January 17, 2013

Vintage Boston Ranger 55 Pencil Sharpener

Who will sharpen the sharpener? The answer in this case is me!

We are heavy pencil users at my house, and the kids have a big bin of colored and regular pencils which are in daily use. Regular pencils for drawing and workbooks, colored pencils for drawing and coloring. Until recently we have been using the little single blade style handheld sharpeners. These, however, seem to dully quickly and henceforth do a disappointing job of pointing your pencil. Of course you can just get a new one every month or so, but that seems sub-optimal. 

I recalled from my youth the simplicity and effectiveness of a handcranked desk or wall mounted pencil sharpener, and started cruising ebay. There are some cool vintage pencil sharpeners out there, but I was a bit concerned about an antique being too dull to actually be very functional. Eventually I decided to give a Boston Ranger 55 a try. The vintage ones are not as cheap as I had expected they would be! It arrived looking good and feeling solid, but performing poorly. What to do?

The Boston Pencil Sharpener Company was founded in 1899. It was later bought out by Hunt Manufacturing Company, who's sharpener product line was acquired by X-ACTO, which was in turn later bought by Elmer's. The Boston Ranger 55 made it's debut in 1955, and a new version is still available today from X-ACTO. An excellent blog series on pencil sharpeners which particularly highlights the Ranger 55 and does some impressively thorough analysis and patent digging can be found at: http://pencilsharpeners.wordpress.com/

When my vintage Ranger 55 showed up, I immediately gave it a go. Here is what it did:

Ugh. Seeing the mangled point my vintage Ranger was making I heaved a sigh of defeat and ordered the new one from Amazon. My thought was that I might be able to transplant the cutters from the new one into my vintage one, compromising the moral high ground but keeping the aesthetic advantage and cool factor of the vintage model. In contrast to some of the reviews out there, the new X-ACTO Ranger 55 did a great job pointing my pencil. Notice the appearance of the shavings in the two pictures.

Unfortunately the cutters were not as long as the vintage ones and were not going to transfer. 

I decided to make one last attempt on the vintage Ranger before reselling it on ebay and putting the new one into service. The cutting burrs surely are made with a little relief in the geometry, but with nothing to lose I tried sharpening them on flat stones. I figured I wasn't likely to make it any worse, and it was already not too useful for actual pencil sharpening. First the unit was disassembled to free the burrs, which was easily accomplished.

To sharpen on the flat stones I would grip a burr at its ends between thumb and forefinger, then sweep it edges leading across the long dimension of the stone, simultaneously rotating the burr perhaps 20 degrees into the direction of travel. Returning the burr for another sweep, I would take a new grip which allowed me to address the next section of the circumference of the burr. This was repeated on a stone something like 60 times with light pressure, about half the strokes going diagonally from upper right to lower left, half the strokes going from upper left to lower right.  

I began with a DMT plastic diamond plate at 600 grit, dry. Next I moved to a 4K synthetic Norton water stone, which is incidentally my very favorite hone in the world. The pictures don't accurately show how I held it during the strokes; what I did is more like what is shown in the stropping picture further on.

The Norton synthetic was then flipped over and the 8K side was pressed into service.

As a finishing touch, I did about 30 strokes with the cutting edges trailing on a fabric strop treated with Chromium Oxide buffing compound. I again used the rolling, indexing motion similar to the honing step, but this time rolling the burr during the stroke such that the cutting edge was retreating from the direction of travel.

After the full honing regimen, the burrs felt noticeably sharper to the touch. 

So I reassembled the unit with some Tri-Flow lube in key sliding contact areas. 

Success! The cutting action was much smoother and produced a fairly well pointed pencil. On the left is a pencil done before sharpening, on the right is one done afterwards.

The finish is not quite as perfect as the new model, but I do think it's more sustainable. I wouldn't be surprised if the new cutters are not as hard and would dull more quickly. Besides I now know how to re-sharpen the burrs in the vintage one as needed. So the new one was returned to Amazon.

Having both the vintage and the new Ranger 55 present, I took the opportunity to compare the construction and features of the two. 

The first thing one notices on external inspection is that the size selector wheel at the input is a thin, stamped steel part in the new model, while the vintage one has a solid disc. This probably doesn't make a huge difference, but I detected a small tendency for the sharp edges of the stamped part to catch on the sides of the advancing pencil. The solid disc was a minor improvement in guiding the pencil in, and also looks better.

On the handle side, the new unit lacks the three level point sharpness adjuster present on the vintage one. I don't currently think this is all that useful however, so in practice this is not much of a difference. It is kind of neat to have it there and see how it works when it is taken apart. The lever pushes a pin through the handle toward the burrs to a different degree based on which setting is selected. The pin bears on a T shaped piece of metal which forces the burrs slightly further apart or lets them come together more. The actuation distance is small, but given the shallow angle of the burrs it does make a difference to the point sharpness. I actually prefer the blunter point angle produced by the new unit. The antique makes the point awfully long and fragile, which is not great for toddlers and little kids. The handle attachment is sturdier on the old one.

With the collection bin off, more disparities are made clear. The old machine has more solid cast pieces which are screwed together with heavy shoulders for the screws to bear on. The side plates are more rigidly fixed to the base. The new one has more drastically relieved castings with very thin reinforcing webs and a different scheme for the screw attachments. 

Another difference is that the spur gears which are affixed to the end of the burrs and serve to drive them around in their travel are brass in the antique but are cast from zinc alloy in the new one. Brass on pot metal is a smoother and better bearing surface than pot metal on pot metal, and will definitely last longer. Vintage first, new second in the below pictures.

That being said, I was actually fairly impressed with the new Ranger 55 and would have been happy to use it if I couldn't revive the old one. I don't think it is quite as good in construction and would not be quite as long lived. But overall I thought it was a notch better than the average low cost poorly made consumer gadget, designed to both sell and fail quickly.


Anonymous said...

You might take a look at Lee Valley Tools' Little Shaver pencil sharpener. It's made in Canada and a reproduction of rather clever non-rotary sharpener from 1904 that's designed to be resharpened. Here's a Youtube video of it in action:
Little Shaver In Action.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this informative and practical post. I faced the same dilemma with one of these beautiful vintage sharpeners, and after reading your account decided to try sharpening the cutters (with 600 and 1500 grit papers). It worked like a charm!

P. Constance
Falls Church, VA

malengine said...

Being uncertain how the burrs were sharpened on my pencil sharpener, which dates from my childhood, I was uncertain how to go about sharpening them. Your success here encouraged me and after a few minutes with my water stone and strop our Boston sharpens again, rather than gnawing pencils to a vaguely conical point. Thanks for posting!

Holly Gates said...

@malengine & P.Constance

Excellent! I'm so glad this post has been helpful to you.

Anonymous said...

I've purchased a Ranger 55 but it's point selector is limp/nonfunctional-- it's only connected to the sharpener handle at one (bottom) end. Would you be able to post pictures of the parts that that permit point selection? Perhaps if I could see what's missing, I could restore this functionality. Thank you.

Holly Gates said...

Regarding the point selector; I'll see what I can do. This sharpener is in almost daily use by my family, so I'll have to set aside a little time to take it down and put it back together the same day.

Anonymous said...

Thank you (for considering the point-selector request). I will check your blog periodically over the next few weeks.

The sharpener is superb to hold/feel, love it weight and build quality...but there are those in my house :-) who question my judgement in buying this antique, that too by paying more than a brand new modern electric from Costco. If I could get this thing purring, I would save myself from snarky remarks :-)

Anonymous said...

What type of screws did you use to mount the sharpener? I have one I want to mount in my garage.


Holly Gates said...

Mounted it to the window trim using stainless torx drive wood screws, which I use for almost everything around my house:

jengod said...

If you want to get really dorky, when you clean out the savings you can save them (in a tin can or such) for the next time you need to start a fire. Wood shavings plus graphite is a good combination for tinder. :)

Doug Pratt said...

I have a Boston Model KS sharpener. Whenever I sharpen a pencil, after it is sharpened, I can look at the point, and on half of it I can see the lead, and on the other half, all I can see is wood. Do you know how to adjust a KS so it will sharpen evenly? Please advise. Thank you.

Doug Pratt

Holly Gates said...

This sometimes happens to me with the Ranger if I am pulling the pencil a little to one side while I am sharpening. If I make a special effort to let the pencil find its own center while pushing it into the burrs, it comes out with the lead centered. Try that with the hole turned bigger on the entry, so the hole plate is not constraining the side to side movement of the pencil.

Doug Pratt said...

Well I'll be switched! I took your advice and VIOLA ! Works perfectly. Thanks Holly.

Holly Gates said...

Glad it worked out for you. Happy sharpening!

Unknown said...

Thank you for the thorough article. After reading I decided to buy a vintage 55 online and sharpen the blade myself. It was a really old one with the wood handle I only had a wide stone wheel that I use for lawnmower blades so I put a nail through the center of the cutter for holding and made a few passes on the wheel..oiled it up and it's good for another 60 years.

Eric Varady said...

Thank you for the thorough article. After reading I decided to buy a vintage 55 online and sharpen the blade myself. It was a really old one with the wood handle I only had a wide stone wheel that I use for lawnmower blades so I put a nail through the center of the cutter for holding and made a few passes on the wheel..oiled it up and it's good for another 60 years.

Law .n said...

Thanks so much for this post I have a Boston champion and have been looking for a way to sharpen the blades! top post

Law .n said...

Great post, I have a Boston Champion and have been looking for a way to sharpen the blades. Thanks for the share!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this blog! It gave me the confidence to disassemble my Boston Ranger 55 to sharpen the burrs. Definitely can feel a difference when I sharpen my pencils now.

Greg Young said...

Thanks! I always wondered about this procedure since my KS left ragged points. I used a standard metal file, then 1200 emory cloth, then 3000 AlO2 paper, and it worked great. Now I know I can do it!

Anonymous said...

Thank you! Just received a similar eBay vintage Boston Ranger 55 and was doing handstands since I remembered it from my childhood, only to find that it was so dull it ground my pencils into mush. I'm going to try your sharpening scheme as soon as I find the right stones! Do you a page on how to properly disassemble the vintage Ranger? I'm pretty handy but always prefer an exploded view :)

Pete in Seattle