Old School Rotary Tools That Weren’t Made By Dremel

Albert Dremel developed the now famous rotary tool and started the company in 1932 to make blade sharpeners. It would be 1935 before the company produced the Moto-Tool which is mostly recognizable as an ancestor of the modern Dremel.

Dremel achieved such dominance that today the name is synonymous with rotary tools in the same way Xerox means photocopy and Crock-Pot is any slow cooker. Sure, there are knock offs you can get from the usual cheap tool outlets, but generally, people reach for a Dremel even when it isn’t really one. Today that tool might really be a Black and Decker or a Dewalt or even a cheap brand like Wen or Chicago Electric. But in the first half of the 20th century, you might have reached for a Handee.

A Whole Shop Full of Tools

The Handee was a product of the Chicago Wheel and Manufacturing Company who, in 1937, billed it as “a whole shop full of tools in one,” as you can see in this ad. While $10.75 might sound like a price for a Harbor Freight cheapie tool, adjusted for inflation that’s around $200 in 2020 money. At least for that price you got three free accessories out of the over 200 available.

I didn’t remember the Handee and I wanted to see if I could figure out what happened to it and the company who made it. After all, with the Internet at your disposal, how hard could it be? Turns out, I did learn a lot, but in the end, tracing down a company like this from the old days isn’t always as easy as you might think.

The tool seems to have a long history and I’d later learn they claimed to make them since 1933. The 13,000 RPM of the 1937 model is pretty respectable. (A modern Dremel ranges from 3,000 to 37,000 RPM.) By 1952, the tool was up to 25,000 RPM and came with 51 accessories for $27.50 (about $270 today).

They show up some on sites like eBay, so it would appear they were pretty common in their day. Also, the prices indicate there is an ample supply or — perhaps — not much demand.

Old Money

Tracking down the origins of a company like this can be tricky. Volume 76 of “Iron and Steel” reports:

The Chicago Wheel & Manufacturing Company…manufacturers of corundum and emery carborundum wheels, etc. advise us that the business of the year 1899 surpassed that of any year since they started business. Mr. Miller recently bought out the interst of Mr. Snider, who had long been associated with him.

So you can surmise that the company had been around since 1898 or probably earlier, depending on their penchant for hyperbole.

However, that little bit gave me something to look up in the “The Book of Chicagoans” from 1911. The Mr. Miller in question was Henry Edward Miller. He became a manager of the Chicago Corundum Wheel Company in 1888. In 1895 he and four partners bought the business and changed the name.

Where Are They Now?

The last reference I can find to the Chicago Wheel and Manufacturing Company is in an article in a 1967 Popular Mechanics. The last ad I can find was in a 1966 edition of the same. The Handee — “the ideal gift” — cost $26 and went up to 28,000 RPM. That ad claimed the tool had been made since 1933. It makes you wonder if Dremel, founded in 1932, had seen their tool or vice versa since they were starting at about the same time.

When you look through old magazines, you have to wonder what happened to all those companies, especially one like this that seemed to be a pretty big concern. You like to think everything is on the Internet, but in this case, there’s very little trail left of this company. Sure, we can point at a few addresses they kept over the years, and trace their ads in a few magazines, but that’s about it.

Did the company get sold? Go out of business? Maybe a Hackaday reader knows the whole story. Or, if you had a Handee, tell us about it in the comments. Meanwhile, if you want to upgrade your cheap Dremel knock off, go ahead. Or build your own, but beware: getting some motors over 12,000 RPM is going to take more than the provided 7.4V.

If this piqued your interest in old school tools, one of the pages that you’ll want to spend some time on is http://www.flamingsteel.com/my-vintage-tool-collection.php. This is where the main image for this article comes from, and is packed with vintage tools going way back.

47 thoughts on “Old School Rotary Tools That Weren’t Made By Dremel

  1. When I was in high school, I worked for my dad at a place that was a factory service center for Rodac tools. Many of Rodac tools were knockoffs of Chicago Pneumatic tools. The two companies competed on features. There first dial piston online sander was Rodac, and CP copied that design.

    Today no one has heard of Rodac. They were bought by Ingersoll Rand, only a few of the Rodac designs are still sold.

    (Rodac got in trouble copying the CP 734 impact wrench a few months before the patent on the hammer cage was over. There ended up being two externally identical versions of the Rodac 734 knockoff, one with the hydraulic hammer cage, and one with the steel hammer cage).

      1. Chicago Pneumatic is really a very high quality tool brand. Probably best for shop mechanics.

        Snap On has a good reputation because the single line trucks. Their tools are expensive, not because of super high quality, but they will offer credit to anyone.

      2. I’m pretty sure HF chose their names very carefully, purely to cause exactly this confusion: they carry Chicago Electric, and Central Pneumatic, _not_ Chicago Pneumatic, if I recall correctly.

  2. In the jewelry world, most people use Foredom rotary tools. They’re pretty robust and produce a lot more torque than a Dremel. They’re also larger/heavier, and universally used with a flexible drive from the motor, hanging over the workplace, down to a handpiece that has collets or a chuck. They’re definitely a mid- to high-end Dremel competitor that’s still going strong.

    1. My grandfather was a jewelery designer, and he always used a dentist’s drill that he had machined a set of collets for. Always been jealous of that rig.

      This was fine work, though, and not the grinding-through-a-PC-case type of things that folks tend to do with Dremels, branded or otherwise.

  3. I have an older Dremel, it has a steel storage case, but unlike the Handee in the title photo, the case has a Styrofoam mold to hold the tool and bits. I’m guessing it is from the 1960’s-70’s.

    Doesn’t Bosch own Dremel now?

  4. “Today that tool might really be a Black and Decker…”

    That’s not really so new-school either, my first rotary tool was a Black and Decker some 30+ years ago.

      1. Like a little old school drill chuck. Yes, but here is a trick to center the bit and get less wobble. Open chuck a little blow into it to remove dust, then gently tighten it to the bit. Now holding the motor firmly in one hand with the lock button pressed rotate and “stir” the bit till more slop is evened out and it gets gently but securely tightened. Now give it the force of full grip on the chuck not the bit and tighten it and et-voila! It will be centered much better than just sticking the bit in and tightening it willy nilly.This works on a drill press too!

  5. Dremel is really a success story in marketing and finding the right product for your market. Dremel tools have absolutely crap bearings and collets, not much better than the bottom of the barrel imports, but they were just good enough for the usual home gamer and with a low intro price that gets you into the dremel ecosystem of medium/low grade tools where they make most of their profit. But they have crushed the competition and like the article mentiones they have absolutely crushed the competition with their approach. Impressive really

    1. They used to be better-made though. I’m still using the one I bought as a teenager in the mid-1970’s, and they’ll pry that thing out of my cold dead hand. Back then it wasn’t only the bearings that were better. First, it had the small pin-chuck type bit holder instead of the more modern miniature drill chuck. Not as nice in some ways, but it gets into tight spaces that newer Dremels and clones won’t. Also, it had a crude speed regulator – I think it worked using the back-EMF of the motor to change the phase angle and apply a greater average voltage as the motor slowed under load. It’s SO much nicer to use than a tool that doesn’t have that feature. I suspect they eliminated it because people were abusing it and burning the tools out. Anyway, I agree that modern Dremel tools are mediocre at best, but back in the day they were pretty good IMHO.

  6. Can’t they use a BLDC type motor in these? I have a German made B&D tool about 18V DC, it’s better than a Dremel. I run it on a regulated power supply. It doesn’t rev down when under load. It has permanent magnets not series windings. Dremel used to make a PM type years ago then went back to the series design which revs way up and slows way down under load. Now we have high density magnets. The sound of a brush type series motor running on AC instead of DC is annoying at least and not efficient. These tools are used close up to your hearing and the whine is harmful. The BLDC type should have a quiet sound profile.

  7. I have several B&D RX rotary tools. They don’t seem to make them anymore. Much more torque than a Dremel and most Dremel tools and accessories can be used. The downside is that they seem to destroy their front bearings quite quickly so I bought a bunch of cheap generic sealed bearings on Ebay and I replace the bearing every so often. A hack on the RX tools is to buy the cheaper 3 speed version and remove the speed control detents. Then you have the more expensive variable speed version!

    1. I would guess you’re talking about an electric dentist’s drill, not a pneumatic one. About 40 years ago now I designed and hand-built 10 dental drill tachometers. So I know that those are normally run at a top speed of 180,000 RPM, and are capable of 300,000 RPM when given enough air.

      1. I picked up a dentist drill set on eBay for $110USD. The small tool is capable of over 400krpm. I also purchased a “low speed” handle that tops out around 150krpm IIRC. Both a pneumatic powered and a dream to use. I even use them as toolpost grinders in the lathe for making accurate parts for my high-power rockets.

  8. WEN tools is still around. Started in 1951. In the 80’s dad had a WEN electric disc grinder he used in auto body repair, and a WEN electric chainsaw.

    One day the grinder just quit. Since the chainsaw was rarely used (not at all convenient to trail an extension cord across 2 acres) I suggested that the motor from the chainsaw might work in the grinder. The armatures were physically identical!

    One armature swap later and the old grinder was whizzing along with a heck of a lot more power than it had originally, but in the opposite direction. After throwing the disc once, dad just made sure to tighten the nut *extra tight*. Never came loose again. Sold it on a yard sale some time later, of course with the tale of the armature swap, and admonition to keep the nut really tight.

  9. Ah. Dremel. Avoid if possible. I once needed a drill press for one to make holes in a pcb. The crap thing was mostly made of plastic and the side play was more than trice the width of the 0.8mm drill used. Total waste of time and money. There and then i foud out that proxxon is actually cheaper and better build. Never looked back.

    1. As I posted above, they used to come with speed regulation, back in the 70’s. And yes, it’s a serious pain to use one without that feature – that’s why I’ve kept mind and take care of it. I think they abandoned it because people were using the tools too hard and burning them out while they were still under warranty.

    2. One of my cheap knockoffs has a 0-6 speed control and it may as well just have a switch, because it has no grunt on anything but 6. IDK, maybe if I was doing some fine polishing I’d want it on 2 or 3 so the buff wheel doesn’t fly apart, but for any grindy cutty stuff it’s 6 or nothing.

  10. I’ve used all three, a Foredom in school (Did not like it.) An old dental drill, pantograph type delivery and fast. And a Dremel from around the middle Seventies. Of the three, if I had the space, I’d prefer the Dremel. I do own a Harbor Freight knock off. Which took some getting used to.

    1. I have a Sears from 1990, which seems to be an actual Dremel rebadged. Worked fine until two years ago, apparently a plastic coupler to the shaft eventually wears out. I’ve yet to find a replacement, Amazon sells a few, but third party sellers in Canada and outrageously priced.

      I did buy the optional chuck at one point, so much easier than the collets.

      Maybe ten years ago I bought a cheap knockoff, when it was on sale. I was mostly interested in the accessories, including one of those extensions. But, there is eniugh variation between the Dremel and the knockoff that the chuck doesn’t fit the knockoff, and the extension doesn’t fit the Dremel.

  11. I have a rotary tool that is very old, I don’t remember the maker, I can check later. The body is about 4″ long, brown, the collar slides down to loosen the not on the collet. The nut is round, and knurled with one hole for wrench to fit in.

  12. I knew a descendent of Mr. Miller, probably his grandson. His father had been forced to sell the Chicago Wheel company in the early 1970’s due to illness. I cannot remember the buyer. Chicago Wheel also manufactured an early electric drill in the 1940’s.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.