Last year I bought a wooden block plane (which I discussed in a previous post) in Montreal at Chas Gentmantel & Sons Ltd. They carry planes from Kunz, Japanese saws, and woodworking machinery. Sadly there is little for the woodworker in Montreal – it is somewhat of a woodworking wasteland, which is odd considering how many artisans there are in the city. The only large Canadian province not to boast a Lee Valley store, although they do now have a catalog in French. There is also Langevin & Forest – they carry the new Stanley planes, (and some of the other doppelgänger planes), Japanese saws, and a bunch of other tools.
Over the years there have been a number of planemakers that have opened up shop. Some have been extremely successful, others have made it past five years, others still have barely lasted two years. Amazingly, many of the quasi-successful ones just disappear one day, most noticeable when their websites vanishes. Its not because they don’t offer a quality product. Here’s a case in point, Sturnella Toolworks. They were casting infill bodies from the project outlined in The Work Magazine Reprint Project (Issue No.5). Then they disappeared.
Or Nice Ash Planes, who were making nice wooden-body planes for a couple of years, then also disappeared. Why do toolmakers disappear? Sometimes it is likely due to the economics of running a small business. Businesses run by just 1-2 people can experience bottlenecks in production, made worse when factors such as illness come into play. Other times they go out of business because of their own success. They take too many orders, which can’t realistically be produced in a given timeframe. Worse than a business closing is one which potentially produces sub-par products by cutting corners – No-one wants to pay $1000 for a poorly built plane. Sometimes life circumstances change, or people retire from the business. Of course sometimes the price of the product is just too high, or too low (i.e. they can’t break even). There are a number of high-end infill plane makers out there (e.g. Holtey, Marcou, Brese), so breaking into the high-end market may be challenging. D.L. Barrett & Sons were a Canadian platemaker that was around for a number of years, but they too have disappeared without a trace. They use to attend “Tools of the Trades”, but I noticed they were not there this past spring, and their website is gone.
I think what people find most frustrating is the fact that some plane-makers (or any tool maker for that matter) who decide to terminate their business do not communicate that they are doing so (for whatever reason), and leave people who own their products in the lurch (or worse… customers who have paid a deposit and will never receive a plane). Running any sort of business that involves building a product is never easy – and you have to be careful how you go about it. Concentrate on one thing and do that well. A classic example of what not to do might be The Shepherd Tool Company. They produced infill planes, a multitude of infill plane kits, chisels and drawknives. By 2005 they were suffering from production issues. problems with wood supply, cash flow issues, and health issues – enough issues that by mid-2006 they had disappeared. The kits from Shepherd seem phenomenal, but did they produce too many products? Maybe their kits were too complete – it seems like even the wooden parts were finish-shaped. Their No.7 Spiers smoother sold for US$599 as a completed plane, and US$279 as a kit – both of which might have been underpriced.
Shortly afterwards came Legacy Planeworks, but they were forced out of business because of the recession, less than two years later. The planes these makers produced were exceptional, but somehow some combination of factors caused them to fail. If you are considering taking the step into making planes, consider all the variables involved. Choose a path that works – maybe selling plane-kits is the way to go? Maybe start with something less complicated, like building wooden mallets, or restoring vintage tools, saw sharpening anyone?
SOME DEFUNCT PLANEMAKERS
- Shepherd Tool Company (2000-2006) – well known for its infill plane kits.
- Legacy Planeworks (2008-2009) – Infill planes (blog.legacyplanes.com)
- Gabardi & Sons (?-2011) – handmade infill planes. (www.gabardiandson.com)
- Sturnella Tools (2013-2014) – infill smoothing plane castings. (www.sturnella.com)
- Nice Ash Planes (2012-2014?) – nice wooden planes. (www.niceashplanes.com)
- Knight Toolworks (2001-2012) – Krenov-style wooden plane kits. (www.knight-toolworks.com)
- DL Barrett & Sons (?-2016) – traditional wooden planes (bench and plough) (Canada) (website defunct as of Jan 2016) (www.dlbarrettandsons.com)
On this side of the Atlantic there are a number of publications. The best of the lot is currently Fine Woodworking. Fine Woodworking has always been a joy to read. The articles are well thought out, and the photographs are detailed – including step-by-step instructions in many cases. Fine Woodworking is also one of the few magazines that still does somewhat extensive tool reviews.
I think about 10 years ago I had stopped buying it because the magazine had become lacklustre, but having been revitalized, it’s now an excellent magazine once again. It’s projects are more down-to-earth, and provide quite a lot of visual information, and exceptional “exploded” views of projects. Here is an example of a recent project:
Woodworking Magazine was an excellent publication – the original magazine had black-and-white photographs, and “no ads”. In its circa 30-page issues you could read a 3-page article on the use of hide glue in liquid form, or 6 pages on the system of three hand planes. Published at the same time was Popular Woodworking, a more ad-based colour magazine. Both these magazines merged to form Popular Woodworking Magazine, circa 2010 although the magazine is no longer true to its roots. I would pay more to have something which is more akin to the original Woodworking Magazine, even if it had an ad section in the back (in one recent issue I counted 19/64 pages as ads). I have to admit that part of the new magazines issue is its choice of paper, the drawings, and the overall choice of topics. In some respects sometimes I think there is too much text in the articles, versus more visual information.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still excellent articles, like Willard Anderson’s “Bench Plane Restoration” article in the Oct.2014 issue. I am really only inclined to purchase an issue now if there are 2-3 good articles in it that interest me. Some of it is also down to cost. Popular Woodworking Magazine costs $8.99 here in Canada, and Fine Woodworking only $1 more… so I am more inclined to buy it every couple of months.
One magazine that was around for a long while was Woodwork (1989-2014). Seems like it was an interesting magazine.
It really was a magazine that seemed to have a good vibe to it. Below is the start of an 8-page article by Peter Follansbee on building a caved box. It doesn’t seem possible to obtain back-issues anymore, but there are some on eBay, and you can buy the whole series in digital form on Amazon.
The latest magazine is Mortise & Tenon magazine, which is more of a work of art than a magazine. It explores the world of “handmade, pre-industrial furniture”, though essays and photographs, something no other magazine does. There are also alternate media, such as blogs, and online content from 360Woodworking, and The Unplugged Workshop.
I’ll note that I have never been fond of magazines such as Wood, Woodsmith, or (the now defunct) American Woodworker, although the B&W issues of the latter from the 1980s are quite nice – the illustrations are crisp, and ads are confined to the rear of the magazine (You can find the 1989/1990 issues on Google Books). If you love projects, then these magazines are okay. I do understand that the magazine business is not exactly easy these days, with competition from the likes of YouTube. It is possible to learn how to cut dovetails or build a Roubo workbench just by watching videos, or following someone’s build on their blog.