Stanley’s Uncommonly Magnificent ‘Other’ Block Planes

Mention ‘block plane’ to the average person, and they usually think of the basic Stanley no. 110 or 220, or a competitor’s clone of the same design. These were, generally speaking, the handyman’s plane of the day, and worked just fine for occasional projects such as trimming the edge of a sticking door or window. However, those who worked with tools for a living typically used one of the more versatile models, such as the very popular no. 9-1/2 or the exceptional no. 18, both all-purpose, standard angle planes preferred for their adjustable throats and greater precision. [1]

Stanley missed no opportunity to make a dollar, and offering variations of their more popular planes was clearly an important factor in their strategy to dominate the industry.  They offered more models and trim-lines than you could shake a unplaned stick at.  Many, however, were only moderately popular and relatively shorter-lived, at least compared to the mainstay models that virtually every woodworker had in his tool box.

While the no. 9-1/2, and to a somewhat lesser extent the no. 18, enjoyed considerable popularity, Stanley also offered variations of both of these planes that, today, serve to confuse and confound new users and collectors of vintage tools. Unfortunately, Stanley’s incomprehensible numbering system did nothing to help matters, back then or now. To bring some clarity to the whole matter, here’s a brief breakdown of the variations of these two very popular models, the Stanley nos. 9-1/2 and 18.

The Stanley no. 15

no. 15 & no. 17, c. 1901-07

The no. 15 is identical to the no. 9-1/2 in every way except length – it’s approximately 7 inches long.  It had one of the longest runs of all adjustable throat Stanley block planes, in production from 1876 to 1955.  Given the plethora of size variations and years of production, Stanley clearly found a market for larger block planes, although the no. 15 was nowhere near as popular as its shorter brother.  Subsequently, they are less common on the vintage tool market today and usually fetch higher prices.

The Stanley no. 16

no. 9-1/2 & no. 16, c.1904-09

This plane is the fraternal twin brother to the no. 9-1/2. Like the no. 9-1/2, the no. 16 was approximately 6 inches long with an iron (blade) width of 1-5/8 inches.  The only difference was that its hooded lever cap, front knob, and rear wheel were tricked out in polished nickel, whereas the cap on the 9-1/2 was japanned and the knob and wheel polished brass. The no. 16 was manufactured from 1888 to 1941.

The Stanley no. 17

This plane is to the no. 15 what the no. 16 is to the no. 9-1/2.  Got that?  Simplified, it’s the nickeled out version of the no. 15.  Since the nickel versions of Stanley planes originally cost more than their japanned counterparts, only those woodworkers with the discretionary wherewithal purchased them.  I don’t see a lot of these planes out in the market, leading me to believe they were not all that popular.  I guess selling bling during the 1930s depression was difficult.  Just like the no. 16, the no. 17 was manufactured from 1888 to 1941.

The Stanley no. 19

no. 19 & no. 18, c. 1913-19

If there was a market for a 7 inch version of the no. 9-1/2, then logically there would be a market for a 7 inch version of the no. 18.  The number 19 is just that.  Sharing the same nickel plated knuckle jointed lever cap evolution as the no. 18, and the same 1-5/8 inch cutter used on all these planes, the no. 19 is identical to the no. 18 in every way except length.  It was made from 1888 to 1949.

Summing it up…

The no. 15 is the 7 inch version of the no. 9-1/2
The no. 16 is the nickel version of the no. 9-1/2
The no. 17 is the nickel version of the no. 15 (and/or the 7 inch version of the no. 16)
The no. 19 is the 7 inch version of the no. 18

I suppose if you have extra big meat hooks, the larger planes might feel better in your hand.  And if you like your planes tricked out, nickel-plated lever caps and hardware will help pimp your work bench.  But other than length and bling, these planes are all pretty comparable to their better known counterparts, although they do tend to command higher prices since they are less common. Collectors will already know that, but for those of you looking to pick up your first or second user, hopefully this clears up the confusion.

[1] Standard angle refers to bed angle of 20 degrees.  Sharpening the standard 25 degree bevel on the iron provides a cutting angle of 45 degrees, the same as bench planes.  Low angle planes had 12 degree beds for a cutting angle of 37 degrees.

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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.

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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.

Stanley vs. Bailey – A Short History

Stanley Bailey with Box

A Stanley Bailey no. 2 plane – notice both names on the box

The question comes up now and then from folks investing in one of their first vintage planes… What’s the difference between Stanley planes, Bailey Planes, and Stanley Bailey planes? It’s confusing, because the terms are often used interchangeably. Worse, depending on the tool and the time, the terms may indeed be quite correctly used interchangeably, whereas with other tools and times they may not. It’s enough to make a new collector’s head spin! To make short work of figuring this all out, let’s start with Stanley.

The Stanley company itself originated from the consolidation of the rule business of A. Stanley & Co., founded by Frederick Stanley in 1843 in New Britain, Connecticut, and the level and plumb business of the Hall and Knapp Corporation. The newly formed Stanley Rule & Level Company, founded by Frederick’s cousin Henry Stanley in 1857. This stood until the company was purchased in 1920 by Stanley Works. Finally, in 1935 the company reorganized simply as Stanley Tool.

Leonard Bailey was a designer and plane maker who patented several designs for hand planes in the mid 1800s. In 1869, Stanley Rule & Level bought seven patent rights to Leonard Bailey’s designs. While their relationship with Mr. Bailey only lasted until 1875, Stanley retained those patent rights and eventually the use of the Bailey name.

After the relationship between Stanley Rule & Level and Leonard Bailey fell apart in 1875, they ended up in court over a patent infringement dispute (which Stanley eventually won) over the designs of Stanley employee Justus Traut. Bailey went to work for Selden Bailey’s (no relation) Bailey Tool Company and in 1878 moved from Hartford, Connecticut to Woonsocket, Rhode Island to oversee the manufacture of their Defiance and Leonard’s own Victor line of planes. Both of these lines struggled and Stanley ended up buying both in 1880 and 1884 respectively, but then discontinued them by 1888. Leonard Bailey thus retired from plane making but continued his copying press company, (Bailey Manufacturing Company), moving his factory to Wethersfield, Connecticut with a sales office in New York City until his death in 1905. In an apparent nod to his contribution to their overwhelming success, or perhaps for branding reasons, Stanley started casting the Bailey name into the beds of their plane bodies around 1906.

Regardless of which name is stamped on them, virtually every bench and block plane Stanley made from 1869 forward are all referred to (somewhat generically) as ‘Stanley Bailey’, or simply ‘Stanley’ or ‘Bailey’ – all are technically correct. The Bailey planes comprised Stanley’s basic bench plane line and the company made millions of them. Some (years of manufacture) had the Bailey name stamped into the bed, while others did not. All, however, refer to the various design patents originated by Leonard Bailey, as ‘Bailey’ was never actually part of the Stanley company name.

As the patent rights expired late in the 20th century and hand tools began falling out of favor, the Bailey name was eventually dropped from use. The designs and patents of Leonard Bailey, Justus Traut, and others, however, still live on in many of the hand planes available on the market today. Lie-Nielsen, perhaps most notably, manufactures a very high quality line of planes based specifically on Stanley’s premium line of Bedrock planes.

So, to answer the question… all Stanley Baileys can appropriately be referred to simply as Stanleys, as can many Bailey planes as well – the terms are frequently used interchangeably. Just remember that not all Baileys were Stanleys. It depends on the model and when they were made. The early non-Stanley Bailey planes tend to be more rare and quite valuable.

For more information on the entire detailed history, try John Walter’s book, Antique & Collectible Stanley Planes, Roger Smith’s, Patented Transitional and Metallic Planes in America 1827 – 1927, or Alvin Sellen’s, The Stanley Plane.

Who’s Your Sweetheart?

2nd Sweetheart Logo (c. 1921-22)

Search for “Stanley Sweetheart Plane” on eBay and you’re likely to get some very confusing results.  Some are old, some are new, others fall somewhere in between.  But not all are actually Sweethearts, and not all Sweethearts are the same.  Just what is a Sweetheart, you ask?

Originally used from 1920 to 1935, the “S.W.” inside the heart trademark stamp stands for The Stanley Works, and “STANLEY”, obviously stands for the rule and level firm. The two companies share lineage.  The heart-shape is a memorial to The Stanley Works long-time president, William Hart (1884-1915).

The first version of the logo had “NEW BRITAIN,” “CONN. U.S.A.” in two lines under the heart, and dates from around 1920. The next version (shown in the photo), dating from 1921-1922, just had “MADE IN U.S.A” below the heart in one line. The final logo, dating from 1923-1932, is similar to the second, but the top of the heart drops inline with the bottom of the notched rectangle.  These trademark logos are collectively known as the “sweetheart” logos in the tool collecting world.  In the original type studies assigned to mark Stanley’s bench plane evolution, these three variations were used across Types 12 through 15.

Sweetheart era tools are usually more desirable today because most people consider the types 10 though 15 (1910-1932), which includes the Sweetheart years, to be the pinnacle of Stanley’s plane production quality.  Certainly, the slow decline of all bench tools began around WWII and after, as modern industrialization took hold and power tools became the standard.  By the time Stanley started using blue japanning in 1960, the entire hand tool industry was in its final throws.

To the Sweetheart of today…

In a brilliant marketing move, Stanley recently introduced its new line of premium “Sweetheart” planes (and chisels), capitalizing on the past glory of its name combined with the brand equity associated with the Sweetheart era of old.  I don’t own one, and probably won’t, so I can’t speak to their quality first hand.  I have, however, read enough detailed reviews from the industry’s most reputable folks to at least be able to summarize their state.  Evidently, while far better than the shrink wrapped home improvement center variety tools, and arguably better than the stuff coming out of Europe, India, and Asia, they are still inferior to vintage Stanley of the 1910s through 30s, and are nowhere near the class of the modern Lie-Nielsens or Lee Valley’s Veritas lines, both of which are exceptional, even if quite a bit more expensive.

With a fair bit of tuning, I’m sure the new Sweethearts are fine for casual users, but for my money, I’m sticking with vintage models for general use, and splurge on Lie-Nielsen or Lee Valley models when precision is worth the investment.

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