Chris Schwarz's Blog

A Piece of History from the Early Bronze Age

When a young Thomas Lie-Nielsen set out to start making premium handplanes in the early 1980s, he launched his business with an adaptation of the Stanley No. 95 edge-trimming plane.

But Lie-Nielsen wasn’t the first person to make this tool in bronze. That footnote goes to machinist Ken Wisner, who made the planes in small batches and sold them through the Garrett Wade catalog. When Wisner decided to get out of that business, he turned over his patterns to Lie-Nielsen, who took them to Maine and set up shop in a shack on his farm.

I’ve always wanted to own one of these Wisner planes , partly out of curiosity and partly out of my desire to own a piece of recent history. But they’re hard to come by. And they’re expensive when they do come up on eBay.

So this weekend, I got a little schoolgirl thrill when Jeff Skiver pulled a Wisner out of his bags of tools during a class on handplanes at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking. He wasn’t looking to sell it, and I won’t tell you what he paid for it. Suffice it to say that Skiver practically stole it from a starving widow who had substantial medical bills.

The Wisner is an interesting piece of work. On the one hand, the main casting was nicely polished and the machined areas were crisp and clean. But the thumbscrew on the lever cap was black plastic (the screw itself was metal, however). And the main screw that joined the lever cap, iron and body casting was an off-the-shelf hex-head screw.

Wisner signed his name on the plane with some sort of rotary tool (perhaps a Dremel). And the blade was thinner than the Lie-Nielsen version.

Of course, when you are blazing a trail like Wisner was, you have to overlook details like this and appreciate the sheer fact that this plane exists. Plus, look at what this little plane led to in Warren, Me.

And if anyone has a Wisner plane they’d like to part with (for the sake of history, natch) please drop me a line.

- Christopher Schwarz

4 thoughts on “A Piece of History from the Early Bronze Age

  1. J.C. Collier

    I wonder if Ken is any relation to Ron Wisner as Ron makes some of the most beautiful view cameras on the planet.

    He makes from mahogany, brass and stainless steel with kid leather bellows. Sweeeeet! Give a look, even if you aren’t a shutterbug, a fine woodworker will appreciate the workmanship. AND check out those prices! And they are worth every penny.

    always,
    J.C.

  2. Murphy

    The Wisner plane is certainly an elegant and well executed redesign. However, as Chris points out, it seems suprising and maybe even a little dissapointing that the work includes and is therefore somehow marred by the inclusion of off the shelf parts.

    Isn’t it intersting that we as a society eschew standardized parts. Even if only when looking at collectable items. Perhaps it is our association of standardization with "mass produced" or perhaps it goes deeper, conjuring images of Socialist conformity.

    When this plane was produced I am guessing Mr. Wisener considered alternatives, but custom manufacturing is expensive and he probably had to balance asthetics with cost. I do agree that a slotted fillister, pan or binding head screw would have been a nice alternative to the socket flat countersunk head he chose. But when you are just starting out there are copromises to be made.

    Imagine if Stanley had standardized on and stuck with a single type of screw for the frog or chip breaker. Though it would give the typification folks fits, it would certainly ease the proper reparation of a neglected plane.

    Are custom made and large scale manufactured truly mutually exclusive terms? Can a unique design that is also mass produced hold it’s value? Is conformity to Schwarzism inevitable? The Wives Against Schwarz at least provide some balance for the last question. But I think the premium hand tool makers have been relatively successful (at least measured by the price they command) at threading the needle on the other two.

  3. Jeff Skiver

    Chris,

    An interesting story about the fraternity of woodworkers came out of another Wisner plane that appeared on Ebay last November….

    Another Wisner shows up, and it includes the original Garrett-Wade "Instruction" sheet. I didn’t win that plane; I don’t know if I even bid. However, I emailed the Ebay winner and asked if he would be willing to scan the instruction sheet and email it to me. This fellow Wisner owner (I only know him as TOM) did indeed scan the wrinkled Garrett-Wade page and email it to me.

    (I did a quick post that includes a copy of those instructions over at my blog.) Feel free to copy and paste it if you want…. or you can surf over to my place and see it.

  4. Narayan

    Very cool find. I’ve got the LN pair and didn’t realize they started the whole cult of Warren.

    I don’t have any Wisners, but I do have a few rare .pdfs which I’d be willing to digitally sign and send to you on a commemorative writable CD. With a few Auriou rasps and my .pdf files, you’d be all set.

    My god I need coffee.

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