My grandfather’s Stanley 9 1/2 block plane
Many of us have woodworking tools that have been passed down to us from a parent or grandparent. They may work fairly well, but also be frustrating to use and avoided in anything but the least critical woodworking situations.
Although my grandfather passed away when I was eight years old, I still remember him well. He was a gentle man who spent his career building houses in central Ontario, many around the Lake of Bays area. I’m guessing most, if not all, are still standing today. He also built furniture, but mainly for his family. To this day I still have a pine corner cupboard he made in my dining room.
Likely the wildest moment of my grandfather’s career was when he fell from the roof of a partially finished two-storey house onto the concrete basement floor and broke his back. It’s quite amazing he ever walked again after that fall. I guess, like hand tools, they made them tougher back then.
When he stopped building, he gave his tools to his son, my dad. Although my dad enjoyed woodworking, he never really got too serious about it. Well, that’s not quite true. He was an accountant, which suited his nature. Accuracy was paramount, even if it meant spending all day figuring out where that last dollar was missed. The woodworking equivalent of that was when he spent two full weekends building a technically perfect 4′ x 4′ x 8″ high platform in front of the rear door of his cottage. Essentially a large entryway step, this project was far too frustrating for me to help him with for more than the first hour, although at 15 years old I knew I’d learn a lot from the project. But I’m off topic now.
Tolerances – know when to draw the line and when to just eyeball it.
Back to my grandfather, who surely built to more lax tolerances than his accountant son. I never had the chance to build anything with my grandfather and father, though I’m sure my dad would have just been frustrated with us repeatedly saying “close enough” as we moved onto the next step. The grandfather-father-son relationship would have been interesting, though, as we were all alike in most ways, though clearly had a few key differences when it came to tolerances while building things that didn’t need to be accurately built.
My dad eventually gave me the tools he got from his father, as I was going to school to formally learn about furniture and cabinet making. Although there were a fair number of tools, the main one I enjoyed using was a Stanley 9 1/2 block plane. It needed a bit of a cleaning, but it was a lot of fun to work with. It fit my hand nicely, it looked fantastic and worked well. It worked exceptionally well once I learned to properly hone a blade. Thankfully, my first year of schooling included sharpening, as the iron in that old 9 1/2 needed some serious TLC.
We all love tools, but I think there’s something special about old tools. The flowing curves, the unique details and the entirely different approach to manufacturing is impossible to overlook when grasping old hand tools. Even if they technically don’t work as well as some new tools, I’m sometimes more than happy to overlook their lack of perfection just to turn back the clock 100 years and pretend this tool is the best tool money can buy. Even the wear, which when it comes down to it only degrades the tool’s performance, gives it even more beauty and authenticity.
One of many block planes
Today I have seven block planes, ranging in size and age. They also differ slightly in what they excel at. My Veritas standard block plane is a good all-around plane that I reach for often. My tiny wooden Japanese plane is good for very tight spaces. My Bridge City HP-8 is great for planing smaller lengths to specific thicknesses, like kumikos or chopsticks. My two Veritas skew block planes are great for fine-tuning rabbets and tenons. My Veritas pocket plane is nice for light work and fits my small hand surprisingly well.
Then there’s my grandfather’s plane. Although it’s good for many tasks, sadly it’s not the best at any one of these tasks. I guess that’s the risk when you have seven block planes. I still use it to chamfer an edge or to take a shaving or two off the edge of a workpiece, but the main reason I use it is to have a tool in my hand that reminds me of my grandfather.
Many of us have woodworking tools that have been passed down to us from a parent or grandparent. They may work fairly well, but also be frustrating to use and avoided in anything but the least critical woodworking situations. They’re certainly fun to look at, though. It’s also fun to picture the original owner using those tools to do many of the same techniques we undertake today in our shops.
Email me any photos of the hand tools you inherited from family members or other important people in your life. Not only would I love to see these beautiful tools, but I’ll also do my best to share any images and stories you have with readers in future columns.
Patina Adds Character
Far from its original shiny finish, the patina that has grown on the surfaces of my grandfather’s Stanley 9 1/2 block plane is a big part of what makes this old hand tool look wonderful.
Cleans Up Nicely
My old 9 1/2 works well today after I was able to clean it up and sharpen the iron. With its adjustable mouth and sharp blade, it can create a nice, curly shaving with ease.
Years of patina, especially when it’s over textured, beautiful, machined surfaces, makes this plane a joy to use.
Dirt Shows the Age
The knurled height adjustment knob on my old block plane is a beautiful thing. Many year's worth of dirt and dust have accumulated in the recesses of the knurling and provide patina.
Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.
Alot to be said about old tools. Most had fine to tolerances. Will built, and pride in manufacturing. With a lot of tools today pride and mass manufacturing is not given.
With the machines for accuracy one would think that good reliably is constant.
Good article. Didn’t have any wood workers in my family tree so I’m self taught. Have been putting out furniture for 46 years now. Made all the right mistakes and learned how to do things better the next time. Read many great magazines and picked up great ideas and tips. Have collected many old tools in my quest for excellence and 60 of them are old, old planes that I truly enjoy and use often. I am a grandpa now with ten grandkids. They all love to be in the shop and the old tools are extra special because they perform without the scary noise of power tools. I will be passing these tools on and hopefully these kids will use these tools and think of good times in Poppa’s work shop. Again, good article as always. All the best.