This is a little bit of a long winded story, but bare with me, it’ll be worth it. Quite some time ago, I wrote about a trip that the family and I took to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, Canada. You can read that post HERE if you wish. Go ahead, I’ll wait… No, okay… Well while there, I found a display of old woodworking tools and one of them was identified as a William Marples Hibernia Mortise Gauge. I was thrilled to see the tool identified, as I had the exact same tool in my collection. However, on mine, no manufacture’s marks were readable. I didn’t know exactly what I had until the trip to the museum.
Well after reading the above mentioned post, my good friend Gerhard Marx of http://www.jenesaisquoiwoodworking.com/ fame, sent me an email saying that he would really like one of these mortise gauges. Gerhard resides in deepest darkest Africa, and told me that he figured his chances of ever stumbling across one of these in the wild was next to nil. Hippos… quite likely, antique hibernia mortise gauges… not so much. He asked me to keep an eye out for one whenever I’m out browsing garage and tool sales.
I bought my mortise gauge on eBay UK. It is often cost prohibitive to do this from the US as international shipping is often more expensive than the tool. To avoid the costly English international postal rates, I had it sent to my mother-in-laws house in England and picked it up on my next trip there.
Well, knowing that Gerhard wanted one of these I couldn’t resist. Within a few weeks, I searched on eBay UK once more and found one that I managed to grab a good deal on. I had it shipped to my brother-in-law. Last summer, we met up in Jamaica for a family vacation and he brought it to me there. I brought it home to Washington. Wow, this quite a well traveled mortise gauge.
My plan was to promptly restore the gauge and send it off to Namibia. Unfortunately, my small summer project of building a chicken coop spiraled into idiotic proportions and I’ve only just finished it.
With the coop and run finished, I turned my attention to the gauge. Better late than never I suppose. Here’s the gauge before I started any restoration work:
I know it looks rough, but these mortise gauges are a joy to behold. I just love them. They are very heavy in the hand, and you know you’re dealing with a solid, top quality tool the minute you pick it up. The head is made from ebony (although I’ve read they can be found with rosewood) and brass. The stem is brass and has a hidden steel screw running through the middle. This screw adjusts the distance between the two pins. The head is also locked to the stem by use of another steel screw. This screw bears against a small brass plate that in turn presses against the stem. This acts as a clamp and locks the head. The stem has a small groove running down the length of it, and the small brass plate has a corresponding tab in it. This stops the head from rotating on the stem. Sounds confusing, but the pictures below will clear things up.
I like that both of the adjustments need a screwdriver. For some this might seem a negative aspect of the tool, but not to me. My experience has been that I set up a gauge once and lock in in place for the duration of a project. I have multiple gauges and if I have a different mortise to lay out on the same project, I’ll set up another gauge. This is usually quite helpful, think of them as mini story sticks (until you adjust them). I want to be able to set a gauge, snug the screws down, and know that those settings are going to stay put. Somehow psychologically, locking the settings with a screwdriver just seems more permanent. I’ll leave the psychological issues for Gerhard to delve into. 🙂 Also, once set, there are no little fiddly bits or wing nuts hanging off the side of this tool. It is sleek and simple. Most importantly, it does its job exceptionally well.
Most of the screw slots were filled with years of accumulation of crud. The groove along the stem was also fairly full. The pins of the gauge have been sharpened and filed down to nearly nothing. They are going to have to be changed.
It looks as though it has spent some time rolling around in a toolbox. It is all cosmetic though and is going to clean up beautifully.
Before I get started on the restoration, I suppose I should mention my philosophy on making old tools usable and beautiful. Serious die-hard collectors would cringe, but I want to make the tool both beautiful and usable. This gauge is not being preserved in its current condition for all eternity and put on a shelf. However, I don’t intend to make really old hand tools look factory new. Some of the tiny dings and owner’s stamps, give the piece character and speak to its age. When I’m done, the tool will be clean, shiny, well oiled, and functional but some original marks will be there. The shine will fade in a few months to an even patina.
To get started, I used a dental pick to clean out the screw heads.
To polish the stem, I began with sandpaper. Working from 320 grit up to 1500 grit.
I also sanded the head of the gauge. I sanded both the ebony and the brass at the same time.
As you can see below. The stem is clean, but there are still small little dings that show some use and age.
I’ve been meaning to change the buffing wheel on my bench grinder for some time. It’s fairly worn out, but it will work for this job.
One cool thing about ebony, is that it is so hard you can buff it on the grinder like brass. The same extra fine green buffing compound that I used on the brass really made the ebony shine.
Next the pins. These are used up and need replacing. I tapped them out with a small hammer on the anvil of my bench vise.
Now I needed to find replacement pins. I had a good search through all my nails, but all were either too thick or too thin. I’ll have to take a thick one and make it thinner.
To do this, I took a nail that was slightly too thick and chucked it up in my drill. With the nail spinning, I used a file to start thinning it down. I periodically checked it against the hole in the brass plate.
Once it got close to the right thickness, I switched to 100 grit sandpaper.
While still in the chuck, I also started to file flat knife points onto the nail.
I refined the edge on an oil stone. Now that the pin in the correct size and shape, I want to harden it. I’m doing this in the hope that it will wear longer and need sharpening less. I poured a little oil into a tin and got out my blow torch.
While holding the nail in a pair of pliers, I heated the tip until it was glowing bright.
And then quenched it.
Once the nail had cooled it was black and nasty. I touched up the cutting edge on the oil stone once more and cleaned the shaft of the nail with some 320 grit paper.
I used a hacksaw to cut the pin to length and then installed it in the brass mounting plate that screws into the stem.
I then repeated the above process and made a second pin for the other part.
Time for re-assembly. When I went to re-install the brass plates in the stem, I found that the new pin had very slightly bowed out the sides of the plate. This made it just a little to tight to re-install. I very slightly sanded the sides and they then fit fine.
So here it is all put back together.
Using a very fine jewelers file, I fine tuned the pins so that they cut to the same depth in a test piece.
Some of you may not like how shiny the gauge is. I have received comments in the past that the bright shine looks out of place. Fear not, the shine will dull in about 6 months (sooner with a lot of use) and will revert to a more-even dull luster. In the below picture, I show my gauge on the right which has already dulled, and Gerhard’s gauge on the left.
I shall leave it up to Gerhard as to whether he wants to maintain the high polish or let it fade.
Well, it’s finally finished and only about 10 months after I bought it.
I packaged it up in lots of bubble wrap and sent it off to Namibia. I hope that Gerhard gets many, many years of good use out of it.
For those interested, it turns out that shipping to Namibia takes forever. I finished writing this post on March 16th, a few days after dropping the package off at the post office. It was not until today that I got an email from Gerhard saying that it had arrived. I think it must have gone by horse and sail-ship. I am very happy that it arrived safely though.
– Jonathan White
Great tip on making new pins it was something I have wondered about how to do. And my opinion has changed on these gauges. I was reluctant to get one because of the screwdriver needed to set the head.
Did you have to peen the ends of the nails in the brass holders? Or are the holes in it tapered?
I didn’t peen the nails. I probably wouldn’t have been able to since I’d already hardened them. They are just a very tight fit.
Pingback: Jonathan the Great | Je ne sais quoi Woodworking
Being in the privileged position to have used the gauge, I can report that you did a sterling job. I especially enjoyed the description of how you replaced the pins. It shows your attention to detail and incredible precision. I also like the fact that there are no bits sticking out of the gauge that interferes with one’s grip. As you said, the weight makes it more stable in use and conveys a real sense of quality.
It will be my favourite gauge for the rest of my working journey, no doubt there.
I am very happy that you like it. I hope it gives you many years of use.
Beautiful work, Jonathan, I’m green. Yes, thanks for the “pin tips”! (I was thinking old gramophone needles…) Also have a gauge lying in waiting. Bought it, declared as “brass and Ebony”. Turned out as brass and black painted pine (shiny enamel paint on old pine…)! Have a piece of African Blackwood but now need to machine an inverted t-slot along its shaft to cater for the “mobile pin mechanism” (other pin is fixed, of course). Will probably plough it and then use a shaped scraper. There is currently a similar Melhuish on eBay UK (if you don’t understand my “inverted T slot” description).
Yes, its also better to say on the shipping “South Africa” as opposed to “SA”. Package of mine ended up making a detour via Saudi Arabia, apparently! It generally takes ages to get here.
Great to hear from you. Sounds like your mortise gauge restoration might make for another interesting guest post on Gerhard’s blog.
All the best,
Pingback: The Jenesaisquoi Persuader | Je ne sais quoi Woodworking
Hi Jonathan. Have just discovered your blog and had a good browse. Bench looks superb. I recently finished my own much more basic bench as per the excellent Mr Sellers. Like you, by the sounds, I seem to spend more time acquiring old tools and have an ever increasing supply to do up. I am English, but for the last few years have lived in New Zealand. Trademe over here has a good supply of vintage tools, mainly from the UK – where I guess many of the original settlers came from. Prices seem good compared to Ebay UK, particularly when there is no huge shipping fee. Anyhow, after reading this mortise gauge blog, I by chance found exactly the same one straight away on Trademe, and won it as the sole bidder. It looks in similar condition to the one you restored above, and your blog will mean that it will be my next project, when I get the time. I wonder how old they are? I found the same model in a Marples catalogue from 1953, but they look as though they could have been made many years before then too. Best wishes from NZ, Rob
Thanks for commenting. I just checked out that TradeMe site, and it looks pretty cool. As you said, it certainly beats paying shipping costs from either the UK or US. I’ve always wanted to go to New Zealand (and briefly explored a job offer from there many years ago). Hopefully, someday I’ll make it down there for a long sightseeing trip.
I’m glad that you are enjoying the site. Good luck with your mortise gauge restoration.
All the best,
Thanks Jonathon. Yes, NZ is certainly worth a visit. Friendly place with stunning and very varied scenery. I wish decent hardwooos were as accessible here as they seem to be in the US, and of course my home country the U.K. NZ native species are mainly softwoods, and carefully harvested after decades of plundering and export has endangered most of them e.g. NZ kauri. How is you Doug fir bench top holding up to holdfasts? I think my NZ radiate pine is softer, and I’m nervous about drilling dog holes only to find that they get distorted by holdfasts too easily. Cheers. Rob
Sorry of the late response. The Doug Fir is holding up really well. The holdfasts don’t seem to be distorting the wood at all, or if they are, it’s not enough for me to notice. I think that the main reason for this is that my benchtop is so thick. Sure, I’d have loved to build the bench out of maple, but it was so expensive, and I got all of the Doug Fir used in my bench for $100. There is certainly something to be said for using what is available.
All the best,
Hi Jonathan, I read your mortise gauge restoration write up with delight as I’ve just come across one in a local junk shop and I didn’t know how it came apart. Mine however has a couple of bits missing 🙁 these are the sliding pin carrier and the square plate under the locking pin. I think I can make these with some brass plate I have. I’d be grateful if you could see any pitfalls with doing this? Did you make the replacement pins a tapered fit?
I can’t say that I have had to fabricate any parts like those you mentioned. The small square plate under the locking screw shouldn’t prove to hard, though you will need to file a slight curve and the alignment land into it. The other part might be a little trickier. I just went back and looked at my post. Hopefully you’ll find some useful pictures there of the parts that you will need to make.
I didn’t taper the pins that I made. As you read in the post, I was using a nail that was too thick and was thinning it using files and sandpaper. In hindsight, I did make the pins a bit to tight. After tapping them in, I found that the sides of the brass had swelled a little and I had to file the brass back slightly to get it to fit back together.
Good luck with your restoration.
All the best,
Thanks for your reply Jonathan, yes your pictures were very helpful it was when I saw them I realised that mine had the pieces missing. I’ve managed to fabricate the parts although the pin carrier I will probably do again as I didn’t get the screw hole centred properly and when I countersunk it it burst the side out. The square plate although tricky getting the size right was fairy easy. Putting the curve on it was difficult so I elected to do it as wide ‘v’ and hoping the pressure from the screw would ease it into the right profile. It seems to work fine anyway and the land I filed into it stops the stock from rotating. Just need to do some polishing now! Had some luck with the pins though; had some silver steel rod that was just the right size and didn’t need hardening.