Alloy Artifacts  

Lea Way Hand Tool Corporation (Taiwan)


Table of Contents

Introduction

The Lea Way Hand Tool Corporation operates in Taiwan as a maker of hand tools and is best known for its "GearWrench" line of ratcheting box-end wrenches, introduced in 1996.

Although Alloy Artifacts is primarily interested in older tools from the early years of the Automobile Age, the development of GearWrench provides an interesting example of how significant innovation can be delivered even in a mature industry.


Company History

The history of the hand tool industry in Taiwan begins with the Ruey Yang Tool Manufacturing Corporation, founded in 1965 by Kirk Koo Chow, a legendary figure in Taiwan. Ruey Yang operated in Taichung, Taiwan as a maker of hand tools, including sockets and ratchets. The tool industry in Taiwan grew rapidly in the late 1960s and 1970s, and Taichung became a hotbed of innovation, with hundreds of small firms providing specialized goods and services. (For background information on Taiwan's tool industry, our References section has a link to an interesting article in Taiwan Today.)

The National Hand Tool Corporation

In the late 1970s Kirk Chow saw a business opportunity in the United States and in 1978 founded the National Hand Tool Corporation (NHT) in Dallas, Texas. By this time Chow was president of Chiro Tool in Taiwan and owned SATA Tools in Shanghai, China in addition to his holdings in Ruey Yang.

With extensive tool production facilities in Asia, Chow planned to import partially formed tools from Asia and finish them in the NHT factory, in order to avoid paying import duties. The tools imported by NHT included socket wrenches, sockets and drive tools, hammers, screwdrivers, and crowbars, which were then distributed throughout the United States.

As an aside, NHT's plan to avoid import duties was not legal under US Customs regulations, as the changes made in finishing the tools were not considered as a "substantial transformation" for the purpose of avoiding duties and a country-of-origin marking. In 1993 US Customs sued Kirk Chow for unpaid duties and penalties, but due to administrative errors on the part of Customs, Chow won dismissal of the suit on procedural grounds. We've added a link to the court case in the References section, and it makes a good read for anyone who enjoys an occasional bit of legal drama.

Once the NHT factory was up and running, Kirk Chow was presented with some additional opportunities. By the mid 1980s some of the older tool companies in the US were failing, and in 1984 National Hand Tool was able to acquire New Britain Machine, including its production equipment, tooling, and the rights to its trademarks Husky, Blackhawk, New Britain, and others. NHT moved New Britain's equipment and tooling to Dallas and put at least some Husky and Blackhawk tools back into production.

In addition to New Britain, NHT was apparently able to acquire the tool operations of the Thorsen Tool Company, which had roots going back to 1929 with the establishment of Thorsen Manufacturing in Oakland, California. In the early 1970s Thorsen moved its headquarters to Dallas and built a new manufacturing facility there, and by 1977 Thorsen had become part of the Wallace Murray conglomerate. Sometime between 1983 and 1985 Thorsen appears to have turned its manufacturing equipment and tooling over to NHT, and thereafter operated as GC Thorsen with tools sourced from NHT. (The documentation for the Thorsen deal is still somewhat sketchy, but we've laid out the case in our Thorsen article.)

Acquisition by Stanley

In 1986 the activities at NHT attracted the attention of The Stanley Works, an old-line maker of hardware which had recently purchased Proto Tools from Ingersoll-Rand in 1984. Stanley decided to further expand their hand tool operations, and on December 31, 1986 The Stanley Works acquired National Hand Tool and its accumulated brands.

Shortly after this Stanley went on to acquire Chiro Tool of Taiwan and some of the production facilities of Ruey Yang from Chow. Kirk Chow then became Stanley's vice president for the Asia Pacific region and was elected to their board of directors.

After the deals with Stanley had been completed, Kirk Chow retained ownership of parts of the original Ruey Yang, the SATA facilities in China, and a few operations in the US.

After the partial break-up of Ruey Yang in 1986, a number of managers left and formed tool companies of their own "like mushrooms after the rain", as noted in an article in Taiwan Today cited in our References section. This set the stage for the development of the GearWrench tools in the next section, but at this point we're uncertain of whether the development took place within Ruey Yang itself or in one of the splinter companies.

The GearWrench Line

In 1995 Ruey Yang engineers began designing a new line of ratcheting box-end wrenches based on customer feedback on the limitations of current products of that type. Ratcheting box wrenches have a long history going back to the early years of the 20th century, and the prior art being reviewed had been developed by K-D in 1940, Nagel-Chase in 1944, and A&E in 1947.

But by the mid 1990s ratcheting box wrenches had become something of a sleepy backwater of the tool industry, with few substantial changes for almost 50 years. Among the limitations cited by customers were insufficient strength, bulky construction, and coarse ratcheting action requiring a large swing angle.

These considerations led Ruey Yang to establish the goal of building wrenches as strong as forged tools and with a ratcheting mechanism capable of operating with a 5 degree swing.

Once the new design was ready, Ruey Yang must have realized that they had an important new product, and the company decided to partner with the Danaher Corporation to introduce the tools in the United States. Danaher was an industrial conglomerate with major holdings in the tool industry, including Easco (which produced Sears Craftsman tools), K-D, Matco, and Armstrong, the latter being Danaher's Industrial Tools division.

A later trademark filing shows that the "Gear Wrench" name was chosen on October 11, 1996.

Acquisition by Danaher

Ruey Yang's initial contact with Danaher is believed to have been in the context of a marketing and sales agreement, but Danaher apparently liked what they saw, and in 1997 Danaher purchased Ruey Yang, SATA, and some minor US holdings from Kirk Chow.

We haven't found a public document with the details of the acquisition, but have pieced together some corroborating evidence from available sources. The Danaher 1997 Form 10-K (filed with the SEC) lists company locations in Shanghai, China and Taichung, Taiwan that weren't listed in the prior year, and these are believed to be the SATA and Ruey Yang facilities, respectively. In addition, the filing for the first "Gear Wrench" trademark was made on October 28, 1997 by the Hand Tool Design Corporation, a subsidiary of Danaher.

But Where Is Lea Way Hand Tool?

We're now fairly deep into our company history but haven't yet heard anything about the supposed subject. The earliest public reference we've found for Lea Way Hand Tool is a filing on May 24, 1997 for Taiwanese patent TW377775U, located on Google Patents by a search for the company name. A number of such patents appear for various tool-related devices.

The earliest Danaher reference to Lea Way we've found is in the Exhibit 21 section of their 2000 Form 10-K, which shows the Lea Way Hand Tool Corporation as number 121 on their list of subsidiaries. Somewhat oddly, Lea Way doesn't appear in the corresponding section of the 1997 Form 10-K, despite the properties in Taiwan and China being listed as company locations. (Maybe subsidiaries have to be owned at the beginning of the year to be counted?)

We haven't been able to locate the Danaher 10-K documents for 1998 and 1999 yet.

Despite the awkward gaps in documentation, we believe that the Lea Way Hand Tool Corporation was created by Danaher as a reorganization of Ruey Yang sometime in the spring of 1997. The Apex Tool Group web site lists David Ling [External Link] as one of the founders of Lea Way Hand Tool, where he served as General Manager for several years, and later served as Vice President and General Manager for Danaher Tool Group Asia. (Note though that Apex has an incorrect date of 1981 for the acquisition by Danaher; Danaher didn't even exist at that time!)

David Ling has been noted as the inventor of a number of tool patents and currently (2022) serves as a Senior Vice President for Apex.

Later Operations

In 2010 Danaher merged their tool operations with those of Cooper Industries to form the Apex Tool Group as a joint venture.

Apex now operates independently as a private corporation, and Lea Way Hand Tool continues today as a division of Apex Tool Group. Under Apex the GearWrench brand has increased in importance and is now one of their major brands.


Manufacturing Dates

GearWrench tools are typically marked with a code consisting of a capital letter and up to three dashes arranged in a semi-circle. This appears to function as a date code with the letter representing a year, and based on discussions on an online forum has been at least semi-confirmed by a customer service person at Apex.

The starting point for the system is believed to be around 2002, which is around the time that the second-generation (reversible and flex-head) GearWrench products were introduced. We're uncertain whether the earliest GearWrench products were marked with a date code.

Danaher is known to place great emphasis on quality control, and the primary rationale for a date code system is so that field failures can be correlated with documented production changes, allowing corrective action to be taken. Thus it would make sense for Danaher to have requested a systematic date code on GearWrench production.

The dashes around the letter probably indicate the production quarter, based on the observed patterns. In our modest collection of tools, we have examples with no dashes, with one dash at 3 o'clock, with two dashes at 12 o'clock and 3 o'clock, and with three dashes at 9 o'clock, 12 o'clock, and 3 o'clock. There's some ambiguity though as to whether the absence of dashes indicates the first quarter or the fourth quarter.

With the assumption of a starting point in 2002 and no skipped letter codes, the table below shows the production year for each code. We'll revise the table if we find better information on the date code system.

GearWrench Date Codes 2002-2022
Date CodeMfg. Year
A 2002
B 2003
C 2004
D 2005
E 2006
F 2007
G 2008
H 2009
I 2010
J 2011
K 2012
L 2013
M 2014
N 2015
O 2016
P 2017
Q 2018
R 2019
S 2020
T 2021
U 2022

Patents

The tool industry in Taiwan is highly innovative and has received many patents over the years. However, patents in Taiwan tend to be managed differently than in the United States. In Taiwan it's common for patents to be held by small firms specializing in design and intellectual property, who then license the patents to the companies that actually produce tools, rather than selling (assigning) them outright.

Without a formal assignment on the patent record, it may be difficult to determine which patents a company is using for a tool. In addition, Taiwanese patents are often available only in Chinese and thus are more difficult (for English speakers) to search and translate.

Currently we're not certain which patent(s) apply to the original GearWrench tools, but patent 5,636,557 looks pretty close to the mark.

Lea Way Hand Tool: Ratcheting Box Wrench Related Patents
Patent No.InventorFiledIssuedNotes and Examples
5,636,557 N.L. Ma05/24/199606/10/1997 Ratchet Type Ring Spanner
6,134,990 D. Ling et al08/05/199910/24/2000 Ratcheting Tool
6,148,695 B. Hu08/03/199911/21/2000 Ratchet Wheel with Arcuate Concave Teeth
6,240,813 D. Ling at al07/30/199905/15/2001 Reversible Ratcheting Tool
6,257,096 D. Ling10/30/200007/10/2001 Ratchet Adaptor for Ratchet

Trademarks

Prior to developing the "GearWrench" line, Ruey Yang is not known to have used any proprietary trademarks, since virtually all of the company's production was sold under their customers' brand names.

Lea Way Hand Tool: Registered Trademarks
Text Mark or Logo Reg. No. First Use Date Filed Date Issued Notes
Gear Wrench [Logo] 2,129,955 10/11/1996 10/28/1997 01/20/1998 Filed by Hand Tool Design Corp.
GEARWRENCH 2,928,469 10/11/1996 01/23/2002 03/01/2005 Block letters.
Assigned to Easco Hand Tools, Inc.

References and Resources

Photographs and observations of particular tools are based on items in the Alloy Artifacts Collection.

Background information on the hand tools industry in Taiwan can be found in an article Unlocking the Secrets of Taiwan's Hand Tool Kingdom [External Link], published on June 23, 2017 in Taiwan Today.

The US Customs service uses "substantial transformation" as a test to determine whether imported goods that will undergo further processing still require a country-of-origin marking. Background on this issue can be found in the court case National Hand Tool Corp. v. United States, 14 Ct. Int'l Trade 61 (1990) [External Link]. In this case NHT sought an injunction to prevent US Customs from denying entry of some of its imported articles, but the motion was denied. The court transcript provides useful background information on the operations at NHT.

A court case United States v. Kirk Koo Chow, 17 Ct. Int'l Trade 1372, 841 F. Supp. 1286 (1993) [External Link] provides extensive background information on National Hand Tool and its business. In this case the US Customs attempted to recover unpaid import duties plus penalties, alleging that the partially finished tools imported by NHT were not sufficiently transformed in the US to avoid duties. Kirk Chow was successful in having the case dismissed on procedural grounds.


Catalog Coverage

Currently we do not have any catalogs for Lea Way Hand Tool.


Ratcheting Combination Wrenches

Lea Way's first "GearWrench" brand products were combination wrenches with a ratcheting box end and an open end of the same size, constructed with a forged body and a highly polished finish. But because the ratcheting end was not reversible, these first-generation wrenches were made flat, without the standard angle at the box end, so that the wrench could be flipped over to change direction.

Lea Way soon developed a reversible ratcheting mechanism so that its combination wrenches could be built with the expected angled box end. In addition, models were developed with a flexible connection at the box end, so that the wrench could work at any angle on either side.


GearWrench 11/16 Reversible Ratcheting Combination Wrench

[GearWrench 11/16 Reversible Ratcheting Combination Wrench]
Fig. 1. GearWrench 11/16 Reversible Ratcheting Combination Wrench, with Insets for Back Side and Edge View, 2002.

Fig. 1 shows a GearWrench 11/16 reversible ratcheting combination wrench, stamped with "Reversible GearWrench" and "Pat" on the front, with "Reversible GearWrench" and an "A-" code on the back.

The overall length is 8.8 inches, and the finish is polished chrome plating.

The top inset shows a side view of the wrench, illustrating the angled box end typical of a standard combination wrench.

The reversing lever for the ratcheting mechanism is visible at the left in the bottom image. With the use of a reversible ratcheting mechanism, GearWrench was able to provide a standard angled box end on this combination wrench.

The stamped "A-" code on the back is believed to be a date code, with the letter identifying the production year as 2002 and the dash possibly representing a calendar quarter. The back side also has a stamped "N" code, possibly indicating the production location.


GearWrench 11/16 Flex Ratcheting Combination Wrench

[GearWrench 11/16 Flex Ratcheting Combination Wrench]
Fig. 2. GearWrench 11/16 Flex Ratcheting Combination Wrench, with Inset for Back Side, 2004.

Fig. 2 shows a GearWrench 11/16 flex ratcheting combination wrench, stamped with "Flex GearWrench" and "Pat" on the front, with "Flex GearWrench" and a "-C|-" code on the back.

The overall length is 8.8 inches, and the finish is polished chrome plating.

The flex connection allows the box end to be set at any angle on either side, with the head held in place by friction.

The stamped code on this wrench is a "C" with dashes at 9, 12, and 3 o'clock. This is believed to be a date code, with the letter identifying the production year as 2004 and the dashes possibly representing a calendar quarter.


GearWrench 16mm Flex Ratcheting Combination Wrench

[GearWrench 16mm Flex Ratcheting Combination Wrench]
Fig. 3. GearWrench 16mm Flex Ratcheting Combination Wrench, with Inset for Back Side, 2004.

Fig. 3 shows a GearWrench 16mm flex ratcheting combination wrench, stamped with "Flex GearWrench" and "Pat" on the front, with "Flex GearWrench" and a "-C|-" code on the back.

The overall length is 8.0 inches, and the finish is polished chrome plating.

The flex connection allows the box end to be set at any angle on either side, with the head held in place by friction.

The stamped code on this wrench is a "C" with dashes at 9, 12, and 3 o'clock. This is believed to be a date code, with the letter identifying the production year as 2004 and the dashes possibly representing a calendar quarter.


Contract Production

In addition to producing tools under its own brand, GearWrench provided its technology to other brands, both those within the Danaher umbrella (e.g. Armstrong) and those from competing conglomerates such as Snap-on and Stanley. In this section we'll look at some examples of GearWrench contract production.


Blue Point BOERM16 16mm Reversible Ratcheting Combination Wrench

[Blue Point BOERM16 16mm Reversible Ratcheting Combination Wrench]
Fig. 4. Blue Point BOERM16 16mm Reversible Ratcheting Combination Wrench, with Insets for Back Side, Edge View, and Marking Detail, 2002.

Fig. 4 shows a Blue Point BOERM16 16mm reversible ratcheting combination wrench, marked with "Blue-Point" and the metric sizes on the front, with "BOERM 16" and "Taiwan" on the back.

The overall length is 8.0 inches, and the finish is polished chrome plating.

The upper inset shows the angled box end, made possible by the reversing switch visible on the front.

The small middle inset shows the stylized "2" date code to the left of "Taiwan", indicating production in 2002.

The first thing to note about this example is that the Blue Point wrench is not a clone of the equivalent GearWrench model. Although we don't have a 16mm GearWrench available for an exact comparison, a comparison with the similar GearWrench 11/16 Reversible Ratcheting Wrench above shows that the Blue Point wrench has slightly larger heads.

In addition, the box end of the Blue Point model differs in some construction details. The ratchet wheel is secured by a retaining clip visible in the lower inset, and the base photo shows that the shift lever is secured with a hex-head screw. These construction differences would make it easier to repair the Blue Point wrench in the event that service was required. (We're not sure how or if the GearWrench products can be serviced.)


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