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Good Quality Hand Planes On a Budget

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Blog entry by knotscott posted 1493 days ago 19198 reads 13 times favorited 14 comments Add to Favorites Watch

In recent years there’s been an influx of imported lower priced value hand planes hitting the market. Some are decent, some are marginal, some are a waste of money. In the lower price ranges, most newer planes use lower quality metal on all components, thinner blades, thinner castings, and poorer machining techniques. With an upgraded aftermarket blade, and some fettling, some of the low cost new planes can be made into useful tools, but many are an exercise in futility and frustration. Even those that are salvageable, won’t necessarily hold setting properly due to the inadequacies of the metal and machining. Unfortunately, these cheaper handplanes often have the most appeal to the least experienced element of the market, which is usually the segment least capable of transforming a poor performing plane into capable plane, which can be extremely discouraging to someone trying to get started with hand planes.

My budget friendly solution has been to skip the cheap imports and build a collection of higher quality used planes like the venerable Stanley Baileys, Millers Falls, Record, Keen Kutter, Winchester, Union, Sargent, Craftsman, and the highly regarded Stanley Bedrock plane. Most of these older planes have superior metallurgy and are made to tighter tolerances. There’s usually still some sharpening and adjustments to be made, and often some elbow grease required, but overall many of these old planes simply have better bones to start with than a low cost import. There’s even replacement parts available if needed, either from sellers who’ve stripped them from older planes, or from select hand plane retailers who carry newer replacement parts (Highland Hardware and Lee Valley come to mind). I’ve found that most of the better old planes have already been fettled and flattened at some point in time years ago. You can’t beat the nostalgia of a plane made in 1927 when Ford Model T’s were the norm, or a 1939 pre-WWII hand plane built when the world was a different place. These things were built to last by proud craftsman who offered their best on a regular basis, and spent a career perfecting their craft….it was the days before the bean counters, business moguls, share holders, and lawyers started convincing folks that greed was acceptable. There’s nothing quite like finding that first diamond in the rough, and they can be found in many places…Ebay, yard sales, woodworking forum classified ads, auctions, etc,....and better yet, they can be passed on from friends and relatives! Prices can go from next to nothing to upwards of way too much, but for me, part of the fun is deciphering the deals from the steals.

One of the caveats of hunting down older planes is recognizing which are good and which were not so good. Most of the bigger names offered economy lines at some point in addition to their standard higher quality planes, or at least had eras of cheaper construction, which is one aspect that makes it a bit difficult for newbies to select good quality older planes. It’s not as simple as just sticking with a brand name. Most of these companies were in business long enough to go through several changes in business philosophies and economic changes. The lower lines are often associated with less chrome, more painted parts, plastic handles, labels instead of engraving, lower quality thinner metals, rougher castings, less machining, stamped metal instead of cast, fewer adjustments, etc. Some companies identify their economy planes with name or number changes, but some, like Record did not. I’m far from an expert, but my advice to newbies is to get familiar with parts and construction differences by comparing known higher end models so it’ll become easier to recognize the lower end lines. There are also some excellent websites for identifying and typing older hand planes. RexMill.com, OldToolHeaven.com, Record-planes.com, CianPerez.com

Below are some descriptions and pics that show differences between the better vintage lines, and the lesser economy versions:

Stanley’s higher quality planes came from the Bedrock and Bailey lines, with the Bedrock being considered their elite line, but Stanley also offered a “Handyman” and a “Defiance” line that weren’t quite to the Bailey standards, as well as other “non-Bailey” economy planes under just the Stanley name. Though the Defiance line was good enough to be a fairly serviceable tool, I suspect the Handyman series will be a little tougher to get great results from. The vast majority of the Bailey type 19 and older planes are really fairly nice planes….those from the pre-war eras to up type 16 are very highly regarded.

Stanley “Handyman” economy plane:

Here’s a non-Bailey economy “Stanley” #5 (note the plastic handles, lack of frog adjustment screw, non-brass blade knob screw, etc):

Here’s a higher quality 1927 Stanley Bailey #5-1/4 type 13 (note the wooden handles, heavy cast y-adjuster, brass adjustment knob, solid lateral adjustment lever, frog adjustment screw, etc):

The Millers Falls premium planes used a numbering system that identified the plane by length in inches…8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 18, 22, 24. (ie: Millers Falls#9 is the Stanley equivalent of a #4, & Millers Falls #14 = a Stanley #5, etc.) In the late 1950’s they introduced a cheaper #90 (Stanley #4 equivalent) and #140 (Stanley #5). They also had an economy line that looked a little different and used a different numbering system. Other variations of the economy line followed in subsequent years…#900 and #814, and a teflon coated version were the #9790 and #9140 respectively, as well as a 8900 and 9814. Many used a decal on the lever cap instead of embossing in the metal.
Millers Falls economy #900 (#4) & a higher quality #14 (#5 equivalent):

Record tended to keep the same name and numbering systems on all their planes which makes it harder to identify the eras of cheaper planes, but they definitely had some #04s that were crudely finished and eliminated the frog adjustment screw, so keep your eyes peeled.

A newer Record #04 from a “lesser” era…no frog adjustment, stamped steel lateral adjustment lever, stamped y-adjuster, more crudely finished (which is hard to see from the pic)....still a decent plane once sharpened and adjusted:

Here’s an example of an older style high quality Record 04-1/2 (note that the darker color is indicative of an older model. It also has decal atop the rear tote with gold lettering):

Here’s an even older Record plane – (Note the squared corners at the top of the blade, similar to the 1927 Bailey. It also has a cast y-adjuster, and a better lateral adjustment lever like an old Bailey…some older Record planes might show a blue decal on the rear tote…it’s possible that this one acquired a tote from a newer plane at some point.)

Sargent’s best line is the “VBM” line (which stands for “Very Best Made”) ....AFAIK, those not marked “VBM” were a step down but are still very good solidly made planes.

Here’s an example of a new modern era Groz hand plane made overseas. It “looks” the part of a decent plane, but is not made to the same standards as the Stanley Bailey, Record, or Millers Falls planes of yesteryear. I’m not picking specifically on Groz…it could say Footprint, Anant, Great Lakes, or several other names on it, but the quality story is similar….even the more expensive Woodriver and new Stanley Sweetheart line are somewhat suspect when you consider the street prices. All have the potential to be whipped into shape, but just about every aspect of the components and construction is lesser quality, and is more likely to be prone to chatter and need a lot of tweaking…and there’s always the aggravation of settings not holding, or premature blade dulling from inferior metals. Unless you go with a top shelf plane, there’s always some risk of having some issues to sort through, but IMHO there’s actually less risk with the oldies than with the newer imports.

There’s always the option of buying a Lee Nielsen, Veritas, or Clifton hand plane, which nearly assures you a flawless performer right out of the box, but if you can’t justify the price, or just enjoy resurrecting an antique, the older planes offer a great low cost alternative. Then again, maybe you’ll choose to “roll your own” with a shop made plane….I haven’t done it yet, but I understand they’re not that difficult to make.

-- Happiness is like wetting your pants...everyone can see it, but only you can feel the warmth....



14 comments so far

View HungryTermite's profile

HungryTermite

89 posts in 1548 days


#1 posted 1493 days ago

I’ve been going through all the same research to try to find some good deals on my 1st set of planes. This was a good read. I found one interesting thing in that Stanley made its bedrock line for both Keene Kutter and Winchester for a few years. Keene Kutter and Winchester sold them under a slightly different naming convention than their other planes so you can tell them apart. I got one and it’s almost identical to my 605 Bedrock but I didn’t find the handle as comfortable as the Bedrock. Other than that, it is the same plane for considerably less money (on eBay) than the Bedrocks typically go for.

-- Good Judgement Comes From Experience. Experience Comes From Bad Judgement.

View 559dustdesigns's profile

559dustdesigns

632 posts in 1666 days


#2 posted 1493 days ago

This is very helpful and I appreciate all of this information.
I am from the non experienced part of the market.
I have been reading as much as I can before starting my plane collection.
Unless I spend the money on new Lie Nielsen or other high end planes, I need to do a lot of homework.
Basically, you most always get what you pay for.

-- Aaron - central California "If you haven't got the time to do it right, when will you find the time to do it over?"

View WayneC's profile

WayneC

11987 posts in 2596 days


#3 posted 1493 days ago

Thanks for the information. Knowledge is power.

-- We must guard our enthusiasm as we would our life - James Krenov

View dfdye's profile

dfdye

372 posts in 1535 days


#4 posted 1493 days ago

Many thanks for the write up!

-- David from Indiana --

View Shopsmithtom's profile

Shopsmithtom

780 posts in 2693 days


#5 posted 1492 days ago

I, too have built my cache of working wood planes from used Stanleys, M-F & bedrock & can’t imagine needing anything else. They all work superbly. Some needed some TLC & others did not, but they all were reasonably priced. (even on ebay). Do some research, so you know what you’re buying and if you’re buying to use, you can avoid the pricier rare & collectible varieties in favor of more common ones that are built just as well. -SST

-- Accuracy is not in your power tool, it's in you

View RandyMarine's profile

RandyMarine

235 posts in 1868 days


#6 posted 1399 days ago

Thank you very much for pointing this out to me… the info is very helpful in making my choices.

-- Semper Fi, Randy Sr.

View a1Jim's profile

a1Jim

109189 posts in 2076 days


#7 posted 1399 days ago

I am always informed and impressed by any and all of your blogs and reviews. Thanks Scott

-- http://artisticwoodstudio.com Custom furniture

View Geedubs's profile

Geedubs

142 posts in 1728 days


#8 posted 1298 days ago

I agree with other positive comments. I am just beginning to learn about…and purchase…handplanes. Looking for older planes on ebay, craigslist, etc. is a dangerous crapshoot unless you have the knowledge base. Thanks for expanding mine.

-- Todos los dias aprendemos algo nuevo.

View Bertha's profile

Bertha

12942 posts in 1192 days


#9 posted 1140 days ago

^what Cessna said. Thanks for this, KS.

-- My dad and I built a 65 chev pick up.I killed trannys in that thing for some reason-Hog

View Manitario's profile

Manitario

2176 posts in 1381 days


#10 posted 953 days ago

thanks for blogging this; it’s helpful to know a bit more about some of the “other” plane manufacturers, ie. non-Stanley.

-- Sometimes the creative process requires foul language. -- Charles Neil

View ShaneA's profile

ShaneA

4959 posts in 1097 days


#11 posted 933 days ago

Thanks for the info. I appreciate the effort you put into this, thanks again for the knowledge sharing.

View Dan_R's profile

Dan_R

1 post in 417 days


#12 posted 335 days ago

Pictures look awesome and help quite a lot to differentiate one plane from the other, many thanks.

View OSU55's profile

OSU55

95 posts in 488 days


#13 posted 118 days ago

If one knows how to get irons razor sharp and can stone/file surfaces for a good fit, most of even the budget planes out there can work pretty well. I have a few cheap planes, as well as “type 20” #4 & #7 Stanley Baileys, that perform pretty well once tuned properly. I haven’t found blade or casting metallurgy to be inferior, and thin stock Stanley blades perform quite well when properly sharpened. I have some older Stanley’s as well, and don’t find them to really be superior to the newer versions. I know this flies in the face of popular sentiment, but is my experience. They certainly aren’t as nice as my Veritas planes, but I still use them successfully.

It takes time and patience to learn how to tune these cheaper alternatives, but I enjoyed the educational process. For those on a budget, don’t be afraid of the later type 20 Stanley’s for the right price, and expensive thicker aftermarket blades are not required to make any of the Stanley Bailey planes perform. I also have new Stanley standard and low angle contractor grade block planes that perform quite well.

View WayneC's profile

WayneC

11987 posts in 2596 days


#14 posted 90 days ago

I agree that you can get the later model planes to work if you tune and sharpen them correctly. Depending on machining quality you may or may not be able to do fine work. E.g. simple block plane that has a wide mouth and offers no adjustment.

I also think that less experienced woodworkers, buy one of the later model planes and with out the knowledge and skill to tune/sharpen it they get turned off to hand tools. The idea of taking an older plane and restoring it can often spur a person to take the time to learn.

-- We must guard our enthusiasm as we would our life - James Krenov

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