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