Just down the road from Georgia's monolithic Stone Mountain, the world's largest exposed piece of granite, Paul Hamler removes tiny, perfectly proportioned hand tools from a display case in his home. His Alabama-born drawl quickens, and he peppers the conversation with such phrases as: "There's an interesting story behind this one here..."
But Hamler's remarkable reproductions are more than mere eye-candy. Each tool functions in every way like its full-size counterpart. To demonstrate, he draws an inch-long plane across the edge of a Popsicle stick, creating a Tom Thumb-size pile of long, curly shavings.
There's money in them thar miniatures
"That's the first miniature I made," he says of the Sandusky coffin plane, shown below. "I carved a tenon into a piece of boxwood, melted down a few silver coins, and poured them into the tenon to make an ingot." Using a drill and needle files, the neophyte toolmaker shaped the body.
After making and displaying his first miniatures at an antique-tool collectors show, word about the Lilliputian planes spread like kudzu in the rainy season. The first day of the show, he sold his entire stock of 20 (at $450 apiece) and took orders for 20 more. "I kind of got the idea there might be a market out there for this kind of thing," he says with a grin.
Indeed there is. Paul decided to craft full-size and miniature reproductions, shown below, of a one-of-a-kind Moseley plough plane. "This was a special ivory edition of John Moseley's wooden plough plane, hand-made for the 1855 World's Fair in Paris." The original was discovered in 1980 tucked away in the drawer of an abandoned workbench at Record-Ridgeway in London, the ends of its arms sawed off, apparently so it would fit in the drawer. The tool was put on display at the company's main office.
"This one employee got fired from the company and as he left, he stole the plane from the display case," the toolmaker intimates. "He took a couple of photos of it and was negotiating to sell it to a collector in America, but didn't know what it was worth. So this fella sent the photos to a friend of mine for an appraisal. He told my friend, 'I pinched this plane, and it's hidden in my attic.'
"When my friend called him a couple weeks later, he found out the guy had died. So to this day, the original tool is probably still in that attic." Today, Paul estimates that plane would sell for $80,000–$100,000. His five full-size reproductions fetched $12,000 each; the miniatures, $3,000.
The tool-nut doesn't fall far from the tree
The son of a carpenter and cabinetmaker, Paul took a shining to the trade, and as a teen began building billiard tables in the family garage. "I didn't have much of a shop at the time," he confides. "I'd build a table, then sell it and use the money to buy more tools. It got to where the shop was so full of tools, I had to start setting up the pool tables out there in the living room."
The tools he gathered at that point were mostly out of necessity. While building furniture for the home he shares with his wife, Gloria, "I got fascinated with spokeshaves, scrapers, and all." Then, Paul confesses, his fascination with hand tools turned a corner. "It's like anything you collect. It becomes a disease," he chuckles. "After I got all the common stuff, I started collecting the exotics. And I couldn't afford $300 or $400 for a genuine collectible plow plane."
One day, while thumbing through a book about reproduction tools, he stumbled upon a side profile illustration of an Ultimatum brace, drawn in 1⁄3 scale. "And I thought, well heck, I'll just make me one. So I used the drawing in the book as a reference and made my first 1⁄3 -scale model."
Today's technology; yesterday's tools
To make the metal parts for his miniatures, Paul learned the art of investment (or "lost wax") casting, described below. He first traces around all of the individual parts of a full-size tool, then scans the tracings into his computer, where he can quickly reduce them to 33% of original size.
Using those scaled-down drawings, he builds a fully functional prototype from a lightweight, high-tech plastic. "Anything you can do to wood or metal, you can do with this stuff," the toolmaker marvels. "You can mill it, sand it, saw it, drill it, tap it, carve it, and the detail is just phenomenal." When he's satisfied with the function and appearance of the prototype, he disassembles it and casts the pieces.
A little help from his friends
As you might imagine, producing tools much smaller than their intended size poses some logistical problems. For example, for Paul's miniature levels (including a Davis inclinometer complete with its 360°-rotating vial), he couldn't just order the spirit vials from the manufacturer's parts department.
"That was a hard one," he says of his research to make the vials, "because nobody would share any information with me. Finally I found an older fella who'd worked in a factory that made them." The trick, he learned, was to heat a glass tube to just the right temperature to draw the alcohol up into it, leaving a small bubble. If the glass was too hot, it would shatter. "Then I had to figure how to seal the other end of the tube without it becoming a blowtorch," he laughs.
While thinking through the unique three-leaf hinge of a Tidey bevel plane, Paul was stumped as how to roll each barrel of each leaf consistently: They all had to align perfectly to accept the hinge pin. "Believe it or not, one night, we were watching Schindler's List on video, and there's a scene in a factory where they're making hinges." That scene showed one of the characters using a jig to curl the barrels, and within hours, Paul had made a miniature version of the jig. Problem solved.
He likes playing with big tools, too
A living room that once sported Paul's handmade furniture now overflows with full-size treadle scrollsaws, some of which he already has reproduced in miniature. His "power" tool collection spills over into the family's two-car garage (which shelters just one vehicle: his Gold Wing motorcycle, still warm from the 3,000-mile road trip he took with his son, Jesse).
He points to a dusty lathe in the corner. "That one there's a movie star," he glows. In the opening scene of the 1999 TV movie The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, Sidney Poitier is shown turning at the tool. Paul provide technical advice and more old tools to the film's producers.
Next to the lathe stands an 1890s-vintage Barnes #4 treadle-powered tablesaw. "There's only four of these left in the country. The Smithsonian's got one of them, I've got two, and the fourth one is somewhere in Kasas," he says matter-of-factly.
Although every tool Hamler buys, he does so with the intention of making it in miniature, the question begs to be asked: What will he do with his growing collection? "I'd like to build me a place up in the North Georgia mountains, and make it into a museum for old tools." It had better be be a pretty big place. Or a very small one.
Gotta have one of Paul's tools?
Because each reproduction tool he makes is a limited edition, most of the tools shown in this story have already sold out. Visit his website for more information. Or try contacting him at Hamler Tools, 2632 Club Drive, Snellville, GA, 30078.
Paul's favorite books for antique tool collectors
Patented Transitional and Metallic Planes in America 1827-1927, by Roger K. Smith, 336 pages, North Village Publishing, 1981, hardcover.
Patented Transitional and Metallic Planes in America—Vol. II, by Roger K. Smith, 400 pages, North Village Publishing, 1982, hardcover.
The Art of Fine Tools, by Sandor Nagyszalanczy, 240 pages, Taunton Press, 1998, hardcover.
A Guide to the Makers of American Wooden Planes, 3rd Edition, by Emil & Martyl Pollak, 462 pages, Astragal Press, 1994, softcover.
Antique & Collectible Stanley Tools: Guide to Identity & Value, 2nd Edition, by John Walter, 885 pages, Tool Merchant, 1996, hardcover.