The Stanley No.55 – too complex?

The Stanley No.55 combination plane can be called many things. The Swiss army knife of moulding planes, perhaps? Produced from 1897 to the early 1960s, the No.55 had the ability to produce any moulding imaginable, and really was designed as a replacement for the wooden moulding plane, with its single profile. Due to this limitation, dozens of them were typically required in the workshop. The No.55 came with a single, adjustable body, and multiple different cutters – it’s hard not to want one for the workshop, even if it is not  used very often. It sported adjustable fences, depth stops, and slitter spurs. The plane was introduced with 52 cutters, and this increased to 55 much later in its manufacturing history (there were also more than 40 specialty cutters which could be ordered). Stanley in their 1898 catalog  marketed the No.55 as the “Stanley Patent Universal Plane”, and said it “can be used for all lines of work covered by a full assortment of so-called Fancy Planes“.

It was really a combination tool – Stanley said it could function as a (i) moulding plane; (ii) match, sash, beading, reeding, fluting, hollow, round, plow, rabbet and filletster plane; (iii) dado plane; (iv) slitting plane, and (v) chamfer plane. The No.55 and its brethren did manage to replace wooden moulding planes for a number of decades, however their fate was likely  sealed with the emergence of electric routers, and moulding machines. It was of course not the first “combination plane”, that honour goes to the No.45, “a planing mill within itself”. The No.45 had fewer parts, e.g. it only had one fence, the No.55 had two, a left and a right fence. Even earlier than the No.45 was the No.41 Miller’s Patent Combined (combined plow filletster and matching plane), or any number of others – No. 42, 43, 44, 46, 47…

However its usefulness is somewhat debatable. Patrick Leach says he “hated it“, and calls it a monstrosity. It’s hard to know how many people actually use it to any great extent. The notion of adjustable it nice, but the benefits of a wooden moulding plane is that the parts are fixed – a fixed profile, and a fixed depth – and so you can pick up a plane and use it. For a combination plane, having to change cutters, and make adjustments means that there is a lot of tinkering involved. This gets challenging when replicating a wooden moulding that requires a combination of 2 or 3 cutters on a combination plane. There is also the issue of weight – the entire kit in the 1914 catalog was cited as being 15¼ lbs. Last but not least is the tools complexity – the No.55 had the most parts of any Stanley combination plane.

Maybe Stanley knew how easy it would be to misplace parts, and therefore made good business from parts? You can buy a vintage No.55 for anywhere between US$400-600, Jim Bode Tools has a bunch of them. Veritas is the first plane manufacturer in decades to introduce a new version of the combination plane, but I do wonder what the market is for a new rendition. For those interested, there is a nice comparison of the Veritas combination plane, and a Stanley No.46 for cutting dados by Derek Cohen.