I almost never get a phone call from the public relations people at the Stanley Works. Perhaps they are too busy selling garage door openers or thinking up double-entendre and obesity jokes to accompany the company’s line of Fat Max tools.
But in 2002, the phone rang, and it was Stanley.
The friendly public relations person had heard that I’d just reviewed jack planes in Popular Woodworking magazine and that Stanley had won the “Best Value” award. Could he get a copy of the review right away? And could they use it in their marketing materials?
At that moment I knew this was going to have a storyline that ended me with telling him that the tooth fairy didn’t exist.
Yes, I reply, Stanley won the award. Yes, I’d be happy to send him a copy of the review. Yes, they could use the test in their marketing materials.
“However,” I say, pausing for a moment, “I don’t think you’re going to want to use the review.”
And so I explained: When I set up our review of metal-bodied jack planes, I included all the major brands on the market at the time: Lie-Nielsen, Clifton, Record, Shop Fox, Anant and Stanley. And then, as a lark, I put a few vintage Stanley Type 11s into the test.
The vintage Stanleys in the test were about 100 years old and were bought at flea markets and on eBay for anywhere between $12 and $35. As you can probably guess, the vintage Stanley planes blew the doors off most of the new planes (except the Lie-Nielsen and, to some degree, the Clifton).
It was a fair fight. These vintage planes needed work. The soles were a bit wonky. The irons and chipbreakers needed work. The frogs weren’t perfectly tuned. But even though these vintage Stanleys should be retired to the old-folks home for cast iron, they were easier to set up than the new planes. The controls were finer. Heck the 100-year-old fit and finish was better than those on the Record, Shop Fox and Anant.
The guy from Stanley Works was perplexed by my explanation. But he still wanted the review for his files, so I sent it to him that very afternoon.
And now bear with me for a second story that begins with my phone ringing.
It is from a reader who wants help choosing a tool – the kind of call I get about five times a week. This guy wants some help buying a bit brace. No problem. I rattle off my standard favorites: The North Bros. 2101A brace and a couple from Peck, Stow & Wilcox. And I throw in a plug for Sanford Moss’s web site as a great place to research and buy the brace of his dreams.
“Um, thanks,” the guy says, “but I wanted to buy a new brace.”
Huh? Why would anyone want to buy a new brace? The best braces ever made are still littering the planet and can be had for less than the price of a tab of Oxycontin (not that I know anything about the price of illegal prescriptives).
“I don’t like used equipment,” he explains. “I want to be the first person who uses it. When I take it out of the box, I want it to be perfect.”
The reader then asked me about three brands of new braces he’d seen in catalogs. We went over the details of each one: junk, tremendous junk and crap-tacular junk. He settled on purchasing the brace that I had the fewest bad things to say. We both hung up the phone bewildered.
Sometimes I forget that there is a certain consumer that won’t buy anything that has been used. With all of the sturdy old houses on the market, they would prefer to buy something new in the suburbs that doesn’t have the same level of craftsmanship or detailing.
I used to get fairly worked up about this fact, but in the last few years, I’ve come to embrace it as a good thing. Here’s why: These people are helping expand the marketplace for high-quality new tools. They are the consumers who help ensure that Veritas, Clifton, Lie-Nielsen and other manufacturers will have a customer base.
Their buying habits have encouraged competition among makers and have exposed more of their fellow woodworkers to the wonders of high-quality modern tool manufacturing. I myself started into the craft with vintage planes and balked at the price of Lie-Nielsen (and later Clifton and Veritas) planes when I first encountered them about 12 years ago. But after using the tools, I think they’re a tremendously good value.
The whole thing is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. Does the availability of quality new tools grow the interest in traditional tools? Or does an interest in traditional tools fuel the availability of new quality tools?
I’m not smart enough to answer a chicken-and-egg paradox. But I am smart enough to recognize that the world works in cycles. You see, last week I got an e-mail from a public relations person at Stanley Works….
— Christopher Schwarz
14 thoughts on “Planing in Circles”
I took your advice to heart and I tried, I really tried. I live in Southern California where we don’t have the long history that those of you in the Midwest or on the East Coast have with old tools. We just don’t have the old tool dealers and the few old tool swap meets here have pretty slim pickins. So, for well over a year I’ve been trying to buy on ebay. I’ve bid on many, many, many old tools. North Bros. 2100s and 2101As; Stanley 750s, 720s, Everlasts, and Sweethearts (I’d really like a 1" for paring); Buck Brothers; Witherby; Record and Stanley Plow Planes; and Millers Falls. I’ve always bid what I thought was a fair price. And, I’ve NEVER, EVER won an auction (I don’t think I’m cheap and I’ve won auctions for other types of products). I’m not a collector. Anything I buy is a user. Why should I pay for an antique 1" socket chisel with a worn-out handle when I can get a brand-new Lie-Nielsen in A2 for about the same price (don’t forget about the shipping, some of these ebay sellers kill you)? Not to mention that I can get replacement handles from Lie-Nielsen. And I’m supporting a great company whose product line I’d like to see expanded.
"Does the availability of quality new tools grow the interest in traditional tools?"…… I believe, the availablilty of quality new tools, grows an interest in purchasing a quality new tool. I’m not sure all purchases seek a traditional way, the new woodworker purchases on recommendation, the "been at it awhile woodworker" suppliments or replaces with an upgrade of the time.
Thought your "cycles" comment was an interesting play too………been tossing that one (specific to expressing woodworking) for many months now.
I enjoy your writing style…….Neil
I sympathize with the plight of people who don’t have streets paved with Bailey planes.
And I’m definitely not encouraging anyone to change their buying habits. Lie-Nielsen and Veritas get a lot of my disposable income.
But if you are on the West Coast and want old tools, I wouldn’t recommend eBay one bit. I’d buy from one of the established East Coast dealers who actually *use* old tools.
(To name three). There are lots more. They have good prices and stand behind the stuff they sell.
hey Chris: I too appreciate old things, and have decided if everybody wanted an old house and old tools i wouldnt be able to afford them. So let them eat cake! keep up the good work casey
Socket chisels are a tricky ones to get used. They usually do run close to the price of new. Many of the other tools (like planes) do not. Chris’s suggestions are good places too look.
I like the old house analogy. Of course, old houses, like many old tools, have their frustrations. Like when you go to plug something in, and realize that all the plugs in the area are already in use…
This may be weird, but for me, I tend to buy new or used depending on the type of tool. Since I started woodworking about 2 years ago, I have accumulated quite a number of planes of all types, all bought used. On the other hand, measuring and marking tools, chisels and saws I buy new.
About the only thing I can think of to explain this is that I’ve found that I can rehab planes without too much trouble. On the other hand, I can’t rehab a saw (actually, I use Japanese saws with disposable blades, so no need to rehab), and the few chisels I’ve bought or seen used have had such rust and pitting on the flat side that no amount of grinding would have made it usable again. I have no idea how I would get a square back into shape if it wasn’t already square.
But more likely, the new chisels/old plane dichotomy is just weirdness on my part.
A friend who works for the local Woodcraft Store told me about a customer who wanted to see one of the Lie-Nielsen planes in the case. My friend took out a brand new box, opened it, and let the guy take it for a test run. Then the customer said he would like to buy the plane, but do they have a new one that hadn’t been used yet?
To Greg Michaelis –
A comment about e-bay buying of used tools. I’ve bought a very large number of antique tools on e-bay, and I can emphatically state that you are unlikely to EVER win an auction using e-bay’s bid system, with the possible exception of something that’s truly junk and no one else wants. What you must do is sign up for a sniping account – http://www.esnipe.com is one of the more established. That still doesn’t guarantee that you will win the auction, but it does guarantee that no other bidder can see your bid before the auction closes and decide to bid a couple of dollars more than you have. While some view the requirement to snipe as distasteful, that’s the way the e-bay market for old tools has evolved, and if one individual is willing to snipe, all of us that are interested in winning an auction must snipe also.
Chris has mentioned three dealers with very good reputations. I would also suggest Lee Richmond at http://www.thebestthings.com, from whom I’ve bought the majority of my user antique tools (and some of my collector’s items). He describes each tool and any flaws in excruciatingly honest detail, and probably most importantly, provides clear, professional pictures. Other than attending a big east-coast tool auction, it’s your opportunity to at least see in detail the tool before you buy it.
David in Raleigh NC
I’m up in the Canadian prairies, and there are basically NO used tools available. I found one antique dealer who had some old tools, and they were universally junk.
I’d love to pick up some older chisels, or a brace and some bits. Maybe a wooden jointer plane, some molding planes, handsaws, etc. But it’s simply not possible for me to buy locally, and once I add in shipping from someone half a continent away (and even more shipping, if bringing it in from the USA) it’s far simpler and sometimes cheaper to go to the Lee Valley store that’s 10 minutes away by bicycle.
I’ll have to go explore some of the websites listed here though…who knows, might find enough to make it worth putting in an order.
You don’t have to limit yourself to genuine, collectable antique Stanley planes to find a quite reasonable tool. Stanley sold decent quality tools well into the 1960’s and maybe ’70’s. Not LN or LV quality but still quite usable. And at least the basic #3, #4, etc. bench planes are relatively common since a lot of home owners bought one during one of the earlier "do-it-yourself" booms. Such planes should turn up all over North America, though you may have better luck at a flea market or similar rather than a certified antique tool store. Also have a look on Craig’s list, etc for planes being sold in your vicinity, estate sales and the like are good possibilities.
I have a Stanley #4 plane from the 1950’s or 60’s (my guess) which I bought at an antique car swap meet for $15. It looks like it saw little use, in it’s original box, and was in very good condition other than a large chip in the blade. I ground the blade to eliminate the chip, being careful not to overheat the edge and that’s all I’ve done to it so far. I suppose I should check the flateness of the sole sometime. I resharpened the original blade with a bit of an arc for rougher work, and I also have a replacement Hock blade which is sharpened closer to straight for fine work. It’s the regular quality Stanley, not a contractor special or the like and actually quite nice. I now use this plane for "intermediate" work and save the LN #4 for touching up edges and final smoothing.
I also have a #4 and #5 economy model Stanley planes from the early ’80’s. Not nearly as nice as the plane I dicussed above but both are used. The #5 serves as a fore plane for dimensioning and removing large humps, and the #4 is used for even rougher dimensioning, somewhat like a scrub plane. I did spend time flattening the soles a long time ago and they definately needed it.
Ack, I forgot to mention Lee Richmond at TheBestThings.com. Yes. Another excellent old-tool seller with scruples, deep knowledge and good stock. Highly recommended.
David, you’re giving up the eBay secret! I won’t be able to win another auction…
Actually the sniping is really useful in other ways too. It doesn’t drive up the price, I am forced to decide ahead of time what I really want to pay for the item, and I can’t adjust upwards if someone else outbids me (since my bid is placed in the last minute). To figure out what price might win you the auction, don’t forget to search "completed listings".
If you live in Raleigh, NC (or close) then try the Klingspor’s woodworking shop on Capital Blvd. They have a good selection of antique tools in pretty good condition at more or less reasonable prices.
To me the tools we use are a part of who we are. I usually try to find things used because a lot of times the sellers have no idea what they have. Often these are tools that are excellent and have had little use. Most often though I learn about how to use the tool simple by cleaning it up and getting it into great working condition (not to mention that I find just as much pleasure doing this as I do building things with wood). I had no experience with handplanes when I was given my first one from my grandfather years ago. Of course it was rusted and not sharp but by cleaning it up I learned how it all went together and worked. It also teaches how to sharpen the blade which is a must for continued use of any hand tool. I believe this is a part of growing as a craftsman and is often overlooked because people are afraid of screwing it up and would rather get it working out of the box. But like you guys said, that’s what gets me the deals in the first place so perhaps I should keep my mouth shut. Love the post though.
For the record an 80mg tablet of oxycontin got me 2 Stanley 750’s, i Stanley 2100, and a Type 11 No. 4! Hey what can I say I live in New York.
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