Improving plane-making standards

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Paul, what are the “higher engineering standards” you speak of relative to plane makers or any hand tool makers? P1110857


There can be no doubt that Stanley UK planes slopped out and have been poorly pumped out since the 1970s by the slipshod standards assembly line work has an innate propensity to engender. Of course all makers of planes use assembly line methods of production with dumbed-down specialisation of some kind to some degree. No one person takes a quantity of metal and fashions the whole plane from scratch unless it costs £5,000. But you’ll find someone with an engineering degree honing cutting edges all day long or watching a machine flatten soles of planes or cutting irons without ever touching them except to lift them on and off the machine doing the work. DSC_0014
The reality is that Stanley Sheffield dropped their standards of production through the decades. A little slip here and another there and then employing people who never knew the higher standards or even what the planes were supposed to actually do leaves them thinking they are the bees knees of engineering. The owners of corporate giants like Stanley have a complete disconnect from manual work and relate only through numbers and targets. Stanley actually introduced a plastic handle in the late 60’s that is extremely comfortable and was in fact unbreakable even in extremes of cold. I own and use a couple of them and with two coats of my magic formula shellac with colouring I defy anyone to actually tell the difference between wood and plastic. Anyway, in recent decades they did what many of their ilk do and found a plastic that did crack with any drop in temperature. DSC_0092 Here in the UK we don’t really have low temperature issues compared to the northern states of the US and Canada so that’s not a problem, but in such climes where temperatures drop way below freezing in most states, with some records showing minus 60 Centigrade, those handles don’t stand a chance. That’s one low engineering standard I would like to see changed. I would never expect a Stanley bench plane since the 1960s to be flat unless someone did some retro work and flattened it. I would never expect the plane to arrive with a correct adjustment of any kind. I would always expect to find the plane parts poorly aligned. I would expect to find any threaded components to be loose (or too tight). I would always expect to need to work on the plane for about half an our to do what Stanley should have done three quarters of a century ago but never did. DSC_0097
That said, you can fettle them, rework them and use them as a plane kit and you will end up with a good plane IF you insist on buying new. Best to to buy older ones, even rust and all, and strip it down to bare bones and rebuild its old character and give it back its dignity. Total cost a little sweat-equity and about £20 usually. As for slack and whiplash on the adjustment wheel, well, to be honest, I like it. My plane adjusters spin faster than a plate spinner so take up is one thumb spin away from total take-up or down. I have never had any of the threads strip out even on the castings so no real issues to worry about.
I just think that if there was a new or modern maker prepared to work on producing a top quality Bailey-pattern #4 again, set new standards as all the modern makers we know n love have, we would have a plane to be reckoned with. I am not saying don’t make any changes at all. I mean go back to a nice handle wood and a well shaped handle at that. Take up the slack a tad on some of the threads and threaded adjusters. Add say a nice bronze lever cap. Get rid of squared-off corners everywhere your hands touch including the sole, please! Ease the outer rim of the sole with a shallowly bevelled edge all around as I showed in the YouTube video, that kind of thing. The design work has all been done. Just a question of a little extra finish work, five minutes machining max, that’s all.


  1. Amazing what you did with the handle you honestly can’t tell the difference. Can you tell me have you examined Stanley’s premium planes if so do they match in terms of flatness of the sole and all other qualities of LN and Veritas planes. Are they as good as them? Thanks in advance.

  2. I’m interested to know whether the premium people would pay for a new edition of proper Stanley Baileys could finance restarting those machines that were turned off so long ago? Can it only work out financially for a company if hand tool users are paying companies £200+ for LN-type planes?

    1. That did cross my mind. If say, Clifton, produced a Bailey #4 that Paul liked (and blogged about) then they’d surely get a few sales.

      The problem is that it seems the whole modern plane selling industry espouses the virtues of heavy castings and thick blades – to produce a plane to Paul’s requirement would put a rather large hole in their marketing strategies.

      You’d still also have the problem that they’d need to do something *better* than an old Stanley to make it a success. Otherwise it’s £20-50 on eBay and a couple of hours of work vs £250+; and I know which way I’d rather go.

  3. Paul – out of interest, you indicate that standards had definitely dropped by the 1960s. Given that you apprenticed from 1965 I assume your first planes (that you bought) would also then have required extra work? But, do you still reach for “your” planes over the pre-war examples I assume you’ve obtained in the years since?

  4. Paul, I don’t know what a skilled production line worker would be paid an hour, let’s call it £20,the firm would make that £100 plus, divide that by12 so £9 ish, now the firm has to make a profit on its labour so double that, -£18 on the price of a no 4 ? No way, they wouldn’t do it, they probably have a price point already beyond which they can’t go. Best we do the work ourselves, after all when you and I were young, tools always needed sharpening and fairing up when you bought them, screws were always properly cut and nails had a cross hatched pattern on the heads ! but that was far away and long ago.

    1. I agree Simon but what about the premium versions they have released so far? I don’t know if they are of equal quality to LN or Veritas but they are half the price.

    2. The living wage is £9.40, which is for London. The rest of the UK is £8 25 but then there is the average wage which may average but there is a great disparity between the haves and the have nots as always. So those in the have nots sections wouldn’t be able to spend on high end planes so it is nice that we can ass along the Stanleys and Records via eBay which is why I do what I do in helping people to understand that Stanley or Record equals the results of fancier planes but for a fraction of the cost but requiring a little effort.

  5. Hi paul,
    You views on the insidious creeping of quality standards over time are very relevant and well founded. unfortunately we all also know that it’s a fact of modern (white Goods Mentality) life.
    We also all seem to do a lot of curmudgeoning around the topic of ‘The Good Old Day’s’.
    Remember though that each of your planes cost you “A Week’s Wages” and you still had to ‘fettle’ them first.

    Many people with the means to do so, have invested in the new ‘Quality’ tools and are therefore bound to challenge any notion that an old, BUT reconditioned Stanley (etc) is infact superior – it’s purely a psychological reaction. My fear is that by engaging too much in this tension, you might risk alienating or lessening the confidence of others within your group.
    What I mean is that there will be some who have no access to either type of tool – hand planes, are what I’m really thinking of. These exchanges typically end in a draw but with a unanimous damnation of the (typically asian manufactured under the old names) budget tools.

    I hugely admire your ethos of cutting thru the bull- and myths, demonstrating the skills necessary to produce beautiful things with such a small assembly of simple tools. It’s a shame then, that those with tools that fall within the ‘Out Group’ may miss your central message, lack the confidence to grow their skills for having these ‘lesser’ tools — I’m Certain this was never your intention. I think you would be the first to agree that each individual will produce the very Same end results regardless of which class of tool is in hand (Albeit with some extra effort and embuggerance).I’m suggesting that you resist the temptation to engage with the worst of the ‘willy-wavers’ and be more inclusive — How about doing a video on how to get the best out of a new bought £30 plane? Nothing new maybe,but just seeing you produce a good shaving would be a great confidence booster — Unless you genuinely believe you could not produce an acceptable surface/joint with such a tool?

    With respect and affection,
    steve Hughes

    1. Steve – I really like your idea of Paul doing a video on getting a new budget plane working… though Paul may not.

      To be fair to Paul, he has reviewed a number of modern budget tools (e.g. the Faithfull #80 scraper) and offered suggestions on tuning. I would however very much like to see him take a, say, new sub-50 quid Stanley #4 from Screwfix* and get it running.

      It’ll be a win either way for us viewers: either it’ll be a useful tutorial, or a fantastically funny video of Paul cursing shoddy manufacturing 🙂

      * Other outlets are available

      1. I will be more than happy to do such a thing. I have done that with planes from India, China, Taiwan. The issue is this. You can get them working and you can say, Hey guys, this is a great tool and works as well as this or that. The problem though that I find common to tools is their longevity. I can take $5 import spokeshave #151 and get it working just fine, but then a casting can fracture around the setscrew. I had this with every import vise I ever tested bar one. The one vise I tested lasted me for over ten years before I sold the bench on with the vise. This vise (20 years ago) was Chinese and just excellent. I thought I could recommend the vise but then the casting quality of Chinese import vises failed in every way. Whether that is still true today I do not know. The vises I have tested since then have all ended up with serious flaws. On the other hand I am sued to using a vise that has lasted 80 plus years.
        I will talk to the guys and we can do this. Pick your plane.

        1. Many thanks Paul. I guess the longevity point is a very good one – and something that’s both difficult to test in a short review, and also needs a statistically significant sample of units to make a good judgement.

          Personally I’d love to see you run through a variety of new Stanleys (plus Sweethearts), Quangsheng, Clifton etc, but as Steve’s point was about budget models I’d suggest a new Stanley #4, randomly chosen from a UK outlet. Anyone with any remote interest in DIY is going to know of the main DIY store or warehouse brands, so that adds an extra level of “normal”, as opposed to picking up a plane from a specialist, or a rookie facing an uneducated eBay gamble.

          Out of personal interest, I’d love to know your take on the various Stanley Types. I have a ~1960s No 4 1/2 but have just picked up a WWII version (I’ve never used an earlier model). It’s interesting to note the subtle differences in use.

        2. I would be very interested in seeing this done with a “House Brand” bench plane from one of the big-box home centers.

          I’ve often read that cheap planes like this can be made into scrub planes, but I’m interested to know if one could be pressed into service for joiniting/smoothing as well.

          The reason being, is that everyone who lives near a city (at least in the USA) will have access to a nearby “orange” or “blue” home improvement store. Unless you get a hand-me-down plane from Grandpa, a home center plane is likely the most readily accessible hand plane available for most people. I could run out, buy one of these, and be home in under 10 minutes. I’m sure many people could say the same.

          Lowe’s has a Kobalt brand one:

          Home Depot has their Buck Bros. brand:

          In the UK, B&Q would be an equivalent store?

          B&Q has a Mac Allister Brand:

          and Wikes seems to have a house-brand as well:

          These are all 9-inch long, imported, plane-like objects that can be readily found in-stock locally just about anywhere for approx. $30.

          I’m convinced that many beginners will start their woodworking journey at the local home center. THIS is where a beginner, over some long, dull weekend, will (likely) end up when the urge to create something overtakes them. The home center is non-threatening compared to visiting the specialty woodworking store and lumber yard at this stage (if they even exist near to them). There they can pick up all the basics tools and lumber to get started – including maybe a hand plane. They might not know at this point that it’s really a plane “kit”, but it’s the only one on the shelf and available “now”, instead of waiting to find the perfect specimen on eBay (a skill in itself) or having the cash to buy a new “premium” tool. When I recently got into woodworking, I was about to buy one of these house-brand planes myself, until I found an old Craftsman in my father-in-law’s garage. Still might pick one up sometime, just out of curiosity.

          I think for those folks that have purchased one of these common house-brand planes – be it because of lack of knowledge or some other reason – it would be tremendously helpful to see that it CAN, in fact, be fettled to produce adequate results (a real confidence boost, like SteveWales said. Especially since, as a beginner, you don’t know if it’s even POSSIBLE to get one of these cheap planes working well). And, importantly, it would also give a reasonable expectation to a beginner as to how long it should take to set one of these up (should it really take 2 days of rubbing to flatten the sole? How perfect does it need to be for this grade of tool?).

          1. OK. By popular demand I ordered two and will do them to camera and see what turns up. Not ordering from USA though. Shipping too high.

    2. I have seen people try to gain acceptance through what they own or what they do or what they are or might be all of my life. They spend money and energy at striving to compete at being the very best but mostly it leads to disappointment and frustration. These things can be the new car, house type or location, knowledge, degrees, sports abilities. The list is of course endless. The truth is that most people who aspire to be great soccer players actually only ever play mediocre games and are thereby excluded. When high aspirers can no longer hold their title of best they shrink away into oblivion because they so want to be best, prettiest, handsomest, greatest, strongest. Here we see the reality that the most then become excluded from the higher echelons in different realms. I wanted people to understand that it was a week’s wage that was not too much to pay and I have said so in the past in several places that actually a high end plane costing £300 is not too much if you are intending using it throughout your lifetime. But for those who could never conceive of paying so high a price they should never feel that they cannot work wood and work it just as well with a secondhand alternative as was the impression given by most until I (and very few others in the beginning) countered on a more regular basis. I am occasionally accused of being imbalanced but no one ever saw how imbalanced the picture was 25 years ago when manufacturers were totally unchallenged. I am glad we fought our corner as we did and continue to make inroads at every level. It was never to diss anyone in any way, ever. It has been nice of late to have to do such things less and less. But we must remember that the information that was so very biased, naturally, was the manufacturers (naturally), distributors and sales outlets (naturally) and then advertising magazines (naturally), which is ALL magazines. I know that they all protect their own turf and so my championing that cause for those (the majority) who needed an affordable alternative gave me a cause and a purpose and now look at the difference we have surely made since this began back in 1990.
      Not sure if this explains anything any more and I appreciate your input here too.

      1. So many people have come to woodworking as it has become popularised by the Internet, and YouTube in particular. It’s easy to forget, even for those of us who’ve been around long enough, how different things were 25-30 years ago, how much harder it was to come across genuine unbiased information.

        Having said all that, I’ve got an Irwin #4 plane at home, plastic handles, all the modern refinements(!), and you know what, it works. It’s as flat as any of my Stanley’s, and I’ve got several, along with a Clifton #6, you can always make/buy wooden handles if you find the plastic unacceptable, and the blade takes a perfectly good edge. There are some makes that are shockingly poor and should be avoided like the plague, but not everything should be damned.

      2. I was fortunate enough to have learned to sharpen and use a Stanley jack plane in Junior High, and had see my dad using a hand plane also. So when in the mid 1980’s I was starting to do some remodeling on my first home I went to the hardware “big box” store and bought a #4 plane. It looked the same, but I could not figure out why it wouldn’t work the same as that old Stanley. Since then I have been a fan of the older planes, both pre-war Stanleys as well as wood bodied planes. But even now, after 30 years using and tuning/fettling hand planes, I have tried to tune up and adjust that 1985 plane and still can’t get it to work decently-it is so shoddy in so many ways. I suspect that most of the sales of these new planes are to first time users who don’t know what to look for but unfortunately most of them get so discouraged by the experience they conclude “hand tools just don’t work,” and never move beyond this. Like Paul, I have strongly encouraged any new woodworker wanting to try buying and using a hand plane to acquire a vintage plane.

  6. The Bedrock design is just hot right now, and new manufacturers have to make what they can sell.. because they have to make a living doing it!

    I think if this (someone marketing a new Bailey pattern plane) happens it will be some yahoo with a DIY foundry in his garage doing it because he loves it, not a high-dollar manufacturing powerhouse doing it because the accountants who run it think they might retire 10 minutes earlier if they do. Please understand I’m not referring to the two NA companies who are actually making quality product – I am referring to the parent companies of those turning out garbage because they can, and well-meaning people who know no better than to buy it.

    I have long-term plans to try it myself but there are a lot of small steps between here and there.

  7. Paul – as usual, thank you for a thoughtful piece and great answers to questions we all have. I will ask one more – you mention “two coats of my magic formula shellac” have you blogged on your “magic formula shellac” if not could you, and if you have can you give us a link to it?

  8. I thought I should add my comment here. Having read your various posts and blogs I thought I should try to renovate the tools I have, add those I need, make those I can’t afford etc. Im also in the priocess of making a workbench following your vidoes etc; although I set myself the challenge of only using free wood that I have found abandoned at or been given by the numerous building sites near me – the only cost for the bench will be glue!

    The planes have been invaluable (the neighbours already complain if i chop mortices beyond about 7.30 and would probably go nuts if I used a power plane or a jointer!) especially my Record 04 1/2. It probably needs fettling but it with a sharp iron it just does the job with little effort.

    I happened to be in a bric a brac and old tool shop aweek ago and spotted a bunch of planes, I was looking for 51/2 but they were all 4s I picked up the most solid looking one, although the sole and sides looked like they had been used to stir paint; and asked how much? £10 came the answer!

    Less than 2 hours work later and I have a fabulous Stanley No 4.Underneath the grime was a nearly new plane albeit a 50 year old one! It also had a iron with no rust, no pitting and still shiny under the cap iron. Much better than my existing Stanley 4 and good for another lifetime, now that really is sustainability and I may well go back for the other three sitting on that shelf, one for each of my children.

    Thanks for the advice

  9. I took apart my Stanley No.4 following the steps covered in your recent video. I had done this following one of your two-day classes in New York three years ago, but found some things that I missed. The plane went together well, and it worked very well with pine. However when I tried planing the face side of some very hard maple, I could not get the plane to make a shallow cut. I had set up with a shallow cut with pine following a blade sharpening. and moved over to the hard maple. The plane would just not begin to slice into the wood. I moved up to my No. 6 Stanley, and had much better luck. Was my blade able wrong, or the was something wrong with my set-up. I feel that my blade was sharp.

    I could use some help.

    1. Keith-
      Seen similar issues pop up in the tool forum. Two things that seem to be the most common culprits are bevel angle and the blade not being as sharp as you think it is. So I would first check the bevel and be sure it is in the 25-30 degree range to ensure that the face of the bevel is not lifting the edge off the wood. Then resharpen the blade and be sure you pull a good burr on the edge of the cutter. Pine has more give in the surface and can easily be cut a duller blade than hard maple.

      1. I got out my honing guide and set it up for 25 degrees. After 45 minutes of good upper body exercise on the granite slab and the diamond plates, II had achieved the angle. I did nothing different on the final hand sharpening without the guide, but the lower angle felt sharper. I too must be more careful on the strop. There was a big improvement on the hard maple, and I was able to get shavings so thin that they had holes through the web and were soft to the touch. Thanks for the help;


    2. It is most likely that stropping has not been maintained at 30 degrees or less, say 25 degrees. Leather under compression bulbs up and then springs back in the pulls causing the bevel to become rounded right at the cutting edge. This then results in the bevel riding the wood. We often fail to realise that stropping any bevel, convex, flat or concave, on leather, always creates rounds to the bevel.Stropping on wood does not create a discernible round but because all wood compresses this too rounds the edge but to a much lesser degree. I often watch my students stropping vigorously and have to stop them to show that they are exaggerating the action because they think they must follow the cambered bevel. You don’t. Just keep the angle fixed at 25 and certainly no more than 30 degrees. Just as stropping can refine a beveled cutting edge, so too it can dull it just as fast.

      1. Very useful to know, thanks. I’m not concious that I’ve caused myself a problem before, but I am pretty certain I’ve been lifting the end of an iron on the strop in the same way as you do on the stone. I’ll stop doing that and keep it lower.

  10. On the topic of planes Im in the middle of restoring a 1950s Stanley Bailey No 4. Iv the sole flattened, the iron sharpened as well as the chip breaker mating and polished nicely but The biggest problem I has is that front prongs on the frog are now in line with each other. It seems someone at one time grounded it wrong or at lease attempted to try something.

    The problem its causing is that its throwing the iron out of square. I thought the lateral adjustment would fix this but it seems that the shorter of the frog prongs is lifting the iron higher than the other side.

    I will include a link to the photos I took of the plane, much help is really appreciated.


    1. Hi Jonathan,
      Probably best to upcycle that frog as a door-stop!
      You could try shimming it with some brass shim stock (thin brass sheet), but really the interface between frog and body is at the heart of the plane’s engineering.
      Stanley still sell spares kits for some of their tools — Kit 5 is a complete frog assembly it costs £18.50 here
      (A complete set of fixings (kit 3) and handle rods (kit 2 also inc nasty plastic handles) are also available.
      the new frog has the modern sub-optimal pressed lateral lever but you could swap it out with a new rivet.
      It’s prob not the best idea to get a second hand frog on it’s own – when you can get a whole plane (especially if it’s really ugly looking) for near the same money.
      You can then cannibalise this (or yours) to make a good one.
      I’ve had to do this and probably anyone who has done up half a dozen or more has needed a donor for missing/incorrect parts.

  11. I’d love to see the difference between my Pre-war millers falls planes which cost me ~£20 each + lots of rust remover + Polish + Abrasives + time and the newest priciest £200+ Veritas planes, but I have no money so thats never going to happen. I’m comfortable with what I’ve got, it produces excellent quality work (as far as my amateur eyes can tell).

    If you can produce work you are happy with to a decent standard with a new £30 stanley handyman plane then good on you, I just hope it lasts you more than a year.

    I’ve got a fantastic little chinese no 51 spokeshave knock off that cost me £4 and it does what I need it to do, I accept the fact that it could break at any moment, It adds an element of surprise to my work!

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