Sunday, September 21, 2008

Used Hand Planes part 1: The Stanley "Rule"

So, ebay hand plane purchases have been all the rage over the last couple of weeks in the Woodwhisperer chat room! Even I got on the bandwagon and bought 3 more smoothers. At around $23 a piece with shipping, how could I resist? When it comes to planes, I'm talking about bench planes. Block planes are pretty user friendly in both use and function, but bench plane use seems to come about as a turning point in your woodworking. There's something about buying, tuning, and using your first bench plane that is both excitingly new and nostalgic, simultaneously. Now, I'm not sure how I became a hand plane data base overnight and granted I'm not always right (thinking about a certain Sargent jointer, right Vic?), but I have acquired a bit of knowledge that I thought would be helpful to all of you who are just starting out with bench planes in particular. This is the first in a three post series about choosing, buying, and tuning a used bench plane.

When it comes to iron bench planes, the standard is Stanley. This is ironic, because Stanley has ended up near the bottom of the barrel when it comes to the new hand plane makers of today. However, rewind 60 to 100 years, and now we are in the Stanley era. Many of you probably already know that Leonard Bailey developed the iron bench plane design that has become the industry standard back in 186 0's. After a decade or so as the story goes, Stanley Rule and Level Co. hired Bailey and acquire d the patents to his bench plane design. Bailey left not too long after but continued to produce bench planes under the names Bailey, Victor, and Defiant (here's a link to the detailed story: http :// ). Unfortunately, Stanley Rule and Level Co. eventually ran him out of business. They were the king of bench planes and a load of companies tried to keep up. Sargent, Miller's Falls, Union, Ohio, Keen Kutter, and others produced very good quality planes using the Bailey design. Then came World War Two. Many manufacturing plants had to do double duty, producing tools and parts fo r the war effort as well as try to continue to make the products they had been making all along. You will find a bit of confusion trying to date a Stanley plane from this era, mainly because there was a lot of mixing and matching parts from different years just to put bench planes on the shelves. After the war, Stanley looked to the future, and saw more mass production as the answer. The problem with this mentality was that the quality of their planes started to suffer. You can see it in the first picture of pre and post WW2 Stanley Bailey plane frogs. The pre WW2 frog is almost solid across its face, yet the post war Bailey has cast detentes in it. This allowed for quicker milling of the frog to speed production, but gives the cutter less over all support. In the second pic, you can see how less attention is payed to making the base of the frog solid. A slippery slope...

(bailey type 9; post WW2 bailey; 1950s Defiance)

bailey type 9, post WW2 bailey, 50's defiance)

(Stanley Bailey, Sargent VBM, Miller's Falls)
So here's where the tides changed. Looking at the post WW2 examples to the left, you can see that the Miller's Falls and Sargent frogs have a pre-war Bailey design compared to the Stanley of the same era. Much better design, obviously, and consistent with today's high quality bench planes from makers like Lie-Neilson.

(Miller's Falls #900; Stanley Defiance)

And here's yet another example where Stanley cut corners. The frog on the right is from a Stanley Defiance model - one of their post-war economy models. The frog face surface area is even less than the post-war Bailey. The plane on the left is a post-war Miller's Falls #900 - their economy model offering into the 1950's. Notice any glaring difference? Which one would you think will chatter the most?

(Miller's Falls #900; Miller's Falls #9C)

Here's two Miller's Falls planes side by side - their premium #9 and their economy #900. Now you get why I'm a fanatical Miller's Falls fan, right? You can clearly see that their frogs are almost identical. in fact, the only differences I can find are purely cosmetic. I happen to now own two of each...after a good week of ebay auctions, that is. I think this illustrates the point that while Stanley was cutting corners in vital areas of their design, other companies cut costs with cosmetics while maintaining quality.

So, don't be afraid to look at something other than a Stanley. You might just find something better, ultimately. My next post will cover bench plane parts, design features, usual damage areas, and potential pit falls to avoid when buying a used bench plane.


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