How Lie-Nielsen decides which tools to make

comments (6) July 1st, 2010 in blogs

AsaC AsaC, Contributor
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Wood patternmaking is almost a lost art, but that is still how Lie-Nielsens tool makers develop the castings for each new plane.
Wood patternmaking is almost a lost art, but that is still how Lie-Nielsens tool makers develop the castings for each new plane. - CLICK TO ENLARGE

Wood patternmaking is almost a lost art, but that is still how Lie-Nielsen's tool makers develop the castings for each new plane.

Photo: Asa Christiana

Lie-Nielsen Toolworks' small size is an asset in many ways. While bigger companies must do exhaustive research to figure out what to make and how to do it profitably, it only takes a few requests to get Tom Lie-Nielsen to start making prototypes.

In a fascinating workshop at the recent Furniture Society Conference in Massachusetts, Lie-Nielsen explained how he takes a new tool from concept to market. I though the best part was learning how he chooses what to develop and make next. Turns out, the process is informal. "If we get a couple of requests for a specific tool," Lie-Nielsen said, "I figure there are a lot more people behind those two." He went on to explain that as a small company, they can afford to develop and sell a tool that they will only sell a couple hundred of, such as a few of his more esoteric planes that do just one small job very well.

More on Tom Lie-Nielsen

• Lie-Nielsen: Unplugged 
• Martha Stewart Visits Lie-Nielsen? 

But there are reasons he can't make tools, too. For example, he revealed, he is trying his hardest to make a honing guide, or rather a set of them, because he isn't really happy with the generic guide that his employees recommend in their sharpening seminars (see our recent article by Lie-Nielsen demonstrator Deneb Puchalski). But he can't figure out how to make them at a price that people will be willing to pay. The generic honing guides hold plane irons OK, but they don't hold either large or small chisels well at all. Therefore Lie-Nielsen thinks he needs to offer a set of three in order to do justice to the task, but, he asked us at the seminar, what will people be willing to pay? The consensus was $100 and he wasn't quite sure if he could make them profitably at that price. But he remains determined to do so and continues to work on prototypes.

One tool, a hand-cut rasp, just takes too much time and expertise for his Maine company to handle. At the Auriou company, in France, it takes an extremely experienced worker up to a full day, working with a tiny punch, to form the teeth on a single rasp. "It takes three years to train the guy," Lie-Nielsen explained with a wry smile.

Another thing Lie-Nielsen can't handle is hammer forging, which is the wonderful way old chisels were made. It is a lost art in the U.S. Drop-forging is a modern option but the dies for it cost $20K each. So Lie-Nielsen found a way to machine his socket chisels from carbon steel, and is very happy with the result.

When asked if he only feels comfortable developing tools on his own, he said he loves collaborating, mentioning the inlay tools he created with Steve Latta and the spokeshaves he made according to Brian Bogg's VERY specific requirements.

He said he did flirt with making infill planes, years ago, and had a devil of a time doing it in production, but the solution came in an unexpected way. When people began asking for a No. 4-1/2 smoother, a wider version of the No. 4, he complied and it became one of his favorites. He said the No. 4 only became the traditional smoother of choice because of ignorance and because it could do a lot of things well. When he added a high-angle frog as an accessory for his No. 4-1/2, he said, he found he had created a plane that rivals the best coffin smoothers when it comes to tough woods. So he didn't need to make an infill smoother any more.

As for low-angle planes (all the rage these days) vs. standard smoothers, he says the low-angles make a great first plane because one only has to resharpen the bevel to create a new planing angle, but there is still no substitute for a standard plane with a high-angle frog for the toughest woods. As for why block planes were seemeingly the only low-angle planes made in the past, he said that there were low-angle smoothers but they became unpopular because of their poor quality. It takes a flat frog, a thick blade and thick castings to make them work well, and cost-cutting did in the past versions.

posted in: blogs, workshop, tool, steel

Comments (6)

gauravg9 gauravg9 writes: hello friends i am a new user and i am from India

i want making guitar so please give me guidance and send me video link about guitar making thanks
Posted: 12:59 am on February 2nd

joefree777 joefree777 writes: Thanks for the L-N article. We toolmakers can't get enough, or sometimes anything about toolmaking.
Thomas is one of the best and I want to second the fact that it's refreshing to have a business owner that will take a chance and also provide such a great service. A few years ago Thomas made a custom backsaw for me and only charged the price of his production saw. I really appreciate his presence in our craft.
Joe Freeman
Posted: 6:41 pm on August 20th

sherbin18 sherbin18 writes: Hi Matt-

Thanks for the quick response.

I'm looking for the article, video, whatever, anxiously.

Still using my 1/8" router bit until then.

Posted: 12:29 pm on July 21st

MKenney MKenney writes: Steve,

I did say it (the article about me grooving planes) was coming, but not until the end of the year (at the soonest). I still cannot say with any certainty when it will be out, but it is coming.

Posted: 12:55 pm on July 20th

sherbin18 sherbin18 writes: OOps, Matt said it was coming.
Posted: 11:47 am on July 20th

sherbin18 sherbin18 writes: We're all still waiting for the article. Is it still in the "works?"

You did say it was coming at the LN session in NJ.
Posted: 11:46 am on July 20th

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