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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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Showing 11 comments
  • Jim Teitloff

    Hi Gang,
    I would like to know if you have anyone who might give me some comments on some wood planes I purchased at an Estate sale. Are they worth keeping etc and etc. They look to be in nice condition. However, I’m not the expert, just a Jurneyman at best and love Old Tools. I have pictures and #’s and can measure the size of each if necessary.

    Thanks and have a Great Day,
    Jim T.

  • Lou Nachman

    Chris, I would agree with Bill Houghton on lateral adjustments,as some superb Sargent and my favorite Rockford or Union made Lakesides had single twist or folded laterals. By the 1940’s graceful curves had little to do with handle designs. The 19th century totes were beautiful. The mouth adjusters on Sargent/Craftsman block planes are easily adjustable by my 7th and 8th graders vs. the Stanley design and considerably less expensive

    Lou Nachman

  • Christopher Schwarz


    Hock blades (and chipbreakers) are excellent. However, some planes cannot accommodate them because they are a bit thicker than the original equipment (the blade-adjustment dog isn’t long enough to reach through the blade and mate with the chipbreaker). Lie-Nielsen also makes replacement blades that are the same thickness as the originals.


  • Mike Grawvunder

    I have gotten some really nice planes from e-bay. Have also been skunked a few times. Last week was one of the skunked planes.

    I won a Type 2, No. 8. There wasn’t much of a description so I asked questions of the seller as I always do. Got quick responses and the picture looked okay so I took a chance.

    The plane arrived and overall is in good condition for a plane that is 140 years old. The only real problem is that the iron was replaced with an iron that is 2 1/8 inches wide instead of the 2 5/8 for the No. 8. I paid $45 for the plane so I didn’t overspend on the plane. Unfortunately, I will spend at least that much to get a non-vintage correct iron. Or I can spend close to $100 for a vintage correct iron.

    Since I am planning on using this plane for woodworking and not setting it on a shelf for display, I am considering a Hock blade. I have heard some good things about them. The plane won’t look exactly like it should, but the main goal is for it to be usable. Has anyone used a Hock iron in a Stanley/Bailey plane? Are they worth the cost?

  • David A. P.

    FWIW, there’s a handy rule of thumb I tend to follow when bidding on planes on eBay: if nobody else bids on it, it’s probably not worth owning. If it gets bid up "too high" (which is admittedly a subjective measure), it might be a good user plane, but it’s probably being bid up for its collectible characteristics.

    Neither original nor foolproof, but so far it’s gotten me a couple of decent second-hand planes at reasonable prices :).

  • Joe Wiener

    "Did you know…?" Stanley provides a wide range of replacement parts to enable the restoration of planes that are missing important pieces: Bench, block, router, even the rabbet planes. Cutters, blades, irons, caps too. See

  • Bill Houghton

    As I understand the different lateral adjusting lever designs, Stanley was the only maker to use the two-piece "handle" end – see If readers follow your recommendations literally, there will be lots of Millers-Falls, Sargent, and Union planes left on the table (well,actually not – more experienced rust hunters will pick them up).

  • JC_Collier

    Familiarizing yourself with the Stanley "types" will lead you to the good stuff. For Bailey’s I stick with types 11 through 13. On Bed Rocks, I’ll take ANY of them but prefer the elder 1 through 4 vintage. I prefer the curved sides. Go figure.


  • Christopher Schwarz

    It’s true they used a different material. It is somewhat rubberized and stout. I’ve had a few of these planes and they can be good workers. I still prefer the brass adjusters.


  • Brian

    Sometimes these little details can lead you astray if you track too many of them at once. For example, one gotcha with the frog adjustment screw is that it is not always precisely tapped. I had one otherwise "premium" smoothing plane that drove me nuts until I figured out that the frog screw was off-center, causing the frog to be skewed. Removing the screw fixed the problem.

    Then there are the WWII planes. By way of example, the Millers Falls planes made during that period have little to no brass, substitute American hardwood for the tote and knob, but are generally as well-made as the ones that came before or after, and work just fine. (Then again, Millers Falls planes were anachronistic in their quality, so perhaps this isn’t a good example.)

    I suppose that the moral of the story is to not spend too much on a single untuned vintage plane as a user. You’ll probably do fine, but you may also get a lemon.

  • F

    Stanley put plastic wheel adjusters on planes during WWII in order to help out the war effort. Not necessarily a bad omen for choosing a plane.


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