Not all planes are created equal

The hey-day of Stanley tools was very likely the 1920s. After the Second World War there was a rapid decline in tool making in general. The era of mass production brought with it simpler tools (i.e. less parts), made of lower quality materials. Emphasis was moved away from hand tools towards electric tools. Rosewood handles on planes morphed into generic “hardwood” handles, and eventually to brown plastic handles. Thus began the dark ages of tool manufacture. It wasn’t until Lie-Nielsen started producing planes in 1981 (a Stanley-type #95 edge trimming block plane) that a new age of plane manufacture began. So for the past 30 years companies like Lie-Nielsen and Lee Valley (introducing its first block plane in 1999) have produced phenomenal planes, redesigning classics, and adding usability features and “new-age” blade technology.

Somewhere along the line Stanley figured out it was missing out and has tried to wedge itself back into the market with a new series of “Sweetheart” tools. The No. 60-1/2 Sweetheart block plane that Stanley now sells is made in Mexico, which isn’t too bad – but why not make it in the USA? Likely because the manufacturing cost per unit is lower.


Fig 1: Sweetheart trademark circa 1920-1922

There is nothing wrong with the Stanley planes *except* that they are using the “Sweetheart” trademark – a sign of quality from a time when Stanley produced quality planes. The Sweetheart trademark was used on Stanley planes from 1920 to 1935 – an “S.W.” inside a heart – The “S.W.” stands for Stanley Works, the heart homage to Stanley Works long time president William Hart who passed away in 1915. Here is a SW trademark from 1923-1932.


Fig 2: Sweetheart trademark circa 1923-1932

You can’t just erase 40-odd years of manufacturing indifference with the stroke of one trademark. Lie-Nielsen and Lee Valley led a resurgence in tool manufacturing in the US and Canada. When Lee Valley introduced it’s low-angle block plane (LABP) in 1999, it was the only one with a Norris-style blade adjuster, guide screws at the base of the bed that help compensate for lack of squareness in the blade, and an adjustable nosepiece. The three circular “Hand-y” finger depressions actually make the plane easier to grip than the standard elliptical ones. It is interesting to note that the new Stanley block planes have “similar” features. Looking at the planes below, the new Stanley 60 1/2 does not really resemble the older version (circa 1910) – it bears greater semblance to the LV LABP (except for the throat adjustment lever, which although reminiscent of the older 60 1/2, has a shape that harps to that found on the Lie-Nielsen 1-60-1-2). The question of course is, if the plane no longer resembles the old 60 1/2 (e.g. the width of the new plane is 2 1/8″, the old plane 1 1/2″),  why did Stanley retain the same number?


Fig 3: Sweetheart lineage

At the end of the day, it is up to the individual to choose which company to support.


One thought on “Not all planes are created equal

  1. michaellangford2012 says:

    Stanley still makes the most readable tape measures I have used. Clearly marked fractional graduations, no metric scales. They have been totally irresponsible as a company, moving assets offshore and production our-of-country. Stanley doesn’t deserve our business. I can’t afford Lie-Nielsen or Lee Valley either; would rather spend my money on restoring old Stanley and Millers Falls planes and using Hock replacement blades.

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