Selecting a Vintage Hand Plane: Deal-Breaker vs. Deal-with-It

If you went with me to a flea market or antique shop, I could pick up the hand planes one by one and tell you exactly why I would or wouldn’t buy them based on make, model, and condition. I probably have an elaborate, internal flowchart that I follow, but I’ve never bothered to write it out.  So this is the next-best thing: a list of what I am willing to clean/fix versus what I consider to be deal-breakers.


First, you have to learn to see through grime and surface rust.  It takes practice, but you learn to pick out the outline of a well-made plane (usually old Stanleys, but also Sargents, Keen Kutters, and others). I can pick these out pretty quickly.  The planes in the photo above all turned out to be good tools, but for the record, it was my wife who picked them out.

There is a lot of third-rate junk out there, mostly hardware store brands and cheaply-made crap, which I would estimate makes up about 75% of the vintage tools I see at flea markets and antique shops.  I pass on plastic handles and stamped (not cast) frogs, but I actively look for dirty/rusty hand planes with good bones, mainly because they’re priced lower than the comparable shiny ones–or I can point out the rust when I start haggling.

Bluegrass Smooth Plane 3-10 - 1

For the right price, I will gladly deal with the following:

  • Dirt
  • Surface rust
  • Chipped iron
  • Broken/damaged wooden tote
  • Bent lateral adjustment lever

These, however, are deal-breakers:

  • Bent blade
  • Warped or cracked sole
  • Poorly fitted frog
  • Damaged screws/threads
  • Missing/broken hardware (screws, chipbreaker, lever cap yoke etc.)

That’s not to say that you can’t fix this stuff if you’re determined enough. If you have enough time, materials, equipment, and/or money, any hand plane can be fixed. I’m just saying that there’s seldom a good reason to. Tools in better condition can be found pretty easily. I stick to the stuff I know I can fix without much trouble.

Jointer Before 08 1

This jointer plane had a broken handle, and the blade didn’t hold an edge.  Broken wooden pieces are no problem–I’m a woodworker, after all!

Plane Tote Repair 6-09 018

I repaired the break with a contrasting piece of wood, and I eventually replaced the blade with one made from better steel.

I’ve only ever replaced the blades in two hand planes.  The steel in most vintage blades is quite good, and aftermarket blades, though very good quality, are also expensive.  A top-quality replacement blade for the jointer plane above cost me about $50.  Normally I keep the vintage blade, and restoring the plane is only a matter of a couple hours’ work with sandpaper and a wire wheel.

Smoother in Shavings 2012 - - 1

This is one of the planes from the first picture in this post: a WWII-era Stanley smoothing plane.  All it needed was the grime and rust cleaned off, plus a small repair on the tote.  I’ve since replaced the blade and chipbreaker with better ones.  I originally bought the plane for $2.50.  The replacement parts set me back another $75.

The plane works like a charm now, and it’s worth every cent I’ve put into it.  But it’s not the kind of investment I’d want to make every day.

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8 Responses to Selecting a Vintage Hand Plane: Deal-Breaker vs. Deal-with-It

  1. Coisas EM'adeira says:

    “…but for the record, it was my wife who picked them out….” Blaming the wife…. Men You’re in trouble! lol
    Nice “tutorial”

  2. floschulerhotmailcom says:

    Although I know nothing about woodworking, except that there are usually a lot of wood shavings on your floor when you are working and they are pretty, I do read your articles because they teach me about something important to you and your family. Concerning this article, I especially liked your title!

  3. Johnny 7 says:

    Yes, a good title, but you misspelled “breaker”

  4. Nice post. You are right, half the battle is to recognized what is surface rust and deeper rust problems causing pitting. Once you have experiences it becomes easier each time to spot the gems in the rough. Often the saddest looking and cheapest too :-),

    Bob, who used a similar approach

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