Stanley No. 7 Reflects Secret History

Some months back I purchased a particularly beautiful old Stanley no. 7 jointer plane dating from the late 1880s with the intention of reselling it. It was sharp, clean from decades of proper care, and looked like it was still being used a week ago – absolutely amazing condition for its age. The original owner’s initials were neatly stamped on one side and it came from his family’s estate, which was sadly being liquidated. The plane was remarkably perfect by all accounts – except one…

At some point, almost certainly early in its life, the plane was dropped, breaking off the top quarter of the frog. In a classic reflection of those parsimonious times and testament to the care the owner gave to his tools, he went to unusual lengths to repair that frog, fabricating a perfectly fitting replacement section out of brass, secured with handmade copper rivets. Normally I shy away from tools with such repairs, but the complexity and care given to this one fascinated me. It was extremely well executed, having no doubt taken the better part of a day (perhaps even two) to complete, with an aesthetic effect that was detectable only upon close inspection. More important, it also returned the plane to perfect working order.

I was so conflicted I let the plane sit in my shop for weeks as I tried to decide what to do with it. Obviously treasured by its original owner, whether through necessity or nostalgia, it was used and handed down within his family for numerous generations. I hated to think of it being sold for scrap or parts after 130 years, especially given its impeccable working condition. Eventually reason and practicality prevailed, and I reluctantly decided to just list it at a fixed price on eBay, hoping I would find a buyer who could appreciate it as it was. And find a buyer I did… one with a surprising affinity for this particular plane.

Turns out the guy who bought it already had at least one other plane from the same estate with the same owner’s initials stamped on the side. He wrote and told me he was so intrigued at the care the owner had given his tools, he felt compelled to own this no. 7 just for the repair it featured. For him, the repair reflected the respect and value afforded the tool, and that little bit of history made it all the more desirable. He was excited to get it and I was thrilled to have found it a home with a new owner who ‘gets it’ – who appreciates that tool for the secret history it carries in an exceptionally well executed repair. You have to love that!

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Two Block Planes Everyone Should Own

I have a weakness for block planes.  They are the two seater sports cars of the hand plane world – quick, nimble, and fun to handle.  Heck, from the classic lines of Stanley Excelsiors 130 years ago to the high performance Veritas planes of today, they even look fast.  (Both shown below)

I have a sizeable collection of block planes that includes some of the rarest and most beautiful ever made.  Those, of course, are now relegated to display, as their value precludes risking damage in use.  But the vast majority in my collection are sharp and ready to use, and I do exercise each of them periodically when I’m working on a project.  This helps keep them in working order, and it just makes me feel good.

Still, over time I’ve found myself unconsciously reaching for the same couple of planes whenever the need arises.  If I were forced to reduce my toolbox to just two block planes, these are the two I would keep:

The Stanley No. 18 Standard Angle
The Stanley No. 60 Low Angle

Stanley no. 18, c. 1913-19

The Stanley No. 18 Standard Angle
This is my go-to block plane for everyday use, the one I always seem to grab first.  Mine is a very pristine WWI era model that I’m pretty sure I’ve used more than anyone else in its history.  Although it’s almost 100 years old, it looks like it could have been manufactured last year.  Both the japanning and nickel plating are pushing 100%, and so I baby it.

The Stanley no. 18 is a standard angle plane, meaning the iron is seated on a 20 degree bed.  With a bevel angle sharpened at the standard 25 degrees, you have a cutting angle of 45 degrees, same as a bench plane.  It also has an adjustable throat plate, an essential feature in a block plane.  The no. 18 is 6 inches long and fits my hand better than its longer, otherwise identical 7 inch brother, the no. 19.  And unlike the more popular Stanley no. 9-1/2, it feels more like an extension of my hand.

The no. 9-1/2 plane predates the no. 18 by about 15 years, was in production longer, and was the best selling block plane Stanley ever made.  It’s still made today, in fact, although the current design features a completely different mechanism from the original.  Admittedly, the no. 9-1/2 was the more popular of the two.  I truly don’t know why, though, since the design of the no. 18’s knuckle cap was far superior to the hooded lever cap on the no. 9-1/2, and it’s also more comfortable to hold in the hand.  I also find that the hooded cap on the no. 9-1/2 is more prone to slip around a little in use.  Not so with the no. 18.

Ironically they are both basically the same plane with two different styles of lever caps.  Other than the lever cap and its mounting bolt, all the other parts are interchangeable. Stanley charged a little more for the no. 18 and marketed it as virtually indestructible.  This of course was not true, for while the steel cap is arguably more durable, the bodies of both were cast iron and therefore susceptible to breaking if dropped.

I have several vintages of both models in my collection, but find the no. 18 with the knuckle cap superior in both function and comfort.  I use this more often than any other block plane I own.

Stanley no. 60, c. 1910

The Stanley No. 60 Low Angle
The Stanley no. 60 (and the identical japanned version 60-1/2) is a low angle plane, meaning the iron is seated on a 12 degree bed.  Sharpened at 25 degrees, you have a cutting angle of 37 degrees.  The primary advantage of the lower angle of attack is that it excels at shaving end grain.

Like the no. 18, the 60 series of planes are approximately 6 inches long.  However, the 60 series are narrower with an iron width of 1-3/8 inches, vs the 1-5/8 inch irons on the standard angle planes, and the 60 series featured a narrower version of the hooded lever cap used on the no. 9-1/2.  The 60 series planes also have adjustable throat plates.

As with the standard angle planes, Stanley made another low angle plane that was more popular than the No. 60.  The no. 65, which was wider and longer, is even today considered by many to be the ‘Cadillac’ of Stanley block planes.  I have a couple of no. 65s, which I use occasionally, but I prefer the no. 60 for its smaller size.  The size of the no. 65 makes it feel a little awkward to me for most projects, although it excels on wider boards and edges where the no. 60 is too small.

Most people are familiar with the knuckle jointed lever cap on the no. 65, the very same cap used on the nos. 18 and 19 standard angle planes.  It’s interesting to note that the no. 65 was originally made with the hooded style cap until about 1917 when Stanley switched to the knuckle jointed steel cap.  I’ve never quite understood why the no. 65 is so highly regarded.  Being 7 inches long, I find it a little too big in the hand.  The no. 60 series planes are smaller and much easier to handle, and ironically, I never found their hooded cap to be problematic as I do with the no. 9-1/2.  So, maybe it’s just me.

Ultimately, that’s the point.  I had to try all of the various models and sizes until I found what I liked best.  On all of these block planes, the iron is seated bevel up, whereas on bench planes the bevel is usually down.  There is a tremendous advantage with bevel up irons in that the angle of the bevel can be changed to affect a change in the angle of cut.  While there is more to consider in edge geometry than just the angle of cut (ex. durability), you could reasonably sharpen the bevel on a low angle plane iron to 33 degrees and end up with an angle of cut of 45 degrees (12+33=45), the same as on a standard angle plane.  However, to accomplish a low angle of cut using a standard angle plane, you’d have to sharpen the bevel at a very shallow 17 degrees (20+17=37).  Durability of such a thin cutting edge would be problematic with most woods.

For this reason, along with a few others, many people consider the low angle plane to be the more versatile of the two.  I tend to agree.  While I use my standard angle plane more often, if I could only have one block plane, it would have to be a low angle.  Fortunately, despite what my wife says, that’s not the case.

The no. 18 and no. 60 are my two primary go-to block planes when I’m working on a project.  I have most of the other Stanley sizes in my collection, and like I said, I’ll pick them up to use sometimes just for nostalgia, but the nos. 18 and 60 are my favorites. These are the two that I think everyone should own, but ultimately, you won’t know which you prefer until you try a few for yourself.

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Vintage tools shown in the photos were returned to functional condition by Virginia Toolworks using museum quality archival preservation techniques.  Sharpened and tuned for use, every tool is fully tested and adjusted until perfect.

What to Look for When Buying Vintage Hand Planes

c. 1940s Stanley No. 5 Jack Plane

When I first started buying and collecting vintage hand planes, much of the available information I read online included ominous warnings about warped, twisted soles, unstable frogs, and mangled throats. Sounded more like a Stephen King movie than a discussion about tools! With recommendations for evaluation that involved engineering squares and feeler gauges. I was convinced that no vintage plane I purchased could ever possibly work correctly until I lapped the sole and re-machined every contact surface. It only took me suffering through flattening one or two planes to come to my senses and question just what the heck I was trying to accomplish.

Once I actually started sharpening, tuning, and using hand planes, I realized that most of these warnings were just a lot of unwarranted hooey. The vast majority of vintage planes I’ve owned and used over the years were actually just fine. Naturally, using a nice new Lie Nielsen or Veritas plane provides a noticeably different experience, but at a substantial cost premium. I’m just not there yet, and may never be. Here’s why…

The quality of the tool doesn’t contribute nearly as much to the end result as does the skill of the user. Craftsmen of 100 or so years ago made do just fine with the planes that were available. The average woodworker at the turn of the century didn’t own a micrometer or a machined straight edge. Many didn’t even use a measuring device, instead relying on dividers, marking gauges, and geometry. They used the tools and technology of the day, and produced some of the finest furniture in the world.

That’s not to say that tool quality isn’t important. Or more precisely, it’s not even so much the quality of the tool itself, but the quality of the tool’s tuning combined with proper technique that produces the desired result. As many others have pointed out before, a plane is really nothing more than a jig for holding a cutting implement at a consistent angle. With the appropriate ‘jig-o-metrics’ (tuning) applied, a properly sharpened cutting edge, and skillful application by the user, even the cheapest home center hand plane can competently get the job done. What quality of design, machining, and related workmanship gets you is ease of use and greater versatility. With tighter tolerances you get less slop and greater precision. While a high quality tool won’t improve the results of an unskilled user, it can certainly improve the results of one who has mastered its use.

All that said, there are some red flags to look for when shopping for hand planes, and with the abundance of vintage planes available on eBay, yard sales, and tool swaps across the country, there’s no reason to settle for a tool with serious problems. The challenge is knowing what is serious, and what isn’t. So let’s take it part by part. I’ll try to keep it simple.

Stanley No. 7, Lever Cap & Iron/Cap Iron

Body & Sole
Also sometimes referred to as the ‘base’ or ‘shoe,’ the body of the plane, as the name implies, is the main frame. The sole is the surface that comes in contact with the wood when using the plane. The main thing to look for on the body is cracks and/or repairs. Planes with this sort of damage are best avoided. Small chips along the top edges (cheeks) don’t affect usability, but are cosmetically undesirable. With so many planes available, why settle? The other thing to inspect on the body is the opening where the iron (blade) protrudes. It’s important that the opening, called the mouth or throat, isn’t chipped and hasn’t been repaired or enlarged through filing. The throat opening affects your ability to properly set the iron, and is one area of the plane where precision is extremely important.

Pitting is usually high on the list of problems to avoid. Again, with so many planes available, there’s no reason to settle for a tool with heavy pitting. Pitting is damage from rust that has eaten into the metal. In my experience, unless the pitting is very heavy, it doesn’t usually have much effect on a plane’s performance. Like all the normal scratches, scars, and dings from use that you’ll see, very light areas of pitting are not uncommon and are of little concern with regards to practical usability.

Some folks might disagree, but I don’t worry too much about the flatness of the sole. Having owned more than 250 vintage planes over the course of the time, I’ve only had a few that were unusable, and each of them had other issues more critical than the flatness of the bottom. Slap a ruler or straightedge against it if it makes you feel better or if you’re spending more than $75-$100 on a standard bench plane to use. However, if your need for critical tolerances is that great, I recommend you invest in a modern Lie-Nielsen or Veritas plane. They are machined to engineering grade tolerances, but you’ll pay a premium for them.

Knobs and Totes
The wooden knobs and totes (handle) on planes are frequently found with chips, cracks, and breaks. Aside from the obvious preference that they be perfect, minor damage is usually just cosmetic. Functionality is only compromised when the damage is so bad that they are unstable or inhibiting a proper grip on the plane. Breaks and cracks can often be repaired, even if the damage is severe, and replacements are abundant. If the tool is in otherwise good condition, a damaged or missing knob or tote isn’t a deal breaker for me. For more information check my post on repairing knobs and totes.

Stanley #7 Frog

Frog
The frog is the part of the plane that attaches to the top side of the base and provides an angled seat for the iron (blade), as well as a mechanism to adjust the depth and lateral positioning of the iron. I have no idea why it’s called a frog. Damage to look for is a missing lateral adjustment lever, which was a feature on the frogs of most Stanley (and other) bench planes manufactured after the mid 1880s. The lateral lever sticks up from the top of the frog and enables lateral (side to side) positioning of the iron. Every now and then this lever is missing. Ideally it should be straight and tight, although bends can be straightened and if it’s wobbly, it can be tightened by carefully tapping its rivet with a small ball peen hammer.

Broken and chipped frogs are the main concern and should be avoided. Look close at the bolt hole in the front center of the frog to make sure there are no chips around the edge. Once again, replacement frogs are fairly plentiful, but you will need to find one from the same period of manufacture to ensure proper fit since the design changed over the years.

Iron and Cap Iron
The iron, also referred to as the ‘cutter’ or ‘blade,’ is the tool’s cutting implement. The main things to look for are how much usable length remains and the condition of the surface metal. Pitted irons are not necessarily a lost cause (see my post on salvaging irons), but are problematic. Again, period irons are abundant, but if you’re buying the plane to use, you’ll want to invest in a modern replacement from somewhere like Hock, Lie-Nielsen, or Lee Valley Tools. They are far superior and will make a significant difference in the plane’s performance.

The cap iron, which is sometimes called the chipbreaker or double iron, attaches to the top of the iron and provides both stability and a raised surface to literally break the shaving as it’s cut from the wood. Other than very heavy pitting or a hack grinding job, I’ve rarely seen one of these that wasn’t usable.

Lever Cap
The lever cap sits on top of the iron/cap iron assembly and provides tension to hold them against the frog. Lever caps are sometimes found with chips along the bottom edge, either from having been dropped or used as a screwdriver to loosen the wide screw that attaches the iron and cap iron. While unsightly, a chip along the bottom edge doesn’t really affect its functionality. Again replacements are plentiful. Of greater concern is if it’s missing the tab lever at the top, which acts as a cam that locks the lever cap against the frog. It’s rare that this is missing, but the lever cap cannot function without it.

Frog Adjustment Hardware

Hardware
I’ve covered all the major functional parts, so all that remains is the miscellaneous hardware on the plane – screws, bolts, brass knob, etc. You will want to make sure all the parts are there in order for the plane to function, unless you’re willing to buy replacements on eBay. Since Stanley and others used a very unusual threading on their hardware, you won’t find replacements in your hardware store.

The knob and tote are attached to the plane with a bolt that is threaded on both ends, topped with a brass nut that is visible from the top. Models made during WWII may have single piece steel bolts.

The frog should have a bolt sticking out of the front of it that holds the iron/cap iron via the lever cap. The frog itself is attached to the base with two smaller bolts with washers. At the rear of the frog should be a large brass knob that is used to raise and lower the iron through the throat. It’s important that this knob turn freely across the full length of its bolt, although it’s not unusual to have to clean this area thoroughly before it will work as intended.

On Stanley bench planes made after 1907, there will be an adjustment bolt that engages a small plate attached to the bottom rear of the frog. This enables fine forward/backward adjustments to the frog, which has an effect similar to closing the throat of the plane for fine cuts. Since most bench planes did not have an adjustable throat as found on some of the better block planes, this frog adjustment allowed movement of the entire frog, which accomplished the same thing. Moving the frog back opens the throat for thicker cuts, while moving it forward closes the throat for very fine shavings. It’s actually pretty rare to find this feature permanently frozen due to rust and corrosion, but it’s something to look out for. While it may take a few days of soaking in penetrating oil, they almost always free up.

That’s pretty much it. Very few vintage hand planes are in perfect condition, so it’s important to have realistic expectations. Almost all show the effects of age and use. This is what gives them character. Perhaps most important for new buyers shopping for a first hand plane is to first understand how they function and how they are used. That will make evaluating condition much easier and the assessment more relevant. Additionally, all new hand plane purchasers need to understand that no tool they buy, whether 100 years old or manufactured yesterday, is going to function effectively without proper tuning. That discussion I will save for another post.

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Tools shown in the photos were returned to functional condition by Virginia Toolworks using museum quality archival preservation techniques.  Sharpened and tuned for use, every tool is fully tested and adjusted until perfect.

Perfection is a Matter of Perspective

Furniture Construction

Source: skinnerinc.com

Ever look closely at a really fine piece of vintage furniture in a historic building or museum? The vast majority, if viewed at a low angle across their flat panels, have a very subtle but distinct scalloped surface finish. This, of course, was due to the final shave with a smoothing plane – one with a slightly cambered edge.

Since most of the furniture we purchase today is mass produced through automated, computerized processes, fit and finish usually appears precise, even if overall quality of construction and materials is lacking. As a result, many casual woodworkers are subconsciously conditioned to pursue machine-like perfection. I can personally attest to feeling frustrated and disappointed when my labor of love and endless hours of work failed to produce a result that achieved the level of precision I saw in store bought furniture. Convinced that my deficiencies were a direct result of the tools I was using, I invested in more and better quality tools and obsessed over my mastery of them. Woodworking became a matter of investment in tools and their mechanical proficiency.

Then, a few years ago, something happened that changed the way I view perfection and altered my entire approach to woodworking. It wasn’t so much a sudden epiphany, but there was definitely a short trip to ‘hang on, maybe I’ve been looking at this all wrong.’ Instead of using modern production furniture as a benchmark, I started climbing underneath and inside 18th, 19th and early 20th century furniture – the stuff that was made by hand using human-powered tools. In addition to educating myself on the design and construction, I started thinking about how the woodworker cut, shaped, finished, and assembled all the parts. Understanding that everything was made without the benefit of table saws, jointers, and router bits, I wondered what tools and techniques were employed a hundred or so years ago. And I noticed something else, too. The construction, while solid and cleverly engineered, was certainly not precise in the way I was used to seeing in modern furniture. The joints, cuts, and surfaces all very clearly reflected the working hand of man, not machine. And somehow, despite its imperfections, it was more appealing and more beautiful than almost anything I can purchase new today.

Once I came to understand just how classic period furniture was made, and started to recognize the beauty of the ‘fingerprints’ of the craftsman who made them, my entire mindset and perception toward woodworking changed. Perfection is a relative concept. The real beauty in a piece of handcrafted furniture is not in its machine-like precision, but rather in its reflection of the person who built it. Well executed technical prowess is undeniably impressive, but it’s the signature hallmarks of imperfection – of man working wood with his hands that give the piece character and life.

Condition – The Eye of the Seller

026 SB4-T19 ebay
When it comes to vintage tools, condition, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder… or more specifically, the eye of the seller. So many online tool sellers throw around vague, undefined terms like ‘great condition’, ‘mint condition’ etc., it’s hard to get a good sense of exactly what you’re buying, especially on Ebay. I use such terms sparingly, and only as a complement to a much more specific description of condition and features. That’s why I write my listings using specific descriptives, not subjective adjectives.

Unless they were hermetically sealed soon after they were made, all vintage tools show some degree of age, whether through loss of finish, dents, dings, and scratches from use, transport, and storage, rust damage, or simply darkening from age and environment. It’s also healthy to keep in mind that relatively speaking, these were not precision made tools in the way we think of precision made tools today. Quality control was more subjective, and let’s face it, these were tools of tradesmen who carried them around in wooden boxes on horse drawn carriages. It’s a wonder any of them even survived! Customers of the day were not likely too concerned with cosmetics. They were not the disposable, ‘throw it away and buy a new one’ culture we are today. They used things until they were worn out, then they fixed them up as best they could, and used them some more.

For me, mint condition means brand new, unused, just as it was when it was sold. Anything less is near mint, very fine, fine, good, or user grade. For tools that are 50 to 150 years old to be in mint condition, they would have to not only have never been used, but kept in climate controlled storage so as not to sustain permanent rust or corrosion damage. I’ve seen very few tools that meet this criteria. Near mint to me means the tools was never used or used very lightly. It may well show some evidence of age, but overall looks like something akin to a floor sample. I think far less than 5% of vintage tools fall into this range. The vast majority of tools fall somewhere between Very Fine (maybe 5-10%), Fine (10%), Good and User (45%), and Poor (30%). All of these are, of course, very rough estimates based on my own observations and experience.

I guess the takeaway is, when you’re shopping for vintage tools, whether to use or display, ignore the subjective descriptors and adjectives such as ‘Good’ or ‘Mint’ or ‘Perfect.’ Don’t make assumptions about features, condition, or whether the tool is in working condition. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or request additional photos (if the tool is being sold online). And always be wary of tools that have been over-cleaned or ‘restored.’ To some, restored simply means sharpened. To others, it means completely refinished.

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