“Excelsior” Profile Stanley Block Planes

Ever wonder about the origin of the word “Excelsior” as it refers to the body style on Stanley block planes?  Why Excelsior?  What does it mean?  Was it an official Stanley name or a term that has been applied in recent years?

Me too.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, the “Excelsior” profile refers to the first body style used on Stanley block planes.  Dating from 1873 to 1898, the Excelsior profile differs from the later profile in that the “hump” in the cheeks is positioned more toward the rear of the plane.  After 1898 the hump was centered in the cheek profile and has the familiar milled Handi-grip indentions.  And yes, there was a very brief period of a few months in 1898 when the excelsior bodies also included the Handi-grip indentions.

Early Excelsior Profile Stanley 9-3/4 Type 1

Early Excelsior Profile Stanley 9-3/4 Type 1

The word Excelsior comes from the latin word excelsus, meaning meaning “ever upward” or “even higher.”  It is the origin for the word Excel, which obviously means to surpass in achievement.  However, more interesting and relevant for us, “Excelsior” is commonly defined as fine curled wood shavings used for packing.  Given that definition, it certainly makes sense that “Excelsior” was the name Stanley assigned to a line of block planes.

The earliest Stanley reference to Excelsior I could find is in the 1867 price list, which lists a “Patent Excelsior Tool Handle,” a wooden multi-tool handle that included 20 Bradawls and tools.  However, the multi-tool handle design more commonly referred to today as Excelsior was patented on March 19, 1867.  That patent design was awarded to Nathan S. Clement, and featured a different method of clamping the tool bits into the handle than the previous Stanley offerings.  As was often the case, the patent was eventually acquired by Stanley Rule & Level and incorporated into their product line, and was reflected in both wooden and the ornate iron handled multi-tool handles.

62938_IMPROVEMENT_IN_AWL_Clement 1867

Stanley also referred to their Bailey’s Patent Adjustable Block Planes as “Excelsior Block Planes” when they were introduced in 1873.   This term only applied to the adjustable mouth planes, such as the no. 9-1/2, no. 9-3/4, no. 15, etc.  The no. 110 and other non-adjustable planes had a different cheek profile, and were simply listed as Iron Block Planes in Stanley catalogs.

I did a little patent search sleuthing but could only find one reference that in any way tied in the term excelsior to hand or block planes.  In 1875, Albion K. Hall of Jackson, MI patented a plane specifically for making excelsior shavings.  However, I found nothing that tied him in any way to Stanley, so I assume there was no relationship between the two.

Stanley continued to use the Excelsior name for their multi-tools until 1902, and their planes until about 1898, when the profile was redesigned, moving the hump toward the center of the cheek.  Today, the Excelsior planes are attractive primarily to collectors.  While certainly usable, their castings tend to be thinner and more fragile than the later models, lending them better to display shelves than workbenches.  Either way, they remain, in my opinion, one of the more attractive plane designs ever devised.

The Excelsior line included the following planes:
no. 9-1/2
no. 9-3/4
no. 15
no. 15-1/2
no. 16
no. 17
no. 18
no. 19

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Working Within the Limits of Tool Preservation

198 SB3 Type 9 Pre0I spent a long time researching and learning about tool preservation before I ever touched a plane. Even so, it was a couple or three years before I really settled into a comfort zone where the hands on experience I gained began to gel with the “book knowledge” I’d accumulated. For me, the greater appeal has always been geared more toward preservation than restoration (although I use the word restoration more often when casually talking about “cleaning up” a plane or tool). It’s probably a matter of semantics; I think most people equate restoration with refinishing, while preservation, by it’s very definition, speaks to preserving and sustaining. To me, that’s more accurate, and is a key part of my guiding philosophy and approach to tools.

It’s very easy for me to “go too far” when cleaning up a tool, to make it pretty vs. simply making it functional. My underlying intent is to preserve the character, finish, patina, etc. whenever possible. Dirt and rust are not sacred to me (as they are to some collectors), they are destructive elements of neglect. When I’m cleaning up a tool, I try to stay within the same boundaries that a woodworker of 100 years ago would have stayed within. He would have only been interested in preserving his tools, keeping them clean and in good working order, not making them pretty to sell on eBay. I constantly remind myself of that, not because I’m right and everyone else is wrong, but because it’s consistent and true to the values and parameters I defined when I started this venture. It’s my mission statement, if you will.

198 SB3 Type 9 Post7

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The Confusing Grey Area of Type Study Transitions

Block Planes from the Author's Collection

Block Planes from the Author’s Collection

As I’ve written before, I periodically receive questions from readers.  I really enjoy this, and a few of these questions have led to good friendships along the way.  In a recent correspondence with one of my long distance tool friends, the following question was posed.  I thought it was a good one, and worth sharing…

I have a No 4 type 5 and the iron has the “J” trademark which was allegedly used 1874-1884.  I think it’s original to the plane and the “nut” hole is at the top of the iron. The lateral adj lever is the single piece and everything else adds up. According to the type study (if one goes by that) that particular plane was produced 1885-1888. Now, also according to the type study that plane should likely have an iron with TmP, which I have but the hole is at the bottom of the iron which wasn’t supposed to happen until type 6 planes 1888-1892.  …I know type studies are a modern phenomenon but obviously are used today to determine the approximate time the plane was manufactured and sometimes it has a real effect on the value. …  The type study seems to be a little off on this particular time line but am I putting too much value on the information anyway? I haven’t studied this long enough to understand how the studies determined typing but now I’m not sure that the specificity of subtle changes determining the difference in type is valid. I think my plane has the correct Tm on the iron but a type study would lead someone else to question it.   – Mark

Mark, you nailed it – specificity of subtle changes determining the difference in type is, in fact, NOT always valid.  It’s actually kind of interesting that our brains all seem to want to interpret type studies in a very organized, linear manner.  Strictly speaking, when the type study for Stanley bench planes was created, the transition points from one type to the next were logical from a feature standpoint, but somewhat arbitrary from a date standpoint.  Take your Type 5 to Type 6 transition, for example.  The type study dates the type 5 from 1885 to 1888, and the type 6 from 1888-1892.  While the transition of some features, like the re-design of the frog receiver, probably switched on a specific date, other changes were implemented over time.  And remember that despite what the type study leads us to believe, all the changes implemented (where we mark the transition from one “type” to the next) were not coordinated.

When Roger Smith created the type study, he made judgment calls for when to mark the date of change from one type to the next, which makes sense in the context of a type study.  However, in reality, the transition from one type to the next wasn’t so prescribed, and actually reflects an unspecified period of time in which there would have been a mix of features.  It wasn’t a single month or year in most cases, but likely a period of one to several years.  In a couple of cases, this transition period was so pronounced that the type study includes references to “hybrid” types, as is well documented between types 8 to 9.

The guys at Stanley were brilliant when it came to product differentiation and marketing.  They knew how to keep their line of tools fresh and relevant, and implemented subtle changes to help remain current and sustain demand.  Some of their changes were likely implemented for that reason alone.  The trademark stamp on iron, for example, served no functional purpose.  As such, I imagine that changes from one mark to the next took place independently of most other design changes, and therefore has the least correlation to the type studies.

A lot of people point out that the change from one plane “type” to the next should be interpreted very differently from how we understand the change from one model year car to the next.  This is true.  Comparatively, Stanley’s planes were more like today’s computers, where change is an ongoing evolution rather than a series of annual steps.  Imagine 100 years from now someone trying to create a type study for Microsoft/Intel based personal computers.  I can envision some poor soul trying to understand why his vintage “Type 4” Dell PC has a Pentium IV processor, when the “type study” clearly states it should have a Pentium III.

So, don’t fret, Mark.  What you have is a late type 5 or very early type 6.  The mix of features simply indicates the plane was probably made during that period of transition, and if anything, actually helps narrow the date range.  While you can’t prove it, you’d be quite justified to estimate the date of manufacture to sometime between, say, 1887 and 1889.  And you’d probably be pretty darn close.

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