A recent discussion on one of the hand tool forums got me thinking about this topic. The discusion about the quality of contemporary hand tools is a common one on the net and in the woodworking magazines, however, this time, 18th century tools were being compared to contemporary tools. The immediate assumption was that the contemporary premium tools were head and shoulders above what was available to cabinetmakers in the 18th century in terms of quality. However, I don’t believe this to be the case.
To really understand this we need to take a look at the tools of the time and the tool makers of the time and remove 250 years of age and abuse from the equation. Comparing an old wooden plane found on ebay to a brand new Lie-Nielsen is really not a fair comparison for several reasons.
First, the old wooden planes found on ebay or at your local antique or flea market are more likely to be mid to late 19th century models. I can say for sure all of the wooden planes I have are definately 19th century tools based on their features and their condition. The truth of the matter is that your are very, very, very unlikely to ever find a true 18th century tool in useable condition in the wild. Time has simply taken it’s toll on any of these tools that may still be lingering out there. So the tools you see are more likely mid to late 19th century to early 20th century models. I compare these more to vintage Stanley planes than the premium contemporary versions.
What’s the difference you ask? Plenty. I’ll use planes as my example becasue that’s what the previously mentioned discussion focussed on. Let’s start by taking a look at the manufacturing methods. In the 18th century, toolsmakers were a specialized trade of their own. Plane irons would have been made by a blacksmith and the stock would have been made by a planemaker. Many cabinetmakers may even have made thier own planes as evidenced by the many extra new plane irons in a lot of period inventories.
Fast forward 100 years to the mid 19th century and factories are taking the place of skilled toolmakers. A prime example of this movement was the Auburn Tool Company which employed inmates to make their wooden planes. Hardly skilled craftsmen if you ask me. In addition, to speed up the process of manufacturing, we begin a to see a lot of the refinements on the wooden planes, once common on 18th century planes, disappear on the 19th century models. The rounding of the back of smoothers and the “decorative” chamfering begin to disappear. Features that once made the tools comforatble to use all day long are now left off in the interest of faster, cheaper manufacturing.
Planes that were once hand built at several different pitches, specialized for different applications, are replaced by a single common pitch. Again, this is in the interest of saving time and money during manufacturing. In addition, less cabinetmaking was being done and more house carpentry and joinery so the tool manufacturers focused their efforts on tools for these less precise trades.
So you can see how one might perceive that the tools used by the masters of the 18th century might have been inferior to what can be produced in today’s super modern CNC equipped factories. But let’s take a step back and look at a “contemporary” planemaker who isn’t following suit. Clark & Williams have been making planes for years that seem to throw sand in the face of those who would call 18th century tools inferior. The designs of their tools are strictly based on 18th century examples in their own collection. When compared to the other contemporary toolmakers’ products, their planes always compare right at the top of the pack.
Today we would consider the C&W tools at the top of the heap or the creme de la creme of contemporary tool makers right up there with Lie-Nielsen, Lee Valley, Wenzloff & Sons and a host of others. The difference between these other toolmakers (with the exception of Wenzloff, who does make 18th century replica saws)and C&W though is that C&W’s tools are representative of what was available 250 years ago. They stick to the designs and the construction methods that were employed by all of the planemakers in the 1700s so there is no reason to believe that the masters of the 18th century use tools that were in any way inferior to what we have available to use today.
I personally use a lot of old (19th century) planes in my work. I have also owned old Stanleys, tools from Lee Valley and Lie-Nielsen. I will say that the finish and detail on the contemporary tools is exceptional and far surpasses the old Stanleys or even my old woodies. However, is that the only measure of quality? If I plane a board with a Lie-Nielsen, a Lee Valley, an old Stanley and one of my old woodies and the finished surface is identical from all four planes, does it matter that the sides of the Stanley aren’t exactly square to the sole?
I’m not trying to sway anyone away from their beloved LAS. I am certainly not one to criticize anyones own personal preferences. I just think it’s time to dispell the myth that our ancestors used inferior tools. After using all sorts of tools from new tools to 150 year old tools, I can honestly say that sharpening and tuning being equal, none of the wood that I’ve worked was able to tell me what brand of plane I used to plane it.
So next time you’re at your local tool haunt, don’t just throw that old woodie aside to get to the cast iron goodies underneath it. Give it a second look and maybe even a second chance to do some good work. If you still can’t bring yourself to try it, pick it up anyway, and send it to me :).