The Hand Crank Bench Grinder: Vintage Retrospective

Discussion in 'Articles' started by PLANofMAN, Jun 12, 2021.

  1. PLANofMAN

    PLANofMAN Eccentric Razor Collector Staff Member

    Moderator Article Team
    There is remarkably very little information on the internet about the hand cranked grinders of yesteryear.

    Photo credit:

    I've spent a great deal of time lately scouring the internet for details and clues, all with the eventual end goal of finding the "best" of these mechanical marvels, and putting it or them to the test.

    Of course there were dozens of manufacturers, with dozens of grades and sizes per manufacturer, and also different designs for different jobs. This has made the task very difficult, near impossible. Add to this, they were made for about 100 years, with both the mechanical improvements and decline in quality that time brings to all tool manufacturing.

    The final obstacle is that these were often heavily used, abused, and in many cases, when found, are just worn out.

    I will be focusing on specifically the bench type grinders. There were usually three different grades each manufacturer made, each with a name unique to the manufacturer. For the sake of simplicity, I will call those grades "Home use," "Shop use," and "Industrial use." In general, the size dictated the use, and the manufacturer recommended the various sizes for different jobs, which I will paraphrase here.

    4": Home workshop
    5": Mechanic
    6": Small workshop or private garage
    7": Factories, machine shops, lumber camps, ranches, and plantations
    8": Shipyards, rail and construction, machine shops, garages, industrial training schools.

    As you can see, there's a bit of overlap on the 7" and 8" sizes with both being put to the same type of use, but the 8" size is designed for constant heavy use. The 4" and 5" sizes were designed to be readily portable.

    At any given time, the vast majority of hand crank grinders you will find on eBay or Etsy will be of the "home use" variety. Cheap when new, and basically almost disposable. The vast majority took 4" or 5" stones, a size almost not made anymore, which renders them virtually useless for the modern day enthusiast. The largest size took 6" stones. Most of these had straight cut gears and cheap pressed in, babbitt style bearings. This covers about 90% of the hand crank grinders on eBay. These weigh perhaps 3.5 to 4 lbs each. (I'm told that harbor freight carries a 3" stone that works well on the smaller grinders).

    The next grade of grinder is the "shop use" variety. More or less the same thing as the home use grinders, but designed to be used hard and long. The cases were stronger and bigger, the gears were better made, often helical cut, and two or three times wider than the home use gears, and the bearings were made of bronze, or gray iron, or in some cases, even ran on ball bearings as we passed from the 1920's and '30's into the age of electricity. They also tended to use bigger wheels, up to 7" in size. It is these 'diamonds in the rough' that the user hopes to find in his hunt through rusty piles of tools. The remaining 10% of the grinders on the market are these, with perhaps 10% of those being the size capable of using 7" stones. Those few weigh almost 20 lbs.

    The industrial grade hand crank bench grinders are very few and far between, with a searcher lucky if he finds but one in his lifetime. These exclusively took 7" or 8" stones, and were of the very highest quality. They were also monsters, weighing between 30 and 50 pounds.

    The final group of machines, which I have not spoken of yet, are the "high speed" bench grinders. Whereas a regular hand crank grinder has between a 7:1 to 12:1 ratio, meaning the grind stone makes 7 to 12 revolutions per 1 crank of the handle; high speed grinders make between 22 to 30 revolutions per crank. Indeed, the fastest of these can spin faster than a modern grinder, provided the 'crank monkey' turns the crank as fast as he or she can. A relatively sedate speed of one crank per second will get the wheel on a 30:1 grinder spinning at 1,800 rpms, which is faster than the 1,750 rpms the average woodturner's electric "low" speed grinder operates at. A regular electric bench grinder runs at over 3,000 rpm, which is much faster than needed or wanted for sharpening tools. These grinders tend to have a distinctive boxy shape, similar to a squat tombstone, and are much wider than a typical hand crank grinder.

    Unfortunately, they share the limitations of their less weighty cousins. Namely, that they take small stones. The bigger sizes; 7" and 8," are all but impossible to find, and the small 4" and 5" sizes are almost as elusive. For safety reasons, I cannot recommend regular stones on high speed grinders. These machines lack the guards and shields of modern grinders, that are designed to protect you in the event that your stone detonates (fragments apart during use). Keep reading... there are alternative wheels.

    Note: hand crank grinders differ in one major way from modern grinders. The user faces the crank and generally observes the grinding process from the side and above, rather than in front of the wheel's edge. This is a common mistake many people make, continuing with habits and skills learned on powered grinders, which is fine, provided you have a helper willing to turn the crank for you.

    I have several of these hand crank grinders. One is the Luther Mechanic's Special "X" No. 17, which was made in the late 1920's or early 1930's. This was their ultimate grinder (at the time), with tapered machined gray iron bearings and helical gears. The 17X was the largest of these, able to take a 7" wheel. The 'Mechanic's Special "X"' line was discontinued when the Luther Company started making the "Mechanic's Special" grinders with helical cut gears and ball bearings. Those models had previously been made with straight cut gears and pressed bearings.

    While certainly an improvement over the previous Mechanic's Special design, I remain undecided on whether this actually improved on or equaled the Special X line.

    The second grinder I own is a Luther 104. The 17X and the 104 were probably made within a few years of each other, and can be found in the same 1925 trade catalog. The 104 and the 105 were Luther's High Speed bench grinders, and came with 4" and 5" stones respectively. (Note: the 104 is capable of using a 5" stone if only just barely, so the 105 may be able to take a 6" stone). Both have a blistering fast 30:1 ratio. The more well known Goodell-Pratt 485 had a 5" wheel but a relatively slower 22:1 ratio. It's big brother the 585, came with a 7" wheel and the same gear ratio. The 485 weighs about 12 lbs. The 585 is nearly 27 lbs. The 104 is a measley 5 1/2 lbs in comparison.

    I trust that now you begin to see why it is so difficult to just point and say "this is the best one?" Much of this information has been gleaned from a few vintage catalogs, and would otherwise be unknown. Prairie was a reputable maker, but information about them is not there. Keystone was also a reputable manufacturer of hand crank grinders, and those are in high demand among collectors. They only made grinders for the railroad and logging industries, so a Keystone Railroad grinder is sure to be much more heavy duty than the average run of the mill grinder.

    Now finally, we come to the heart of the matter. Does a vintage hand crank grinder deserve a place in a modern society?

    Kind of. 10 years ago, I would have said no. But 10 years ago, CBN grind stones didn't exist, at least not as they do now. Cubic Boron Nitride stones are solid wheels of either aluminum or steel, whose surfaces have been covered by a thin layer of electroplated nickel. Embedded in that nickel are particles of boron nitride. Almost as hard as diamond, and better for grinding hardened steel, these wheels will never lose their shape, or need to be trued, balanced, or resurfaced. On a high speed grinder, they will last for a decade or more with daily hard use. On a hand grinder these stones could last a lifetime or two. Even in high speed applications these stones run exceptionally cool, and greatly lower the risk of bluing your blade and ruining the temper. The smallest readily available size is 6", the most common is 8", and both come in various thicknesses or can even be custom made to your specifications. The primary use these stones are used for is grinding the hollow in chisels, plane blades, and other edged blades and resetting the bevel before the final passes (aka "micro-bevel") are done on a stone. In the shop these are used for sharpening drill bits, or even putting new edges on carbide tipped tools, though doing the latter or a regular basis will greatly shorten the life of the grinding wheel. Bonded adhesive CBN wheels are considerably cheaper, but have a limited lifespan. (Note: CBN grits are not really comparable to standard grits. Since they cut faster, a 180 grit CBN will actually outperform an 80 grit aluminum oxide wheel, both cutting faster and leaving a smoother surface. Most users opt for a 180 or 220 grit CBN wheel for setting bevels and a much higher grit CBN wheel for HSS turning tools). The one limitation of CBN wheels is that they can only be used on hard metals, and the softest metal you should use on one is tempered steel. Grinding brass or aluminum will practically ruin one.

    The other type of wheel that I can see as being very useful on a hand crank grinder are leather honing wheels. They are initially oiled for lubrication, then a honing compound is applied to the wheel. Future applications of oil are not needed, as Tormek honing compound contains a small amount of oil for lubrication. These wheels will add a mirror polish to a knife's edge.

    *Note: If you do strip and refinish a vintage grinder, be aware that any paint remaining is almost certainly going to be lead based. Wear nitrile gloves when removing it, and take other precautions. Wire wheeling the paint away is probably not really high on the smart things to do list. Getting lead poisoning is not recommended.*

    At this point, being what kind of forum this is, you are probably wondering if these can be used on straight razors. The answer from me would be a hesitant yes- but only during the manufacture of a straight razor. These could be used to grind the hollow and polish the hollow, but would almost certainly kill the edge of an already properly set up razor. A very skilled person with a very high grit CBN wheel and a very light touch, and a jig, could probably set a razor's bevel using these wheels. Indeed, on the knife forums, people have gotten nanometer edges on knives using them in combination with spyderco medium and fine stones, followed by a diamond pasted strop.

    Now the one exception to this are the old Pike/Norton Arkansas stone wheels that were manufactured from the turn of the century until the 1980's. If you find one of those to put on these old machines, you could grind your own razors without destroying the temper of the steel.

    There has been an unwillingness to experiment much with hand crank grinders when working with that degree of precision, mostly due to the perception that hand crank grinders wobble. They aren't wrong. The vast majority do, either from being poorly maintained over the last hundred years, or from not being very well made to begin with. A very few will never wobble, even with slipshod maintenance, and this is a testament to their builders, who designed them with the care of a person building an automobile transmission.

    The proper maintenance for these is to add a few drops of light oil such as 3 in 1, before each use, or after several uses. Some people opt out of adding oil entirely, preferring to put 00 grease in them instead, essentially permanently lubricating them. There are good arguments both for and against this practice.

    Purists claim that the gears should more or less run in a dry state, that grease is only for bearings...helical, herringbone, and/or straight cut gearing should all be oil lubricated...It is for the same reasons that you do not grease your bicycle gears/chain. With a light load, a single pinion and bull gear, straight toothed setup like this, an occasional shot of T9 is more than enough lube.

    Others point to the fact that these machines don't run all that fast, and 00 grease both lubricates them and makes them run quieter.

    I personally side with the purists on this. Bits of the gear that get ground off and any dust that manages to enter the casing will remain trapped in the grease and will eventually start acting as abrasives in the gear, leading to premature wear. In addition, grease doesn't penetrate as deeply as oil does, so it is less lubricating. A good compromise might be a healthy application of a 50/50 oil/00 grease blend in the gear case and only oil for the bearings themselves. (00 grease becomes liquid when heated). Why 00 grease specifically? It's the only grease that is light enough to slump back down to the bottom of the gear case where it will get picked up again by the main gear. A heavier grease will get flung off the gear wheel, stick to the side of the casing, and stay there, doing nothing at all for you.

    There are a few exceptions to the "run them with a few drops of lubricant" rule. The high speed grinders were originally oiled, and probably shouldn't have been. A grinder that was greased will survive indifferent maintenance easily. A grinder that was oiled, but allowed to run dry will wear much more rapidly. Some grinders that are not of the high speed type were made with solid bottom cases, rather than a clamshell design. These were more or less designed to run in a oil bath, but will run equally well greased.

    The best argument for grease is cleanliness. An oiled grinder tends to mark it's territory, and everything around it. 00 grease, on the other hand, generally stays inside the grinder, and is quite free flowing when warmed up, and has fairly low viscosity even at low temperatures.

    Thus my search for the best of the best of these antique machines. One to put a 180 grit CBN wheel on. One to put a leather honing wheel on, and perhaps a third with a 220 concave wheel to sharpen turning gouges and the like. At this rate, I will need to build a rolling cart to turn into a grinding and honing station. For the woodcrafter, this is a necessity. Metal shavings on a workbench are not the cabinet maker's friend.

    One last point. You should never go from full speed to a sudden stop with these grinders. It can damage the gears. You want to let them come to a natural stop, either from inertia or from pressure on the grinding surface.

    This is probably the one single spot on the internet that has distilled and consolidated such a wealth of information on the various types of hand crank grinders.

    Given that it's been a hundred years since these machines were developed, the focus of the user should be on those models that were durable, followed by quality, followed by size. I can give limited recommendations, based on careful comparisons of a handful of vintage catalogs, restoration videos on YouTube, and the occasional forum comment or picture.

    We can make a few assumptions. The first is that the bigger the grinder, the bigger and wider the gears will be. The bigger the gear, the faster the grinder will turn. The wideness of the gears is a big indication of how durable the machine was designed to be.

    Keystone Railroad grinders have exceptionally wide gears. That's a pretty good reason we see them in the $100 range on eBay. Most grinders I've seen have gears that are about a 1/4" wide. Keystone Railroad grinders have straight cut gears that look about an inch wide, but are probably closer to 3/4" wide. (Cameras make everything look bigger).

    The higher quality Luther (and a few other brands of) grinders have spiral cut (helical) gears. This reduces wear on the gears, and keeps 3 teeth engaged with the pinion at all times. This reduces the chances that teeth will break.

    Other features are malleable iron handles vs. gray cast iron. The malleable iron crank handles are more durable and shock resistant, but they look identical when covered in rust and paint.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that most of the time you won't know a good grinder from a bad one until you get a chance to look at the guts. You can raise your chances of getting a good grinder by buying a grinder that was designed for a 7" or larger stone.

    Quality Grinders to look for (most will take at least a 6" wheel):
    Luther Champion grinders.
    Luther Mechanic's Special grinders 6M, 7M, 8M
    Luther Best Maide No. 52, 53, and 56
    These are probably the easiest to identify. They look more like pistols than grinders. Other companies made inferior copies.
    Luther 105
    Keystone Railroad grinders
    Goodell-Pratt Grinders with guards enclosing the gears (these are the oldest designs in this list)
    Goodell Pratt 585
    Genko (Later bought by Metabo and made under the Metabo name) sold by Woodcraft until the early 1980's.
    Corundum Niagra No. 4
    Pike Peerless Senior

    As a general rule of thumb, the Grinder's number, if it has one, relates either to the stone size it came with, or to the grinder's size). The name, other than the manufacturer's, indicates the quality level.

    For example:
    American Grinder Co.

    Liberty (industrial grade)
    American (professional grade)
    Champion (home use)

    No. 1 (4")
    No. 2 (5")
    No. 3 (6")
    No. 4 (7")

    So for that company, an "American No. 4" indicates that it was their mid-tier* grinder with a 7" stone capacity. They only sold one model of "Liberty" grinder. It had no number and took an 8" stone.

    *Their mid-tier might be the next companies' low tier or high tier. A Luther home tier grinder is equivalent to an American Grinder Co. mid-tier model, in my opinion. Also, a high-tier grinder in 1925 might be considered the equivalent to a low tier grinder in 1940, due to advances in bearing construction, design, or materials used.

    Luther Grinders
    Mechanic's Special "X" (helical gears)
    Mechanic's Special (straight cut gears)
    Best Maide (helical gears)
    Challenge (straight cut gears)

    (All have helical gears)
    Mechanic's Special
    Best Maide

    Mechanic's Special (helical gears)
    Railway (helical gears)
    Best Maide (helical gears)
    Master (spur gears)
    Milwaukee (spur gears)
    Standard (machine cut gears)
    Beauty (machine cut gears)

    So we have here a progression up and then down. In 1920, the best models had helical gears and iron bearings. By 1925, the company had ditched the high speed models (probably due to electric models being introduced), and incorporated helical gears across all models, adding ball bearings to the best. By 1929, they added both heavy duty models and budget models. By the end of the 1930's, the company had succumbed to the pressures of the Great Depression and had gone out of business.

    There are very few exterior features that separate a "great" grinder from a "good" one, aside from the wheel size of the grinder. The presence of spring cap or ball check valve type oilers or grease points is a good indicator of high quality on early grinders. Cheaper grinders just had screws installed on the oil ports, if they had ports at all. It goes without saying that soviet era Eastern Bloc hand crank grinders are a bit rough looking. I'm not sure how well they perform.

    You can skip the next two paragraphs if you are not interested in technical jargon.

    I've made more than a few mentions of helical gears, and why the best grinders had them. This is why they are important.

    Helical gears explained:

    "Helical gears have been developed from spur gears, and their teeth lie at an angle to the axis of the shaft. Contact between the teeth in mesh acts along the diagonal face flanks in a progressive manner; at no time is the full length of any one tooth completely engaged. Before contact ceases between one pair of teeth, engagement commences between the following pair. Engagement is therefore continuous, and this fact results in a reduction of the shock which occurs when straight teeth operate under heavy loads. Helical teeth give a smooth, quiet action under heavy loads; backlash is considerably reduced; and, due to the increase in length of the tooth, for the same thickness of gear wheel, the tooth strength is improved."

    Manual of Engineering Drawing (Fifth Edition), 2020
    By Colin H. Simmons, Dennis E. Maguire and Neil Phelps

    If you've gotten this far, there is a grinder manufacturer that still produces hand crank grinders, and notably, a six gear 8" high speed grinder. (With or without bearings!) Nagi Tools Industries out of Jandalahar, India. I have no idea how good the quality is. The vintage Ixion grinders that these appear to based off seemed to be fairly decent machines after restoration. I suspect that Nagi purchased the original molds for casting these from the previous manufacturers. These are but pale imitations of the best of the old machines, I can almost guarantee that.

    This is a website for an exporter that carries them and ships to the U.S. scroll down to see the grinders and other vintage style hand crank hand drills and drill presses.

    Not related to hand crank grinders, but very cool nonetheless, is this old machine.
    Last edited: Apr 13, 2021
    macaronus, Stefano73, analog and 6 others like this.
  2. IAmTheJody

    IAmTheJody Gillette-i Master Staff Member

    Fantastic write-up! I actually learned about something that never crossed my mind before!

    Sidenote: I was going to fix the broken image but didn't know which image from the site you were trying to use.
    Edison Carter and PLANofMAN like this.
  3. Enrico

    Enrico Popcorn

    At first when I saw the title, I thought you going to talk about coffee grinders and I was going to have to show off my Alexanderwerk coffee grinder :innocent

    Glad I didn't do that ...... that would have been embarrassing :ashamed001:



    :signs097: @PLANofMAN
    Tedolph and PLANofMAN like this.
  4. brit

    brit in a box

    very cool write up:cool:
    Edison Carter and PLANofMAN like this.
  5. Keithmax

    Keithmax Breeds Pet Rocks

    Thank you for another great article!
  6. Tedolph

    Tedolph Well-Known Member

    I would be impressed if someone put this kind of effort into a hand crank coffee grinder post.
    PLANofMAN likes this.
  7. Badger-Face

    Badger-Face Well-Known Member

    I have a nice one I got at a flea market. I sharpen my knifes with it. I’ll get a picture and send to you when I get a chance. Good post.
    IAmTheJody, PLANofMAN and Ron R like this.
  8. PalmettoB

    PalmettoB The Old Guard

    Funny, I have just recently been more into the historical and technical aspects of straights since I have been doing more restorations. Good show. Excellent information!
    PLANofMAN likes this.
  9. PLANofMAN

    PLANofMAN Eccentric Razor Collector Staff Member

    Moderator Article Team
    Just an update to this thread. It caught the eye of a gentleman named Todd Sorenson, who works at the Krenov school, an institution that teaches students how to become woodworkers in the old traditional sense of the word, by hand. They prefer to use hand crank grinders because, (1) it's traditional and (2) there's less chance of burning the edge of chisel and plane blades with a slower grinder.

    The school used to purchase Prairie brand grinders, but with the advent of technology, Prairie no longer makes hand crank grinders. He's been buying and refurbishing eBay grinders, which can be a bit of a crapshoot. He did end up buying two of the 'modern' grinders that I linked to in my original post, the Xion and Japanese type grinders made by a company in India. 8" and 6", respectively, for $123 (includes shipping). He said the 6" one is "nice enough," but the 8" (with bearings) he really likes.
    1-1.jpg 4-4.jpg
    The "fit and finish is surprisingly good," though not quite as good as the old Genco grinders or the German made grinders.

    He said he'll keep me updated on how they perform and get me pictures of the internals when he gets around to taking them apart. In turn, I'll update this thread when he does.

    So, if someone is looking for a high speed 8" hand crank grinder, this seems to be a good viable option.

    Further correspondence:

    "I will let you know when I take that pesky cover off…. :)

    The 8” work just fine with a 6” wheel and the shaft is 1/2” fine thread….which is much nicer than the old vintage ones that I come across.

    The gears even sound pretty okay.

    If this one is good I may order a handful and put them away for the future. You never know when this kind of thing will disappear."
    Last edited: Aug 31, 2023
    brit likes this.
  10. Jimmy White

    Jimmy White New Member

    I have several of these and absolutly love them. Anytime I see one, I pick it up.
    PLANofMAN likes this.

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