Chris Schwarz's Blog

Vintage Planes That Are Better Than New

Hi. I’m a long-time reader and a first-time caller. I really want to start using handplanes in my work. I’ve been looking at some of the premium handplanes from Veritas and Lie-Nielsen and wow! I can’t afford that. Could you tell me where I could get some planes that are just as good as those but cost far less?

– B. Ginner, Poor, Tenn.

Mr. Ginner,

Thanks for your letter. Those planes are available at the same store that sells unicorns that fart cupcakes.

Sincerely, A Grumpy Editor

Ever since our magazine got Internet access in the mid-1990s, I’ve been answering the above e-mail. I have unpleasant dreams about it. I’ve even thought about drafting a form letter to respond, but I thought that would be too thoughtless. And so I’ve worn out two keyboards answering that question, trying to be helpful, wondering if it would ever stop.

Today, however, I can answer that question with a slightly different answer. Since 2007, machinist Steve Nisbett of Wheaton, Ill., has been restoring vintage handplanes to a condition that can only be described as mint.

He picks up planes that most people wouldn’t look twice at, including many uncommon brands, disassembles them, remachines the critical surfaces and rebuilds them as new. If necessary, he will machine a new component, such as a lever cap or even a frog.

The blades are surface ground if necessary. The heart of the plane , the frog and the body , receive special attention. Nisbett says he has built special fixtures for machining the frog and body that hold these parts in a firm but unsprung condition so that when they are released they remain flat.

In the end, all critical surfaces get remachined. The sole typically has a flatness deviation of .0015″ or less up to a No. 5 size plane (14″ long or so). For longer planes the flatness deviation is more like .0030″. This is crazy-good accuracy for woodworking.

A couple weeks ago I purchased at full price one of his planes from his eBay store for about $70 to take it through its paces in my shop. It’s a Dunlap 3DBB smoothing plane with a sole that is 9-1/4″ long , essentially it is like a Stanley No. 3.

When it arrived, it was like taking a new plane out of the box directly from a Sears store. The tool was still covered in a thin film of oil and every surface looked perfect. The sole was dead, dead flat. The frog and body had been remachined as promised. The tote and knob looked new, which is to say, they looked OK. Dunlap planes weren’t known for their shapely rosewood handles. This one has wood that can only be described as “hardwood.” But they were comfortable enough.

I set the plane up last weekend and spent some time using it while building a small wall cabinet that’s a Christmas gift. It was everything that Nisbett claimed. It was capable of taking extremely thin shavings, as good as I can do with any other tool I’ve tuned.

There is, however, a single caveat here.

Though Nisbett has made this plane better than the original manufacturer, there are limits to what he can do with the tool. For example, with this Dunlap plane it was impossible to close up the mouth of the tool to more than 1/16″, which is too wide-open for high-tolerance smoothing in my opinion. I suspected that perhaps the mouth was opened up when the frog was being reworked, but Nisbett said that was unlikely. His efforts usually only remove a few thousandths of an inch of iron here and there.

So in all likelihood, the mouth never closed up tight, even when the plane was new. So what can you do? I replaced the iron with a thicker one from Lie-Nielsen that was 1/8″ thick (a $40 item). Bingo. The mouth could be closed up as tight as can be.

So now I think you have another option. You can buy a vintage plane at a garage sale and learn to fix it up, buy a premium plane or stake out the middle ground , get one that has been remachined by Nisbett. To buy a plane from him, check out his eBay store.

– Christopher Schwarz

20 thoughts on “Vintage Planes That Are Better Than New

  1. Christopher Schwarz

    Joe,

    It’s a good question. I’ve seen lots of old planes and chisels that were fettled. I’ve also seen a lot that were not.

    This is only speculation, but there could be several explanations.

    1. The flat area was ground away when the tool fell into the hands of a non-craftsman.
    2. The tool survived because it wasn’t used by a tradesman. So it was never set up or used all that much. Many good tools were simply used up.
    3. The steel moved. Steel does move — I consulted a metallurgist who said there can be stresses that work themselves out.

    Just my thoughts.

    Chris

  2. Lewis A. Saxton, Craftsman-Desig

    Chris:
    Great info on the plane.
    I’ve been tuning up the planes that I have for the past few weeks and have that same plane sitting next to me.
    It is in original condition and looks almost as good as yours without being remachined. With the original iron I can close the mouth completely on mine.

  3. Joseph Sullivan

    Yes, I knew that and others have suggested it. However, I started out to get the damned thing flat, and once I got into it, I really wanted to know what it would take.

    I won’t do it again, you may be sure.

    Joe

  4. ChrisF

    Joseph…you might have been able to speed that up a lot by using David Charlesworth’s "ruler trick" where you basically polish only the tiny little bit of the backside right up at the edge.

  5. Joseph Sullivan

    IT can indeed be a lot of work to refurb those old planes. A week or so ago I decided to set up a pre-war Stanley #6 that I had inherited from my grandfather to to actual fore plane work. SO, following Chris’ instructions, I cambered the blade and then set about to flatten the back. This blade had hardly ever been used. It has essentially full length. I went to work on an extra coarse DMT. It soon got to be a project I had to see through just because. The blade was cupped. I just left it by the DMT with a bottle of water to lube it and did a hundred strokes every so often I also worked the thing over with a ball pein hammer to try to get the cup out. After what is almost certainly three thousand full strokes and some hammer and vise work, it is in good enough shape for the intended purpose. It would not do for a smoother, however.

    SO here is a minty Stanley from the so-called golden age of metallic planes, and I had to work like hell to fettle it.

    ALl of this begs a coupleof questions:

    a) Why are so few old planes fettled (same with chisels, BTW)?

    b) No tradesman in his right mind would have done what I just did, so how did these guys get by without all the elaborate preparation we consider necessary? They made a lot of good stuff.

  6. Gerald Jensen

    Chris … Thanks for the link to Nisbett’s eBay store. I’ll be checking in there every so often. I am a real vintage plane fan (my ‘favorite’ is a Stanley No 3 built between 1892 and 1896 – bought on eBay for $78 including shipping). Other than a new Hock blade and chip breaker, I didn’t have to do much with the No 3 … the sole was already dead flat, the frog, cap iron, knob and tote were all in near perfect shape when I go it. I did complete refurbs on a No 4, 2 No 5’s, and a No 7, and it can be an awful lot of work. Truth be told, given the work that Steve Nisbett must be putting into these old warhorses, the prices he has them listed at are a real steal!

  7. Gordon Conrad

    Chris,
    Wonder what Nisbit would charge for a restoration? Have done my own with sand paper on granite for the sole and frog. By adding a LN or Hock blade performance has improved substanially. In the process of stocking my shop I have a number of excess vintage planes and other tools available for sale for those who are looking for a clean user grade vintage tool at a resonable price that will be less than the 3 big dealers in the Northeast (at least 2 that you have mentioned in the past). I just want to move this stuff out of my basement before next summer.
    r/ Gordon

  8. Sean

    "just as good" I suppose is the operative phrase. If they said something like "90% as good" the answer would be pretty easy: Get a pre-WWII Stanley (or Miller’s Falls, Sargent, etc. equivalent)and clean it up a bit. Perhaps replace the blade with a LN or Hock. For less than $100 – less than $50 if you forgo the new blade – you will have a jack or smoother that will perform on most woods and tasks as well as any LN or Veritas. Such planes may have more tear out in highly figured grains and slightly more difficulty in taking super fine shavings, but overall, will allow plenty of highly satisfying and successful planing.

  9. Frank Vucolo

    When you go to Nisbett’s eBay store, pick up a nice plane. But, whatever you do, DO NOT order the cupcakes!

    Frank

  10. Gerald

    Thanks for the great info about Steve Nisbett but can you tell us more about store that sells unicorns that fart cupcakes?

  11. Jim Paulson

    Thanks Chris,

    Wow a great niche for someone with the talent to restore vintage planes. Thanks for letting us know about Steve’s work. In our economy today it helps to have alternatives to buying new and talking about those vintage planes is beneficial, especially the lesser known brands.

    Off course there are some more pitfalls in the old brands which could be talked about in future posts, stamped versus cast frogs, etc. That being said I am looking forward to tuning up my bedrock 605 plane I recently purchased at an antique mall for use on a shooting board. Thanks for Mike Dunbar’s article in the last issue of PW.

    Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving!

    Jim

  12. Mark Wells

    Another acceptable answer, which I wish I had done is, "Don’t buy power tools."

    Eight years ago I saved my pennies until I could buy a Jet 6" jointer. I figured I could never develop the skills to make boards flat.

    A few months ago I grew frustrated with tear out and nicks in the recently-sharpened blades in my jointer. Rather than spend time tuning the Jet, I picked up an old Stanley #7, sharpened the blade, set the mouth pretty close, and started practicing flattening boards. This is not a super duper Stanley #7, just a good 100 year old user plane. After just a little practice, I could reliably make boards flat.

    Now my Jet 6" jointer is shoved against the wall, unplugged. I do all my stock preparation by hand because I enjoy it.

    If eight years ago I had spent my pennies on a Lie-Nielsen #7 instead of a Jet 6", I can’t even imagine where my skills would be today.

    The key is sharpening. Get somebody to teach you to sharpen. Stick with one method until you can cut the edge of copier paper easily. It’s all down hill from there.

    If you find the price of new hand tools objectionable, then don’t buy a power tool. Buy the hand tool instead; if you change your mind, they sure have better resale value!

    Mark

  13. Dennis Good

    Nice find on ebay Chris! I have found several old Stanley planes (early 1900’s) at antique shops for usually $30-$40, then just had to clean them up and sharpen the blade and end up with a very decent working plane. I never had good luck using hand planes until I picked up my first #5-1/2 Stanley plane (aprox from 1910) for $40. After cleaning the sole I was shocked at how well it cut! I was converted then to using hand tools as much as possible.

    Dennis

  14. Mike

    I think a form email is fine. Just the basics in it and add little bits. it’s not impersonal especially given you get an inordinate calls for the same information. Read and use the basic response and add a bit here and there. It isn’t that awful. Most folks would understand.

  15. Christopher Schwarz

    It is indeed a Hock blade in the photo. I was trying a Hock (which is thinner) to see if it was thick enough. Nope. Needed the Lie-Nielsen.

    Chris

  16. Mike Dyer

    Wow! What a great find of a site, Chris. Too bad (for me) that you hadn’t found this two years ago. Actually, good for me that you hadn’t found this site two years ago, since in that two years I’ve bitten the bullet and filled my cabinet with a number of truly fine Veritas planes that really do sing.
    Mike D

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