An Observation on Vintage Handplanes
Note: I started writing this blog entry more than a year ago. I shelved it and have revisited it several times since. Each time, I thought: I don’t need this kind of grief. For whatever reason (four beers, perhaps?), I offer this as an observation based on teaching students, both amateur and professional.
For the last decade I’ve had the privilege of teaching woodworking students all over the world about hand tools. I’m not the best teacher, but I am a good listener and observer.
At the beginning of every class, I make an offer to the students: “You are welcome to use my tools. You don’t have to ask. Just take them and return them when you are done.”
I own a mix of vintage and new planes – mostly old Stanleys, Lie-Nielsens and Veritas. I keep them sharp, but they do not have any special modifications. They are just planes right off the shelf that have been sharpened.
In almost every class, there is a student (or several students) who own vintage handplanes that they have restored and souped up with aftermarket irons, chipbreakers and sometimes knobs and totes. A certain percentage of these planes have been surface ground and look better than new.
I’m always eager to look at their planes because I started out by restoring old planes well before there were nice modern bench planes available. I love the old tools and the way the tote feels in my right hand. I like the patina that comes from hard work and care. So I like to take their vintage planes for a test drive – planing against the grain of whatever nasty stuff is lying around.
Now, the mantra that almost every teacher repeats (including me) goes something like this: It doesn’t matter if you have vintage planes or new planes. Both can be tuned to a high level. Vintage planes require time. New planes require money.
It sounds like a reasonable statement, but I don’t know if I believe those words anymore.
And that’s because I’m a good observer.
During my classes I watch my students closely. It’s all about interpreting their body language. Are they frustrated? Are they about to throw a tool to the floor? (This really happens.)
What I have observed is this: The students with the super-tuned vintage handplanes almost always tend to use – over and over – my Lie-Nielsen and Veritas planes during the class. They will wait for me to sharpen them and then pick them out of my tool chest. They put their vintage planes below their bench or back into their tool bag. I have even seen some of them order a Veritas or Lie-Nielsen plane on a cellphone during a class while holding one of my planes in their other hand.
I can feel the bile rising out there. You might be thinking I “push” the new planes on students somehow. Nothing could be less true. I want to believe that the old planes are just as good. I used to believe the old planes were just as good.
— Christopher Schwarz
Get a ton of handplane information from my book “Handplane Essentials,” on sale in paperback at ShopWoodworking.com.