Collecting antique tools is becoming much more widespread and that, some woodworkers argue, is a bit unsettling. After all, the idea of acquiring a well-made, beautiful, hand-crafted plane that cuts exquisitely fine shavings from even the toughest woods and then putting it on a shelf somewhere just doesn’t seem right. You want to use it, take it down to the shop, run it through its courses.
Bob Mathison runs up against this all the time. As an avid plane collector, he’s determined to educate woodworkers about the old tools. At the same time, because a well-crafted old plane is hard to find these days, he’s also begun manufacturing new planes based on the grand old designs. This way, he says, the collectors can collect, and woodworkers can get great planes that they can take out every day and use. So Bob wears two hats: he’s the curator of the Museum of Woodworking Tools and the principal of the Museum Store, which sells hand tools for woodworkers.
Give Me a Dull Blade
His most recent project has been the introduction – or reintroduction – of a dovetailed steel chariot plane. This plane is based on the old Norris chariot planes with a few exceptions. If you’re well versed in Norris planes, you’ll notice right of the bat that Bob’s plane includes an adjuster, something Norris didn’t introduce until much later. Moreover, instead of a cast body, Bob designed a brass body with a steel sole attached to the body using dovetail joints. His partner in the design and building of this new “old” plane was Tim Kelly of Kelly Toolworks, and when they tried out the first one, they knew they got it right.
He received the prototype from Tim about 10 p.m. one evening, and because he and Tim have different sharpening philosophies, the blade hadn’t been sharpened yet. Bob didn’t want to take it all the way to the shop to sharpen it, so he tried it “as is” on a piece of wood he had in his kitchen. All he could say was “Wow!”
“I discovered the secret to finding out if you have a good design,” says Bob. “Determine if it cuts well dull.” And his plane did cut well dull, just like the Norris planes he collected.
Now Bob sells hand tools but also set up the online museum as a way to educate woodworkers about hand tools. “My goal is to help people use hand tools properly. Most people don’t know how to use them,” says Bob. “I’m not against power tools,” he adds. “I think power tools are a wonderful thing. I think, however, there are some things that hand tools do better.”
Welcome to the Revival
Demonstrating how hand tools have developed over time is one of the ways Bob plans to get the message out about them. That’s where the museum comes in. He’s put photos of many old tools up on the Internet with lengthy and involved descriptions of both the tool and the manufacturer that made it. He also has areas in the museum for traditional Vietnamese woodworking tools and an exhibit featuring Cesar Chelor, the first African American plane maker who produced hand planes both as a slave and then later as a free man.
Bob is primarily interested in why each tool was made in the first place and what woodworking problem it was invented to solve. He’s just as interested in how the old tools were made, which is why he decided to make his chariot plane with a dovetailed design. His experience collecting old tools taught him that the dovetailed planes he encountered stood the test of time better and stayed truer than cast planes.
In terms of hand planes, “There’s a renaissance that you would not believe,” says Bob. He gives a lot of the credit for this revival to Thomas Lie-Nielsen, who started making high-quality hand planes in the mid 80s that are often better than the discontinued Stanley planes from the early part of the century. Stanley gradually discontinued most of its plane manufacturing after WWII as power tools became more and more available to both professional and hobbyist woodworkers.
Perfect or Near Perfect?
In the history of planes, according to Bob, there were two schools of thought. There were the English infill planes by Norris, Spiers, etc. and the American planes by Stanley. “The Americans went for an inexpensive, mass-produced thing that was brilliant, cheap and almost perfect. The English went for expensive, ‘ye olde craftsman’ planes that were perfect,” explains Bob.
Now, if you find either a Norris or a Stanley plane in pristine condition, it’s so rare that most woodworkers won’t use them for fear of wearing them out. That’s why Bob has made it his mission to collect tools and educate others about them, in the hope that others will start making working reproductions of the old hand tools so today’s woodworkers can begin using them again. He says quite often he will be contacted by budding tool makers who want to copy the design of an old plane, so Bob spends some of his time doing tracings of old tools so these modern craftsman can further the revival.
And while the test of a well-designed plane is how it cuts with a dull blade, Bob is a staunch proponent of knowing how to sharpen a blade or tool properly, without the help of a jig. He’s currently working on a step-by-step course on sharpening that he will post on his online museum site.
Bob is excited about the future of hand tools, both as an educator and as a manufacturer. “We’re in the middle of a revival, and it’s a wonderful thing. Fifteen years ago, nobody knew about Norris. It was a hidden secret,” says Bob, “now people know.”
– Bob Filipczak