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.
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