Whenever I visit art fairs and museums, I always find myself standing before the works that use mixed media. Maybe it’s the shiny parts working in concert for artistic effect. To me, the creative aggregation of wood, metal, glass, fabric, paper, and/or paint is more engaging than their one-media brethren.
I think that’s why I like vintage try squares so much. In an early 20th century age where quality mattered, try square beams were made of rosewood. To this brass was added-which over the decades builds up a nice patina. Brass rivets affix the steel blade (still another element), to the wood beam. A brass strip protects the handle from repeated rubbing against surfaces.
To wood, steel and brass, I would add one more “media”, functionality. You can use these works of art to:
—Aid in the squaring of boards
—To layout lines, and
—To ensure that glue ups are square…among other uses
For a guy who likes them so much, you would expect to see several in my shop right?
Nope. Not a one.
It’s not that I haven’t been on the lookout for one. I always stop to inspect try squares during antiquing and flea-market excursions.
But the examples I found had a few…let’s call them flaws. On some, the wood was drier than a camel’s carcass in the Mojave Desert. These showed noticeable cracks. Others had blades that were so pitted they looked like they had been through a sand storm in said desert.
And then there were times where a beauty would leap off the display case into my caressing hands. My heart would beat faster looking at the wood, brass and steel, painted to perfection in patina and small dings. Only to have it skip a few beats when I looked at the you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me price.
A nice find
“No antiquing. We’re here to taste wine,” said Dagne as her husband and I walked out of a tasting room to go get cigars. The Prescott Arizona area has some good wines and that’s why we were visiting to share our passion for the fruity stuff. This afternoon, we were in Cottonwood, a name in my mind more fitting to an old west gunfight than a wine oasis.
As we stepped out of the tobacco shop, the “Antiques” sign was too strong to resist. The bell above the door jingled as I entered. Buried under a Disston panel saw, screw drivers and rusty bits, something caught my eye.
This try square had potential. I tested it for squareness as best I could against shelves and other surfaces in the shop. Very nice. And at $5.95 the proprietor quickly had cash in hand moments before my treasure found a spot next to the Macanudos in my bag. I marveled at how $5.95 plus tax could bring so much joy to my life.
Rehabbing my first vintage try square
Back at home, I took stock of the tool’s condition and drafted a rehab plan. Here’s what I had to work with:
The overall goal was to make the try square clean and serviceable. To me, that means rehabbing the tool versus “restoring” it to its original condition. Normally, I like brass patina, but for this tool I decided to clean up the brass elements. Brasso made quick work of the filth, grime and dirt decades of use—and disuse—had built up on the metal. Choosing to maintain the aged character of the dinged brass, the sandpaper remained unused in its storage area.
I cleaned the steel blade by spraying WD-40 on it to act as a lubricant for 220-grit wet-dry emery paper. It took a bit of sanding to get most of the rust off. As you can see in the after pictures, I didn’t get it all. I was torn between going to town on the blade or doing just enough to make it serviceable. Not wanting to remove the faint measuring gradations on the blade, I chose the latter.
Then I stepped to my sharpening station where I keep a plate of float glass with emery sandpaper affixed by spray-on adhesive. I lightly sanded the top edge of the square to true it. Then I did the same for the steel blade’s bottom edge, being very careful to register the brass strip along the side of the glass to maintain squareness. This worked pretty well.
For the rosewood handle, I opted for a minimalist approach. That meant scraping off the paint blotches on the handle using a small flat-head screwdriver in combination with a very light touch so as not to mar the wood. Then I cleaned the beam with a cloth rag dipped in mineral spirits. To repair the small crack I squirted in some CA and clamped it until it dried.
After that dried, two coats of BLO went on to condition/protect the wood.
Who in the world is J.E. Miller?
The next step was to hop on the Internet to see if I could find out who J.E. Miller was. You see, that’s the name stamped on the tool’s beam. And it’s still another reason I wanted to own it.
My rudimentary Google search of the name + Prescott Arizona turned up a Reverend J.E. Miller around 1866; a J.E. Miller, brother of Elizabeth Miller circa 1934; and a J.E. Miller who was a general manager for a mine circa 1930. No dice. It’s tough to make the leap between a reverend, brother or mine manager to that of a try square owner.
Maybe some of you have been successful attributing tools to their owners. If you have, don’t be shy about sharing some tips on how you did it.
Here’s the finished tool, ready for service in my woodshop.
Long after the wisps of Macanudo smoke dissipated over a glass of wine in Prescott Arizona, I’m still enjoying the try square that used to occupy J.E. Miller’s toolbox.
-- "People's lives are their own rewards or punishments."