Lie-Nielsen Toolworks: 25 Years of Bronze, Iron and Grit

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Thomas Lie-Nielsen has always been a man who will fight long odds.

His mother recently told the story that as a baby, the doctor’s didn’t think Lie-Nielsen would survive infancy. And again, years later, the doctors told her that they didn’t think a 19-year-old Thomas would survive after breaking his neck.

And then there’s the matter of his unlikely tool-making business. When Lie-Nielsen started making planes in a run-down farm shed in southern Maine, few people thought he would survive for 25 years, or grow his company into a modern manufacturing facility with 80 employees and a full line of premium handplanes, saws, chisels and workbenches.

LN1.jpgBut in early July, Lie-Nielsen threw open his doors to the public to show them what he and his employees have built since those early days in 1981. And what the 500 visitors found is a facility filled with precision equipment that operates under the principles of “lean manufacturing” that were pioneered by many Japanese manufacturers. In fact, the Lie-Nielsen factory is surprisingly like other highly efficient operations such as Makita and Senco.

In addition to the heavy iron, the factory was filled with heavy-hitting woodworking celebrities who showed up to pay their respects to Lie-Nielsen and his work. In my job I get to meet a lot of high-powered woodworking people, but they’re not normally all in the same room. Here is a short list (I know I ‘m missing a few people from this list):

– Garrett Hack, a Vermont furnituremaker, frequent contributor to Fine Woodworking magazine and the author of “The Handplane” book. Hack also performed demonstrations during the open house.

– Christian Becksvoort, a Maine furnituremaker (for more than 45 years!), another frequent author in Fine Woodworking and author of “The Shaker Legacy.”

– Peter Korn, director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship.

– John Economaki, founder of Bridge City Tools.

– Ellis Wallentine, the founder of the WoodCentral forum.

– Garry Chinn, the owner of Garrett Wade tool catalog and the guy who gave Lie-Nielsen his first job selling woodworking tools.
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But the highlight of the guest list (for me, at least) was someone that you might not know. As the visitors milled about the milling machines, an older gentleman moved slowly onto the shop floor, assisted with a cane.

Thomas Lie-Nielsen dashed immediately over to his side and shook his hand.

“This,” he announced, “is Dudley Rockwell. Yes, that Rockwell.”

Rockwell is the son of the man who invented the Rockwell hardness test and machine that generates all those numbers you see bandied about in catalogs and in woodworking magazines. Dudley worked most of his 93 years in the business himself and decided to stop by and pay a visit to the factory.

This wasn’t his first visit. Rockwell has helped Lie-Nielsen rebuild and calibrate his hardness-testing machines, including one that Lie-Nielsen bought so cheaply at auction that it shocked Rockwell. He also has done some consulting on steel treatment for the Toolworks. Today, Rockwell also wanted to make sure the machines were still in order.

So as other people munched on cookies and bottled water, Rockwell ran the hardness tester through a test cycle and declared it “perfect.”

Some people who tour Lie-Nielsen Toolworks are shocked at how many machines there are, including a fair number of CNC machines, a CNC lathe and rows of Bridgeport milling machines, surface grinders and drill presses. For some reason, some visitors expect hand tools to be made by hand.
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Vice President Joe Butler put that notion to rest during the tours he gave on the shop floor. One of the most fascinating parts of the tour was the chisel-making operation. The chisels start life as a 48″-long cylinder of A2 steel; one bar will make seven chisels. They don’t keep much raw steel in stock, just enough for a week’s work.

First the bars are fed automatically into a CNC lathe, which turns the inside and outside of the tapered socket using a variety of bits, which are arrayed on a rotating head in the machine. The robot spins the bar and each bit is moved into position to do its job.

With the socket formed (all this takes about two minutes), the chisel is cut free of the bar and moves down a conveyer and out of the machine. From there, it’s picked up and put into a multi-axis CNC milling machine and during the next four minutes is shaped further into something that looks a lot more like a chisel.

Then one of the four people who work in the chisel area take the tool to a small band saw to cut off a round scrap on the end of the chisel that the CNC machine held onto during the milling process. Then the Lie-Nielsen name is stamped on the tool and the rough shape of the bevel is ground on the end. The chisels go out for heat treating and then come back to be cryogenically treated on-site (the tank looks like a big futuristic beer cooler), tempered and then ground precisely into a tool that is as near-perfect a chisel as I have used.

LN7.jpgThe chisel-making process is particularly interesting because it’s so different than the way that chisels used to be made last century. They would be drop-forged instead of turned from round stock. And they would be made in an assembly-line fashion: Do one process to make 1,000 tools, then do the next process on the 1,000 tools. With the “lean manufacturing” process, the chisel line cranks up at 7 a.m. and the first chisel is done at 7:10 a.m. and is ready for heat-treating. This allows the company to closely monitor quality before something goes wrong.

But the open house wasn’t all machines and metal. Clarence Blanchard from the Fine Tool Journal was there selling antique tools (and a semi-new tool called the “Bunny Plane” I’ll be talking about later). Kevin Drake from Glen-Drake Toolworks was there demonstrating his new Kerf-Starter tool, an unusual scraper that assists with cutting hand dovetails (more on that later, as well). Deneb Puchalski gave free tool demos. Rob Cosman, the Canadian distributor of Lie-Nielsen tools and dovetailer extraordinaire, circulated among the crowd giving advice.

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And then there was the special 25th anniversary tool, a No. 4-1/2 all-bronze smoothing plane with a high-angle frog and cocobolo handles. The thing weighs 6-1/2 pounds — it feels like picking up an exquisite milk jug, or a heavy infill smoothing plane. By the end of the day, the tool was totally covered in fingerprints from people handling it.

At the end of the event Lie-Nielsen personally invited everyone back to the toolworks for the company’s 50th anniversary.

“It’s a date,” he said. “See you then.”

And while those sound like crazy long odds to me, I’m going to make a note to myself to mark it on my 2031 calendar.

Christopher Schwarz

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