstanding aesthetics.

Design patent no. 182,026 covered the general appearance.

Design patent No 182,026 Filed May 57 awarded 4 Feb 1958

The Plane-R-File designer received patent no. 2,839,817. The patent covered the way in which the blade was fastened to the frame. The rotatable handle, while original for this type of tool, was considered too similar to other patents to be claimable.
Pat No 2,839, 817 Filed June 57 awarded on 24 June 58

Much to Huxtable’s dismay, the tool was soon copied, and he faulted the Millers Falls Company for not protecting the design patent.

Stanley Surform No 285. Its a plane, its a File, but its NOT a Plane-R-File

Today, MF is long gone and Stanley still market Surform tools, but ironically, no 2 in 1, but 2 separate tools

the Plane.

The File.

Millers-Falls's selection of the Tresa File Company of England as supplier of the abrading blades was another source of disappointment. In 1982, Huxtable was to recall:
For the invention of the ‘Plane-R-File’ abrading tool- I was said to receive one dollar and other considerations. This tool was not too successful as having lost the original blade to Stanley, Millers introduced the tool with an inferior blade. When it was time to reorder, a prohibitive price for the blade was asked. Stanley, Stanley of England and others wasted no time in copying the tool, and it proved very successful. Originally Stanley brought out two tools—a plane type and a file type. My invention combined the two—hence the name “Plane-R-File.” 

Original packaging art on the box

  • The Superman TV series promotion:
  • “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s SUPERMAN”
  • The MF 1220 box:
  • “It’s a plane! It’s a file! PLANE-’R-FILE”
This “catchy” phrase also served as catalog copy. As flat as the slogan and convoluted name of the Plane-’R-File sound today, they were typical of their time. The colorful packaging in which the first Plane-’R-Files were shipped eventually gave way to standard issue boxes. The colorful boxes were expensive, and as the public became more aware of surform tools, increasingly unnecessary.

How to use
There are only two (2) adjustment on this tool. The big round knob, tighten/loosen the blade, which is mounted like a hacksaw blade on the flat face.

Blade locking pin is movable, adjusted by the big round knob

The handle is transformed from a plane tote to a file handle by first loosening a screw, then gently pulling up on the handle to rotate it. Lock it back down and re-tighten the screw

Handle in the plane position
Notice the holes in the blade for mounting

Loosen screw, pull up and rotate

Handle in the file position

It is used like any rasp or file work would be used, always cut in the forward direction of the blade (can be installed backward). Do not put any pressure on your return stroke.
As discussed previously, they are 4 types of blades that could be mounted on this tool.
In order of finesse of cut, from the coarsest to the finest
- The 3 sizes of Tungsten carbide grits
- The 2 sizes of Tresa blades; coarse, medium
- The 2 sizes of Surform blades: coarse, fine
- The Microplane blades
So how is it as a woodworking tool? Lousy! But I always keep a small Surform block plane with me when doing drywall. A quick pass of the plane shaves off material quickly, easier than a knife.
For woodworking applications, I much prefer the Shinto rasp.

But I do have a Microplane 2 in drum, which I used occasionally, and I liked it.

To resume: A great looking and engineered tool, but unfortunately it got stuck with a lousy and expensive blade, because Stanley (the big bad Microsoft of its days) bought the Surform blade rights and for some reasons did not wanted to play nice with its competitors... Timing is everything, even in tools developments. All this translated into a short production run, and a collectible tool, more than a woodworking tool.

Bob, with a rasp voice from typing too long :-)

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