An Inexplicable Affinity for Low Angle Block Planes

Stanley no. 65, c. 1913-19 (Left), no. 65, c. 1904-13 (Center), no. 65-1/2, c. 1905-10 (Right)

There’s something inexplicably sexy about low angle block planes.  Arguably the more versatile of all the block planes, low angle blocks were not historically the best-selling models in the lineup.  Stanley, and their counterparts at Millers Falls and Sargent (among others), were relatively conservative in their low angle offerings, at least compared to the standard angle variants they made.

If you include their more exotic models, Stanley produced a total of just 8 different variations of low angle block planes:

Model Length Width Adj. Throat Trim
No. 60 6 inches 1-3/8″ iron Yes Nickel
No. 60 1/2 6 inches 1-3/8″ iron Yes Japanned
No. 61 6 inches 1-3/8″ iron No Nickel
No. 62 14 inches 2″ iron Yes Nickel
No. 63 7 inches 1-5/8″ iron No Nickel
No. 64 12-1/2 inches 2″ iron No Nickel
No. 65 7 inches 1-5/8″ iron Yes Nickel
No. 65 1/2 7 inches 1-5/8″ iron Yes Japanned

Setting aside the extraordinary no. 62 ‘low angle jack’ and its oddball (and extremely rare ) short-lived brother, the no. 64, which were only called block planes due the bevel-up orientation of their irons, we’re left with six contenders.  Let’s review them in order…

The no. 60 & no. 60-1/2

Stanley nos. 60-1/2 & 60

The 60 series of Stanley planes includes the no. 60 and the no. 60-1/2.  Both planes are identical in every way other than their trim.  The no. 60, introduced in 1898, featured nickel-plated trim, while the no. 60-1/2, introduced in 1902, had japanned trim.  Just to avoid any possible confusion, the beds were japanned on all Stanley planes.  Trim refers to the lever caps, which came nickel-plated on the no. 60 and japanned on the no. 60-1/2.  Likewise, the knobs and adjustment wheels were nickel-plated on both the no. 60 and the no. 60-1/2. [1]

The ‘Type 1’ version of the no. 60, originally introduced with a rosewood front knob and no adjustable throat plate, was updated in 1902 with a brass front knob and an adjustable throat plate with an upturned eccentric adjusting lever.  Iron width on these planes is stated to be 1-1/2 inches prior to 1913, but I’ve never seen an example of this.[2]  Every one of this vintage that I’ve owned has featured a 1-3/8 inch iron with the J trademark stamp, which is correct for the period and dates from prior to 1909 on block planes (as far as I can tell).

These are my favorites of the low angle block planes.  I prefer their smaller 6 inch length for trimming end grain, an application at which low angle blocks excel.  Additionally, since their beds are set at 12 degrees and their irons positioned bevel up, you have the flexibility of changing the bevel angle to affect a change in the angle of cut.  With its bevel sharpened at the standard 25 degrees, you get a 37 degree angle of cut (12 + 25 = 37).  However, you could reasonably sharpen the bevel at 33 degrees and get a 45 degree cut, the same as a standard angle plane.  With two irons sharpened at different angles, you could conceivably get by with just one block plane for both standard and low angle cuts.

A note of caution… low angle planes are a little more fragile than standard angle planes for two reasons.  First, the angle of the bed is much sharper, making the leading edge (back edge of the mouth) more prone to chipping and cracking, so go easy on them when planing.  Second, don’t tighten the lever cap too much.  It puts a strain on the threads of the depth adjustment mechanism at the rear when you adjust the iron depth.  If it’s too tight, those threads can strip.

The no. 61 & no. 63

Stanley nos. 61 & 63

Introduced in 1914 and 1911 respectively, it appears that neither the no. 61 nor the larger no. 63 were particularly successful for Stanley.  Very few folks were tempted to purchase a low angle plane without an adjustable throat, especially when that feature could be had for just a few pennies more.  Subsequently, their limited popularity constricted demand and production, and so they are fairly hard to find today.  While collectible due to their scarcity, users looking for a functional low angle block are far better off sourcing a no. 60 or 65 in good condition.

Ironically, these planes are virtually identical to the very first type no. 60 and no. 65, both of which were introduced in 1898 with a similar wooden knob and lacking an adjustable throat.  Why then, less than 10 years later, Stanley thought reintroducing this handicapped design under the model nos. 61 and 63 was a good idea is anyone’s guess.  Regardless, both the no. 61 and no. 63 are easily distinguished from the Type 1 no. 60 and 65 since their model numbers were cast in relief at the rear of the bed just below the depth adjustment knob.  Manufactured for less than 25 years, both planes were discontinued in 1935.

The no. 65 & no. 65-1/2

Stanley 1935 Catalog

The 65 series includes the highly regarded no. 65 and less common no. 65-1/2.  Measuring about 7 inches long with 1-5/8″ irons, these planes are the bigger brothers to the 60 series of low angle blocks.

Like the 60 series, the lineage of the no. 65 series is equally convoluted.  Introduced in 1898, the no. 65 was first offered with a nickel-plated hooded style lever cap, wooden front knob, and non-adjustable throat.  The first major change happened in about 1905 when the wooden knob was replaced with the same brass knob used on all the other blocks, and an adjustable throat was added.  The third major change took place around 1913 when the hooded lever cap was replaced with Bodmer and Burdick’s newly designed knuckle joint lever cap, the same that was updated on the no. 18 and no. 19 standard angle planes.  50 years later, in 1964, the lever cap was changed back to the hooded type found on the no.  9-1/2, before the plane was discontinued altogether in 1969.

Considered one of the best block planes Stanley ever made, the no. 65 is sometimes referred to as the ‘Cadillac’ of block planes by vintage tool enthusiasts today.  While I prefer the smaller no. 60, the no. 65 is indeed an exceptionally well designed plane and a pleasure to use, using the same care considerations noted above for all the low angle blocks.

The no. 65-1/2 version is a bit of an oddball, at least in my opinion, in that it retained the original japanned hooded style lever cap throughout its entire lifespan.  While I don’t see nearly as many of them as I do the more popular no. 65, they were certainly made for a very long time (1902-1950).

There appears to be some inconsistencies in some very reputable published references, which imply that the 65-1/2 was offered with nickel trim.  I don’t believe this was ever the case.  Stanley catalogs from back in the day all list the no. 65 as having nickel trim and the no. 65-1/2 with japanned trim. It’s a little hard to see, but click on the image above to view a page taken from Stanley’s 1935 catalog.  Center left on the page lists the no. 60-1/2 and no. 65-1/2 together, both with japanned trim.

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1. Depending on the reference, it appears that Stanley might have used both polished brass and nickel-plated knobs and adjustment wheels at various times.  While it is very common for the nickel plating on these parts to be well worn, I’ve seen enough examples both with traces of nickel and others with no trace whatsoever that lead me to believe that Stanley wasn’t always consistent across models.

2. Walter, John, Stanley Tools: Guide to Identity and Value, 1996.

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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.

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.

Corrugated Planes are Groovy, Baby!

Stanley Bedrock no. 607C, c. 1911

Let me just put it out there right up front – I like corrugated planes.  Sure, their practical value is questionable.  I don’t care.  I like them, and all of the bench planes I use, as well as most of those in my humble collection, have corrugated soles.

Corrugations are a series of grooves milled into the sole of the plane.  Running front to back and spaced about 1/8″ apart, they stop short of the mouth at both the front and rear sections.  Introduced to the Stanley line of bench planes in 1898, corrugations were available on all sizes from the no. 2 through the no. 8, as well as the comparable sizes in the Bedrock series.  The no. 1 was never offered with a corrugated sole, and the no. 5-1/4 wasn’t introduced until 1921.  All the others, however, were available with corrugations and were distinguished from the plain versions by the suffix ‘C’ appended to the model number – nos. 2C, 3C, 4C, etc.  All the corrugated models were sporadically discontinued between the mid 1940s and mid 1960s.

While some argue that the feature was more a competitive marketing vehicle than a functional improvement, Stanley offered no explanation in its 1898 brochure, only stating “corrugated bottoms furnished without additional expense if so ordered.”  The reasoning most frequently accepted has to do with the vacuum created between two flat surfaces in contact with each other.  I’m no physicist, but I do know a little about science.  While this phenomenon is easily demonstrated with two sheets of glass, I have a hard time believing that wood is capable of creating much of a vacuum when in contact with something as small as the sole of a plane, even the large ones.

In my opinion, the reason why corrugations might work in theory is a simple matter of reduced friction.  Friction is defined as the resistance an object encounters in moving against another object.   Imagine that you are trying to push a plane across a board. If you apply a very small force, the plane will not move.  The frictional force between the two surfaces is greater than the force with which you are pushing the plane.  If the frictional force was less than the force you exert, the plane would slide forward.   So, in order to move the plane, you can do one of two things – reduce the frictional force of the plane against the board on which it sits, or push harder.

By milling grooves into the sole of the plane, Stanley reduced the amount of surface area that contacts the wood, the effect of which was to reduce the coefficient of friction between the two surfaces.  In theory, this should make a corrugated plane easier to push forward than one with a smooth sole.  This makes more sense to me than the theory of a vacuum created between the two surfaces, but I’m sure some will disagree.

Whether or not using a plane with a corrugated bottom provides a noticeably different experience to the average woodworker is debatable, but the idea clearly gained traction (no pun intended).  While less common than their flat soled brethren, corrugated versions were successfully sold for well over a half a century, and are still offered by some modern manufacturers today.

So here’s to corrugated planes… Easier to push or not, they’re groovy, baby!  Yeah!

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!

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

Antique_Chest_of_Drawers_Victorian_Flame_Mahogany_English-Dovetail_Joints-3466_-_4cEver 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.

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.

Salvaging Pitted Plane Irons

There’s no question that modern irons are far superior to the vintage irons that you find in virtually all old planes.  Unless you’re a casual   woodworker who only uses your plane(s) a few times a year, the investment in a new A2 or O1 steel iron (from companies like Hock, Veritas, or Lie Nielsen) will provide far superior performance.  These irons are thicker, flatter, and hold an edge better than the old tool steel irons.  That said, woodworkers 100 years ago did just fine with what they had, and many woodworkers today are also collectors and prefer to use their vintage tools in the same manner and with the same limitations as their ancestors.  Regardless of what camp you fall into, at some point, you’re going to come across a plane iron that is pitted.  It is inevitable and unavoidable.

Conventional wisdom and learned advice tells you to pass on irons that are pitted from rust damage.  True, there are plenty of vintage irons out in the market that are undamaged or in at least serviceable condition.  Many people, in fact, throw away or sell for scrap old damaged irons in lots on Ebay, and with good reason.

The problem is, of course, that pitting on the non-beveled (flat) side of the iron often prevents you from polishing it flat and smooth.  Pits that reach the cutting edge create tiny irregularities that subsequently reveal themselves in the shaved surface of your wood.  By contrast, pitting on the beveled side of the iron is of little consequence since it never actually touches the wood.  It might look bad, but it doesn’t affect the iron’s performance.  The only part of the iron that matters is the cutting edge, and both the bevel and flat side of that edge must be properly dressed – sharpened and honed to cut clean.

So what to do with irons that are badly pitted?  If the pitting is limited to the un-beveled side, all you might need do is flip it over, reversing the bevel direction.  Note that you’ll lose about a quarter inch of iron length making this reversal.  And if both sides of the iron are pitted, there is little point.  A better, and simpler solution, is to adjust your cutting angles slightly, adding a slight back bevel to the polished (un-beveled) side – enough to remove the pits and reach clean metal.

Using a standard bench plane as an example, the iron is seated on the frog at a 45 degree angle.  Most woodworkers sharpen the iron with an angle somewhere in the 25 to 35 degree range.  By putting a back bevel of a couple of degrees on the pitted back side, you effectively cut through the pitted surface creating a clean, undamaged edge.  Adjusting your primary bevel angle to compensate (if desired), you end up with a cutting angle of about 46 to 50 degrees – not a critical difference for many woodworkers.  In fact, increasing this angle of attack is advantageous when planning wood with difficult grain. [1]

Now, if you’re obsessive about your edge geometry and angle of cut, this might not be a satisfactory solution.  Although if that’s the case, you probably shouldn’t be futzing with a vintage plane in the first place, let alone salvaging a pitted plane iron.  But if you’re like me, having one or two extra irons set up for different purposes is a must, and finding good use for old irons suffering from age and neglect makes me feel good.  It’s just a matter of purposing them for the right job.

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[1] Hock, Ron, Back Bevels and Plane Geometry, 2010.

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