Smooth talking planes

This coming week is very much a week of preparation for me. Thankfully I travel well, even with United Airlines when I have to. I have been to the UK seven times already this year and returning to the states I think about many things when I climb onto the conveyor belt and let the operators push my buttons periodically.

We have been going over the plane and so that automatically raises questions about lengths and makes and makers and weights and irons and thicknesses of irons and so on. It’s hard for me do anything but tell the truth and speak from my experience. One of the neat things is that no one pays me to promote their planes or saws or any other tool for that matter. That means I am free to tell you about things perhaps others are not. For instance, many of my students retrofit their planes with thick irons and you all know how I feel about that because the main reason advocates say to do it is because some guru said in article to do it years ago. They said it “stops chatter.” I say, “what chatter?” Look back on my previous posts for this and more.

Leonard Bailey – Designer, tool maker, inventor and entrepreneur. 

Let me ask you a question. In the 1850’s 99% of the hundreds of thousands of woodworkers were using wooden bodied planes with thick irons which tapered from around5/32” thick to 1/8”. Because the irons were wedged into the body of the plane they needed something that would lock the position of the iron. That way, should fractional slippage take place, the iron wedged between the wooden wedge and the plane body to become immoveable. These irons were hammer forged by drop hammers and then ground to dimension. Leonard Bailey, one of the brilliant woodworking tool designers of the day and a cabinet maker to boot, decided to make a thin iron for his newly invented Bailey-pattern plane. Throughout the ensuing decades, 130 years to be close to precise, no one used a thicker iron. Why? Well it’s dead simple and it wasn’t because they were thick. Bailey’s newly invented thin irons actually worked and worked exceptionally well. They still do and no one can convince me that Leonard Bailey was a dummy when his planes remained virtually unchanged throughout one and a half centuries. No one can convince me that he just missed it and no one can convince me that there was in any way a shortfall in the invention. He was designing a whole plane and he was going against the traditions of the age. He faced great opposition, but Stanley Rule and Level stuck behind him not because they were trying to create a fashionable trend like so many mass makers of tools. No, he invented a plane with thin irons for a strategic reason, stuck to his guns and created an affordable plane. How amazing is that.

There is no doubt that the Bailey pattern plane was a well designed fit-for-purpose product and it is amazing that no one has really bettered it or come up with something different that matched its quality or bettered it. If everyone would readjust their thinking even just a little and look with serious consideration at the Leonard Bailey’s Bailey-pattern plane and then too give credit to the thousands upon thousands of ordinary woodworkers who used them for all those decades without change we would discover a plane of real value and substance. It was indeed a plane engineered to last, yet with the lightweight versatility of a bantamweight boxer.

Now someone asked after my last post what was wrong with Groz and Anant #4 planes. These two companies have been around to my knowledge since the mid fifties. They were poor replicas then and they still are. But I am amazed that somewhere in the mix of salesmanship I came across the GROZ plane. Woodcraft had a sale on a couple of months ago and we bought one to see if it would live up to Woodcraft’s description which read as follows:

“Manufactured to exacting standards, this imported bench plane is a virtual copy of the no-longer-available Record bench plane. Frogs are well machined and adjustable for control of the throat opening,depth adjustment knob is brass. Hardwood handle and knob have a hand rubbed finish. The iron is high carbon steel and lever caps are chrome plated for added protection. The #4 has a 2” wide iron and a 10” length. Soles are guaranteed flat to within 0.003”. The plane was half price at $14.99.”

Well, the plane description didn’t match. The plane we got was poorly engineered, difficult to move parts. hand rubbed must have meant something different to Woodcraft than everyone else. Looking at what we got and comparing it to the description, it felt like our particular example was from second rate stock.

You see it is more a matter of trust than anything else. We should be able to rely on people, companies and so on, to give us the truth. The exact standards touted by Woodcraft leave a bad taste in my  mouth.

6 comments on “Smooth talking planes

  1. I hope you don’t mind if I point out that Stanley was (and is) a profit-making enterprise. As such the fact that it was cheaper to produce a thin and flat iron for its planes, I suspect, is what really drove the Bailey plane production. Were they good enough? Sure. Were they as good as the thick-ironed planes of the day? I doubt it. But, the higher profit and cheaper price of mass production was what it was really about.

  2. I take your overall point. But what the heck were you expecting for $14.99? Or even $30? Of course it’s going to be rubbish at that price. Unsuspecting people may fall for it, which is wrong, but if something sounds too good to be true…caveat emptor.

  3. Well put Mr. Sellers! I for one am tired of being lied to! Why anyone would make excuses for the lying of others is beyond me. It is deception and it is immoral. Period. It is one of the reasons why I wanted to be a woodworker to start with; honesty of materials, construction and craft. Words not often syncronous in our modern madison avenue marketed culture.

  4. Woodcraft is a power tool company and with the exception of the WR line of planes (Rob Cosman helped out with that product line), I wouldn’t shop for hand tools there.

  5. I agree 100% with you Paul.
    And this is why; I’ve used hand planes for maybe three years, and not very successfully either. You have used them for almost 50 years and very successfully, to boot. My understanding is that you are trying to help out us guys that are new to hand tool woodworking by showing us how we can obtain tools at a reasonable cost. (And showing us the pros & cons along the way.) BTW, a Veritas No 6 went for $214 US today on ebay, I bought my Stanley No 6 for about $60 and it came ready to work, the gent must follow your methods because it is effortlessly removing thick or thin shavings. Don’t get me wrong, Veritas makes NICE planes/tools but the cost is higher, even in the used arena.
    For people that are just beginning to piece together their tools, I would advise that they follow your advice and be patient, there are good deals out there in the used hand tool market,

    • Thanks for the vote there. I feel compelled to help my fellow woodworkers get to corre of their need and then they can get to other planes if, and I say if, they feel the need to. I have several Veritas planes and I really like them.

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