Fair Woodworking

May 15, 2013

Handtool Economics

EDITORS NOTE *** This post is experiencing 3rd party photo hosting “issues”, that will be addressed as time allows. ***

It’s a good thing I’ve forgotten my Woodnet password…

It seems there is a heated debate on weather LN planes are overpriced. There are the usual comments along the lines of “If they were overpriced, people wouldn’t buy them”, and “if you think their smoothers are expensive you should see the price of their shooting plane!!!

These threads are also good for at least one person who decides to dabble in the economics, and the effect of inflation on prices. The problem is that numbers have a way of spinning around and biting you in the tender bits if you are not careful.

One member (MattP) made the following post.

In the early 20th century, you could apparently buy a smoothing plane for about $1.62, and a Stanley block plane for about $1.45

The purchasing power of the dollar has declined by 96.5% since 1900. Phrased differently, a dollar today buys the same thing that 3.5 cents bought in 1900.

By that measure, a handplane of comparable quality to a $1.65 smoothing plane should cost about $77. And–whaddya know!?–a new Stanley smoothing plane costs $79.00 at Rockler. Of course, we all know that a Lie Nielsen No. 4 runs $300, or nearly 4 times as expensive. – MattP

I should mention that I don’t know MattP, I have no beef with the guy, and I’m not trying to start something. I have no intention of discrediting him, and in fact, I appreciate the time he took in researching the topic. However it seems pretty clear that he is set on his opinion (as am I), and I think it may have blinded him on what these numbers say.

In the spirit of good natured debate, here are some sticking points I have with the argument.

While a smoothing plane went for a buck sixty-two, not all smoothing planes were Stanley’s flagship smoothing plane known as the bedrock. I’m sure a bedrock smoother was more than the price listed.

The Stanley block plane’s old price is listed just 17 cents less than the smoother. In today’s money that is $59.50. A LN #4 smoother is $300, and the LA block plane is $165. The difference in price is more than double at $135. Again, pointing to the fact that you never could buy a bedrock for a little over a buck an a half.

Well those are just number that you spin any way you want.

The old smoother was probably made in either America or Canada. At the time just about any living being that made their living working wood, other than the mighty beaver, needed a smoother. High volume manufacturing lowers overhead, and that lowers the individual price tag on most any given product. Foundries could be found scattered all over our continent, and there was a wealth of skilled metal workers as a result. The old world market was perfect for affordable NEW hand tools.

Today most smoothers are used by a tiny nich market know as “hand tool woodworking hobbyist”. The modern world lists smoothers on kijiji as block planners, primitive tools, and vintage smothers. The modern woodworking hobbyist has the choice of buying block planners at the flee market, or buying from modern tool makers that build in overly small batches. Many of us will go with the $5 smother. So why are LN planes so much more expensive than a modern Stanley? Well the most obvious answer is that LN uses an American workforce, and Stanley planes are made in Mexico where wages are much lower. Now it would be horribly inappropriate to say that Mexicans CAN’T make as good a plane as an American, but the whole reason you chase cheaper wages is because you are willing to compromise quality for price. There is also the issue of foundries. There aren’t that many left to choose from. And finding reliable, skilled workers for your small tool making shop. Who will train them? Manufacturing in North America is not so much of a way of life like it still is in many third world countries. Finding the right people to build your tools can’t be as easy as it once was. The other reason is as I mentioned before. LN can’t be making the same volume of planes today as Stanley once made a hundred years ago. As a result LN must spread their overhead over a much smaller market base.

That means that anyone that thinks LN planes are too expensive can blame people like me. Eight times I have chosen to buy old Stanley planes rather than LN planes. That’s 8 planes that could have carried just a little more of LN’s cost of doing business.

Don’t blame LN.

Blame me.

So now let’s compare the Smoother of yesteryear (let’s give it the benefit of the doubt and call it a nice type 11 Stanley) against the modern Stanley Sweetheart. Can you even compare these two planes?

I really don’t think you can. If I happened into Rockler and saw the modern Stanley priced at $79.00 and right beside it was your typical flee market type 11 in decent shape, also priced at $79.00…

What plane catches my eye? What plane do I pick up and inspect?

It wouldn’t be the modern Stanley. I have better things to do with my time.

I would however stop and look the Type 11. It would have to be pretty sweet for me to not be turned off by the sticker price, but I wouldn’t have even looked at the price tag of the modern plane.

No you can’t compare these two planes.

If you still need more convincing or you just want a good laugh (many of you I’m sure have already seen it), I’ll need to pass you off to Wilbur Pan writer of giant Cypress.



  1. “Many of us will go with the $4 smother.”

    I think you meant #4.

    And I think I can wrap up all the projects I’ve started in 4.4 years before the world ends.

    Feel free to delete this comment.


    Comment by ChrisHasFlair — May 16, 2013 @ 2:04 am

  2. Ha!
    As it happens, I didn’t mean either. It should have been $5 smother like the guy chooses at the end of Wilbur’s video.

    Now Chris, don’t worry! I’m not predicting the end of the world or anything. Just the end of the world as WE know it.

    But hey, the world that we know seems to change every day.

    I wonder if I could start a cult with this.

    I’m going to need a compound.

    Comment by fairwoodworking — May 16, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

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