The High Cost of Good Hand Tools

In my youth, one reason many builders of fine furniture, amateur and professional alike, turned to hand tools was economy. Hand tools were much cheaper

Two Bailey #04 1/2 smoothing planes

Two Bailey #04 1/2 smoothing planes

than machinery. Stanley probably made more hand tools than any other company, having plants in New Britain, Connecticut and England. The most notable hand tool they manufactured was Bailey Planes. The company bought Leonard Bailey out in 1869 and hired him to supervise production. Stanley made prodigious numbers of Bailey planes between 1869 and the early 1960s. The design set a high-water mark for hand planes and Bailey’s numbering system, sizes 01 through 08 (pronounced Oh and the number) became the de facto standard for the entire woodworking industry. Smoothing planes are 01 though 04; jack planes are number 05, with 07 and 08 being jointers. In 1923, an 05 jack plane sold for $6.05.

In 1898, Stanley introduced an even better plane, the Bedrock. This used the same numbering system, but a 6 preceded the number to denote the Bedrock Line. In the very early 20tth century, the cheeks of the 600 Bedrock Line were squared to further distinguish them from the Bailey Line. Stanley ceased production of the Bedrock in 1943, but craftsmen use and treasure them to this day. Today at least three manufacturers make slavish copies of Bedrock planes. In 1923, a 605 Bedrock jack plane sold for $6.75.

Classic Bailey #05 (foreground);  classic Bedrock #605 (back). Both made during the 1920s.

Classic Bailey #05 (foreground); classic Bedrock #605 (back). Both made during the 1920s.

When I was getting serious about woodworking in the 1970s, plane manufacture had sunk to an all-time low. You could not buy a usable plane anymore. But Baileys abounded at yard sales and flea markets for between $5 and $25. Bedrocks went for $5 to $75, depending on whether the seller realized that Bedrocks were premium merchandise. This happy state of affairs made a used high quality classic cheaper than a new piece of junk. There are those who will only buy new, and they chafed under what was available.

As woodworking grew as a hobby, the demand for decent hand planes became sufficient that companies started making decent ones again. Tom Lie-Nielsen was the first to realize this need and started making a good Bedrock reproduction. Today we are blessed with a host of companies making really good planes; however, they are not cheap!

If we factor in inflation for our 1923 prices from Stanley Catalogue Number 120, we find our $6.05 Bailey would cost $80.49 today and the $6.75 Bedrock would cost $89.80. This tells us that planes, and I think hand tools in general, have gotten significantly more expensive. A 05 Lie-Nielsen Jack today costs $325, which is 3.6 times the price of our 1923 Bedrock.

Some of this price difference can be attributed to manufacturing quantities. As you make more of any product, quantities of scale are reached that significantly reduce manufacturing cost. In the 1920s, Stanley was making planes in the hundreds of thousands, while any manufacturer today is making thousands at best. This would account for part of the price increase. Another factor is that planes, and many other hand tools, are cast iron. The cost for a foundry to meet EPA environmental standards, which are needed if the world is to go on, is significant. Some of the more attractive prices for hand planes may be due to manufacture in Asia, where manufacturing air quality standards are lower than in the U.S.

The good news, I think, is that cost of machinery has seen similar price increases, so hand tools are still a good alternative. What is more: they are safer, quiet and don’t need a power cord. Used planes do not abound anymore, but are still quite available. A decent Bailey can still be purchased for less than $100, making it a very good buy indeed.

Follow the Rules, But Know When To Break Them

WJBlog_E_Conover_DovetailBoxIn learning any craft, the apprentice is indoctrinated with a plethora of rules. In woodworking, many are a matter of avoiding personal injury — as in safe use of sharp tools and machinery. Others are crucial to achieving workmanship-like results and producing furniture that will hold up to abuse for generations. (Woe is the practitioner who is ignorant of the laws of wood movement!)

Just such a rule is: “There must always be a half-pin at either edge of a dovetail joint and not a half-tail.” Stated another way, there is never a half tail — and this is true whether you are hand or machine cutting. The reason for this ironclad tenet is that wood, left unto itself, has a proclivity to warp.

A box, drawer or carcass dovetailed together with half-pins at each edge is ironbound and WJBlog_EConover_DovetailIllustrationwill resist any inclination of the wood to warp. However, this is not the case with half-tails at the edge, as we can see in the illustration. Should the wood warp, there is nothing holding the edges of the tail boards, and gaps will form. While I have exaggerated the phenomenon in my drawing, it is nevertheless unsightly.

I recently had a group who wanted to build the box pictured, which is in John Kassay’s beautiful collection of measured drawings, The Book of Shaker Furniture. The 10” deep box measures 11” by 19” but has a 3” drawer in the bottom running the width and divided from the main compartment by a floating panel. The original is nailed to a board with a molded edge to form the bottom.

WJBlog_EConover_DovetailCloseupThis rustic workmanship niggled me, so I moved the drawer up ½” and trapped another floating panel to form a true bottom that would be immune to wood movement. The dovetail layout of this box is asymmetrical, making it a great training piece. However, wood warpage of the front and back tail boards could make the area around the drawer a poster child for Illustration I. The solution is a ½” rail below the drawer to resist wood movement.

The problem is that you cannot put two half pins on such a small rail. It needs a single center pin, leaving a half tail in the pin board. It is time to safely bend the rules as we see in the close-up photo. Although we threw the rulebook out the window, we have a box that will last for generations.

Epilogue: This box brings rave comments from all who view it and is a popular pick for a dovetail workshop. Once sanded and finished, however, it is not a particularly practical piece of furniture. It is too large for tabletops but not big enough for the floor. The drawer doesn’t hold much, and no one knows what the original was used for. Several months later, Susan and I are still looking for a use. Maybe my fungus collection …

The Rapidly Rising Cost of Steel

I remember the halcyon days when M2 high speed steel (HSS) turning tools hit the market. No longer did we have to worry about burning at the grinder, and HSS tools held an edge forever — compared to plain carbon steel, anyway.

The last decade has seen a proliferation of turning tools made from exotic powdered steels. Powdered refers to the manufacturing process where iron, with the necessary alloying elements, is mechanically mixed in powder form, then sprayed into a furnace where the powders become plastic but do not melt. The resulting blob is cold worked to form bars for machining. Powdered metal technology allows much higher amounts of alloying metals such as vanadium (which increases edge holding) than conventional blast furnace manufacture. The price of such special handling is significantly higher, but PM steels give extraordinarily longer tool life for metal cutting.

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The Sad State of Workbenches (Part 2): What’s Wrong Nowadays

Modern benches generally have spindle vises with two metal guide spindles and a metal screw between them. They are usually less than 2” below the benchtop. To grip anything more than this distance, it has to be to one side of a spindle, usually the right side. The front jaw of the vise cocks when tightened, ruining the corner of the work and giving a indeterminate hold. This is not progress.

poor hold of modern spindle vise

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The Sad State of Workbenches (Part 1): What Used to Be Right

Serious woodworking started at least in Egyptian times: it is amongst the oldest of crafts. By the 18th century, the workbench was pretty well thought-out, but came to absolute perfection after 1850. The second half of the 20th Century has seen a gradual decline of the workbench. I place the blame for this on well-meaning engineers who may be bright young graduates of prestigious schools, but sadly deficient in any real understanding of woodworking. These meddlers have tweaked workbench design in the name of “streamlining” manufacture,” adding “usability” to the product or simply satisfying the latest marketing research.

Euro Bench with Emmert type vise added

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