Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Yankee Screwdriver Comparison: Old vs. New

The most popular post on this blog has been my review of Yankee Screwdrivers. I've recently acquired a Schroeder 11 1/2" spiral ratcheting screwdriver, and a Pittsburgh 17 1/4" Yankee screwdriver, and decided the best use of them was a comparison with their North Brother's counterparts.

First, some background. While driving a screw over the summer, I managed to break one of my old Craftsmen spiral ratcheting screwdrivers. I was pretty excited about it, and had perhaps been treating it a bit more roughly than necessary, as I was interested to see how the Sears return policy would work on a tool they no longer manufactured under the Craftsman line. My local Sears store is not a full line store, and couldn't process any returns unless they had a comparable tool in stock. They tried to create an exception, and assured me that a new screwdriver was in the mail. Three weeks later I followed up with them, found out that no driver was in the mail, and I would have to go to the nearest full line Sears store. At the full line Sears store, they spent a good half hour trying to figure out just what kind of tool it was, then, after looking at the Schroeder spiral ratcheting screwdrivers on their website, gave me a gift card for the full amount of a new screwdriver. I do not understand why the local store could not do the same. Sadly, the Schroeder does not carry a lifetime warranty, so if it ever breaks, it's gone.

I bought the Pittsburgh at our brand new local harbor Freight store for $8, along with a new socket set, some precision screwdrivers, and a few other goodies. I've spent more time (and money) in that store since it opened than I would really like to think about.



One of these things is not like the others.

This comparison will consist of two parts, the first comparing a North Bros #135 to a Schroeder 11 1/2", and the second comparing a North Bros #30 to a Pittsburgh 17 1/4".

Part the First: Yankee vs. Schroeder

Rice? There is no rice.

Right off the bat, I don't like the Schroeder as much because it uses a hex cap instead of a slot (See above). It's not a huge deal, but bespeaks the biggest problem with the Schroeder style driver: unnecessary modifications that fail to increase the tool's usability. These modifications have made it significantly larger and heavier than the 135, but as you will see later, have provided no advantage in terms of driving speed.


The spring on the Schroeder is much larger than that of the Yankee. This is nice, in that it keeps the bit pressed more snugly against the screw. If you like the drive screws one-handed, this is definitely an advantage.


An enormous disadvantage, however, is the secondary spring hidden under a very small black disk used to keep the barrel in place. I discovered this spring when disassembling the screwdriver for the first time, and at the same time lost the black disk and the spring. I have been able to keep the barrel in place with a rubber band, but it is an annoyance that could easily have been avoided if Schroeder had simply used a screw, or also included the locking mechanism found in many Yankee Screwdrivers (I'll point it out to you when I compare the larger screwdrivers next).


The pawls on the Schroeder (right) are much larger and seem much stronger than those on the yankee. This is an advantage, as the pawls are almost always what fail in these screwdrivers. However, as the 135 on the left has managed to survive for the last 90 years with smaller pawls, I doubt the necessity of the change, especially as it creates the need for a much larger screwdriver in general.

Between the North Brothers 135 and the Schroeder 11 1/2" model, I have to give it to the North Brothers. It feels better in the hand, is much lighter, drives screws slightly faster, and looks sexier. The Schroeder is as heavy as a Yankee #30, without having the added spiral length, and suffers from several design innovations that do not increase the usability of the tool, and, in the case of the retaining pin, severely hamper said usability.

Part the Second: Yankee vs. Pittsburgh


Remember how I promised to point out the locking mechanism found in many Yankees? That's it on the right. It requires you to twist the barrel before you can slide it down, thereby retaining the tools usability if the retaining screw is lost. It is such a neat feature that I am amazed to find it lacking in both modern screwdrivers.

At first glance, I was very impressed with the $8 Pittsburgh model. It seems durable, has a 1/4" hex chuck built in (remember that you can also buy them from Lee Valley), and, most importantly, was eight bucks.


The screwdriver came apart without any significant problems, but I was surprised to see the spacer (the small arch above) fall out of the barrel. This has never happened with one of my other screwdrivers, and seems to simply be the result of more "wobble" in the mechanism, which therefore fails to hold the spacer in place.

That was the story of the Pittsburgh. Everything looked alright, but when used, felt very wrong. There was a lot of play while screwing, and the handle was most uncomfortable. I wouldn't buy one unless you can't find a decent alternative. Or need an $8 Yankee with a lifetime warranty to do horrible things to.

General Observations
Nothing much has changed since the 1920's, when the North Brother's screwdrivers I used in this review were manufactured. The new models are bigger, heavier, and (in my opinion) are not as comfortable to use, but basic technology is exactly the same.

So when you're looking for a good Yankee screwdriver, go for the used ones. If you can't find one at a local yard sale or antique shop for a reasonable price, remember that there's always ebay.

Notice how much wider the newer shafts are

Long Boring Video

Left to Right: Makita 10.8v, North Bros #31, Pittsburgh, North Bros #30, Schroeder, North Bros #135.

In the following video, I will use each of the above screwdrivers to drive and remove three screws. Each screw has a 1/8" pilot hole the depth of the screw.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Project: Turn a Duffel Bag Into a Messenger Bag/Bicycle Pannier

I love to ride my bicycle, but I do not love to wear a backpack while doing so. So I decided to make a laptop bag to attach to my bike.

I wanted the bag to be waterproof, cheap, and durable. Consequently, I used an old duffel bag from the Army, paired with some buttons left over from the BDU tool roll project, and some small clips.

The duffel bag was totally free. Or was it?


Step 1: Take out the seams of your duffel bag. There are only two, so it doesn't take very long.
Step 2: Cut out two pieces. One should be about 1.5 inches longer than your laptop on three sides (as shown above), the other should be the same width, and long enough to create a flap on the front. I highly recommend placing the pocket on this front flap.

If you want a larger, multi-purpose pannier, simply adjust the size to your needs and attach a firm board to the back (on the inside) to prevent the bag from getting into your spokes.

Step 3: Sew the clips onto the back of the bag. Make sure they are even and close enough to attach to your bike rack.
Step 4: Face the outsides together and sew both pieces together. Straight sewing is fine, I also used a zigzag stitch along the edges to prevent future raveling.
Step 5: Beg and plead for your wife to make the buttonholes. If that doesn't work, make some button holes and attach the buttons.
Step 6: Remove the pads from the shoulder straps, which are made from one piece of fabric. They will become your new shoulder strap. It may be handily stored in the duffel bag pocket.
You may then integrate the bag into your bicycle storage system...

or carry it by the shoulder strap...

or even by the carrying handle.

Most importantly, enjoy your new super-manly messenger bag/bicycle pannier!

Total time was about 2 and a half hours.
Total cost was zero.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Project: Refinish an old Piano

On Memorial Day weekend, my wife and her sisters gather for craft weekend, a magical time of wonders and sisterly bonding.

Unfortunately, the menfolk aren't invited. This year we decided that instead of sitting at home eating hot pockets and wallowing in despair, we would do something productive. We would refinish my sister in law's old piano, which had been making her children very sad.

So very, very sad

The piano is a Laverne, built in 1915. It began its career in a gold rush honky-tonk bar in Fairbanks, Alaska. It was later sold to a piano teacher, who painted it yellow, then painted over the yellow with black. This created the wonderful greenish hue you see above.

A closeup of each layer of paint. Note how thickly the paint is slathered on.



The first step was to take out the keys and clean out a hundred years of accumulated dust. When we removed the keys, we did notice an interesting series of markings on the A key


Keeping in mind that the piano was made in 1915, we have no idea what the markings mean. The internet postulated that they might be the initials of various people signing off their part of the construction of the piano, but no consensus was made.

We also discovered several other markings in the piano:


After the piano was disassembled and manhandled into the garage, we quickly blew out what dust we could with an air compressor, then vacuumed the rest of the fruit loops out of the piano.

We then began the most tedious and expensive part of the process, stripping the old finish. This took approximately 10 hours and 2 gallons of paint stripper.
In the process, we found the remnant of the maker's mark, but it could not be salvaged

After the stripping was completed, we sanded each piece smooth - a difficult process in some cases, as the veneer was worn extremely thin.

After sanding, it was time to put on the new finish, a 50/50 blend of cherry and medium walnut danish oil, which approximates a vintage mahogany. We bought three cans of each, but it turned out that only half a can was needed.


We were very careful to preserve the original damage, such as the cigarette burns above (and all over the rest of the piano) and the smell of old whiskey on the hammers.

We then coated the piano with some of Howard's Feed-n-Wax, replaced the keys, and let the kids try it out. They assured us that the piano sounded much better now that it was prettier.

Unfortunately, the paint had seeped through the veneer in places, and could not be removed without permanent damage to the piano. Fortunately, the distressed look is in at the moment, and the piano still looks much better than it did before.

The piano will soon be professionally tuned, and will hopefully have a long and happy life.

We started the project Thursday evening and were done Saturday morning. In total the project took about 20 hours of active labor, spread among three adults and four children.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Ivers and Pond Piano Style 395, 1905

Jana and I just scored a totally sweet Ivers and Pond piano. It is style 395, from 1905. I was even able to find an original advertisement in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Volume 39, January 1905.

The case is mahogany. The lighter wood at the bottom is from a refinishing project undertaken by the former owner - a refinishing project thankfully abandoned before completed. Acting on the advice of a local piano restorer, I touched up the finish with a 50/50 mix of medium walnut and cherry danish oil. The finish was perfect, and easily covered up all but the deepest of scratches.

The piano was "Selected and Voiced" for the Wise Piano House of Boise, Idaho. According to the history of Idaho, Mr. Wise was a hugely successful piano salesman. According to the prior owners, this piano was used in a silent movie house for years. After "talkies" became popular, the prior owner's mother bought her the piano when she was 14.

The serial number places this piano at late 1905. I had pegged it at early 1906, but a friendly redditor (Thanks OnaZ!) looked it up in the Pierce Piano Atlas and corrected me. Even better.

A small lever by the keyboard operates the "soft stop" mechanism

When the soft stop is engaged, the upper bar rests against the strings, muting the sound and causing the hammers to strike thick felt instead of the strings themselves. The pin was missing from the mechanism, which caused the soft stop to be permanently engaged - which likely saved years of wear from the hammers and strings. The soft stop felt now needs to be replaced, but it is a small price to pay for a piano this well preserved.
As for the mechanism itself, one of Jana's bobby pins has now repaired it to working order.
Ivers and Pond was known for constant innovation

And for hand carving all decorative carving and moldings

The piano was last tuned in 1973 - but it is still in tune (at least with itself, which is what matters most). Neither Jana nor I find any fault with the tone.

For a grand old lady of 105, the piano is awesome. It is in phenomenal condition, and produces a wonderful tone. We are very pleased. Very pleased indeed.

The prior owners were kind enough to sell us this piano for it's original 1905 price.

Edited to Add: More information on Ivers and Pond at The Antique Piano Shop