There are always a lot of questions around what particular hand plane a woodworker should look for. Here are my thoughts on some Vintage Hand Planes, their features and their usefulness. These opinions are based on the most popular lines these manufacturers made. These are the most popular panes you will typically find being used by the vintage tool crowd.
You may find “QUICKLY IDENTIFY YOUR HAND PLANE” helpful to help in the identification of the hand planes mentioned.
Vintage Bailey patent type planes
Vintage planes come in all different shapes and sizes. But when looking for a vintage plane, you’ll find a lot of different models to choose from, with all kinds of amenities. The different models have different attributes or “improvements” that may or may not be to your liking. I’ll discuss my thoughts on some of these features, typically marketed as new and improved.
Hopefully as you read you will also note that asking a question about quality and usability will go well beyond just the manufacturer. It’s important to understand the progression all these manufactures went through, and you could likely find a time period for all (or some) that you’ll like and a time period for all (or some) that you dislike. You also may find a feature you like on one type, and not another.
This first part will focus on the Bailey patented type planes, although some of these features will apply to many other types of hand planes as well.
Frog Adjustment Screw
There are makers and models with and without frog adjustment screws or mechanisms. They were marketed as improvements. Personally I’m a bit indifferent whether a plane has one or not. At times, I find them annoying. That said, some folks prefer having them. Only you can decide if this feature is a requirement for your hand plane. Keep in mind the screw only “helps” with the adjustment. Either way, the frog is adjustable with or without it. Typically once the frog is set, I never move it again.
Another early improvement. I find this one a little more useful than the frog adjustment screw, although I do not find it a necessity. I find the pre lateral planes work very well and adjustment can be made with a simple tap or push with your thumbs. The taps can be with a plane hammer, a block of wood, or even a screwdriver handle. Using a plane this way is the same as a wood bodied plane, so if using wood bodied planes is something you do or would like to do, a pre lateral metallic plane will fit right in.
Left or right handed blade adjustment knob
Switching from a right handed thread to a left handed thread was another marketed “improvement”. It’s another attribute you’ll need to decide on. I will admit, early on you will find having them all the same will be helpful, but even that seems to fade after a while. As of late I seem to like the original right handed thread, but I don’t think it would tip my decision on a hand plane one way or the other.
Adding corrugations to the soles of hand planes was yet another “improvement” often under discussion. These are often designated with a “C” after the number, so a corrugated #4 is a #4C. I can only think of Union, which used a “G” (for grooved) instead of a C designation. Some woodworkers believe the corrugations reduces friction. Others believe it’s a marketing gimmick. There is a belief in the industry that a corrugated model is worth more in resale value. I’ve only seen that in very rare models such as a #5 1/4C, a #2C, or a Ohio #02C and other hard to find and scarce hand plane models that are sought after.
Whether you want to pursue or avoid the corrugated models will wind up a personal preference. I personally find very little difference for myself, and will not discriminate one way or the other for a user hand plane.
It’s also worth noting that understanding your plane’s design will make you understand how to use it better. Questions like “does the plane need to be assembled when I flatten it” will change based on the frog styles. How should my frog be positioned will change based on the frog style. And even how you sharpen may be affected based on the plane and frog style. (For instance, see the Ohio tools sharpening reference). It takes some time to understand all the nuances of all of the different makes and models, but eventually you’ll begin to have favorites. Sometimes you may not even understand why.
So which makers should you look for? In my opinion you probably should pay more attention to what you like in the tool than who made it, but I’ll give a bit of what I’ve found in tuning, testing and using hundreds of planes by these manufacturers.
Obviously most of these planes we’re discussing originated from Leonard Bailey and his patented design. And even the ones that did not, still had to have been influenced by Bailey and his planes. Stanley Bailey planes are by far the easiest to find. Parts are easiest to find and if you’re interested in the history it’s easiest to find.
I do believe however, once time started to see the “improvements” mentioned above, Stanley started relying more on marketing than quality. That doesn’t necessarily mean the planes didn’t work. Up until World War II, if they did not work they would likely not have sold. But it was becoming a time when the progression of the frog design became more about cost than the effectiveness.
Many believe our modern day tuning efforts are just that. Modern day. And I find way to much evidence to disagree. I find very few Stanley planes past type 5 or 6 that don’t need tuning. This has me a bit perplexed however, because I’ve yet to find a plane that needs flattening and tuning that will work well without the proper flattening and tuning. There is something in this period of history I’ve yet to understand.
Of all of the major brands, I find Stanley Bailey planes require the most tuning. Once tuned however, these planes typically work well.
Sargent (400 series – #409-#424)
Next is Sargent. It’s no secret these are my favorites. The earliest Sargent planes were pre-laterals. These tend to be quite collectable so no longer get a lot of use. If however, you decided to use them you would find them quite serviceable. They are equal to the Bailey’s of the time. Although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend using them, I would not necessarily recommend against it either. Just like anything of this age, I’d like to see the history preserved, but at the same time understand a desire to feel that history in use. I’ll leave that decision up to the owner, but my type ones are not everyday users.
The type 2 had a horse shoe lateral. Although they work well, I think the change to the folded end that fits into the blade slot was an improvement.
I’ve found Sargent planes typically require very little tuning. Most of them are already flat, the frogs seat properly, and work as expected as they’re found. Sargent changed the frog design around 1910. This change introduced the “Very Best Made” (VBM) model. I believe these to be the best manufactured planes of the time, and even by todays standards are a quality made plane. As with all manufacture’s, as time went on past WWII, we see a decline in quality. This decline typically only means a potential for a little extra fettling (and this applies to all brands), it does not mean the planes will not become good quality users.
Comparing Sargent planes against anything from the same time period I believe you will find the Sargent a worthy competitor. They are well worth the effort to find one for your work bench.
Millers Falls (#7-#24)
Millers Falls didn’t start producing hand planes until 1929. They were pretty late in the game, so you will not find as many. They’re by no means uncommon however. Millers Falls’ primary marketed patent was their jointed lever cap. Whether it is an actual improvement or not is often under debate, but I will say it’s not a disadvantage either. I do not consider the jointed cap as an advantage, other than the cool factor, although there are those who will disagree. They were quality planes, and they are not difficult to tune, so they should be considered if looking for a good vintage user.
Ohio Tools (#02-#08)
Ohio Tools hand planes have some unique characteristics that gives them a rustic type charm. You’ll find the fit and finish not quite as polished as some others. This doesn’t affect their usability and to some, adds to the uniqueness. The earlier planes with thick tapered blades requires a different sharpening technique, and a blade that seems to be slightly harder which will be a pleasure to some, and not to other’s. The toe screw that’s also included in their smoother planes add another touch of uniqueness that I find pretty cool. Their totes have a bit of a unique design that makes identification easier. Some Ohio Planes are also japanned with a maroon colored japanning. These are sought-after by Ohio collectors, especially if the japanning is in good shape. As user tools, I suggest Ohio Tools be added to your list of acceptable tools for your workbench. You’re likely to be pleased with the performance and historical presence that follows with them.
Union planes are basically the same as the Stanley Bailey planes of their time. The lateral adjuster being the primary difference. The very very early Union’s can be found with a Mosher patent lateral left over from the B plane from the Birmingham buyout. These are somewhat rare. I find the lateral adjustment to be a little inferior, so I haven’t used one much. I wouldn’t call it bad, and since the lateral isn’t really a necessity, it could be a decent user. After that Union employed a patented designed lateral of their own. After which the typical Stanley type lateral can be found, with the only difference being a simple twist as a finger hold. (see the differences here–>)The planes themselves have a similar quality to the other major manufacturers of the time and certainly will take a respectable place on the workbench.
Premium Hand Planes
The manufacturers mentioned all had a premium hand plane line. There are always ongoing discussions as to whether they are superior or not. My experience shows they are typically easier to tune, and once tuned, as with all those mentioned, perform about the same. Tolerances are typically a little tighter, finish is typically a little better, but I find it still comes down to the personality of the plane and the user. As to how well they leave the wood surface, that’s more on the sharpness of the blade and the quality of the tuning. Note as well, none of these I list as premium are the typical Bailey patented design like of all of the hand planes mentioned above.
The Stanley Bedrock is the most abundant of these premium vintage planes. They come in two styles, the early round sided versions and the later flat sided. I’ll leave you to learn the history, but they do make good users. They don’t typically require a bunch of tuning, but when you find one that is bad, it can be a bear to tune. The claim to fame for the flat sided versions are frog adjustment without removing the blade. As I stated above, I don’t see the frog adjustment as much if anything worth writing about, so we’ll leave that as it is. All in all, they’re great planes for a lot of reasons, and should be considered. They’re also the design Lie Nielsen decided to copy when making their line of LN bench planes.
The Union X planes have a distinct following. They are not extremely abundant and can come at a premium. Their solid integrated frog makes them sturdy. Some believe the adjustment mechanism to be more finite and ridged. I believe that to be true, but it also means slower adjustment, and since I don’t find the typical bailey adjustment to be a problem, I don’t really see the X plane adjustment as any real advantage. The disadvantage is only a fraction of time to make a minor cutter adjustment so not really much of a disadvantage either. I personally do not care for the adjustment, I find it a bit awkward to make adjustments as you are planing however, but I’m sure time and use would eventually rectify that. Again, it’s about the personality. They are definitely worthy of a spot on any workbench. They are also being reproduced today, so they can be had new (although I’m not sure of availability as of this writing).
Sargent Shaw Patent
The Sargent Shaw patent, manufactured on the Sargent numbers 7-24, came out just a couple years before the Stanley Bedrock flat sided planes with the same claim to fame. The advantage of the Shaw patent was the sliding action of the frog was horizontal, where the bedrock wasn’t, so when you moved the frog on a Bedrock it changed the depth of the blade. Again, a battle among the marketing gurus of the time and it seems Stanley’s marketing was a bit better. I like the Shaw patent planes however, they are heavy and well made. But once again, it’s about personality as opposed to actual performance gains. They’re still all equal in wood surface achievement and some gain in characteristics and charm.
Ohio Marks Patent
It’s only fair I give mention to the Ohio Tools Marks patent. I’ve only tuned a few of these, but it’s kind of more of the same. A different way to move the frog that really doesn’t need moving. These are somewhat collectable, so I’d be happy to leave them to the collectors out there. But if you have one or find one and find the itch to use it, you’ll probably not find a piece of wood that notices.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor should it be considered one. There are so many smaller hand plane manufactures and a large number are mentioned elsewhere in this site. Just peruse through the articles to find a few on Siegley , Hahn, Gage, Auto set series, and others too numerous to mention and whose tool’s have been part of the history and allure of this Vintage Hand Tool world. You can also find other brands like Fulton, Craftsman, Wards Masters, Dunlap, Zenith, Winchester, Firestone, Lakeside, and many more house brands that were made by one of the major manufactures and sold under the resellers name. There are also secondary lines like Defiance, Hercules, Four Square and others that can be tuned and used. All these can be worthy user planes if you just learn what it is to look for.