Why do plane-makers go out of business?

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.

sturnella

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.

sheperdKits

The DIY kits from Sheperd

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)
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One thought on “Why do plane-makers go out of business?

  1. Brian says:

    With everything that’s available today you would have to be doing something exceptional to catch the attention of woodworkers. I don’t think I’ve heard of any of these makers. Not that I’m on the up and up but, it could be not spending enough on advertising that gets them in trouble. Assuming they are not selling enough product. Also I agree with the idea that it could be production issues. Anything of quality takes time to create. Even if your set up with the tooling for quasi mass production, fine tuning that product so the end user will be happier with it will be the bottleneck.

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