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.

Shop Cabinets, Production Style

Shop Cabinets

May 2013: One cabinet down, seven more to go. The process of “settling in” continues.

Whoever first said that if you enjoy what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life, must have been a woodworker. Or maybe a magazine editor. In any case, it sure sums up how I feel about my job, which is equal parts of both vocations. I’m pretty sure a coal miner would rather not dig more coal when he or she is off the clock, and I know quite a few schoolteachers that don’t dream about teaching once summer break begins. (My wife is one of them!)

But what do I do when I’m not building something for the magazine or testing a bunch of new tools? Well, oftentimes, I’m woodworking. Or I’m trying out some new tool. And whether I’m building for the magazine or for myself, the way I feel about it is exactly the same. The experience is equally satisfying, whether I’m earning a living or just wrapping up a personal project on a Sunday afternoon.

The top snapshot here will give you a glimpse of what I’ve currently got “cooking” in the shop, and as luck would have it, there are a few “down” days between getting the last issue off to press and starting our work on a new print issue. So, I’m squeezing in some time to work on a bank of four upper and base cabinets for the shop. It’s sort of an anniversary project, you might say. Almost a year ago to the day, I was moving into this shop space (see photo, below), and I’ve had these cabinets rattling around in the back of my mind ever since. But, while working for a woodworking magazine might seem like a gravy job to many folks that only woodwork after dinner and on the weekends, we on staff actually have way too much to do most of the time. So, like you, many of my woodworking projects take a back seat until I can get around to them. (My wife will attest to that, too. She’s been waiting for a new closet closet I’ve promised to build her for two years…)

May 2012: I’m just starting to move into the new shop. Paint is barely dry.

I’m really enjoying the process of working on these cabinets. For one thing, I can imagine how much they are going to improve my storage situation in the shop. I have boxes and boxes of shop stuff that still has no place to go … but soon, it will. It’s also nice to make multiples of the same thing. Usually for the magazine, we build one prototype of a project and then a second for the article. Changeover from one project to the next is pretty quick and constant, but this time I can take the Henry Ford approach. On the bench, I’m just about to assemble seven more sets of doors. It only makes sense to get one machine setup ready, then blast through them all at the same time, before moving on to the next phase. There’s a lot of repetition, to be sure, but that gives me time to think, plan the next step and enjoy the process of making something with my hands — even if that’s an exercise I’m blessed to be able to do about 50 weeks of every year.

Here’s to hoping that you find the same sense of satisfaction that I do in this wonderful craft we all share — whether you get paid for it, or not.

Catch you in the shop,

Chris Marshall, Senior Editor

Moving a Shop…Got Any War Stories?

Generally speaking, I’m pretty good about taking things in stride and not dwelling on myself. But honestly, this has been a really tough summer. You see, our family is in the process of moving to Virginia. My wife was offered a wonderful new employment opportunity in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and opportunity was knocking loudly enough to pull up roots and move. But therein lies the catch: the “moving” part. Continue reading

A Tool By Any Other Name…

Tool InspectorOur recent Woodworker’s Journal eZine Industry Interview with Rockwell Tools engendered quite a few comments, some of them unprintable, with the general take that if the tools are Asian-made, the name means little. While I will not agree with the contextual argument that an Asian-made tool is, without exception, of lower quality than a U.S.-made tool, I do agree that brand names move around a good bit.

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A Trim Trick from Pete

TRIM TOOLAlthough our blog is still in its fledgling stages, it’s really great to see your feedback beginning to come in. While I’m not a long-time blogger, it seems to me that a blog without response is sort of like talking to an empty room. And, my wife looks at me funny whenever she catches me doing that… So, thanks much for your comments and suggestions! Please keep them coming in.

Along those lines, we got some nice feedback recently to my post about the value of good trim carpentry (“Never Underestimate a Good Trim Job”). If you didn’t happen to read the comments, here’s one from Pete, a trim carpenter. Pete’s got a great trade trick to share for removing moldings without damaging walls. Here’s what he said:

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