Old vs. New Hand Planes

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Blog entry by TheWoodenOyster posted 06-24-2014 01:42 PM 10512 reads 0 times favorited 19 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Old Hand Planes vs. New Hand Planes

Many people ask questions on forums about choosing old hand planes and refurbishing them or just buying new ones that are almost ready to go out of the box. I have done both, but I am still no master when it comes to making my decisions. I still go both ways, but these are my thoughts about the topic. I’ll give some pros and cons about each option and elaborate on them a little bit

Old Hand Planes

The cons:

1. You cannot always find the one you want when you want it, especially if it is a specialty plane. There are lots of planes to be had out there, and while ebay has helped in dispersing them to loving owners, there are still some that can take years to find. Luckily, many of the most common and useful planes are relatively easy to get your hands on.

2. They are going to take some tweaking. Some used hand planes that you pay anywhere from $60 to $100 for will likely be in pretty good shape, and someone probably already worked on them a bit to get their bid price higher. Cheaper ones will take de-rusting, oiling, probably some sanding, etc. They’ll need a full makeover. On any used plane, you are very likely going to have to flatten the sole and dress the blade and chipbreaker, which brings me to number 3.

3. The blades in used planes are typically in bad shape, as are the chipbreakers. I have tuned up and tried to use original blades in old stanleys and millers falls planes with marginal success. I know that some guys out there can tune these blades up perfectly and get great results with them. I would venture to say that most of us cannot do that. We can get good results, but not great results. When it comes to using old planes, I just gave in and bought a good thick aftermarket blade and chipbreaker. It made a world of difference. The only problem is that they cost between $60 and $100. Your cheap plane just turned into a not so cheap plane.

4. You can get 98% out of them. But they will never be Lie Nielsens. You can make old planes work very well. So well, in fact, that there is often no discernible difference between them and a new high-end plane. Some would argue that the 2% performance difference isn’t worth the extra cost. Sometimes it isn’t, sometimes it is, and much of it probably depends on what you expect out of your hand planes. But if you need a Ferrari of a hand plane, it is very difficult to get an old plane to that point.

The Pros:

1. They are cheap. You can typically get a good pre-WWII Stanley or Millers Falls (or others) that is clean for $50 to $70 on ebay. I know you can get them cheaper and rustier at yard sales and such, but ebay is the route I usually go.

2. Many of the better brands do have solid bones, so if you know what to look for, you won’t be getting a piece of junk.

3. They are nostalgic. It is fun to get an old plane and think of them men before you who have used it, or that it rolled off the production while Woodrow Wilson was President.

4. Considering how old they are, you really can get them to work very well with some elbow grease.

New Hand Planes

The cons:

1. They cost more. This is the biggest deterrent for people considering a new hand plane. Right now, a Wood River #4 is about $150. A Lie Nielsen #4 is $350. Wowee! That Lie Nielsen is pretty expensive, even considering how well it performs. I have heard good things about Wood River and would expect them to perform similarly to a well-tuned old Stanley with a replacement blade.

2. No nostalgic fun. These planes don’t really have much history. Lie Nielsens have some history as they are made in the USA by a small shop, but you will obviously be the first one to use any new hand plane that you buy.

The pros:

1. They take a short amount of time and little tune up to get working. A Lie Nielsen probably would take 5 minutes of honing and it would be ready for work. A cheaper plane such as a Wood River would probably take something like an hour or so to get ready to work. Either way, that is typically faster than fixing an old rust-bucket plane. I will say that I have gotten some Stanleys in working order in an hour or so, if they were in good shape when I bought them.

2. They typically are very well tuned and perform extremely well. I am talking about Lie Nielsen in specific here. I have gone to some of their shows and their planes really are a notch above. They feel great in the hand and their performance is really top notch.

3. You don’t have to know much to know that you are getting a good hand plane. When it comes to buying used, there is a learning curve when it comes to knowing what to look for and what is important in a used hand plane. If you buy new, you typically don’t have to worry about that as much.

The Summary:

Funny – when I started writing this, I was thinking that in the summary I would say that my next hand plane will be a Lie Nielsen, but I think I have changed my own mind. The price difference is just so gigantic that I cannot really justify getting that 2% of extra performance for an extra $200. Lie Nielsens are awesome planes (I do own one of their block planes) and someday I would love to have a set, but as of now, I will stick to older planes with upgraded blades. A cheaper, mid-grade plane, such as a wood river is an interesting option, especially for a starter plane to help a noobie get the feel without needing a large knowledge base of which used planes to look for and without having to do a bunch of tune up.

Hope you all enjoyed it, feedback welcome.

-- The Wood Is Your Oyster

19 comments so far

View ratchet's profile


1391 posts in 4668 days

#1 posted 06-24-2014 03:29 PM

TWO; thanks for documenting the obsession of New vs Old. You presented both sides well. Thanks for sharing your insights with us!

View AgentTwitch's profile


631 posts in 4377 days

#2 posted 06-24-2014 03:29 PM

It was very interesting to read your thought process on old premium hand planes versus new premium hand planes. I don’t think anyone can go wrong with whatever route they decide to pursue. I like all three of your referenced manufacturers. I have old Stanleys (Bailey style, no Bedrock unfortunately), WoodRiver V3s and Lie-Nielsens. One thing is for certain, they all perform excellent with some TLC. I enjoy tinkering, so completely stripping the metal parts, painting, and repairing the totes/knobs of old Stanleys was fun—You have to want to do this with these tools. I decided to purchase a few of the WoodRiver V3 planes and found them to be well built. The castings are smoother on the WoodRiver than the Stanley and LN due to the casting technique (wax reduction vs sand casting). The bubinga tote/knob feel nice in the hand, and the planes have plenty of heft (heavier than the LN). It is also good to see that they are expanding their line with the 4-1/2 smoother and shoulder plane, which will compliment the cabinet scraper, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and block planes. I will say that in my experience with these tools that the adjustments and machining are rougher than the LN, but still superior to old Stanleys and new bargain planes. These are made in China, and closely resemble LN (over Bedrock).

My absolute favorites are the Lie-Nielsens. I cant offer a quantifiable reason for everyone to purchase these planes over the other choices, but I can tell you that the entire construction process takes place in the USA, which is important to me. Foundry is located in Lewiston, Maine. The brass and bronze adjustable screws are made locally, the machining process is unrivaled. I live 40 minutes away from their showroom and have taken tours of the facility (10% off your purchase at their Warren, Maine show room if you are up for a visit – stop by Moody’s diner afterwards for a great meal and some excellent pie!). These are top notch people working for a world famous, small, Maine-based company. The company cares about its reputation and not about high production, which shows in all of their products (and price). They also make improvements to the original tools (alloys, thickness, etc), provide accessories such as replacement handles, different angle frogs, irons (A2 or O2, toothed, not toothed, etc), and stand behind their work. On a side note, during a visit to their facility, I met the two gents who made my LN saws (and every other LN saw) produced, which is really neat when you think about it.

These are all excellent tools, I like them all. I will continue to buy new and old. It’s a sickness, really…

-- Regards, Norm

View DocSavage45's profile


9019 posts in 3723 days

#3 posted 06-24-2014 03:59 PM

You can purchase a more heavy duty plane blade for an older plane. Rob Cosman has been advising on Wood River Planes and he demonstrates how you can tune up an older plane. I believe he upgraded a #4?

I can’t afford the blade nor a Wood River right now!

good discussion.

-- Cau Haus Designs, Thomas J. Tieffenbacher

View TheWoodenOyster's profile


1335 posts in 2816 days

#4 posted 06-24-2014 07:49 PM

Thanks for the feedback guys.

Norm- I am actually considering a trip up to Maine at the end of the summer. We used to go up there when I was a kid and we loved it. Want to take the wife up there and would love to see their showroom.

Doc- I have the Rob Cosman IBC Pinnacle blade in my Stanley #4 right now. I really enjoy it, kind of pricey but it makes a very noticeable difference.

-- The Wood Is Your Oyster

View changeoffocus's profile


467 posts in 2498 days

#5 posted 06-24-2014 10:30 PM

Interesting subject, Thanks for posting.

View upchuck's profile


540 posts in 2546 days

#6 posted 06-24-2014 10:39 PM

I have one LN bench plane (a #4 1/2 w/50 degree frog) that I love and a dozen and a half other bench planes that I also love (Stanleys, Keen Kutter, Union, Record, Rockfords, and woodies). Direct comparison is impossible because of the 50 degree frog but the non-LN’s are tuned up as well as I know how. Having one LN is nice to have for the high standard of fit and finish that is possible. Over time I’m aiming to bring the others up to that standard.

As a flea market bottom feeder I’m sure that I have far less money in all of the non-LN’s combined then I do in the one #4 1/2 from LN. For example: Keen Kutter #K4 1/2 $10 (missing lever cap and double iron that I had spares to fit so add another $5) and Rockford #R4 1/2 for $20 plus shipping of $11.30. LN #4 1/2 is listed at $325.00.

The LN is better that either of these planes. It is prettier. The fit and finish is tighter and nicer. 2% more? Absolutely. But not 10% more. And certainly not 10 or 20 times nicer. Plus I enjoy taking a rust bucket boat anchor of a plane and turning into a serviceable working tool.

I’m sure I’ll buy another premium plane someday. But I’ll be very selective.

View jonah's profile


2130 posts in 4179 days

#7 posted 06-25-2014 12:14 PM

I think you overestimate the amount of work required to get a rust bucket back to usable shape. You have to de-rust, but that is as simple as dunking the thing in a bucket of evap-o-rust for a few hours. You have to clean it up, which takes a few minutes with some cleaner. You oil it when you put it back together, which takes five minutes.

The hard(er) parts are flattening the sole and dressing the iron and chip breaker. If you have a iron/chipbreaker that aren’t horribly warped, that doesn’t take all that long. I estimate the whole rehab and tuning process, start to finish, to take ~1-2 hours once you’ve done it once or twice.

Is two hours of my time and ~$50 in materials (including the reusable evap-o-rust) worth saving ~$200 over the Lie-Nielsen plane? For me, definitely. That’s why I own a whole set of formerly rust-bucket pre-WW2 #3-8 bench planes.

View JayT's profile


6413 posts in 3092 days

#8 posted 06-25-2014 01:14 PM

Your opening post is well written and thought out.

My thoughts/general feeling are very similar. For standard bench planes, most people will be ahead to go vintage. As you mention, the cost savings is pretty substantial and the performance, once tuned, will be the same. I do think you are on the high side for ebay purchases on common sized planes, however. I’ve purchased quite a few that are in my user till for less than $40, including shipping, and even some for as little as $15-20. A good user #4 can be found any day on ebay for that amount.

For many specialty planes, a person might very well be ahead to buy new. For instance, one of my next plane purchases will be a #95 edge trimming plane. A vintage Stanley goes for nearly as much as a new Lie-Nielsen or Veritas version and is much harder to find. Shoulder planes are another commonly purchased item that the new ones are many times a better deal overall.

That is the one addition I would make to your list—time. Not just trying to find what you want, when you want, but just the time to sort through all the ebay listings or visit multiple physical locations looking for planes is very time consuming. Depending on what your time is worth, that can add up quickly and vault the overall cost of a vintage plane much higher. Some of us actually enjoy the rust hunting, so don’t mind the time, while others do.

-- - In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.

View TheWoodenOyster's profile


1335 posts in 2816 days

#9 posted 06-25-2014 02:06 PM

Jonah – I have never gone through the de-rusting process, but it sounds quicker that I originally thought. That is good to know. All of the planes I have ever gotten had already been de-rusted or had never gotten that bad in the first place. I have spent my fair share of time flattening soles and especially flattening blades. When it comes to a full on rehab, the part that really bugs me is the flattening of the back of the blade. I have tried to flatten too many crappy blades only to receive marginal results. That is why I started going with thicker aftermarket blades that come flat. Thanks for the input.

JayT – I think your time factor is spot on. Around my neck of the woods (Texas), Americans have only really been here for 150 years, so we don’t have as many old tools, especially hand tools. For that reason, I almost always go to ebay for my vintage hand tool purchases. I would rather see one that I like and buy it for a slightly higher price than have to look for months to save $20 buying in person. The best I ever did on a vintage plane was a Stanley #4 1/2 for $30. I will say that I never really do the de-rusting, so the guys who I buy from on ebay can charge a little more for taking care of that step for me. Thanks for the input.

-- The Wood Is Your Oyster

View ColonelTravis's profile


1976 posts in 2775 days

#10 posted 06-26-2014 04:45 AM

I live on the D side of DFW and if you don’t mind the drive, there’s a guy in Garland who has the largest collection of vintage hand tools I’ve ever seen in person. Sells from his house by apt., has a sale there a couple times a year. Very nice guy, wife makes delicious pie, bought several items from him. If you’re into vintage hand tools and don’t check him out you are missing out on a killer resource. You also might find him at an event closer your way at various times in the year.

Lynn Dowd, Dowd's Tools

View TheWoodenOyster's profile


1335 posts in 2816 days

#11 posted 06-26-2014 02:44 PM

Thanks for the heads up Colonel Travis. Funny, I had always figured from your name that you were a Texas guy, and you finally confirmed my suspicion. I will definitely keep that seller in mind next time I am looking for some vintage tools. I was at a Lie Nielsen event about 2 months ago in Dallas, I wonder if he was there? I wonder if you were there?

-- The Wood Is Your Oyster

View TheWoodenOyster's profile


1335 posts in 2816 days

#12 posted 06-26-2014 02:51 PM

Just looked at his website. I think I did meet him at the Lie Nielsen event. He had a table set up and I talked to him for a bit. Small World….

-- The Wood Is Your Oyster

View Don W's profile

Don W

19726 posts in 3448 days

#13 posted 06-26-2014 04:01 PM

I believe there is one other aspect to the vintage tools that tends to get over looked. Most of the guys who consider themselves tool guys didn’t start out with that in mind. I hunt down the vintage tools for much more enjoyment then just its use. When I get a vintage tool, I want to know a lot more then how it was used. I want to know who made it, when it was made, how it came about, who sold it, when it was made, and as much history as I can find and most of the time document.

Vintage tools are history. If you just want a good user, it really doesn’t matter. The guys who can afford LN are going to buy LN and the guys who can’t will go vintage. But once it becomes more then just finding a good user, you start to understand the real draw of vintage tools.

If you don’t enjoy the hunt, and the restore, and the rust and dust, then it really would be best to pay the extra for the new.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View DocSavage45's profile


9019 posts in 3723 days

#14 posted 06-26-2014 05:06 PM

Good Thread!

There are also other in between options. I am rehabbing old planes and learning history and function. My fathers old #6, although not a Baily. I also bought a Grizzly 22 inch to use. Sometimes we need a place to get started if we have no “hands on” mentor. The Grizzly has very good fit and finish.

Have to get my woodworking bench back together to see dif I can follow Paul Sellars or Rob Cosman. Even thought they talk us through it I needt to have the experience of the mistakes. LOL!

-- Cau Haus Designs, Thomas J. Tieffenbacher

View ColonelTravis's profile


1976 posts in 2775 days

#15 posted 06-27-2014 06:21 AM

Oyster, really wanted to go to the L-N event but was out of town that weekend. Never been to one, was it worth it?

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