Why do we accept poor quality planes

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    Michael Mannings

    I recently bought a Stanley Sweetheart low angle bench plane which out of the box I was pleased with. I Read Pauls books but eventually I went to a cabinet maker to get some coaching and help in setting it up and was shown that The sole was not flat length ways or sideways resulting in me spending 4.5 hours with aluminium oxide and a sheet of plate glass flattening it. (No receipt to send it back)
    I subsequently checked Woodriver planes and they do not come flat,in fact their main Canadian supplier offers a flattening service, for a fee!
    Checked my Stanley Jack plane and it was not flat, that only took about two hours to correct as it is a lot smaller.
    To be fair the Sweetheart blade was pretty sharp and only took a bit of tickling.
    Looking round on tube it appears that planes that are not flat are a common problem, even expensive ones. How do the manufacturers get away with it?
    I checked with Stanley and they did not know if their plane soles were flat and would have to check with their service dept. Two weeks later and a reminder email, no reply!

    Colin Scowen

    First off. Define flat. Do you want flat over the entire sole of the plane, or flat within certain areas. What sort of value are you looking for here. There are two things that drive this. Market forces, and the law of diminishing returns.
    Market forces is the customers who want high quality products at low quality prices. Festool, Mafell etc make very high quality products, but a lot of people (for many reasons) buy dewalt or makita because they are cheaper. Wall street does a lot of damage to the quality of tools, by driving maximum profit and shareholder dividends. This drives cost reduction and tolerance relaxation in manufacturing. (StumpyNubs does a great deal of promo work for small, family owned companies. These guys are more likely to put quality first, but you will pay a premium for it.)
    The law of diminishing returns is related to the last point. A wider tolerance reduces scrap and waste, increases efficiency and fill rate and that satisfies consumer demand. The more we tighten tolerances, the more waste we generate (yes, there are possibilities to change and improve processes, but these also require investment and an appropriate return on investment, that more often than not is measured in time rather than expected revenue), the higher the cost of that manufacturing line, the higher the cost of each individual product, the less likely the consumer will pay that extra, and so on.
    The question should really be, why do we buy poor quality planes and expect to not have to fettle them. I will lay money that our predecessors did not expect that.
    I seem to remember in one of Pauls videos that he mentioned spending a weeks wages as an apprentice on one tool. I will also lay money that he expected to have to fettle that tool too.

    Colin, Czech Rep.

    Larry Geib

    If you were happy with your new plane why did you spend 4 1/4 hours on it?
    I think you are getting worked up ot something that Was never that much of an issue until companies like Lie Neilsen used it as a sales tool and engineers became interested in woodworking as a hobby.
    The only time people flattened soles in the old days was for a really worn mouth. Otherwise, most of the planes now on the used tool market were never flattened by their original owners and they managed to do good wok with them. My mentors only had me take sandpaper to soles to get the rust off and make them easier to push.

    My best 4 1/4 smoother from 1920 has never been flattened and does great work, even if it does have a minor hollow behind the blade. There is no need to flatten soles if the plane works well, and planes move, anyway.

    Everyone has watched Paul’s tutorials on flattening soles, but I think even he thinks there is a bit too much focus on that and not enough on more important aspects.

    Here is post Paul did a while back in an introduction to his plane flattening tutorial that gives his views on how important it is. The words “mostly flat” are key .


    Austin Conner

    I agree with all the items in the Larry’s post. Remember that the shaving coming out of the plane is not the goal.

    I do not think a precision lapped plane sole is important because all my pieces are planed, then scraped, and finally sanded before they see the final finish. Plus I work in a garage in Texas, and +/- 40F temperature swings or greater within a day are common. No piece of iron will stay “flat” in that environment.

    Fritz Walker

    I think there is a certain pride to be taken in fettling a tool to make it right. I think it’s also possible to get way too obsessed over some of these things – a plane does not need to be perfectly flat over the entire surface (to say nothing of the issue of how to define perfectly flat). Finally, the issue of a plane costing a weeks wages back in the day is important as well. If you spent an hour working to flatten it to your liking it was probably well worth the cost that would have been added for it to be flat enough right out of the box. Of course with modern manufacturing methods it would probably be possible to market a plane with a flat enough sole without adding a huge increase in cost, but then again the market for people who really care about such things – we hand tool enthusiasts – is pretty small. Personally I don’t mind or even enjoy spending an hour to get my planes to where I’m happy with them.

    Fritz Walker

    Benoît Van Noten

    1. “Looking round on tube it appears that planes that are not flat are a common problem,”
    It is common; but, is it a problem?

    2. There is a post on Paul’s blog showing that a #4 plane can flex (so much for flatness).

    3. Surfaces with a mirror finish tend to stick. I will never try to have a mirror finish. If I were obsessed with sole flatness, I would use a scraper (like it was done on old machine ways). That would create small pools for the oil of “te rag in the can”.

    Colin Scowen

    Regarding the sweetheart planes. I also have the low angle jack and the smoother. On both of them, I have had problems with the knob. Specifically, the threaded insert comes loose, and the knob comes off, so be sure not to cinch it too tight when adjusting the mouth. I have not checked their soles for flatness.

    Colin, Czech Rep.

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