Chris Schwarz's Blog

No More Iron Bananas

Memory is a funny thing, especially in my family. But I swear that during my last days as a college undergrad there was a car dealership in Chicago that offered a special deal to its customers.

Buy a car and get a Yugo for just $1.

If there is a Yugo of the woodworking world, it has to be the Stanley planes that are called “the transitionals.” These poor suckers have a wooden body with a metal Bailey-style adjustment mechanism that works a bit like an Australian toilet (that is, they spin backwards than what we are accustomed to).

Most modern woodworkers first encounter these planes through Patrick Leach’s venerable web site “Patrick Leach’s Blood & Gore.” This site offers commentary on almost every plane made by Stanley. Tool collectors print out every page of this enormous site. They put the pages in a three-ring binder. They live by the advice, which is, for the most part, totally dead on the money.

For example, Leach contends that the Bed Rock series of planes are overrated (bingo). He laments the fiberboard planes (fair enough, but so do small children, invalids and lunatics). And he mocks the No. 55 (which deserves it). But he also runs down the No. 6, a plane that I find quite useful. And he advocates the ritual burning of almost all the transitional planes. He even has photos!

Let me be the first person to say that the transitional planes aren’t perfect. Many of the defects he points out are dead-on. But some of these tools have some distinct advantages that, when realized, are impressive. Here’s my take.

Downside: The adjustment knob is too puny.

The transitional planes are excellent for some jobs, and are fairly worthless for others. You just have to think about it for a minute. Personally, I think the transitional planes that are jointer planes and fore planes are outstanding. I’m not so fond, however, of the many transitionals that are smoothing planes.

Let’s take a look at the way these planes work for a minute and I think you’ll see where I’m coming from.

In essence, these planes marry a Bailey-style blade adjuster with a wooden body. The advantages of this sort of tool are:

1. The sole is tremendously easy to true compared to a metal plane.
2. The tool is lightweight, thanks to the wooden body.
3. You can purchase enormously long and accurate jointer planes (up to 30″) in this form because the wood is so inexpensive.
4. You can dial in your shaving thickness with great accuracy thanks to the patented Bailey adjuster.
5. You get the same sweet wood-on-wood feel as you would when working with a traditional wooden plane.

The disadvantages are:
1. Closing up the mouth of this tool is a stupid exercise in shimming under the blade with cardboard.
2. The tote and knob are poorly attached to the plane (most are wobbly).
3. The blade-adjustment mechanism works opposite of the same adjuster on a Stanley metal plane , you spin the wheel counter-clockwise to extend the blade.
4. The blade-adjustment wheel is too puny.

If you carefully sort through these advantages and disadvantages you’ll see why these planes make excellent jointers and fore planes. First, the soles are easy to true , far easier than truing the sole of a metal plane. When I fixed up my first jack plane, I spent days (yes, days) lapping the sole to dead flat. I want those days back.

When I flatten the sole of a transitional plane, I set my power jointer to the lightest cut I can manage and make a pass on the plane’s sole. Then it’s dead-flat and done. When readers ask me how to flatten the sole of a metal jointer plane, I’m at a total loss. I’ve never been able to manage it to my satisfaction. I just make the sole worse, turning it into an iron banana.

With a fore plane and a jointer plane, the mouth aperture is fairly unimportant. So the fact that it gets larger as you true the sole is immaterial. However, it’s this problem that makes the transitionals troublesome as smoothing planes. You can stupidly adjust the plane’s frog forward to close up the smoother’s mouth, but that just makes the iron chatter because the wooden bed and the iron bed that hold the iron are then out of alignment. The best way to close up the mouth on a transitional is by patching the mouth with an extra piece of wood.

Downside: The metal frog and wooden bed are two separate pieces. Close the mouth (or open it) and you’ll make chatter, not shavings.

The light weight of these planes makes them excellent jointer and fore planes. They are easy to wield, even if you have the arms of a little girl (of which I am guilty).

And you don’t have to create a perfect surface with these two classes of tools , that’s the job of the smoothing plane. So if you have a jointer plane iron with a few pits in it that leaves a few plane tracks behind, then so be it. The smoothing plane (or Fein sander, or Timesaver wide-beltsander, or the abject blindness of your loved ones) will fix that.

But here is why you really should buy these planes. They are dirt, dirt cheap. The No. 32 shown in these photos was $35, and I overpaid. You can get transitionals really cheap. In fact, some tool dealers think they are too lame to even sell them.

Some people give them away like Yugos.

– Christopher Schwarz

One thought on “No More Iron Bananas

  1. Bill

    You left out something about transitionals: they look cool. They look especially great sitting on a shelf, holding up some books and stuff.

    I have a couple of the smoother-sized ones – one with a tote and one without. They just look neato and "vintage." When cleaned up and refurbished all spiffy, they can give your office or den a very nice bit of atmosphere – like all that stuff nailed to the wall at Cracker Barrel.

    But I never have tried to actually use them for anything.

    Oh yeah, and by the way – I have seen Patrick burning some transitionals first hand, at a Crane’s auction in New Hampshire probably 10 years ago, maybe more.

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