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Greatest Hits: PLOMB Crazy

October 5, 2009


I apologize in advance to those of you bored with the toolblogging, but if I can’t use the internets to obsess over some topic to the point of mania, I would be forced to do something productive with my time.

Another great weekend for the garage sales. Among the bounty, this lovely old tool cabinet. I called it from the car, much to the consternation of Mr. Jalopy. I didn’t realize until later that it was in fact a Snap-On brand cabinet, which caused a bit of friction, as that is strictly Hooptyrides territory. Jalopy and I subsequently came to a gentlemen’s agreement regarding future garage sale tool finds. He gets first dibs on Snap-On, and I get first dibs on Plomb. Everything else is up for grabs! Otherwise, we would be little better than savages!

Having quelled a potential mutiny aboard HMS Hoopty, I returned to the studio with my prize. It looks quite presentable after a little elbow grease and careful application of a wire wheel, having lost much grime and rust, but not a bit of wabisabi. The perfect place for my Plomb tool collection.


I’ve been going Plomb crazy since I got those two ratchets a while ago, and my collection of Plomb tools has grown exponentially. (Ebay is a dangerous place for a man with a flush bank account and poor impulse control.)


Every day it seems that the mailman delivers a box containing a dirty wrench or a clanking collection of old sockets. I’ve been spending like a drunken sailor on shore leave. Fortunately, very few STDs can be transmitted via online auction.


Why have I gone overboard with these old tools? Well, for a perversely curious person with advanced packrat syndrome, such as myself, there is no greater joy than discovering some new thing to collect. Serial numbers and model names to remember, history to uncover, objects to covet, these are truly the things that make life worth living. Allow me to share a little bit of what I have uncovered so far.

Plomb Tools started here in Los Angeles shortly after the turn of the century, making tools under the Plomb brand until 1948, when they lost the brand in a trademark dispute, and changed their name to PROTO (short for PROfessional TOols.) Just like hot rodding, they were born in L.A. and achieved an aesthetic high point just before 1950.

The tools themselves are beautifully designed examples of a certain school of industrial design that flourished between World Wars 1 and 2. Not quite Art Deco or Streamline Moderne, but comfortable within those categories, it perfectly represents a certain era in time.


Just look at that logo. “Streamlined Tools” indeed. These are two NOS boxes of 9/32″ drive 1/4 WF-11 sockets. I should have included something for scale, as these suckers are tiny. You could swallow that whole box like a piece of sushi, one gulp.


All the Plomb tools with a WF serial number were part of the “Wright Field” line of tools that Plomb manufactured for the U.S. Armed Forces. Any tools that might have been used to work on a Jeep, Sherman tank, or P-38 are tools worth having, as far as I’m concerned. You could almost say these are Nazi-killing tools, and who would have a problem with killing Nazis? Not me, brother.


Two more examples from the WF series, a 9/32″ drive hinge breaker bar, WF-7, and a 9/32″ drive ratchet, WF-8.


More WF stuff, an incomplete 3/8″ drive socket set. I’m already working on getting the missing sockets, don’t you worry. I could just imagine finding this under the seat of an old hopped-up ’40 Ford quietly rusting in a barn somewhere.

Three 3/8″ drive sockets. The bottom two are the same serial number, 5249, but different styles, and the top is a WF-21. I know Mr. Jalopy will crab that I haven’t properly cleaned these tools yet, but I was caught up in the moment.

Assorted 9/32″ drive sockets, and two HUGE 3/4″ drive sockets, a 1 7/8″ and a 2″ You could serve cocktails in these things.

Of all the stuff I’ve gotten so far, this is my favorite. A 1 1/4″ crowfoot wrench, 3/8″ drive. It’s large, about two inches across, about 3/8″ thick, and satisfyingly heavy and chunky. I’ve been carrying it around in my pocket like a rabbit’s foot ever since I got it in the mail.

Just look at the ratchet hole. A raised lip, gently rounded on the outside, with a countersunk bevelled edge on the inside. The complex shape of the inside of the wrench. These touches add absolutely nothing to the functionality of the tool, and are only there to bring a little beauty to an otherwise utilitarian object.

How can something so simple and seemingly prosaic be so beautiful? If I saw this crowfoot wrench reproduced at a massive scale, inside MOMA resting on a pedestal, it would seem perfectly at home.

Update: Hmmm… one of my readers, Bret Haller, emailed to say that he believes the tool box is in fact a Craftsman, and I tend to think he knows what he’s talking about, since he nailed the year of production, 1975, which was stamped on the inside. I guess Mr. Jalopy isn’t quite the Snap-On expert he claims to be…

3 comments

  1. 9/32″?

    … why?

    1/4″ too simple for people back then?

    Is there some Real No Shit Advantage to that extra 1/32″, but everyone stopped using it anyway? Or what?


  2. The explanation I was given was that it was to discourage folks from swiping the military-issue stuff for their home tool chests.


  3. talking about the crowfoot wrench, all the details you mention seem completely functional to me: the bevel edge makes the square drive easier to engage, the rounded edges since it is a hand tool, the raised lip could be for full thickness engagement in the drive or easier fitting in blind spaces, and the details in the jaw as i would think there were more square nuts used in that size back then.
    Just the ramblings of a design nerd.



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