Tom Lie-Nielsen: Making Tools Like They Used To

Tom Lie-Nielsen: Making Tools Like They Used To

If you really want to stand Tom Lie-Nielsen’s hair on end, just say “they don’t make tools like they used to.” The Lie-Nielsen hand planes he’s spent the last 25 years perfecting are not only ust as good as planes made 50 years ago, they are in many ways better. Most woodworkers have trouble controlling their salivary glands when they pick up one of these very precise, high quality planes. They are, to quote a recent article in Woodworker’s Journal, the Rolls Royce of hand planes.
So why is Tom making hand planes when every year we see an ever increasing pool of high-tech tools popping up on our radar screens? Well, the first reason is because of the phrase we already mentioned. When Tom worked for Garret Wade in New York in the 70s, “one of the things that kept popping up was the comment ‘they don’t make tools like they used to.’ That always annoyed me,” says Tom.

The second reason he’s building hand planes is because there’s an increasing amount of demand for the very high-end hand tools among both professional and hobbyist woodworkers. “A lot of people ? particularly hobbyists ? are getting tired of the noise and dust and health issues and discomfort issues, and choose to use hand tools when they can,” says Tom. The increase in demand for the kinds of tools his company makes has forced him to expand his workforce from 25 in 1999 to 40 this year.

Returning to His Roots

Tom grew up in Maine, where he spent a lot of time in his father’s boat building shop. That’s where he developed his love for woodworking, hanging out with a bunch of old codger boat builders who really knew their way around the woodshop. There was also a machine shop next door where his father and the other boat builders made the customized hardware for the boats they built. That’s where Tom got his first exposure to metals and metal working.

After a few years in New York, Tom wanted to move back to Maine. The manufacture of hand planes, at that time, was a cottage industry with just a few craftsmen making hand tools. One of these hand tool craftsmen, who made edge planes, was selling his business. That gave Tom the opportunity to move back to his native soil and start a business. So he took over making the edge planes and used the skills he learned at Garret Wade ? purchasing, importing, customer service, etc. ? to build it into a more efficient business. The business became successful quite quickly, and he delivered more than 200 edge planes to customers the first year.

But Tom continued to wrestle with production issues. He didn’t have a machine shop, so he had to hire others to do the machining and casting for the planes. This wasn’t good for the economics of the business, so he looked at the possibilities of bringing more of the work on the planes into his orbit. He got a milling machine and learned how to do some lathe work. Making the blades for his planes was the first step in his metalworking education. He spent, he says, about six years learning about metal.

As he expanded his business, Tom wanted to build more planes ? new models based on old discontinued Stanley planes. That meant hiring more people. Finally he added a foundry to the mix so he could even bring the casting of the plane bodies in-house.

Metal Moves

Tom’s heavy metal education continued in earnest with the addition of the foundry. Just as wood moves when you work with it, he learned that metal moves, particularly during the casting process. “Metal is more alive than people think, especially the castings,” says Tom. Learning to master the castings was a real challenge, partly because his quality requirements for the plane bodies were so high. Eventually, he got the hang of it and the company did all of the castings for the planes for about five years. It’s a tad ironic that, once the company had mastered castings, the volume of the work increased to a level where Tom again had to outsource the casting work to a nearby foundry.

As the business grew, Tom reintroduced a series of hand planes to hand tool enthusiasts. Most were planes that used to be built by Stanley, before World War II. After the war, Stanley slowly phased out production of its hand planes, beginning with the highly specialized planes. Many of its planes vanished completely. Tom has been reviving these at a rate of about two planes a year. But the planes he’s building are not designed for collectors or historical societies ? they are meant to be used by real woodworkers who want to build great furniture with precise, well-balanced tools.

Along the way, Tom has made many innovations to the old plane designs. He doesn’t build exact replicas because he wants to improve the planes when he sees an opportunity to do so. “Stanley, in its heyday, did a very, very nice job,” says Tom, “but ours are better than the planes then, particularly the thickness of the blade ? which I think is a very important issue ? but also in the quality of the fit and finish.”

Of Frogs and Iron

Two improvements he’s working on now involve increasing the toughness of the plane bodies and giving woodworkers more flexibility with the planes they already own. The first change will be to the metal of the body. Tom is looking at changing the plane bodies to ductile iron, a substance that will not bend or break when the inevitable happens and the plane gets knocked off the work bench and lands on the cement floor. The second innovation involves emulating the high-angle smoothing planes from the English company, Norris. The higher 50 degree angle on these smoothing planes, so it is argued, gives the woodworker a much better finish. So he is introducing a new frog for Lie-Nielsen smoothing planes which allows them to be adjusted to the higher angle. That way, if a woodworker wants to try out a higher angle plane, he or she won’t be forced to buy an entirely new tool.

Galoots and Neanderthals

The Internet has also had an effect on his business and his customer base. There are newsgroups and websites that are the exclusive purview of the Galoots and the Neanderthals, woodworkers who forswear the use of power tools and pride themselves on projects completed entirely with hand tools. As you might guess, a Lie-Nielsen plane is the Holy Grail of hand tools for these woodworkers and there is a lot of discussion about the planes Tom’s company makes. In the past, says Tom, these low-tech woodworking aficionados would probably be solitary hobbyists, working in their shops and never knowing that there were others out there like them.

“I think there’s a lot of energy and activity and sharing of information going on there that would have been much, much more difficult prior to the Internet,” says Tom.

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