Stanley Tools Combination Planes at the MacLachlin Woodworking Museum

We would like to thank Matthew Turner, Director of the MacLachlan Woodworking Museum in Kingston, Ontario, Canada for preparing this exhibit. Unlike our exhibits in the past this exhibit is a look at how antique Stanley combination planes are used on a daily basis at the cabinetmakers workshop at the museum.


MacLachlan Woodworking Museum

The MacLachlan Woodworking Museum has an extensive tool collection which includes over 3,000 woodworking planes from Canada, the United States and Great Britain.

Five years ago the staff at the museum began actively using woodworking tools, first as demonstrations for school tours and special events, and later evolving to a dedicated workshop exhibit, where visitors can see antique tools being used by the staff to build reproductions of china hutches, cupboards, and other farmhouse furniture.

Each year we train our summer staff in the use of these antique tools. Generally, that involves proving that the tool works by demonstrating its use, and then setting it up and allowing the staff time to make mistakes. This allows them time to concentrate on their technique under ideal conditions. Once they can get reasonably good results they can go on to sharpening and setting their tools, the areas that require more skill.

The museum offers introductory demonstrations to school groups in blacksmithing, spinning, candlemaking, bread baking and cabinetry. The young people pictured here are regular visitors to the museum who asked for a three-hour course in making picture frames. We used the Stanley 45 and 55 to make composite mouldings, and the Stanley 41 (with fillister bottom) and '46 to rabbet the inside edge of the frames.

(Ages in the group ranged from 5 to 14 years).
While satisfying to use, these tools are also surprisingly efficient, and if you are woodworking for pleasure you will find these tools can add an entirely new dimension to your hobby. We hope that by presenting some of what we've learned over the last few years you will be able to enjoy using these and similar planes as much as we have.

Combination planes were meant to perform more than one distinct operation, and there were wooden combination planes long before Stanley introduced their line of metallic combination planes in the last quarter of the 19th century. There were also many other manufacturers of metal combination planes associated with other patents. These were often produced in relatively small quantities and are collector's items today, priced well outside what most people would pay for a "user" plane. The Stanley planes were by far the most successful due to their ease of operation and elegance of their design. Although Stanley discontinued most of their planes by 1962, there are still combination planes based on their designs being made by other companies today.

When we started our shop, we had to purchase all the planes that we were going to use; planes in the museum's collection are not allowed to be sharpened or used. We found that the characteristics that allows relatively expensive metal combination planes to compete against cheaper wooden planes over one hundred years ago to be even more important today. It may be a regional problem, but we have found that most of the wooden moulding planes we look at have dried out over the years and no longer fit their irons. Preparing these planes for use usually involves re-grinding the new profile of the plane's sole into the iron. Besides taking a great deal of time, it really goes against the grain in a museum to completely rework an antique tool, whether its part of the collection or not. There's also the question of availability and cost. Some of the Stanley combination planes could replace dozens of wooden moulding planes, and that is a tremendous advantage when setting up a new shop.

Many old-timers didn't like the new planes, preferring the look and feel of wooden planes to the new-fangled designs. To help overcome this bias, the Stanley company went out of its way to make the early metallic combination planes as ornate and decorative as possible. To the 20th century eye, these planes are beautiful examples of Victorian metalwork, with floral motifs cast into plane bodies and fences. Rosewood handles and brass fittings add to the planes' elegance, making them as much showpieces as practical tools.

There is one drawback with resurrecting and using these old tools. In the second half of the last century screw threads had just begun to standardize. However many designs called for screws of a thread size that a century later have become totally obsolete and are impossible to find. Stanley designs were no exception, so finding spare thumbscrews and other pieces for their older tools can be frustrating and expensive. Worse yet, previous owners may have forced a modern machine screw into service and stripped the threads in the plane.

No workshop needs the variety of combination planes presented here. We find that each type has its own strengths and weaknesses, and we generally use each plane for a particular application at which it excels.

Next: Stanley 41 - 45

Copyright 1999 01 Inc., NYC