Vintage Planes That Are Better Than New
Hi. I’m a long-time reader and a first-time caller. I really want to start using handplanes in my work. I’ve been looking at some of the premium handplanes from Veritas and Lie-Nielsen and wow! I can’t afford that. Could you tell me where I could get some planes that are just as good as those but cost far less?
– B. Ginner, Poor, Tenn.
Thanks for your letter. Those planes are available at the same store that sells unicorns that fart cupcakes.
Sincerely, A Grumpy Editor
Ever since our magazine got Internet access in the mid-1990s, I’ve been answering the above e-mail. I have unpleasant dreams about it. I’ve even thought about drafting a form letter to respond, but I thought that would be too thoughtless. And so I’ve worn out two keyboards answering that question, trying to be helpful, wondering if it would ever stop.
Today, however, I can answer that question with a slightly different answer. Since 2007, machinist Steve Nisbett of Wheaton, Ill., has been restoring vintage handplanes to a condition that can only be described as mint.
He picks up planes that most people wouldn’t look twice at, including many uncommon brands, disassembles them, remachines the critical surfaces and rebuilds them as new. If necessary, he will machine a new component, such as a lever cap or even a frog.
The blades are surface ground if necessary. The heart of the plane , the frog and the body , receive special attention. Nisbett says he has built special fixtures for machining the frog and body that hold these parts in a firm but unsprung condition so that when they are released they remain flat.
In the end, all critical surfaces get remachined. The sole typically has a flatness deviation of .0015″ or less up to a No. 5 size plane (14″ long or so). For longer planes the flatness deviation is more like .0030″. This is crazy-good accuracy for woodworking.
A couple weeks ago I purchased at full price one of his planes from his eBay store for about $70 to take it through its paces in my shop. It’s a Dunlap 3DBB smoothing plane with a sole that is 9-1/4″ long , essentially it is like a Stanley No. 3.
When it arrived, it was like taking a new plane out of the box directly from a Sears store. The tool was still covered in a thin film of oil and every surface looked perfect. The sole was dead, dead flat. The frog and body had been remachined as promised. The tote and knob looked new, which is to say, they looked OK. Dunlap planes weren’t known for their shapely rosewood handles. This one has wood that can only be described as “hardwood.” But they were comfortable enough.
I set the plane up last weekend and spent some time using it while building a small wall cabinet that’s a Christmas gift. It was everything that Nisbett claimed. It was capable of taking extremely thin shavings, as good as I can do with any other tool I’ve tuned.
There is, however, a single caveat here.
Though Nisbett has made this plane better than the original manufacturer, there are limits to what he can do with the tool. For example, with this Dunlap plane it was impossible to close up the mouth of the tool to more than 1/16″, which is too wide-open for high-tolerance smoothing in my opinion. I suspected that perhaps the mouth was opened up when the frog was being reworked, but Nisbett said that was unlikely. His efforts usually only remove a few thousandths of an inch of iron here and there.
So in all likelihood, the mouth never closed up tight, even when the plane was new. So what can you do? I replaced the iron with a thicker one from Lie-Nielsen that was 1/8″ thick (a $40 item). Bingo. The mouth could be closed up as tight as can be.
So now I think you have another option. You can buy a vintage plane at a garage sale and learn to fix it up, buy a premium plane or stake out the middle ground , get one that has been remachined by Nisbett. To buy a plane from him, check out his eBay store.
– Christopher Schwarz