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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