The unveiling of two new Veritas block planes this week has thrilled some customers with their sleek design, and confused others. Is Veritas – a company historically focused on function more than form – changing its course with these new planes?
“It’s not a direction change at all,” says Robin Lee, the president of Lee Valley Tools and Veritas (the company’s tool-making arm). “We have four planes coming out soon that are all under 100 bucks.”
Instead, the new more-expensive planes are a way to provide a full range of choices for the customer, from Lee Valley’s less-expensive Utilitas line of planes in a maroon finish, to the standard line of black planes that the company has been building since 1999, and to this new line of shinier planes that are designed for the customer who demands better materials, more features and a more refined design aesthetic.
“Some people want something that looks better,” Lee says. “It’s definitely a different aesthetic. But we have never meant for this to be a high-volume product. If it is a high-volume product, we’ll go broke.”
So why did Veritas produce it?
“What it is, is this is for (our) designers,” he says. “You sit this plane besides other planes and they just look pedestrian.”
During a 45-minute interview, Lee sketched out how these premium planes were designed and also discussed some of the new tools and redesigns that are on the drawing board for the Ottawa-based cataloger and manufacturer.
One for the Designers
When Veritas designs any tool, Lee says, “price is always a concern. I want to put a tool in a customer’s hands and have them wonder how we can build it for that price.”
And during the last nine years, Veritas has done just that. The company’s bench and block planes are almost always less expensive than those from Lie-Nielsen Toolworks and Clifton, its two major competitors. And while the Veritas planes stand toe-to-toe on performance with its rivals, the criticism has been that the Veritas tools aren’t as nice looking.
Lee openly acknowledges this difference and says the company’s first bench planes were designed with interchangeable parts that made manufacturing efficient but didn’t help the aesthetics. For example, the frogs and lever caps of the bench planes were all made to the same size and then machined to fit whatever size bench plane they were building.
“We were a much smaller company then,” Lee says. “We’ve grown and learned a lot.” In fact, Lee notes that the company’s bevel-down planes will be going through a redesign soon that will focus on the aesthetics of the tools.
When the idea came up for a line of premium handplanes, however, Lee said he threw a bone to his designers. “I told them to design the best possible tool regardless of cost,” he says. The designers delivered plans for a whole line of planes. And then Lee went to work on the details.
“I’m a cheap guy,” Lee says. “I want to get the most bang for the buck.”
They decided to start with the smallest plane because it is the most difficult tool to design and will determine the look of the larger planes. The designers’ plans called for a block plane that would end up costing $500. Then they sharpened their pencils to see if they could get the same design and the same features for less. Here are some of the key features of the new block plane.
• Corrosion resistance. Veritas started out experimenting with stainless steel and found it required a lot more manual work and cleaning during the manufacturing process. So they settled on a ductile iron that is enriched with 22 percent nickel and about 6 percent chromium. This alloy is strong and definitely resistant to rust – a major complaint among hand-tool users. It’s also more expensive (the nickel-based plane is $279; the regular ductile version is $179) and requires slower feed rates when it is machined.
• A long and rounded nose. Many Veritas planes have more sole in front of the blade than traditional planes. This gives you more area that you can plant on your work before you begin a cut. Also, the Veritas designers did something tricky with these block planes: They encircled the movable sole plate entirely in the body casting. That’s a lot more work, but it definitely dresses up the toe of the tool.
• Better controls. The stainless steel knobs on the new block planes are something else. We see a lot of knurling here at the magazine, and the elliptical pattern on these tools is special. Another improvement: The plane’s adjuster is locked in place in the tool’s body and won’t come loose when you remove the iron – a frequent complaint with this style of adjuster.
• Hand contact. It’s hard to describe holding this tool. It feels heavier than the Lie-Nielsen low-angle block plane, but it’s only about two ounces more on the scale. Because of the way the lever cap is integrated into the body, your hand touches a lot of metal when you grab the Veritas. Also, the three milled grooves in each sidewall aren’t just for show. They make the tool easier to grasp with less pressure. As someone who has flung a few planes across the room when planing, I’m happy to see this detail.
• Mouth stop. In its recent bevel-up plane designs Veritas has added a mechanical stop to prevent the sole plate from slamming into the iron. In this plane, the stop has been shrunk down to a set screw. This is a good thing. Yes, you’ll need a tool (it’s included) to set the stop, but once you set it close, you’ll never have to move it again.
• The iron. It’s A2 steel and is lapped on its unbeveled face so it takes a polish in seconds instead of hours. Though the A2 is fine, I hope Veritas can offer this iron in old-fashioned high-carbon steel. I like the ease of sharpening high-carbon steel and I find it works well at low sharpening angles typically used with block planes.
• Tolerances. The plane is manufactured to tolerances that are twice as tight as the company’s regular planes, and those regular tolerances already verge on the ridiculous.
“There’s no margin in this for us,” he says. “The cost is in the material and the machining – not the design.”
Oh, and the thing cuts wood, too. This is a two-handed plane in my book. If you can wield it with one hand and take a heavy cut you probably can palm a watermelon. It took me about 30 minutes to get comfortable with the tool because I definitely think there is a right way and wrong way to hold it.
The wrong way is where you position your palm behind the tool and rest it on the adjuster. The knurling on the adjuster will chew up your palm after about 10 minutes of use. Switch to an overhanded grip and you’ll find the sweet spot.
What’s Next for Veritas
Anything else? While Lee described the frustrations of the Stanley’s plane numbering system he mentioned that Veritas is working on a plane that … well I’ll just let him say it.
“We have a plane coming down the pike for which there is no precedent,” he says. “There is no Stanley number that can be used to describe it.”
It wouldn’t be an interview with Robin Lee if it didn’t have a little bit of mystery. So there you have it – something to look forward to. PW
Christopher Schwarz is editor at Popular Woodworking.