Antique Woodworking Tools (1977) by Michael Dunbar

I would like to quote some passages from this book that I feel is very much spot on.

“However, anyone can use power tools with immediate success. Consequently, one feels no urge to compliment a workman who is limited by his machines. They have only democratised the skills he should have learned through practice and discipline. ”

Here are his thoughts on Stanley’s combination planes the no.45 and 55.

“Among serious craftsmen the need to be able make mouldings and the desire to do it themselves have created a sizeable demand for such obsolete combination planes as the Stanley 45 and 55. ”

“As is true of most combination tools these planes with their interchangeable cutters are able to do a job whose results are in the most charitable terms only acceptable. No combination tool ever performs well. The sum of their abilities never equals even that of one good tool which was designed for a specific purpose. One simple bead moulding plane is worth more than an entire combination plane.”

Then he spoke about a friend who bought a 55 combo plane and was sorely disappointed with it and Mike was asked a rhetorical question “He asked me why I thought so many of these tools were still available in their original boxes with all their cutters present and showing very little wear.”

He then went on to say ” I knew as well as he that the original purchasers of these planes quickly discovered that they do not work well and retired them to a shelf to gather dust in anticipation of the day when Man’s forgetfulness would bring about their revival. ”

Good tools unless it’s Benjamin Seaton’s chest of unused tools are usually worn out. They’re worn out because they worked well. There are many moulding planes on the market advertised as good or mint condition and the user is clueless that it’s bogus. As mike says in his book that many of these planes are not recoverable and the ones that are good have to be in pristine condition.

I have seen many combo planes in near new condition and now I know why, but I can’t say other than a large architectural moulding planes that I have ever seen a set of crisp moulding planes.

We are very lucky today that we have toolmakers who have revived quality hand tools by replicating old tools for us to enjoy once more. I love antique tools but they are just that, antique, used and possibly worn out to the point it cannot be revived. Refurbishing old tools has become a big business. While there are some who can refurbish an eggbeater to look and perform better than it was when it was made new, most though wire brush their tools and slap a hefty tag for doing so. In my view I think the price of a pair of H&R’s for $350 is money better spent than on an eBay deal of $70+ that 100% of the time needs to be refurbished and how many know how to do that. Most moulding planes cannot be refurbished without seriously altering the planes width and profile.

If you want more antique tools on the market you need to create a need in the market for the tool makers to take notice otherwise you will continue to be duped by antique dealers hyping up a product when in reality all it’s good for is for firewood.

14 thoughts on “Antique Woodworking Tools (1977) by Michael Dunbar

  1. I could not disagree more i make many many molding profiles in oak, walnut, maple, cherry and pine using combination planes – 55s 45s, and LV. I had to make a raised panel door to replace one that was damaged and the only way to match without custom grinding knives was H&R or Combo’s. Since i do not have a full set of H&R’s it fell to the combo planes. Perfect match, the customer could not have been more pleased. There is a steep learning curve with the 45 & 55 but once mastered they are a valuable tool.

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    1. I think you mentioned a valuable point here “a steep learning curve”and that’s the key to mastering any tool. Once a person gets over the hurdle of learning how to use a tool correctly, frustration and poor work just wither away. Now I’ve never had the opportunity to work with one of these planes in the past and I cannot pass judgement on them. I too feel iffy about using them because they don’t have a sole and due to that I fear they are more prone to tear out than a dedicated plane would be. Have you experienced that in the past and if so how often?

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      1. “due to that I fear they are more prone to tear out than a dedicated plane”

        Why a dedicated plane would result in less tear out if we are talking about planing against the grain? Would you explain more on this?

        Regarding using a combination plane and tear out, the cure lies in sharp edge, very light cuts, and a back bevel honed to the cutter (for those who know the advanced technique). Unless a woodworker does a lot of molding and regularly, the combination plane takes up much less space as well as meets the occasional needs.

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    2. About the learning curve, anyone can master the combination plane if they have a good teacher to guide them at the beginning. The rest is just practice. A combination plane is no different than a plow plane, or a rabbet plane in terms of techniques. Most hand tools, whether they are handplanes or handsaws, are best learned with hands-on instructions.

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  2. “anyone can use power tools with immediate success.”

    Really?
    If he meant success with operating a machine 9turn on, turn off the machine etc.), yes, but we are talking using machines to produce successful results, he was way off. Just look at the works of many many power tool users, and you and I know the machines do not and cannot replace skills.

    Both power tool and hand tool woodworking require learning, skill development as well as experience to succeed. As a seasoned user of both machine and hand tools, I know neither is easier or harder to learn, as there both have different levels of skills.

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    1. As many old and new books have been written on the subject, the authors all agree that machinery has replaced skilled workmen by people who are much less skilled. The tablesaw doesn’t need a skilled sawyer to rip a board or crosscut one. Nor does a CNC machine need a skilled carver. Machinery has taken the labour out of woodworking and sped it up to some degree which many find that debatable but at what cost. The skill of using a hand plane or ripping a board by hand or doing any other woodworking task by hand that requires skill to execute properly are all gone.

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      1. Thanks for the clarification.

        Many noted woodworkers from Sam Maloof to Tage Frid to contemporary ones like Michael Fortune use power tools and machines to produce pieces that are deemed high quality and challenging. Given access to the same machines, not too many woodworkers would claim that they could get the same results!

        Yes, with a table saw or miter saw, people can make rip cuts and cross cuts with much greater speed, but many of table saw users also leave poor edges on their boards. We are talking a different set of skill set here: how to properly tune up and set up the machine, how to make cuts that are tear-free, how to rout without tear-out, etc. The skill set may be different, but it is just as important as knowing how to plane against the grain or plane endgrain without a breakout.

        Even a CNC machine requires programing skill to set and operate. It is not a plug and play machine.

        I think modern tradespeople and hobbyists have the best of both worlds to enjoy: let the machines do the grunt work, but use their hand skills to finetune or perfect the work. Removing machine marks for example with a sander could be disastrous in certain cases which are best dealt with a finetuned plane.

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      2. I have never understood this popular statement you have made “let the machines do the grunt work, but use their hand skills to fine tune the work.”

        It just seems to me that that never happens. If for example they used machines for milling and dimensioning only then I could agree with that statement. But I personally have never seen that yet. They use a jig to make dovetails, a router to make a mortise, a tablesaw or radial arm saw or even a bandsaw to make a tenon, a tablesaw or router to make rabbet and the list goes on. I don’t see too many joints left for fine tuning. So in some cases I feel that statement to be a facade, an excuse to use machines. Do not misunderstand me I’m not against it, but I don’t promote it either. What matters is which method makes you happy to work wood. That’s what really matters in the end. What brings me complete satisfaction is to work by hand even though it is physically demanding and my shot back gives in many of times throughout the day however, I do not see me working any other way. Mind you this is how I feel about woodworking, but metal working I’m happy to go 50/50.

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  3. “let the machines do the grunt work, but use their hand skills to fine tune the work.”

    There are too many examples to list. Just consider this:
    Maloof used a bandsaw, not a coping saw, to shape legs, arms, etc., and then refine them with rasps and sandpaper. Grunt work…bandsaw; fine work hand tools.

    Tage cut miter joints for his cabinets on the table saw for speed and precision, not with a handsaw and then shot on a shooting board or with a miter box, but he removed marks with a card scraper or handplane. Imagine the difficulty of mitering boards that are 12″ wide or even wider by hand when he built mitered cabinets.

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    1. Imagine the difficulty but imagine the level of skill once possessed to do it by hand. What you mentioned isn’t my way of working wood. I would rather have the skill set of knowing and having the ability to perform the most difficult task by hand than have the luxury of a machine to do it for me. Remember I also don’t need it done yesterday, I’m quite content to do it the day after. And if I ever return to work professionally again I will continue to work the way I do and have all these years.

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