When you pick up an old plane in an antique store or swap meet it is sending off clues. This is (I’m told) a bit like speed dating , your job is to weed out the twitchy, drooling, camo-wearing sociopaths to find a suitable mate for life.
If you’re not an expert in planes, you can still buy a good one if you know the hallmarks of a quality tool. You can read our stories about good frogs (and bad ones) and good soles (and tortured ones) to get up to speed. Here are some more clues to look for.
1. Totes vs. torture devices. Check out the photo at the top of this entry. The tote on the far left is a blister-making machine. The wide, flat areas and sharp radii say one thing: “Grab me and I’ll bite you back.” The tote in the middle is plastic, but it’s a half-decent shape. The downside to plastic is that it gets really slippery if you sweat even a little. The tote on the far right is what you want: Well-formed, curvy and rosewood. The first time you pick up one of these totes, your hand will thank you.
2. Lateral-adjustment levers. A quick look at this part of the plane will tell you immediately if the tool was made for a professional or for a homeowner. The lever on the left is the one you want. It has a round disc that mates with the iron; this provides a smooth action. Its steel components are thick and don’t bend easily. Also, the place where you grasp the lever is made using two pieces, another mark of quality.
The lateral-adjustment lever on the right is what you want to avoid. It is a single piece of stamped steel. It won’t move easily, but it sure will bend easily.
3. Frog adjustments. Take a look at the backside of the frog. Above is one that’s designed for a professional. The wheel that controls the depth of cut is nicely knurled brass. There is a screw in the center of the frog that allows you to make precise adjustments to the location of the frog.
Here’s a bad frog. The adjustment wheel is plastic and there is no screw for adjusting the frog forward and back. You can still adjust the frog on this plane, it’s just not as easy or as precise.
– Christopher Schwarz
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