Good Quality Hand Planes On a Budget

by ‎03-12-2010 11:58 AM - edited ‎12-07-2010 12:17 PM

In recent years there's been an influx of imported lower priced value hand planes hitting the market.  Some are decent, some are marginal, some are a waste of money.  In the lower price ranges, most newer planes use lower quality metal on all components, thinner blades, thinner castings, and poorer machining techniques.  With an upgraded aftermarket blade, and some fettling, some of the low cost new planes can be made into useful tools, but many are an exercise in futility and frustration.  Even those that are salvageable, won't necessarily hold setting properly due to the inadequacies of the metal and machining.  Unfortunately, these cheaper handplanes often have the most appeal to the least experience element of the market, which is usually the least capable segment to transform a bad plane into capable plane, which can be extremely discouraging to someone trying to get started with hand planes. 


My budget friendly solution has been to skip the cheap imports and build a collection of higher quality used planes like the venerable Stanley Baileys, Millers Falls, Record, Sargent, Craftsman, and even a highly regarded Stanley Bedrock plane.  Most of these older planes have superior metallurgy and are made to tighter tolerances.  There's usually still some sharpening and adjustments to be made, and often some elbow grease required, but overall many of these old planes simply have better bones to start with than a low cost import.  There's even replacement parts available if needed, either from sellers who've stripped them from older planes, or from select hand plane retailers who carry newer replacement parts (Highland Hardware comes to mind).  I've found that most of the better old planes have already been fettled and flattened at some point in time by an unknown user years ago.  You also can't beat the nostalgia of a plane made in 1927 when Ford Model T's were the norm, or a 1939 pre-WWII hand plane built when the world was a different place.  These things were built to last by proud craftsman who offered their best on a regular basis, before the bean counters, business moguls, and lawyers started dictating how things should be done.  There's nothing quite like finding that first diamond in the rough.  They can be found in many places...Ebay, yard sales, woodworking forum classified ads, auctions, etc,....better yet, they can be passed on from a relative!  Prices can go from next to nothing to upwards of way too much, but for me, part of the fun is deciphering the deals from the steals. 


One of the caveats of hunting down older planes is recognizing which are good and which were not so good.  Most of the bigger names offered economy lines at some point in addition to their standard higher quality planes, or at least had eras of cheaper construction, which is one aspect that makes it a bit difficult for newbies to select good quality older planes. Most of these companies were in business long enough to go through several changes that reflect business philosophy changes, political turmoil, and economic changes. The lower lines are often associated with more painted parts, plastic handles, decals instead of embossing, lower quality metals used, fewer adjustments, etc. Some companies identify their econo planes with name or number changes, but some like Record did not. I’m far from an expert but my advice to newbies is to get familiar with parts and construction differences by comparing known higher end models so it’ll become easier to recognize the lower end lines.  There are also some excellent websites for identifying and typing older hand planes.,,,


Stanley offered a “Handyman” and a “Defiance” line that weren’t quite to the Bailey standards, as well as other "non-Bailey" economy planes with the Stanley name.  Sargent’s best is the “VBM” line (supposedly for "Very Best Made") ....AFAIK, those not marked “VBM” were a step down.  Millers Falls had an economy line that looked a little different and used a different numbering system. Their better line used a numbering system that identified the plane by length in inches…(ie: Millers Falls#9 is the Stanley equivalent of a #4, Millers Falls #14 = a Stanley #5, etc.). In the late 1950’s Millers Falls introduced a cheaper #90 and #140...variations of their better #9 and #14, respectively.  Other variations of the economy line followed in subsequent years…#900 and #814, and a teflon coated version were the #9790 and #9140 respectively, as well as a 8900 and 9814. Many used a decal on the lever cap instead of embossing in the metal.  Record tended to keep the same name and numbering systems which makes it harder to identify the eras of cheaper planes, but they definitely had some #04s that were crudely finished and eliminated the frog adjustment screw.  The good news is that most of the planes from the economy lines of these companies were still reasonably well made, and while not as desirable as their more prestigious siblings, can still be made to function, so don't fret much if you end up with one of these in your collection....just sharpen, adjust, and make some curls with it.


Below are several examples of economy lines along with better quality planes from the same company:


From Stanley:

Stanley Handyman #5 economy plane:

Here’s a non-Bailey “Stanley” #5 economy plane (note things like the plastic handles, lack of frog adjustment screw, non-brass blade depth adjusting knob, stamped steel lateral blade adjuster ):

Here’s a higher quality 1927 Stanley Bailey #5-1/2 type 13 (one of my most treasured planes):


From Millers Falls:


Millers Falls economy #900 (Stanley #4 equivalent) (note the decal and painted cap iron)


A higher quality Miilers Falls #14 (Stanley #5 equivalent) (note the hardwood handles and polished cap iron):


From Record:


A Record #04 from a “lesser” era…no frog adjustment screw, plastic handles, crudely finished.:

A similar looking, but better quality Record 04 from a slightly older era...this one has a frog adjuster and good fit and finish:

An older style high quality Record 04-1/2 (one of my nicest planes):


Here's an example of a new modern era Groz hand plane made overseas.  It "looks" great doesn't it? ...but is not made to the same standards as the older Stanley Bailey, Record, or Millers Falls planes of yesteryear.  Just about every aspect is lesser quality, and is more likely to be prone to chatter and need a lot of tweaking.  I do like the engraved logo on the side though. 






















This is not to single out Groz as a bad apple...Anant, Footprint, Great Lakes, and others could also be made similar examples of.  While marketed as a cut above and appearing to be a true step up, even the new Woodriver and Stanley Sweetheart lines are still a bit suspect in my view compared to the better older planes and modern high end planes.   There's always the sure fire option of buying new a Lie Nielsen, Veritas, or Clifton hand plane, but if you can't justify the price, or just enjoy resurrecting an antique, the older planes offer a great low cost alternative.  Then again, maybe you'll choose to "roll your own" as our own Matt Seiler from "MSWOODcraft" does!