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designing and building with wood channels my creativity and challenges my mind.
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Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Collectors

Who are the collectors? Collectors are everywhere, of course. You have your stamp collectors, the baseball card collectors, the (lucky few) car collectors...pretty much anything that's ever been made has been - or is currently - collected. I'm something of a collector myself, boasting a stereo that is way too big for my living room, and a basement piled with vintage speakers and tube amps in various states of repair. In general, I have no problem with collectors. I even admire those collectors who find and repair older items so that future generations can enjoy their (often superior) quality.

But there is one type of collector I'm really starting to dislike:
the vintage hand-plane collector.  These members of the landed gentry own sparkling workshops - not in their basements or garages, but more likely in the north wing of their summer manse.  Woodworkers of old called them "Gents": those who rarely got the time to saw some walnut, but wanted the best tools available, just in case. In fact, peruse a woodworking catalog and you'll see the Gent's Saw, the Gent's Plane, etc...  The common thread among Gent's tools?  Pretty looks, expensive materials, and piddling performance (this last feature of Gent's tools is rarely discovered).

Today, the Gents are on eBay.  Why?  Because for some reason they've become obsessed with vintage hand-planes.  Hand planes are some of the most basic and important tools in any wood shop, and have often been associated with the highest levels of woodcraft.  Who doesn't recognize the lace-thin, curly chip of wood unfurling from the blade of a hand plane as it glides along a board?  Hand planes are still used today - and most furniture makers prefer hand planes to their powered counterparts.

But modern hand planes are hard to use.  Not because planes are hard to use, but because most modern planes are poorly built.  Walk into Home Depot and pick up a Stanley jack plane.  Now take it home and put a quality straight edge to the sole of the plane.  Chances are you'll notice a clearly undulating surface rather than the requisite dead flat sole.  Oh well.  Stanley's private equity fund owners don't really care about whether their planes work, because of all the tools in the world, the hand plane is the one that everybody owns, but hardly anybody uses.  

But what if you want to actually use your hand plane?  You'll have to spend a good sixteen (16!) hours flattening the sole of your Stanley on the piece of float glass, or go out and buy a high-end plane to the tune of $200-$400.  Ouch.

For many woodworkers, the vintage planes (40-100 years old) available on the secondary market are a good source of quality planes, because things were made well back in those days.  But there's a catch: just as the Gents like to move into the cool neighborhoods, then start complaining about the smell from the ethnic restaurant under their condo, they have invaded the market for vintage hand planes.  

Owning a set of vintage hand planes says to other Gents and Ladies: "I have decided to buy my personality - don't you like me more now?"  The Gent who owns vintage hand planes also gets to imagine himself as master craftsman, able to build a shaker end table or Japanese-style sideboard as easily as he drank his way from Choate to Harvard with a gentleman's "C".  Should a Gent find himself waiting on his NetJet reservation, he can always kill some time buying up the world's vintage hand planes.  Since no real woodworker can afford to bid more than $300 for a hand plane on eBay, any Gent can have dozens of the things hung up on his shop wall...without coming close to touching the principle on their trust!  

So here's a message for all the Gents out there, driving up the cost of "collectible" vintage hand planes.  Old planes are not just collectible, they're usable.  So go on a wine tour in Burgundy, or hit up a Rolls-Royce auction on Long Island.  But leave our hand planes alone.  


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