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Whenever I teach a class on handplanes, I’m amazed at what the students bring to set up and use. I’ve seen Holtey planes and Harbor Freight planes in the same class.

And there’s always at least one student who brings an entire box of vintage planes that he or she bought at a garage sale (price $5). And this is where I usually find the biggest pieces of garbage and the brightest jewels.

Because many beginning woodworkers have trouble telling the difference between a good vintage user and slag, I’ve decided to devote some time to explain some of the hallmarks of good planes and bad ones. In this post, I’d like to talk about frogs, the movable chunk of metal between the blade assembly and the body of the plane.

But before we dive in, let me offer one caveat on my advice. Almost any plane can be made to work in some fashion. With enough time, effort and luck you can make almost anything passable. The problem is in the vintage market the poor planes and the good planes might cost exactly the same. So why buy a problem child?

Funky Frogs to Avoid
Call me old fashioned, but for metal planes, I think the frog should be a piece of cast metal , not some thin piece of stamped and bent steel. I’ve worked with students who have planes with stamped-steel frogs and have yet been able to get one working to my satisfaction.

Check out the photo of a stamped frog above. The frog is hollow and has thin walls. Also, the lever cap on these tools is usually made of thin steel as well (another mark of inexpensive manufacturing).

Another thing I look for: painted frogs. If the entire frog was painted at the factory, that usually means that the thing is just a rough casting that hasn’t been machined. Quality frogs are machined in several places so the frog mates securely with the body of the plane and the iron.

In my experience, the more area that is machined, the more solid the tool is in use. Here’s a look at three common types of frogs:

1. Bad frog , more like a toad. Here’s a painted frog from a Stanley Handyman smoothing plane. This is a rough casting that has been painted red. It’s unlikely to be satisfactory for high-tolerance smoothing operations.

2. Better frog. This is a frog on a no-name No. 3-sized smoothing plane. Note that the bed for the blade has been linished or machined, but there’s not a whole lot of surface contact between the frog and the blade. This can be made to work well (flatten the face of the frog on a diamond stone). But it’s easy to do better.

3. A fine frog , a prince, really. This is a frog on an early Stanley No. 6. Look at the acres of contact area between the blade and the frog. These planes are easy to tune to a high level. As a bonus, I find these early planes to be less expensive than other vintage planes because they usually are crustier on the outside. But like a lobster, it’s what on the inside that really counts. Even better than this frog is the Bed Rock-style frog, which is completely machined on the underside. Bed Rocks are generally bulletproof.

There’s one more frog you should avoid. It’s what I call the “short frog,” and I’ll have to cover that in a future entry. In essence, the frog is stubbier and the bed of the plane body is thicker. This causes all sorts of problems. So stay tuned.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 11 comments
  • Michael Brady

    Ever the contrarian, I read your post about the virtues of the various common frog designs. I have no argument with what you have to say about frogs that have greater flat machined area, such as the pre-WWII Stanley types. I have owned and worked on dozens of vintage planes and have noted that no matter how flat the frog may be, the irons that came with these planes are seldom flat. Further more, the cap irons (really just stiffeners for the too-thin irons) further distort the iron when they are screwed together, widening the gap between the double-iron assembly and that perfectly flat frog that is so sought-after.
    The answer to this dilemma is an quality after-market iron and the matching chipbreaker / cap iron. The Hock and Lie-Nielsen replacement irons both are excellent in mating up with the frogs you may find on almost any of the vintage Stanley bench planes that you may find. Put these combinations of modern manufacturing together with your favorite old plane and you can have a tool to be proud of.

  • Mike Grawvunder

    I do have several questions about a few of the planes that I have that maybe someone will know something about.

    I inherited a No. 3 plane from my dad when he died. It has red handles. The only markings I can find on it are on the top of the iron which reads "Hibbards True Value". There is no frog adjustment screw like on the later Stanley/Bailey planes. What brand of plane might this be and about how old? This plane works wonderful and I get whisper thin shavings with it, just don’t know much about it.

    I also inherited a Miller Falls (Same size and Stanley No 4). It is painted light blue or grey. Black handles. No frog adjustment screw. It has a model number stamped on the side of the plane. It was either Model No. 6004 or 6003. I don’t remember off the top of my head. About how old is this plane?

    The last one is one of the four that I mentioned in the previous post. It is a Wards Master No. 4. It has a frog adjustment screw like the Stanley Bailey planes. Made in USA is cast into the base. No other markings. The circle under the knob has pie-shaped divisions not smooth like under the Stanley planes. Did Stanley make these planes for Wards? About how old would this plane be?

    I would appreciate any information anyone can share about any of these planes. The on-line searches I have done haven’t come up with any information on these.

    Since I am getting some good old Stanley planes, I have considered selling these. Just am torn between getting rid of some that I got from my dad’s collection and needing the room for the new (old) ones. What are your thoughts?

    Mike G

  • Mike Grawvunder

    I’ve just purchased some wonderful planes through e-bay. And several for $10.95 that have bodies in good shape, but need various parts and definite cleaning. Something I have learned in buying planes on e-bay is to ask questions BEFORE you bid. Also, be assured that you are likely going to have to at least clean a little rust off if not refinish the plane.

    While not for everyone, with a little elbow grease, patience and parts, there are some very good planes available for not much money. Of the four planes that I purchased together, one is a No. 6, type 8 and one is a number 5 type 11. Both are true on the bottom and mostly surface rust.

    One of the planes purchase recently from e-bay was a No 3 type 15 or 16 in just about mint condition. I almost feel guilty about putting it to use in my shop. Notice I said "almost".

    Like Chris mentioned, be careful what you buy on-line since you can’t see the plane before buying. You will likely get a few lemons before you get a gem.

    Mike G.

  • Christopher Schwarz


    I agree. That’s why I don’t buy planes (to use) from eBay unless I can return them with no questions asked. I prefer to buy my planes from people like Walt Quadrato and Sanford Moss et al who will take it back if you don’t like something.

    What more could you want?


  • Milford Brown


    Where I used to work, one of the carpenters who did all sorts of specialty projects, as well as general maintenance at times, had a sheet-metal-bodied (no, not "galvanized sheetmetal" – maybe a Stanley 118) plane that he could put into a pocket before climbing up to some precarious position on a ladder above a concrete floor, and not worry too much about what would happen to the plane if he dropped it accidentally. And now you know what could have happened to one of his cast-body Stanleys in the same circumstance. "Appropriate technology" was the term someone invented a number of years ago.

    Your careful appraisal sounds great if one has access to a large number of possible purchases, but not everyone has as many opportunities to select the best as you do. That’s when your comments about critical areas are valuable, and if an otherwise good one isn’t quite flat, the comment someone submitted about having a sole flattened like a cylinder head may just be the most efficient use of its new owner’s time.

    And metal bodies aren’t the only subject for the latter approach – the son whose father had made a plane of truck bed stake and truck spring while in one of the internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II used the same machine in his automotive shop to flatten the sole of this wooden body, which was considerably warped after more than half a century of climatic fluctuations. It’s on display at Hida Tool Co. in Berkeley, California, along with a very thin shaving, for those who live nearby or visit the area.

    Milford Brown

  • Yeah, I found the sign in to this list a real hassle, although chatting with Dr. Schwarz is worth it. I happen to have a Stanley Handyman that I bought at a garage sale, it’s what I loan to people who want to borrow a plane.

  • Carl Stammerjohn

    What’s up with this OpenID thing?!? It appears that anyone using it leaves a link to their account login. That can’t be good…

  • I teach a handtool class in which students bring in their own planes. I haven’t seen a Holtey yet, but everything else seems to show up. I always feel bad when someone brings in a boat anchor that was handed down to them by their father or grandfather.

    The most common anchor candidate is what I think you are referring to as a short frog, in which the frog doesn’t even touch the plane bed next to the mouth. About the only thing those planes are good for is demonstrating chatter.

    My favorite old Stanleys are the Types 11’s and 12’s. They have the best frog location features.

  • Shannon

    My original 5 1/4 had a bed and frog assembly like the first plane you showed (it was from the 70’s and blue). I later got a Bailey from the 50’s and it works much better.

  • Andrew Friede

    B&W photographs with captions that mention colors? Right up there with 18th dentistry. Why do you use B&W photos on the web, anyway? Just ornery? PS Plane class has cured my plane-phobia. Thank you Dr. Schwarz.

  • Josh

    Can you glass bed an iron (think of rifle barrel bedding) to a frog in a better frog to achieve results similar to the best frog.

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