Tag Archives: boston

Sharpener Shootout : APSCO vs. the Ranger 55

21 Sep

I have now heaped praise and rosy commentary on two sharpeners, my APSCO single hole sharpener and my Boston Ranger 55. The APSCO was tested with four different pencils and they turned out somewhere between terrible and bad. Three General’s Semi-Hex pencils were fed into the Ranger 55 and the results were finally something you could write home about. Now I would like to use the same make/model of pencils in both sharpeners and compare the results. I’ll also do a comparison of the cutters and the operation of the two sharpeners.

For the sharpening test I will go back to the General’s Semi-Hex pencils. These pencils are made of California Incense Cedar in the US. They are a step above the typical cheap Chinese pencil available in bulk at the local office supply store but they are not so upscale that they are a luxury product. I would consider them “good pencils” for someone who is looking for “quality”. These pencils are for people who don’t buy the cheapest option because you may get what you pay for but also won’t go premium because they may think they overpaid for what they want.

I set the tip adjustment on the Ranger 55 to M(edium), sharpened a General’s Semi-Hex, and then sharpened another General’s Semi-Hex on the APSCO. Here are the results.

The top pencil is from the Boston Ranger 55 and the bottom pencil is from the APSCO.

Both pencils came out generally centered and the tips are as pointed as should be expected. The wood on the bottom General from the APSCO looks a bit more textured like an orange peel compared to the pencil on top from the Ranger 55 which looks considerably smoother. I would say that the bottom General is similar in appearance to what we saw previously with the Mexican made Dixon Ticonderoga.

There is some tearing of the wood near the end of its tapering where the pencil transitions to the lead – more so on the APSCO sharpened pencil than the Ranger 55 sharpened pencil. It’s also interesting to examine the lead tip itself very closely.

The tips look somewhat rough and chiseled. Can you almost imagine the cutters spinning around and scraping away the lead? The cutters hit the lead according to the spacing of the individual blade and it flattens the lead. Where there is a gap between the individual blades nothing happens. Hence we get that chiseled look. If there were more cutting blades on the helical assembly then our chiseled look would be less pronounced. Do the blades have somewhat irregular surfaces and heights along their length? In some points along the blade the cutters must dig in more and in others they might dig in less. Maybe some of the blade is even chipped away?

Let’s start examining the cutters on both sharpeners.

The Boston Ranger 55 cutters are on the left and the APSCO cutters on the right. Please note the scale on the measuring tape. Inches are on top and centimeters are on the bottom.

You’ll have to excuse my photography. It was difficult to capture the cutters without making shadows. Both sharpeners are screwed onto my desk so I need to perform some serious yoga to get in position for the pictures.

Let me begin by counting the blades. There are 16 cutting spiral blades on the Ranger compared to the 12 on the APSCO. The gear ratios between the inner frame gear and the gears on the cutters are the same on both sharpeners. There are 24 teeth on the frame gear and 11 teeth on the cutter’s gears. One revolution of the crank will make the cutters turn:

Gear ratio = 24 teeth ÷ 11 teeth ≈ 2.182 times.

I sharpen my pencils by turning the crank on average at approximately 2.333 rotations per second (RPS). Yes, I did time myself and it’s not hard. Just turn the crank for 15 seconds and count the number of times you turned. Divide the number of turns you counted by 15 and that’s your rotating speed. With a gear ratio of 2.182 times, the cutters turn at:

Cutter revolutions per crank turn = 2.182 times × 2.333 RPS ≈ 5.091 RPS.

Assuming it takes around 15 seconds to sharpen a squared off pencil to a point, the Ranger will have performed:

Ranger cutting operations = 5.091 cutter RPS × 15 seconds × 16 spirals = 1221.84 cutting operations.

The APSCO, with everything the same except for the number of spiral cutting blades performs a lot less cutting operations.

APSCO cutting operations  = 5.091 cutter RPS × 15 seconds × 12 spirals = 916.38 cutting operations.

What a difference! The APSCO misses out on 305.46 cuts over 15 seconds. To make up for this you would think that the APSCO would take longer to sharpen the same pencil but it doesn’t seem to. I’m sure there are differences in each instance of how I hold the pencil, how much force I use, etc but there is no noticeable difference in sharpening time between the two sharpeners. Having fewer cuts in a sharpening cycle is like using rougher sandpaper in a woodworking project. That could explain the texture of the wood on the APSCO sharpened pencil being rougher.

Now let’s zoom in on the blades and look at the blade surfaces. Maybe we can explain the rough tip textures. Let’s start with the Ranger 55.

You don’t even need to zoom in far to see the chips in the cutter blade surfaces. Just for the heck of it, let’s really zoom in! 🙂

It looks like someone punched out some bits of the steel along the cutter length. Strong stiff steel can be brittle. Are we seeing that here? Perhaps. The steel could have been softened but then it’s life expectancy would be lower. How does the APSCO look?

You don’t need to zoom in to see that there are no chips along the blade but the blades are about as straight as a road paved by a drunk in some places. Let’s zoom in more.

In some places, especially in the left hand side of the picture the blade is wider and in others it is narrower. Look closely and you’ll see in some places it tends to meander. This is in contrast to the Ranger 55 cutters which may have been chipped but they were uniform and straight. I think it’s these kind of imperfections that tend to rip wood and roughen up tips.

The assembly of the sharpeners is different too. Going back to the side by side picture of the cutters of the two sharpeners you can see that the cutters in the Ranger are supported at two points in the frame. The APSCO is supported at only one side. You can remove the handle of the Ranger and the cutters stay in place but the handle on the APSCO is what holds everything together. The APSCO is definitely a lot less sturdy in that regard. It is also interesting to note the gear design in the frames.

The Boston Ranger 55 is shown on the left and the APSCO is shown on the right.

The gear in the Ranger 55 is an integral part of the frame. It’s cast as right into it. The APSCO gear is a separate ring that is crimped into the frame. Both designs have their pros and cons. It just depends on what you want. The Ranger 55’s integral cast gear makes for a sturdy design. But, should the gear wear out then it is harder to replace half of the frame than a simple crimped in ring. To help with the wear issue, the Ranger 55 uses softer brass for the cutter’s gears. Those gears would wear out against the hard steel frame gear. The user would then have to replace the cutters as a whole which may be easier than replacing half of the frame. The APSCO could allow for a more universally adaptable design. Different sharpeners could use different cutters which may require a different gear ratio. The frame is universal so just make a new ring and crimp it in place. Done! Replacing the cutters is easier too. Just unscrew the handle and the cutters pop right out. But, the ring fits loosely and it does have some slop in it. It is necessary because the collection can is rather rigidly attached to the frame in comparison to the cutters and the frame gear. The system needs to be able to realign itself with the hole in the collection can since that hole can’t shift. The result is only one point of support for the cutters and the cutters wobble around with the ring.

Obviously, both sharpeners work but both produce a different quality of cut. Neither one is perfect but perhaps we are looking at this too closely. If you looked at your hands under a microscope even after you washed them you would see that the surface is teaming with bacteria. Under your fingernails would be a colony of vermin and disease! Yet, at some point we say our hands are clean enough and we move on. I think that’s what we have here. In my opinion, with all of its imperfections the Ranger 55 produced a superior cut. As a fan of pencils and sharpeners, I prefer the design, construction, and quality of the Ranger 55. It’s a premium product for a premium lifestyle for sure. If all you want is a sharpened pencil, like for kids to use in projects at school or home, then the APSCO may be your workhorse of choice. It can be abused, overused, and neglected yet it will still work. Think of it like a farmers old truck that smokes and sputters. It may do all that but it will work forever! The sharpener is cheap and readily available on eBay. Perhaps it’s good to have both and use them differently. Coloring pencils and cheap Chinese hardwood pencils go to the APSCO. The Generals, Palmominos, and Tombows go to the Ranger 55.

What do you think?

The Legendary Boston Ranger 55 – Part II

12 Sep

Probably the single most important quality of the Boston Ranger 55 is it’s ability to brilliantly sharpen a pencil to three different levels of sharpness with nothing more required from the user than to flick a lever and turn a crank. The Ranger 55 was not the first sharpener to offer the ability of choosing the sharpness of a pencil point. Inventors had been tackling this challenge since the 1800s. Some people want a super fine tip for detailed work with their light touch. Others, like myself, prefer a duller tip that is less fragile because our hands are heavier. Most of the ideas people came up with to selectively sharpen a pencil seem complicated and medieval compared to today’s working knowledge. The early sharpeners would have some strange system of angling and rotating the pencil against a grinding disc. Helical rotating sharpeners used complicated steps to change the spacing of the cutters and used additional auxiliary blades. What the inventors of the Ranger 55 did was essentially what Apple did with the iPod. There were lots of portable digital music players before the iPod but the user experience was clunky and harsh. Apple recognized the opportunity to offer a unified hardware/software/service experience back in the late 90s and early 2000s when no one else did. Within 10 years the iPod did to CDs what CDs did to vinyl. So, Apple wasn’t the first to make a portable digital music player. They simply did it better.

Anyone who follows that kind of path to success stands on the shoulders of those who fell before them. Creative Labs and Diamond Multimedia all had media players before the iPod was introduced but neither are around today in any significant force despite their initial success. We can trace a similar story of sharpeners. Many tried to do what the Ranger 55 does. Unfortunately, they disappeared in the pencil dust left behind by the Ranger 55.

Let’s begin with US patent 839,806 issued January 1st, 1907 to Frederick Edward Vesey Baines of Great Britain. Baines placed an adjustable stop pin in the path of the pencil as it is fed forward. Once the tip reaches the edge of the pin, the pencil can no longer be sharpened. With the pin all the way toward the sharpener frame, the pencil can be fed further which results in a narrower and finer tip. More of the cutters cut away at the pencil. With the pin all the way away from the frame, the pencil feeding is limited and the tip is blunter. This is a fine idea except the adjustment of the pin must be done inside the sharpener with the collection can removed. The pin does not have any preset stops so getting a repeatable setting is not always possible. Still, this was a good first step.

A significant leap was shown in US patent 2,438,628 which was granted on March 30th, 1948 to John A. Yerkes of the USA. Yerkes moved the adjustment of the stop mechanism to the outside of the sharpener. There is now a massive geared lever that allows the user to select the tip quality. The stop pin is now a stop blade that sits between the rotating helical cutters. In addition to stopping the pencil it also cuts and scrapes the pencil tip. While this effort should be applauded, there are two complications here. First is the massive geared lever mechanism. By sticking out so much I see it as something that could get damaged during operation, especially in a school setting. Second is the mounting of the blade. It sits between the two closely spaced cutters and it is supported from a shaft which sits in front of them. There is a good possibility that the blade could get caught between the cutters and chew up the system.

Yerkes’ idea was simplified by Edwin J. Markvart of the US who was granted US patent 2,571,738 on October 16th, 1951. Markvart changed the sharpness adjustment mechanism from a geared lever to a rotatable knob which moves a similar auxiliary blade back and forth. The knob isn’t what we know of on the Ranger 55. This knob allows for an infinitely adjustable blade between two extremes. Markvart filed a variation on the patent which replaces the auxiliary blade with a more simple stop pin. It’s operation is similar to what we see in Baines’ patent. That patent is US 2,572,875. Personally, I don’t see the novelty here. Using a stop pin is what I would call prior art. Maybe the patent examiner thought otherwise during the review process. Whatever the case, there is still something in between the primary cutters that I can see getting jammed. Markvart even accounts for this by saying that the auxiliary blade is of a softer steel than the primary cutters. Being softer would mean that the auxiliary blade would be self-sacrificial in the case of a jam and the primary cutters should escape unscathed.

And here is where the C. Howard Hunt Pen Company of Camden, New Jersey pulled an Apple. On January 7th, 1958, the company was granted US patent 2,818,834 which describes “an improvement in a pencil sharpener and, more particularly, relates to the provision of a pencil sharpener having a novel stop.” The patent lists two inventors, Horace Keech and Donald Lehr. Keech and Lehr first took the stop mechanism from Baines and Markvart’s second patent. Secondly, they combined that with with the crank mounted adjustment idea of Markvart’s first and second patents along with the preset adjustment positions of Yerkes. Thirdly, they added a simple three position spring loaded cam mechanism which adjusts the position of the stop. This cam has three positions: B(lunt), M(edium), and F(ine). Yearkes’ 10 positions looks impressive but how useful are they? Having the three positions answers the question of what would 90% of the users want 90% of the time. Good enough! Think about this way. How many software programs have you tried only to be frustrated with because they were too complicated for what you wanted to accomplish?

Here is a close up of the stop pin in the Boston Ranger 55 at three locations. Left - B(lunt), Middle - M(edium), Right - F(ine).

The simplicity of the sharpness selection coupled with the mechanical reliability of a single set of cutters doing all the work in a sturdy housing was the first half of the formula of success. The second half comes from the quality of the tip. Let the pencils speak for themselves.

Top to bottom: three pencils sharpened by the Boston Ranger 55 at B(lunt), M(edium), and F(ine) settings.

For the above photograph I sharpened three General’s Semi-Hex HB pencils. The difference between the point shapes and sharpness are obvious to see. Would anyone argue that they need something blunter or something in between the steps we see above? If you need something blunter than B(lunt) then get a piece of scratch paper and doodle a bit. If you need something in between the steps then start with closest setting and doodle down that tip. Or, use a prism pencil sharpener. I think for the most part these three settings and the resulting tips provide plenty of versatility. At the B(lunt) setting, the Ranger 55 does not allow the pencil to feed far enough to get the pin point tip that we see on the bottom pencil which was set to F(ine).

Keech and Lehr probably had no idea what their idea would have spawned. Did they ever think their sharpener would be sought after as a classic collectible on eBay? Would they have predicted how many thousands, or maybe even millions, of school children would sharpen their pencils using their designs? The Keech and Lehr patent was filed on December 17th, 1954 and the first commercial use of the “Ranger 55” name was January 25th, 1955 (hence the “55”). That makes this sharpener design 60+ years old.

Once the patent is filed, the invention is protected. The inventors can release the product while the patent is being reviewed (known as “patent pending”). At worst the patent is rejected and the application becomes public domain along with the design (which is what happens when the patent expires). Otherwise, once granted, the invention is protected for a period of time, which I thought was 17 years from the date of issue depending on the type of patent. So, from 1958 to 1975 nobody else can copy the design verbatim. After that the patent enters the public domain and anyone and everyone is free to make their own Ranger 55 under a different trademark name. The rationale here is that the state of the art should have advanced beyond Keech and Lehr’s design and it’s just common knowledge by now. The Boston Ranger 55 sold by X-Acto today is basically a public domain design unless they introduced something new. It’s interesting to note that the general design of the Ranger 55 was dreamed up seven years before the patent was even filed. Design patent 152,554 shows an interesting Ranger 55-ish looking sharpener with a hole selection ring embedded inside the frame.

And so the designs of Baines, Yerkes, and Markvart fade to the dusty corners of inventions past. Their designs as-is never made a splash like the Ranger 55 and their names run the risk of being quickly forgotten. Hopefully this blog entry will revive their names, if even for a few minutes, so that they and their contributions are not totally forgotten.

The Legendary Boston Ranger 55 – Part I

9 Sep

The American made Boston Ranger 55 of the past is almost legendary. A quick glance on eBay helps to confirm this. At the time of writing this blog entry there aren’t too many completed auctions to sift through but enough to give us a feel. Used units can run as high as $30, which can be equal to or more than what the new X-Acto version of this sharpener retails for. New-old-stock units could run as high as $80 which is significant. There are lots of other “old” things on eBay, especially “old” pencil sharpeners and they don’t reach these prices. Why? Because nobody wants them. But, for some reason, people want these Ranger 55 units!

Perhaps it’s just nostalgia. I think a large majority of people used one of these sharpeners during their school years. Sharpening a pencil was an excuse for a break and a good reason to get up. We put the dull old pencil in the sharpener and after a few cranks we get a shiny new one (although it’s a bit shorter than before). The process of creating a tip and molding something sharp was satisfying back then and the memory of it today even more so when we consider just how virtual and digital our world is. I think people are hungering for something physical and mechanical today.

We could also consider that the sharpener was a prominent symbol of American power. Think of it this way. A large part of America was developed after WWII by some very hard working intelligent people who had brilliant ideas. With a pencil, a piece of paper (or two.. or three), and a sharpener great people with even greater minds designed transistors, aircraft, automobiles, and homes. Yes, a majority of that was done with a pencil writing on paper with a sharpener of some sort near by. There was no computer or fancy Texas Instruments electronic calculator. Once production of the basic tools like pencils, paper, and sharpeners went off-shore it was sort of like the original American spirit went with them. Sure, we have computers, tablets, and fancy monitors but a lot of times the new instruments add a layer of isolation between the designer and the product. You may know something but do you feel it?

We live in a much more global environment today. Materials come from one place to be transformed into something else at another place. That newly transformed material goes to a second place where something is added. The process continues and pretty soon you have a global product but you don’t know where it came from, who built it, and to what standard. China is probably the only country in the world who can still build something from raw materials to finished product. That capability is what gives China it’s symbol of strength and what many economists fear.

Lastly, the design of the sharpener makes it a classic. The sharpener is big, heavy, and made almost entirely of metal. It’s sole plastic component is the crank handle grip and I’m sure that using plastic back then was “cool” and “high tech” compared to the “old” wooden handle grips. The shapes, contours, and lines that make up the Ranger 55 are all very smooth and pleasing. There are no rough edges. Everything is beveled and rounded. Nothing sticks out funny. Nor does anything rattle and shake other than the collection can so it can be removed for emptying. In some ways, I think it is was an iPad or iPhone of it’s time. It meant to be a beautiful, functional, and durable product. This design was meant to change the way you looked at a manual pencil sharpener. Compare that to today’s expectation where we know that people get bored with things and throw them away. After a two year cell phone contract, the provider expects you to upgrade to something new. Clothes are flimsy because designers know that you’ll toss today’s fashions for next years new colors. Computers need to be cycled through regularly to keep pace with the ever increasing complexity of new software. Probably the only thing you can keep for 10+ years is a car most people trade up (or down) within 5 to 7 years. Our life is disposable today. The only thing disposable about this sharpener is the pencil dust.