Saturday, August 20, 2011

Allen Wrench Lament

You know how you tell yourself you will never do a something again then do it anyway then curse yourself for doing it again? It’s like dating. You have a bad date, then swear you will never date again, and the next thing you know you are telling your life story to a guy who apparently has not brushed his teeth since the Clinton administration while still wondering if you will get any at the end of the evening, providing you don’t have to kiss him.

This is how I feel about assembling furniture. I keep telling myself I will never buy another piece of furniture requiring the use of an Allen wrench, yet I keep buying such furniture. I don’t know why.

I remember my mother buying a chrome and glass dining room table in 1973, and my father cursing for hours about having to assemble it. What was worse was that after watching my father spend eight hours assembling it, we had to spend the next twelve years looking at that monstrosity. Imagine a square chrome table with a large glass top and chrome director’s chairs with black vinyl seats and backs. Imagine it sitting on orange shag carpet. Yes, you went blind a second too late.  

Of course, my father, who at one time was a TV repairman, never assembled anything without either ending up with extra parts or missing parts. The man could never follow directions. Our own TV required a matchbook wedged between the tuner and the cabinet, so we could get good reception – did I mention he was a TV repairman? Our antenna was in the attic rather than on the roof – something that to this day, I will never understand. I remember my brother crawling up there to adjust it and our praying he wouldn’t fall through the ceiling. I am claustrophobic, so I never went into the attic.

I am the opposite when it comes to assembling things. I can look at a diagram once and put any furniture together and have no missing or extra parts … but that doesn’t mean I enjoy it. My parents bought my Aunt Flossie an entertainment center when she moved into her condo, and my father proceeded to help me put it together. I ordered everyone to go out to get dinner, and when they returned, I had the whole thing assembled. But, I didn’t enjoy it. I wonder where that entertainment center is today.

So when I bought my first home, I told myself all my present furniture would fit and there was no reason to assemble anything new. Famous last words. Had I learned nothing from Lucy Ricardo? The woman had more living room sets than any other housewife on television – five. And remember Betty Ramsey helping her buy $5,000 worth of furniture? This was after Lucy bought back her old furniture from the new tenants who wanted to saw and paint everything when the Ricardos moved from their apartment to the house in Connecticut.

When I moved to Florida, I schlepped (or is it shlept?) all my furniture only to realize that what I spent on moving it could have been better spent buying new stuff for my new home. When I moved to D.C. from Florida, I sold everything and started fresh. When I moved to Rockville, I made the mistake of buying stuff before the move, only to have to change and get rid of so much when I got there.

Now, with the house, I already told you how none of my office furniture fit and ended up on the curb the afternoon of the move. I also decided not to bring my bedroom furniture. One of the movers took it for his own home. Apparently, he liked early American discount crap. I bought that set from one of those furniture stores where they scream at you on their commercials. “NATIONWIDE WAREHOUSE … COME ON DOWN! WE HAVE BEDROOMS FOR $200! COMPLETE!”

Then, after sitting at my dining room table for breakfast the first morning, a table I spent months trying to find in 2007, I realized it was a tad too large for the space, since I banged my knees trying to sit and my head when I stood up. It was also too large for the Rockville apartment, but this was one of those things I had put together when it arrived, so I kept it anyway. Mrs. M’s sister-in-law liked it, so it became hers, and I ordered a new one, small and square.

I did keep my hideous entertainment unit from Ikea and put it in the bedroom. The only reason is because of all the crap I have assembled over the years, this one had the most parts and took the longest, so I refuse to get rid of it. It now holds my menorahs. Some of my friends hope it goes up in flames during Hanukah. It is that ugly.

When the new table, pantry cabinet, dressers for the bedroom, night stand, étagère and a few other items were delivered, they all needed assembling. What fun. First I opened the boxes only to have to deal with an avalanche of Styrofoam. I hate Styrofoam. Have you ever tried vacuuming up Styrofoam? I think I will be finding those Styrofoam popcorn balls all over the house for the rest of my life.

I am very meticulous – some call it anal – so after dealing with the non-biodegradable snow, I put all the parts on the floor, emptied all the nuts, bolts and washers into a bowl (this keeps you from losing any – I told you this was part advice blog!), and read the instructions from beginning to end. Then I noticed the one thing I wish they wouldn’t include – the dreaded Allen wrench.

Why God? Why? Why must they use Allen wrenches? I have an electric screwdriver. I have a tool box with all kinds of useful tools. I also have all the Allen wrenches from my past furniture assembling experiences, and do you know what bothers me more than anything? None of those goddam Allen wrenches fit anything but the furniture they came with. It is a right-wing conspiracy!

Allen wrenches hurt. They always put the screws where you can’t get a full turn of the Allen wrench, so you have to keep pulling it out and doing half turns. And they strip easily. Why, why, why have I not learned my lesson?

Buy assembled furniture, you moron! I am the moron, not you.

A friend of mine suggested I buy blow-up furniture. But why should the furniture have all the fun?

Oh sure, I can assemble this stuff in record time (I know I brag about this, but I have so few talents ...), but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating … or painful.

But I had to know. Where the fuck does the Allen wrench originate? Forgive my French. I know wrench isn't French. What sadistic bastard invented this tool from the fiery pits of hell? Oh wait, Jews don’t believe in hell. So it must be the fiery pits of West Palm Beach – the armpit of Florida. I know I will get mail about that one. That’s OK; the Post Office needs the business.

I assembled all the furniture in no time at all, and as usual, there were no extra or missing parts. It all looks lovely if you ask me, but who asked me.

After vacuuming up the popcorn balls and taking the boxes to the recycling center, I decided to do some research. And apparently, some guy wrote about Allen wrenches in his memoir? Seriously? I wonder if it was a bestseller? Read on:

A hex key, Allen key, or Allen wrench is a tool of hexagonal cross-section used to drive bolts and screws that have a hexagonal socket in the head (internal-wrenching hexagon drive).


·         The tool is simple, small and light.

·         The contact surfaces of the screw or bolt are protected from external damage.

·         There are six contact surfaces between bolt and driver.

·         The tool can be used with a headless screw.

·         The screw can be inserted into its hole using the key.

·         Torque is constrained by the length and thickness of the key.

·         Very small bolt heads can be accommodated.

·         The tool can be manufactured very cheaply, so one is often included with products requiring end-user assembly.

·         Either end of the tool can be used to take advantage of reach or torque.

The idea of a hex socket screw drive was first conceived around the 1860s through 1890s, but such screws were not manufactured until around 1911.  There was a flurry of patents for alternative drive types in the 1860s through 1890s in the United States, which are confirmed to include internal-wrenching square and triangle types. P. L. Robertson, of Milton, Ontario, Canada (what a lovely name for a town), first commercialized the square socket in 1908, having perfected a manufacturing method. The first manufacture of an internal-wrenching hexagon drive of which records have surfaced is that of circa 1911 by the Standard Pressed Steel Company (SPS), then of Philadelphia, later of Jenkintown, Pennsylvania (the predecessor corporation to today’s SPS Technologies, Inc.). SPS had sourced set screws of square-socket drive from England, but they were very expensive. H. T. Hallowell, Sr., founder of SPS, in his memoir (1951) says that “[for] a while we experimented with a screw containing a square hole like the English screw but soon found these would not be acceptable in this country. Then we decided to incorporate a hexagon socket into the screw.” Soon after SPS had begun producing the hex socket head set screw, Hallowell had the idea to make a hex socket head cap screw (SHCS). Hallowell said, “Up to this moment none of us had ever seen a socket head cap screw, and what I am about to relate concerns what I believe was the first socket head cap screw ever made in this country.” SPS gave their line of screws the Unbrako brand name, chosen for its echoing of the word unbreakable.

Hallowell said that acceptance of the internal-wrenching hexagon drive was slow at first (painfully slow for SPS’s sales), but that it eventually caught on quite strongly. This adoption occurred first in tool and die work and later in other manufacturing fields such as defense (aircraft, tanks, submarines), civilian aircraft, automobiles, bicycles, furniture, and others.

World War II, with its unprecedented push for industrial production of every kind, is probably the event that first put most laypersons in contact with the internal-wrenching hexagon drive. Popular Science magazine would note in 1946 that “Cap screws and setscrews with heads recessed to take hexagonal-bar wrenches are coming into increasing use.” As Hallowell explained, the dissemination of the wrenches somewhat lagged behind the adoption of the fasteners. The shortfall in distribution against a background of gigantic wartime demand might have created a partial vacuum in the market.

The Allen wrench trademark of the Allen Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, was taken out in 1943, and Allen became such a successful brand of hex key that many consumers in subsequent decades have assumed (reasonably but incorrectly) that the internal-wrenching hexagon drive was invented by someone named Allen.

It appears that the internal-wrenching hexagon drive may have been independently reinvented in various countries. At the least, it was patented in various countries by various patentees, and its name varies. For example, in various European countries, it is known by the name Inbus, after the company that patented them in Germany in 1936, Bauer und Schaurte of Neuss. Similarly, there is another name in Italian (brugola), stemming from an Italian company’s name.

I decided to get one of those folding Allen wrench sets where they are all connected and you can use the holder to twist the wrench. It is too bad I have sworn off anything needing assembly … for now.

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