Saturday, October 19, 2013

Vanished Tool Makers: Wolf Electric Tools, London, England

Years ago, I was visiting my parents at their cottage in the Muskokas and they asked me to take some garbage to the local dump.  I happened to see an old electric drill hanging from its cord on a fence, so I took it, thinking I could at least use the chuck.  It turned out to be made by Wolf Electric Tools from London, England.  I'd never encountered a British-made electric drill before. A little TLC and a new cord, and it ran perfectly.



The eponymous Wolf Tools was founded by S. Wolf in 1900, opening their Pioneer Works in Hangar Lane in 1935.  They initially produced large cast woodworking power tools and at at one time had a Royal Seal for being suppliers to the British Court. They produced their first DIY electric drill, the "Cub," in 1949, before Black and Decker had even entered the British market. Below, a Wolf "Cub Master" that was being advertised on Kijiji:




By the 1970's, they made a variety of power tools, such as the Wolf PH3 Portable Planer



In 1978, they employed 850 people.   The company was purchased by Kango Tools Ltd. out of Peterborough, England in the 1980's. The Wolf name disappeared as the Kango line was "rationalized," as the euphemism goes.  Kango was acquired in turn by Atlas-Copco.  In the early 2000's, Kango was sold to a Hong Kong firm, TI.  The Wolf factory in London is long since gone, although imitations of their products may have been made under license by a firm in India.  

There's an interesting side-story concerning Wolf Electric Tools and Australia's youngest winner of the Victoria Cross:  Frank Partridge, VC.

12 comments:

betula56 said...

My interest, or maybe fascination with Wolf, during primarily the Hangar Lane era, began when I acquired a second-hand Wolf Cub in the late 50s, and promptly burned it out!
I discovered that the radial commutator design was the weak point and tried, unsuccessfully at the time to fix it....
I found out much later from the designer of said commutator, himself moved to comment on a post, now disappeared, that his initial design was sound, but the 'Bean Counters' at Wolf had rejected it on grounds of cost.... and so I, a small boy, had been punished by this cruel cost cutting exercise!
By this time, Wolf Electric Tools, as they were known, had been producing a wide range of robust and reliable industrial grade power tools.
The decision, with the ‘Cub’ and its quirky, wonderful, but completely bonkers set of underpowered attachments, to move into the mass market of keenly priced DIY tools, where margins were low and volumes high, probably signalled the beginning of the end.
Wolf always had had a reputation for quality, and this ethos persisted through the sixties and early seventies. During this era, as well as Wolf’s pioneering quest for electrical safety, a series of innovative designs which brought plastics to the fore and initiated the use of epoxy resin insulation, made the product, in some ways, almost indestructible….certainly by the standards of their competitors!
However, these improvements were bought at a cost, reflected in the RRP of the finished product, and the average DIY bod just wanted an inexpensive drill to make a few holes in the wall, or possibly sand that polyester resin they had daubed on their rusting mini sills!!
How long the tool lasted wasn’t their first consideration.
Anyone who owned one of the Sapphire range of power tools of that era may well testify to their almost frightening power, (certainly caught me out a few times) and their general reliability.
That, sadly didn’t count for much when heavy marketing and cheapness ruled the roost,…. Sure, we could say that this is just another example of harsh, yet necessary, market forces in operation……or is it really that simple?

J G Pelham said...

A Wolf RS10A portable electric saw recently came into my possession and i'm going to restore it. It looks like a very well built tool. http://www.woodworkforums.com/f13/restoration-wolf-rs10a-10-circular-203215

Unknown said...

I became a trainee powertool fitter in 1983 and was sent on a repair and service course to the hanger lane factory, by this time kango had been incorporated. the factory was a very big old place but well run with a great canteen, sadly it has now been demolished and i think a branch of Wickes is on the site.

Anonymous said...

My Dad worked at Wolf Electric tools until he retired in 1985. He was registered blind but still managed successfully to operate a Cincinnati lathe, milling parts for drills. I used to collect him from work on my way home from school. The company looked after him very well and I think he was always grateful that they employed him given his disability.
Mr Wolf provided children of employees with an annual Christmas party or a trip to Richmond theatre to see a pantomime for older children.

Peter McConnell said...

I am most interested in reading about Wolf Tool as my family business Engineering Supplies (Ireland) Ltd in Belfast N.Ireland were the main distributers for these products,it had quite a range of tools including a Points Grinder for the old fashioned distributers of the then cars. We sold the complete range. The introduction of the Sapphire Range was a great leap forward and indeed I still own and use my 3/8" Sapphire 110volt drill which is very powerful and reliable. I use it often. We sold a lot of the Cub drills and a variety of accessories including drill stands,table saws,jig saws etc. They were indeed in the front of the DIY market. These Cub's were sometimes tried for production use and of course failed miserably. We refused to replace such mis-used machines under warranty!!
I loved the Company and their support was great,one of my favourites.
So sorry to hear of its expected surmise due to eventual mass production in Japan etc.
I think my Sapphire will outlast me as I am now 84.
Thanks Wolf
Peter McConnell Oakville Ontario

Brian Leahy said...

I have a half inch Wolf Ex Post Office drill that I bought when Mays had a used equipment shop in Abingdon about fifty years ago and its still going strong.
Am I right in believing that Wolf no longer exists as a production organisation?
BML

The Duke said...

Yep, they're history now. Hang onto your drill--they don't make them like that anymore.

Onja Pfister said...

Heb gewerkt in buitendienst bij Wolf in Zoetermeer ,was klein in NLen moeilijk er waren te weinig financiele middelen Ben 2 weken cursus geweest op de oude fabriek inLonden heel oude troep met grote kantine met afdelingen voor verschillend functies ,alles gescheiden de direktie had bediening . Heb het een jaar volgehouden.Blij dat ik kon vertrekken.

The Duke said...

Bedankt hiervoor.

Anonymous said...

Some Good posts on here. I worked at the Hanger Lane factory between 1973-78 serving an apprenticeship which covered work experience throughout all the departments of the factory. I worked in the coil winding, gear cutting, multi-spindle autos, maintenance, electrical testing and the Toolroom. When i worked there they produced the Sapphire range with durable plastic casings and double insulation, they were a great well made product. I beleive they also had other factories in Canada India Ausralia Africa. I vaguely remember the blind mill operator, along with other disabled workers who were also employed there. Soon after I left I think they started rebadging products from elswhere and it was not long after they were taken over by Kango and then soon ceased to exist. I got the feeling it was an asset stripping exercise. I found them to be a well organised professional company with a strong sense of commitment and fairness to their employees. And maybe this reflected in their products, sadly this ethic now seems lacking in engineering. Where I used to work is now a MacDonalds,- says it all really.

Tony Griffiths said...

I've just discovered, amongst my machine-tool catalogues, a rather fine, very large (A2) fold-out advertising sheet for the Wolf valve grinder - a rather special one, the top-of-the-range SR54 introduced in 1954.
You can see it here: http://www.lathes.co.uk/wolf-valve-grinder

The Duke said...

Thanks for this additional information. Your history of the firm is far more comprehensive than mine. That valve grinder is a beautiful tool (and you did a great job on scanning the pamphlet)!