Perfecting Skilled Work

My plans for the future of hand tool woodworking haven’t changed very much through three decades thus far. My time is not yet done and I write, sketch, build and create with the perpetuation of my handcraft in mind all the time. New developments in hobby realms include CNC production and this is an interesting phenomenon in that those pursuing it have a like fascination for the computer-guided machine as I have had for the hand tools I use. One thing I do love is that neither the machine nor the computer will ever destroy my world of woodworking. I suppose that’s because, with handwork at least, the tools I’m so accustomed to have never really changed that much at all. There are no modern makers bringing anything new to the market. The closest to that end might be Lee Valley Veritas but even then it was to reinvent mechanisms and incorporate them into more modern versions.

For the main part, the art of plane making is five millennia-long. For the Egyptians reportedly had metal cast planes 5,000 years ago. Leonard Bailey, of Stanley fame, was the designer of the plane Lie Nielsen makes but stands accused of making a plane with thin irons that chattered. Truth is that they never did actually chatter and they still don’t. But this is like the story when a man in a public debate asks his opponent when he stopped beating his wife and children. Of course, he never did such a thing, but half the audience took that fact of family abuse with them and his name was sullied. The same is true of Leonard Bailey who never made a plane that chattered! He just couldn’t defend himself from the grave, having died in 1905. That’s why I am doing it now having owned and used a Stanley Bailey-pattern plane for 55 years every day of the week full time for full days of work. That engineering standards have much tighter tolerances when a maker takes charge of production standards there can be no doubt. Whether engineers are better than a century ago is highly questionable. Program a CNC machine to operate a mill and you take the human hands off the driving wheel for a driverless experience that will soon be so complete we will never see a machinist in the work zone. In reality, we don’t produce anything much different than was available 300 years ago except that wood was replaced by metal and plastic or casting resins and such which gave us what we wanted more than anything, lower production costs. Who knows how a cast resin handle will feel in a hundred years time, or if it will even be in place on a saw handle. Stanley said that plastic handles would last for the lifetime of the plane but then they changed the plastic-type and now the plastic they use cracks when the temperatures drop to around freezing just with the pressures of working them. Of course, wooden handles crack when you drop them as do the soles of planes if they hit concrete from a few feet. Generally, though, wooden handles last for a century and cast-metal planes only crack when dropped from a height.

The methods I use have not really changed through the centuries for the main part but then they have too. Some things I do with planes are completely innovative in that I do things with them that no one ever used to. Expanding their capabilities to thickness wood, create veneers develop tenons within a thousandth of an inch in thickness and such enabled me to match the tolerances I need for fine work. Truth is though, for the main part, I could do these things by eye too, after a few years in the saddle; in most cases anyway.

It remains up to us to develop ideas and products that remain as a testimony of good design, good workmanship and then too good quality. If an engineer sees a way to improve a product it doesn’t make him a designer but more an improver. If a chair has four legs and a back to rest against then it already existed 5,000 years ago. The shapes of components can become a design aesthetic and the claim to it can be had by the designer. If a maker takes a tool to repurpose its functionality then he can claim the technique. By these things we perfect the skill and the outcome. Tom Nielsen creates wonderful tools and improved on the failures put out by complacent toolmakers in Sheffield England. Whereas British makers should have been ashamed, they never were. They just lived on their daddies reputation which declined with each generation. Even now, such makers could redeem themselves, but they never will.

Were metal bodied planes an improvement on wooden ones? No! They were more readily mass-manufactured and needed lower levels of skill to make them that’s all. Price is everything in our modern world. Makers could not compete with Stanley or, later, Record. The only reason wooden planes were abandoned was the skill and time it took to make a wooden plane. That’s all!

45 thoughts on “Perfecting Skilled Work”

  1. You can still buy new wooden planes manufactured by Pinie Planes in the Czech Rep. at very reasonable prices. While the planes are traditional designs they use a lot of CNC machines to manufacture them. I recently purchased one of their scrub planes both for fast wood removal and for the interesting texture the curved blade leaves on the wood. The more expensive models have a screw blade adjuster. Of course you have to get used to the strange shape of the front handle – very different to the normal round knob.

  2. Hello Paul, I am new to woodworking and I’d like to by a Stanley Bailey hand plane (41/2 or 51/2). Can you recommend somewhere I could purchase one from? Peter

    1. Ebay is you best bet for shopping at home. There are always some available, #4 are a bit more common than the 4 1/2, but that was always true.

      1. Yes, eBay is a great source for used tools. See my blog here for the refurbishing of a Stanley “Jackplane”.

  3. One thing I was taught when serving my time as an apprentice 40yrs ago was never blame your tools and always work to a tolerance of “spot on”. We train, acquire skills and technique and hopefully hone and tune them as well as the keenest of edges we rely upon. Never stop learning or be willing to test-drive new ideas and technique.

    Old tools work extremely well and with very good reason. They were created for craftsmen, by craftsmen. Bailey struck gold with his designs and his inspired “clamp up system” of cap iron plus lever cap dissolved any excuses surrounding a need for heavy cutting irons.

  4. Richard Hutchings

    Paul, this is exactly why I’ve started building wooden planes. I haven’t completed my first but I’m getting there. I have all the metal ones I need but I’m attracted to the wooden because I love wood and anything I can make from it. I watched your poor mans rebate this morning and I think I can use most of what you taught for making some molding planes. There’s my 2 cents.

    1. Building wooden planes is an absolute pleasure, if a bit tricky, when not going the Krenov route. I finished a wood body for a Japanese plane blade I stumbled across not too long ago and while it would undoubtably make a master dai maker cry or hit me with the nearest stick, it still works well and taught me many lessons on my process for the next and hopefully better one.

  5. The other problems are environmental. Stanley was right! The plastic handles will last several lifetimes! In fact it will just end up slowly turning into microbeads that kill wildlife and the fish ingest and we end up eating them. Not true of things like wood and metal.

  6. I live in France. I went to a country show a few years ago, as I heard that the local charpentiers (carpenter) students were showing examples of oak timber framing. The work was excellent, and they all used wooden planes.

    1. Wooden planes were never abandoned because they didn’t work, they just could not compete with the metal ones emerging on a massive scale. It was also the close of the hand tool era. Planing machines came into being alongside ripsaws and crosscut saws. The writing was on the wall and in general, over the past 70years at least, so-called professional woodworkers no longer use hand tools at all.

      1. The feel of wood one wood is satisfying. I have an old wooden jack plane and it glides so effortlessly across wood, no need to lubricate the sole! It does take more effort and skill to tune the iron and depth of cut etc compared to my metal Stanley’s.

      2. I think it all starts using hand tools watching your father or grandad but also school if they could still teach children in school whitch they don’t seem to do these days would be beneficial to the future of use of hand tools and keeping people able to do at least some basic diy its a shame at the loss these skills I remember making things like dovetail jewlery box for my mum which I still have 43 years on a stool I still have 43 years on we need this back in schools I think personally there’s more kids could be doing besides computer games

  7. Thanks Paul.

    I’ve bought a variety of hand planes, expensive and inexpensive, just to try them out to see for myself what is the difference.

    The wooden ones are very nice.

    By far though, my favorite hand plane is a used Craftsman brand (not sure who the real plane maker is) one that I paid $30 for about 2 or 3 years ago. It wasn’t used much by the original owner and even has some paint speckles on it (which adds more charm from my perspective). I use it like a scrub for taking off the bulk of the wood like you teach. I can easily get fine shavings as well. The original blade sharpens so easily. Just a joy to use.

  8. I have been reading this blog for a while and find it endlessly useful and full of sound practical advice. I am fortunate to choose the plane I want from a small collection: spiers, traditional wooden, home made krenov look alike and Stanley. Having followed instructions all seem to work and are simple to sharpen / set. My wooden planes have all cost a few quid, I have flattened the soles and then glued on a bit of maple before reflattening and cutting a mouth: a great way to find how a plane works. My Spiers (oh they plane well) have some repaired cracks in the infill and my stanley was Dad’s. No real preferences but they all get used.

  9. I’ve been hand woodworking for 50 years mainly as a hobby, my planes primarily the Stanley/Record standards (my favourite is a Record #5 with a wood handle bought in 1970). However, about five years ago I purchased a Marples wooden jack plane with a Marples iron and have never looked back when it comes to rapid – and pleasurable – removal of material. And more recently I have brought into service a great wooden smoothing plane (Eagers of Derby) that is beautiful to use. I must, in the past, have bought and sold dozens of similar planes., but half a century later, comes the dawn! It might sound like sacrilege, but the Marples wooden jack plane is, for me, better than a Norris plane I had and used for years (like the one in the photo).

  10. Well I’m happy to be here. 68 years old and just now dipping my toe in. Truth be told, I come from years of hobby power woodworking. But, back in April, a moment of inattention and I lost the use of my left index finger. And acquired a possibly life long aversion to power tools.
    I have an unknown smoothing plane I inherited from my dad, and a block plane I bought years ago. A set of Marples chisels from many years ago. I wil likely buy plans for a Nicholson bench, from The English Woodworker, and get going. Being in Mexico, in an area where the forests disappeared centuries ago, I have difficulty sourcing tools. But I have great interest in making them.
    Carry on

    1. I bought those plans from Richard and built the bench. Its excellent and the videos are great. I learned Lot!

    2. Paul has several comprehensive videos on building a workbench on YouTube and you can get the plans for free on Woodworking Masterclasses (as well as many more excellent free videos teaching all the techniques you will need to get started).

  11. Lie Nielsen’s planes are not based on Bailey’s design, they are based on the designs of Justus Traut (the frog seating) and Edmund Schade (the pins to retain the frog).

    I have LN planes, Stanley Bedrocks, Baileys and infills. They all work fine, some have different strengths but the more solid planes have a wider range of ability for fine work.

    The question for the buyer becomes what is the intended use and how much value is placed on premium features. I’ve encountered 90 year old planes that could still function well and others that seemed past their prime. There is no general rule that an old Stanley or Record is competitive with a new plane from a reputable maker.

    1. Lie Nielsen Standard Bench Planes are based on the Stanley Bedrock design according to their website – I never knew about the frog etc. though.

      I must disagree, however, and say that an old Stanley or Record is indeed “competitive” (which I take to mean “performs as well as”) when compared to a modern maker’s plane. They might not have the features, but those featured aren’t actually ‘needed’. Just nice to have if you like them.

      I guarantee you that the results from my 60-100+ year old Stanleys will match any Lie Nielsen or other quality makers’ models. I own several LN and Veritas planes, too.

    2. The overall bench planes of Lie Nielsen and just about all other such planes are based fundamentally and functionally on the Leonard Bailey Pattern plane. That is they have the same adjustment mechanisms, handles, hand positions etc throughout. Leonard Bailey designed this and the Bailey name is cast into the soles of these planes even today. The change to the different frog was of only minor importance, a poor choice of upgrade if you will, and simply offered little or, in my view at least, no value to the quality or functionality of the plane. Reality hits when you realise that Stanley could not sell its so-called improved version, the Bedrock, to the general market. Crafting artisans using these tools in the every day of life didn’t buy into them. They remained on the shelves in hardware stores. Hence the scarcity and rarity of them on the market today. It was not worth the extra money and indeed is not really going to give you any more than a well-sharpened, well-maintained and well-adjusted vintage Stanley or Record. The more modern knock-offs are simply nicely made and feel pleasant and ready to go from the box. This too is of temporary value as in an hour or so it will need sharpening anyway. And we should not discount the extra weight today’s makers seem to think we need. They are way too heavy for long days at the bench week on week for the expanse of a lifetime as in my case. I would have muscles like a weightlifter had such planes been out in my youth. So this as the value-added version has resulted in success and that is what’s perhaps more commendable.

      1. I was also going to say that my old Stanley planes perform exactly the same as my Veritas or Lie Nielsens. The finished result is always of the same quality.

  12. My planes are almost all basically Bailey patterns or variations patented by other makers to get around Stanley’s patents. That patent issue is critical because Stanley came out with variation after variation to simply keep a major grip on the market. Stanley, Sergeant, Record, Miller’s Falls, they all work a treat. The majority are older than my dad, and I am 69. The only thing that is critical is putting them into fettle. Once that is done, they are good for a very long time. And the variations matter very little. The same BTW is true of handsaws.

  13. There is nothing particularly difficult about making a Krenov style plane. I made one from the white oak tree behind my house. It was almost the first thing I made after I finished my workbench.

    It works fine with Hock plane blade and breaker in it. I made it as about a 6 size, and it is good for finer scrubbing. I will make another, but use a smaller mouth – now that I understand how the mouth functions. I don’t have a smoother I like so that will be what I try next.

  14. About 10 years ago I bought two hand planes at Home Depot. Both Buck Brothers, a number 5 and a number 4. They sat in their boxes on my shelf undisturbed until about 2 years ago. I took them out, trued them up, sharpened the seemingly overly thin blades and started learning to use them. I paid 17 dollars for the #4 and 22 dollars for the number 5. They don’t chatter and they cut just as cleanly as my Wood River and believe it or not as my Lie Nielsen! Yes, they are made cheaper and the wooden handles had a bad lacquer varnish on them but every time I use them I am pleased with the results. Currently I am working on some modern Home Depot Buck Brothers, and Stanley chisels that all had really fat, terrible lands. I am grinding down all those lands so that they are better suited for dovetail joinery. The ones that I’ve completed work really well. Yes they took alot of work flattening the back and trueing the bevels and edges but each chisel only cost about 8 dollars a piece. I honestly think too often we get all caught up in a tool because of the brand name that it holds. I am sure the commercial industry loves us being enraptured by a specific brand because more than anything they view us as consumers.

  15. I have in my possession about 10 or 12 planes (if I include the router and curved spoke shave).
    My favourite is the coffin shaped wooden smoother.
    It’s just so light, responsive, and versatile.
    Even if there’s tricky grain, the speed with which it can just be spun about and brought back in a completely different direction is great.
    You can really feel the work through it too. There are tactile cues you can feel through it way clearer than through the iron body planes.
    That’s not to say I don’t love all my planes. But I do have a favourite.

  16. I’m not a rich man but I like to use the right tool for the job. I have several Stanley planes bought at a reasonable price from ebay. A little work needed to get them to a work ready state and I am very pleased with the result. I bought two No. 4 planes and followed Paul’s instructions on making a scrub plane – a really bonus to the arsenal! If you don’t have a scrub plane, make one.

    I recently treated myself to a new plane and struggled for a long time trying to decide what plane to buy, or at least what make of plane. I watched hours of reviews and came to the conclusion that the likes of Veritas and Lie Nielson were exceptional planes but they smacked of paying for a name. After all, I had been using 40/50 year old planes bought on Ebay for a few quid and they did everything I asked of them. I built my Paul Sellers inspired workbench using those planes.

    I decided to go for a Wood River plane based on several reviews testing the Wood River back to back against a Lie Nielson or Veritas plane and I am delighted with the products. I’m not going to go on as it will sound like an advert for Wood River but sure,as the reviews say, if you like shiney and have a load of money to spend then buy a Vertisa or Lie Nielson plane. I think I’m going to stick to my made in England Wood River plane! OH! Did I say made in England? I thought so originally but no, they are made in China. Thanks to modern machining techniques we can now buy top quality tools at a very reasonable price. All hail CNC machining 🙂

  17. Tony Leeding F.I.O.C.

    Like Paul I am still using a Stanley #4 purchased in 1956, I also have other Stanley Plane models all in regular use. Why buy Foreign copies when you can purchase perfectly good English, American and Canadian Stanley Planes on e bay and similar sites. They may not be bright and shiny but with a bit of care and old fashioned spit and polish they can be made serviceable and will last for years, damaged handles can also be purchased on line and match the originals depending on the supplier.

  18. The way I look at it, my tools are still better than I am. If that changes I’ll think about buying a new tool.

    I have an old, Stanley metal smoothing and jack plane, a new block plane, a new Record jointer.

  19. Just finished making an oak mallet like in your video Paul, all done with hand tools, very satisfying!half way through making a frame saw, love to know where you got your blades from Paul?and then restore a very large wooden plane a friend gave me recently, to say I’m hooked is an understatement! Thanks for the help and encouragement Paul. Elliott.

  20. Here in Germany, wooden planes are still very common. I belive (but I am not sure, because I lived abroad for a long time) that Bailey-style planes and bevel-up planes only gained interest in recent years. My grandpa teached my how to use planes, wooden ones of course, when I was a very little boy and I basically grew up with them. Today I own several metal planes and appreciate very much how well they work. Nevertheless, the planes that I like most are still the old wooden ones. It is hard to explain, but they feel more natural to me.

    I cannot imagine using a plane with a plastic handle. Although I don’t consider myself to be old-fashioned or opposed to modern technology, a plane with a plastic handle would not be right.

  21. Talking if scrubbing planes.

    Would you tend to use a lesser quality plane as your scrubbing plane or would you buy a equally high quality plane for scrubbing as smoothing. I gave several faithful planes as well as a Wickes one. Thinking I should turn the Wickes one into a scrubbing plane. But it’s a no5 which is a bit large?

    Cheers James

    1. Any plane will work for reconfiguring a scrub plane from and it doesn’t have to be new or high quality. For many years too, I just kept a separate iron and cap iron with a convex edge and installed it for scrub work. That works fine. Only issue for me is that I like the interplay with two planes to reduce the downtime of changing out irons and resetting the depths of cut.

  22. I agree with Paul’s assessment of the decline of toolmaking over the past 50 or 60 years. Vintage Stanley/Bailey type tools are available in the thousands because they used to be ubiquitous-every craftsman who shaped wood did so with hand tools, both the professional tradesman and the hobbyist. Wooden-bodied planes are a joy to use, and much of the most beautiful furniture ever made was made by hand using them. Vintage wooden planes are plentiful also, but the ravages of time and neglect have reduced their numbers. But as Paul has said, for various reasons production woodworking, whether construction or furniture making no longer relies on handtool expertise or use, and this is very unlikely to change. Fortunately there is a cadre of masters of the craft such as Paul who are able to pass on this set of skills and love of hand tool craftsmanship. But hand tool woodworking will survive because of the strong and growing community of us hand tool woodworkers, and we all have a responsibility to appreciate what our forbearers have done and to pass on some of what we have learned. But I hear in much of the discussion above much of what has killed off much of the toolmaking industry. We will never see handplanes made on the scale they were at the Stanley works, because there are never going to be the same number of consumers. As the sales of their tools fell many of the toolmakers outsourced the making and put out a product which was a poor imitation of their best. This was true, as Paul has said, of Stanley planes, Marples chisels, Nicholson files, and many others. But as Paul has also said, there is a resurgence of interest in handtool woodworking and in handtools. This has not gone unnoticed by toolmakers, and a what started out as a cottage toolmaking industry is growing. Tom Lie-Nielsen started a small shop making new versions of traditional metal planes. Independence Tool started making a new dovetail saw as good as any ever made, and Clark and Williams, now Old Street Tool started making wooden bodied planes to rival the best vintage planes made. A number of toolmakers have taken up the torch: M S Bickford, Claire Minihan Woodworks, Czech Edge, Bad Axe Tool Works, Walke Moore Tools, just to name a few. Most of these are one or two person businesses following their passion. Larger companies have found an increasing viable handtool market, such as Gramercy tools and Lee Valley/Veritas. Some traditional toolmakers who have maintained the high standards of their companies have hung on, such as Ashley Iles and Ariou. Some larger companies who have been active in the machine world have begun to make house brand handtools such as Woodcraft’s Wood River planes. Even Stanley and some other traditional manufacturers are making some steps to improve the quality of some of their products. I say all this because we have some choices to make as consumers now. Paul is right in that these makers are not making something brand new, they are making new versions of traditional tools. I love my vintage handtools and will continue to use them. But if needing a new tool you will not find a better vintage travisher than the one Claire Minihan makes, a better wooden coffin smoother than Old Street Tool’s, or a better vintage chisel than an Ashley Iles. Yes, these tools are expensive-but Matthew Bickford can’t run a business as a one man shop making hollows and rounds, rebate planes, etc if he can’t feed his family doing it. And the argument that we should just try to make do with the cheapest versions we can find of handtools will not help build this industry. Our predecessors insisted on quality handtools because they needed them to do the work which built their houses and fed their families-and the toolmaking industry gave them what they demanded. If we insist on buying a cheap modern Nicholson saw file instead of forking over more for the much better Grobet, Nicholson files will never improve, and Grobet may not survive. Buy quality vintage tools!! But for those who are able, when you need a good quality tool and if you can, stretch a little and splurge on a modern toolmaking craftsman. You will be happy you did-cutting dovetails with a Gramercy dovetail saw is a joy, as is chopping them out with an Ashley Iles chisel. And if we vote with our dollars/pounds for quality tools we can see a renaissance in toolmaking. Ask Paul how much his first Stanley #4 cost him when he was an apprentice-quality tools then were not cheap. He has never found a better plane (but he does occasionally use a Veritas). Paul has been very clear: a vintage Stanley #4, a vintage backsaw, and a few chisels can build so much. Start there, add tools as you need them, but buy the best you can afford, and take care of them so future generations can use them also.

  23. Hi!

    Really love your articles and videos and totally agree! One thing is certain: old things (of any kind) were way better made than newer ones… in every domain (not only woodworking and tools, but also cars, appliances, musical instruments, mobile phones, etc). Quality and especially durability lack these days on most of the products in the world. I am not a consumer-market advocate at all. I like things made to last.

    Yes, CNCs can make precise things and, in some areas, where precision is requires, I think they should be used. Woodworking, however, how I see it, and, I think, how you see it also, is something that is “alive”. The project you make, if YOU work at it and not a machine, in a sens, you give life to it. You put your passion and love into making it. You imbue it with your soul. You may think I am nuts, but I usually fall asleep at night with the projects I made that day next to me..

    Woodworking (the serious way) is something fairly new to me. I am just gathering tools.. working my way into making a workbench..

    I would have one question (as a beginner):

    Why do you say that metal planes (Stanley style) are no better than wooden ones? I can see the following benefits of the metal ones:

    – durability – the sole of the plane will not deform in time as the wood does
    – greater precision of iron depth and lateral setting – from the wheel and lever, not with the hammer

    Always a pleasure to read your articles!

    Take care! Much health to you!

    1. The wooden planes don’t distort as you said if they are cared for and used properly. Wood is a resistant material. Metal planes do distort according to any change in temperature and rarely, rarely, do they retain true flatness. Flatness is by the way not a real issue because we humans get used to planes and we indeed ‘flex’ as we present the planes to task. The adjustability you speak of was not the reason for the invention of adjusters. These were inventor/engineers telling us woodworkers we needed something we did not need at all. I can adjust a wooden bodied plane faster than you can a metal one with all its bells and whistles simply by bumping and nudging the plane side to side and toe to heel. Don’t think that hundreds of thousands of full time woodworkers shunned these no contraptions for no good reason beyond mere nostalgia. They were ugly, heavy, marred the wood and a great strain to the human body. Wood on wood glides like a swan on a calm lake. If, as you say, there is soul to woodworking, then look at the wooden planes the same way. I am not talking about mainland European adjustable wooden planes with metal adjusters; these I never liked. I’m talking about planes with soul to their soles.

  24. Definitively old tools carry themselves if well kept. After recently receiving several old planes from my grandpas era I realise there is such a noticeable difference in how they perform when compared to say 60’s,70’s made and later.
    My Stanley no.4 is from the 60’s and it’s a joy but from the earlier part of the century the planes feel and perform so good it’s hard to imagine ever using another tool to do that work.
    It’s almost addictive the feeling of smoothness the no.4 brings to a wood face.
    Stay well everyone.

    1. Richard Thompson

      In reference to Steve D ‘s post it’s a load of rubbish Sure a lie Neilsen plane is great but the older panes can be just as good .How well do you know planes?.You could own every plane on the planet but without time learnt skill and familiarity you won’t get the best from a plane.Folk who have built or spent a lifetime using planes don’t know a good plane from junk.? I mean (REALY)I know all the pre requisites for getting a plan to function well and an old or a cheap plane can work good.There is a multitude of reasons planes won’t cut good.Thats when a highly experienced trades man skill comes into play.At the end of the day do you get the highest standard you can in your work.I get above average from a life time of work but I will never reach perfection.I am still working on that one.Listen to the folk who spent the time to learn these skills and knowledge over a life time.
      Keep on chipping on

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