In 1981, Tom Lie-Nielsen had a fledgling business making a single model of a bronze edge-plane, doing the assembly work on his kitchen table. This year, the company’s 25th, Lie-Nielsen Toolworks makes more than 100 models of high-end hand tools.
I recently toured the factory and talked to Lie-Nielsen about the evolution of his company and of hand-tool use over the last few decades. In a one-on-one interview, Lie-Nielsen addresses everything from his getting started in the business to the future of his company.
Click on the links below to listen to individual MP3 audio segments from the interview. Or, to listen to the complete 40-minute audio interview, follow the link (right) for our audio slideshow.
TB: "Start from the beginning. Take us back 25 years to when you first got started."
TLN: "I worked at Garrett Wade for a few years right out of college. I had a lot of opportunity to work with customers who frequently were saying that they didn't make tools like they used to and I couldn't understand why with better technology and better materials and better equipment we couldn't do tools as well as they used to or even better..."
TB: When did you decide to grow this from a part-time business to a full time job?
TLN: "After we delivered tools and started getting going, I realized of course that I couldn't make a living at this by paying job-shop rates to machinests to do the work."
TB: Was there a lot of pressure on you to build your business quickly?
TLN: "I didn't have any particular financial responsiblilities; we grew our own food, we had ducks and geese and the milk cow and sheep, and we spent quite a bit of time doing the back-to-the-land thing. We didn't really need a lot of money..."
TB: When did your retail business really get going?
TLN: "I discovered if I wanted to make more variety of tools I couldn't do it by myself..."
TB: When did you realize your company was outgrowing the farm house?
TLN: "Around 1986-87 we moved down here. This building was a big old empty cinderblock ice house. I started to buy serious equipment..."
TB: What are the top 3 or 4 products that Lie-Nielsen sells?
TLN: "Low angle blockplanes by far are the most popular. They're also the most affordable..."
TB: What was the first product you introduced that was not a handplane?
TLN: "I think that was really the saws. I had done a corner chisel off and on..."
TB: When did you decide to start producing chisels?
TLN: "Except for some accessories and things, the next big departure was chisels, which we only started about three years ago..."
TB: Your tools are a lot more expensive than the competition...
TLN: "When I first started, even with specialty tools, price was a big obstacle. In the case of #4 it was a factor of four times more money than a stanely..."
TB: Where do you see Lie-Nielsen in the next five to 10 years?
TLN: "We'll that's the $6,400 question. WE have always steadily progressed toward various new products..."
TB: What are your thoughts on outsourcing?
TLN: "I will be dragged kicking and screaming in that direction, for a variety of reasons..."
Photos: Michael Pekovich