Mechanical Marvels or Steampunk Sporks?

N055Stanley No. 45 and No. 55 combination planes are put to the test.

by Roy Underhill
pages 35-39

It took 2,000 years of fine-tuning for woodworking planes to reach their peak of subtle perfection – each plane elegantly adapted to its niche in the grain. Then, in a coal-fired flash, they were gone, struck down in top-hat times by the cast iron asteroid of the new machines. Toothed with high-speed rotary cutters, the machines could spit out stock mouldings fast and cheap – and they were good enough. The old wooden warriors that survived took shelter in dank chests as new creatures arose to fill the short-run, on-the-job-site niches where the rotary machines could not (yet) roam.

The creature first emerged in 1884 as the Stanley No. 45 Combination Plane. It was joined in 1897 by the even more versatile and complicated No. 55 Universal Plane. Cast iron and machined itself, the No. 55 was compared by its creators not with the perfection of the earlier planes, but with, as they stated, “a planing mill,” and it too, was good enough.

So what about today? These tools now evoke curiosity if not respect, novelty if not snob appeal. Enough of them survive that one might consider, “Should I get a bunch of planes – or one of these things?”

We’ll test the maker’s claims for these beasts, but first let’s think about planes – not just about how a plane works, but also why a good plane works well.

Set a sharp cutter in a wooden or metal stock, adjust the cutter to take a fine shaving, and you have a plane that works.
But for a plane to work well – in real wood – you need more. The mouth in front of the cutter must be narrow to hold down the wood until the instant before the sharp edge shears and lifts it. The cutter must be fully supported from behind to prevent chatter. The shavings must have a clear escape path to prevent clogging. For clean work across the grain, the cutter must be fitted at a skew angle to make a shearing cut. And, if there are fences and stops, they must to be dead secure against slipping.

The combination planes skimp on all of these attributes. But that does not keep them from serving as…

Web site: Take a class from Roy Underhill at The Woodwright’s School in Pittsboro, N.C.
Video: Watch current seasons of “The Woodwright’s Shop” free online.
Blog: Read more about Stanley Tools and download the manual for the No. 55.
To buy: Read Underhill’s fascinating creative non-fiction article on André Roubo, and learn how to make Roubo’s one-board bookstand.
In our store: Find vintage episodes of “The Woodwright’s Shop” on DVD in our store, as well as many of Underhill’s books.

From the December 2013 issue, #208

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2 thoughts on “Mechanical Marvels or Steampunk Sporks?

    1. Megan Fitzpatrick Post author

      Sorry Tim – it seems PBS updated its site in the last month since I pulled that link. I’ve fixed it (site update is nice – much cleaner look!).

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