Chris Schwarz's Blog

An Observation on Vintage Handplanes

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Note: I started writing this blog entry more than a year ago. I shelved it and have revisited it several times since. Each time, I thought: I don’t need this kind of grief. For whatever reason (four beers, perhaps?), I offer this as an observation based on teaching students, both amateur and professional.

For the last decade I’ve had the privilege of teaching woodworking students all over the world about hand tools. I’m not the best teacher, but I am a good listener and observer.

At the beginning of every class, I make an offer to the students: “You are welcome to use my tools. You don’t have to ask. Just take them and return them when you are done.”

I own a mix of vintage and new planes – mostly old Stanleys, Lie-Nielsens and Veritas. I keep them sharp, but they do not have any special modifications. They are just planes right off the shelf that have been sharpened.

In almost every class, there is a student (or several students) who own vintage handplanes that they have restored and souped up with aftermarket irons, chipbreakers and sometimes knobs and totes. A certain percentage of these planes have been surface ground and look better than new.

I’m always eager to look at their planes because I started out by restoring old planes well before there were nice modern bench planes available. I love the old tools and the way the tote feels in my right hand. I like the patina that comes from hard work and care. So I like to take their vintage planes for a test drive – planing against the grain of whatever nasty stuff is lying around.

Now, the mantra that almost every teacher repeats (including me) goes something like this: It doesn’t matter if you have vintage planes or new planes. Both can be tuned to a high level. Vintage planes require time. New planes require money.

It sounds like a reasonable statement, but I don’t know if I believe those words anymore.

And that’s because I’m a good observer.

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During my classes I watch my students closely. It’s all about interpreting their body language. Are they frustrated? Are they about to throw a tool to the floor? (This really happens.)

What I have observed is this: The students with the super-tuned vintage handplanes almost always tend to use – over and over – my Lie-Nielsen and Veritas planes during the class. They will wait for me to sharpen them and then pick them out of my tool chest. They put their vintage planes below their bench or back into their tool bag. I have even seen some of them order a Veritas or Lie-Nielsen plane on a cellphone during a class while holding one of my planes in their other hand.

I can feel the bile rising out there. You might be thinking I “push” the new planes on students somehow. Nothing could be less true. I want to believe that the old planes are just as good. I used to believe the old planes were just as good.

— Christopher Schwarz

Get a ton of handplane information from my book “Handplane Essentials,” on sale in paperback at ShopWoodworking.com.

41 thoughts on “An Observation on Vintage Handplanes

  1. Hillwilly

    I am just a neophite here but my entire interest in woodworking came when I was given my first dilapitated radial arm saw and made it work for me. My daily driver is a 41 year old truck that was a mess but I made it work for me. All my woodworking tools are low dollar yard sale tools and I love the feeling when I have made them usable, even if they arnt pretty. I LOVE the feeling of the first time that old truck fired up, and the time that first “tryon’s” plane iron cut a nice curl for me. Even when I have the money, for some reason I DON’T spend it on new planes. It’s a feeling inside I guess. What do YOU feel inside???

  2. 61chrysler

    I have a couple of LN bench planes and a few vintage Stanleys- 602, #3, 605.5 and #7.

    I always reached for the LN planes until I sent the Stanleys to Iowa for flattening and squaring. They all sing the same song now. I know there are people that blow off the flattening of plane soles as unnecessary, but it changed my attitude toward vintage planes.

  3. dbarbee

    Occasionally I have someone who gives me a call and want to come to my home and learn about hand tools. I let them use my old planes and my new planes. I can’t remember anyone preferring the old Stanley’s. Some prefer bevel up or bevel down but everyone finds the new planes a joy to use. I suggest to everyone that they should get new planes when starting out. How is a guy new to woodworking supposed to know what a properly tuned hand plane feels like? After a guy has some experience under his belt he can try to tune up a old plane. This doesn’t mean that old planes aren’t as good necessarily. It just means they have a higher learning curve. In my opinion, most guys trying to get into this craft get discouraged because there tools are not sharp and/or tuned correctly. Some or maybe even most just give up.

    I have seen Chris have to take someone’s plane during a class and tune/sharpen it because the person is having issues. I’m sure this happens with every class he teaches. Cleaning the rust off of a plane isn’t tuning, just restoration.

  4. Mike Hosimer

    Last summer I attended a class at Marc Adams School of woodworking taught by Megan Fitzpatrick who made her tools available for the students to use much like you. Of course I used
    her sharp shiny LN #5 plane. It was really nice. I have not put my vintage 605 bedrock up for sale and made the LN splurge. If a tornado blew away my shop and I had to replace all of my tools I would consider buying modern hand planes, but for now I am happy with my old paid for tools.

  5. Brian

    As always, thanks Chris. But I would be interested in knowing more about the innovations that LN and LV-V have made to the bedrock line. After scouring your Handplane book (and a few others), I was left with little appreciation of the innovations that have improved top-quality hand tools over the past 60 years. Most of the ink seems devoted to historicizing just how similar today’s planes are to european and roman (or even egyptian) ancestors. While it may be the case that LN or LV have done more than journalists have documented, it really seems to me that the best hand plane has yet to be invented. I’m looking towards leaders like you and Tom to update hand tools for the 21st century. (You have a much more inventive mind than you give yourself credit for, at least in ink.)

  6. Bowyerboy

    Mr. Schwarz,

    You should spend less time at the lust-house before you post. I DEFINITELY don’t need the headaches this post is going to cause ME from having to wade through every sillytonian comment it will generate in the woodworking web world about the inferiority of old tools. This is a topic that should have remained a tacenda. They are inferior to the LN and LV equivalents in most ways. However, they get the job done. Inferior doesn’t necessarily mean bad, it just means there is something better out there. Cars are a good comparison. A 1974 Corvette is going to be inferior in many ways to a 2014 Ferrari but the Vette will still go fast and be a blast to drive (though it might require more maintenance). Back to woodworking. If some strange woodworker came up to you with a finished piece of furniture and you had no idea what tools were in their shop, could you tell if a vintage Stanley or new Lie-Nielsen had ever touched it? You could tell if the edges were true or the joints were sloppy or any number of things about the woodworkers skill level but the brand of tools that person used? If the furniture is good, what does it matter? Not one quintillionth of an iota. It doesn’t matter if you use a LN, LV, Clifton, vintage Stanley, Sauer & Steiner, or three sharp rocks and the jaw bone of a water buffalo if you are making good things with those tools. So can we please talk about furniture or wood or historical techniques on this blog and leave the tools alone before you begin to look like a morosoph?

    More in sorrow than in anger,

    Doug Fulkerson

  7. Warped And Splintered

    When it comes to vintage planes I have found in my experience that they do tend to require a lot more love to nudge them into cooperation than their modern brethren. That being said, my favorite plane in my chest is a type 2 #5 Bailey. A friend of mine had picked it up in a bin of 15 or so other planes in various states of disrepair and offered it to me for free as it was missing the knob and lever cap. There was no refusing this deal, so after several hours of frog fitnessing and sole lapping, I slapped on a reasonably compatible knob, a spare lever cap and an older Stanley blade/breaker then went at a piece of white oak. The results were quite pleasant. Good weight, good response and very comfortable in use. I hope to source out the missing original components to make it whole again one day.

    I own just as many new planes (Veritas, LN) as vintage and appreciate them immensely, but some days I’m in the mood for using a transitional jointer. I am a strong believer in rehabilitating or repurposing old tools; some are worth it, others aren’t. Whether or not a beaten up 100 year old plane will perform remarkably after hours and hours of tlc, I believe the experience of taking the time to get it even somewhat functional is worth what you learn about the tool and how it operates. For me, tool repair is a joy, even when it borders on masochism.

  8. asdtg2

    I’m glad I read this. I have a Stanley #4, #5, and #8. I was about to buy a Hock blade and chipbreaker for the #4, but after reading this I think I’ll put that money towards a low angle Veritas. I don’t think I’ll replace the #5, and #8 (and I’ll hold on to the #4), but I think it would be good to have a well performing smoother, as it will hopefully be the last tool to touch the wood.

    Of course, nothing against Hock’s blades, I have one in the #8 and it is a night and day difference.

    Also I’m sure the sides of the Veritas will be square to the sole, which will be excellent for shooting (in addition to the low angle)

  9. gdblake

    At age 14 I was taught to use a beat up Stanley #5 for everything. It took me two years to get reasonably profficient with it. I don’t remember when it all clicked, some time in my mid twenties, but eventually I learned how to properly setup and use any handplane. The same was true for saws and chisels. I spent 10 years struggling to develop a decent level of skill with poorly made tools. It wasn’t until I gave up on the then “new stuff” and started buying vintage tools that I improved as a woodworker. So it irritates me when I hear or read some blow hard say it is better to learn woodworking with inferior tools because it forces you to truly become skilled. Nonsense, it forces you to learn to fight the tool to get any kind of result.

    Now the new “new stuff” is even better than the vintage. Which is why I own and use several new tools. Makers like Lie-Nielsen, Varitas, Ron Hock, Ron Brese, Larry Williams, Bad Axe, and others are turning out better tools than could be had 50 or maybe even a 100 years ago. Thanks to all you guys for investing your time and money, taking huge risks to supply us with great tools. We are all better off for it. So yea, I encourage folks to buy the “expensive” new tools when they can because the tools really are better and will last beyond your lifetime. And yes, it is easier to develop skill with a good tool than a bad tool.

  10. luce32

    I use them both but I suffer less with the newer planes by LN. Maybe it is the backlash or just the balance. Maybe I am not the restorer I think I am. But at least the old planes have a second life and are not sitting on a junk shelf. They look good and are useable. Why just the other day I was using a number 5 Stanley and actually enjoyed it; the wood was very forgiving. I am trying to become more of a hand tool person. I like it better and feel it is doing my body good but I also tend to grab a LN plane to work with. They are slick. I am not a money person so I got one a year for a few years. Now I am retired and they are purchased less often but I still get something from LN, like your book and CD. Good stuff. Thanks.

  11. tsstahl

    I have to admit that I feel like I’m missing something. I have very few planes by comparison (9), and just over half are vintage. I’ve been modelling my hand tools based on Wearing’s The Essential Woodworker, David Charlesworth, and of course Mssr. Schwarz (minus the hollows and rounds).

    Chris has a high angle bronze or brass monster smoother I’d like to try some time, but I think I’m pretty content otherwise. :)

  12. Eric

    You could call me a plane freak (LN, Hotltey, Daed, Veritas, Bridge CT ), granted,I own too many planes and probably don’t deserve them( will have to do some cleaning up some day but breaks my heart just to think about it…), and I think that, as many posted before me, the fact is that new planes have less backlash. They simply adjust more easily. I own 2 A5 Norris planes with new LN blades and they are not that easy to adjust. I use them sometimes because I feel bad. Not much.
    And there is the mythical thing ( like Krenov said ) that for any reason one plane will never work…I have 2 4 1\2 LN. One is always perfect, the other, well, it gather dust.

  13. DanWyant

    But of course, CS…when I drive my beat up, old pick up to one of your classes I’m certainly going to take you up on your offer to test drive your new Cadillac Escalade. It’s not going to get me and my junk around any better, but it is sure nice to sit in your heated leather seats.

  14. Steamdonkey

    This blog post had me scrambling to find my password.

    I have a lot of planes, some might say I have a problem. Veritas, LN, old, older, handmade, I have them. My modern planes all work great and are solid. On some levels they are way better that my best tuned vintage user, but nine times out of ten I reach for the old Stanley with replacement Hock iron and chip breaker. Patina, warmth, soul, whatever you want to call it – the best old Stanley’s have it.

    I do still reach for the Veritas BU jack when shooting end grain – sometimes you just have to be practical.

  15. GoodellPratt

    I started out using old Stanley Baileys that I restored then gradually moved to Bedrocks, then Bedrocks with aftermarket irons. Over the past few years I have gotten more serious about woodworking and now use about 75% L-N and Veritas and 25% Bedrocks and other Stanleys (the No. 46 is a favorite). My experience agrees with your observations – I generally tend to use the new planes even though I love the look and feel of the old ones. One big reason I prefer the new planes is the small amount of backlash on the depth adjusting nut.

    BTW, you are a brave guy to post this considering the “Sponsored by Lee Valley and Veritas” in the title block of your blog.

  16. sawdustdave

    I don’t have lots of planes – one #6, three #5s, some 4’s, one 3. All of these are vintage, except one Wood River. My LV are specialty planes, and I’ve a couple LN small planes, as well.

    I find that I like the old tools. Are they better? Don’t know if I’m good enough to know. I can tell a good piano from a bad one – I spent decades learning and playing. Planes? Well, hours and hours. But there is something about the aura of a tool older than my granddad. A dignity, perhaps, for having bested the test of time?

    Thanks for the opening salvo! (Maybe that’s why you spent so much time on campaign furniture – for the handplane wars?)

    Dave

  17. cptproton77

    I consider myself pretty rookie when it comes to woodworking. I have spent a lot of time buying a mixture old and new planes. I have spent way more time on my tools then I have woodworking. I have purchased old bench planes and newer joinery planes( I have a LV router plane and a LN Large shoulder plane). This seems to be a good mix. The old router plane I had was better off as a door stop in my hands than to try to true up a tenon or dadoe. However this past week I finally flattened my old stanley number 4 which took quite a while and with my freshly sharpened Hock blade and chip breaker I took some amazing shaving. (It was just on some soft pine that I’m using for my current project). I’m quite sure that a bronze LN #4 would be much better with the bedrock style plane but what it did was teach me about setting up a plane. I probably would have no idea how a plane even works if I just bought (or could afford) all LN planes starting out. So maybe one day I’ll upgrade but until then I’m going to keep working on my tuning and sharpening skills.

  18. GAtoolaholic

    I cannot imagine a better way to heap abuse on oneself than by posting a blog like this. Chris, you could have likely brought less of a firestorm upon your self by wading into the relatively calm waters of religion, politics or child sacrifice.

    With that said, I appreciate your efforts to help us. For those of us who don’t get to do what we love for a living, reading your blog usually makes the tear soaked stains on out pillowcases each night a little less bitter.

  19. abt

    Any time Chris or another professional woodworker instructor said ‘or just find a vintage plane and tune it up’, I always bit my tongue. My modern planes, a mix of LN and LV planes, always outperform my few restored vintage planes. My older planes mostly gather dust.

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