The Weirdest Handplane I’ve Ever Used
If you consider yourself a hand tool junkie, you’ve probably heard of the Stanley No. 55 “universal plane.” Manufactured between 1897 and 1962, the No. 55 was marketed as “a planing mill in itself.” In a nutshell, this oddball tool is to woodworking what Swiss Army is to knives. It does just about everything-from dadoes and rabbets, to moldings and tongue and groove joints. Thanks to the plane’s army of profiled cutters (the kit originally came with 55 different irons), you can combine an endless array of hollows, rounds, beads and more–to match moldings in the field. By the time the 55 came around, architectural moldings were already being mass produced by mills, but a carpenter on the jobsite needing to match some baseboard or door casing on the spot could-theoretically-reproduce a short run of just about any molding in a pinch. A neat idea, but a potential headache in reality.
On a recent visit to my neighborhood antique/junk shop I happened across an old 55 in its original chestnut box (which means this is one of the earliest models), complete with all 55 irons, and the complete compliment of accoutrements that leave most woodworkers scratching their heads when they first lay their eyes on this marvel of engineering. All this for 20 bucks. Mind you, my colleague Matt Kenney remarked: “that’s $20 too much!” Matt likes to be snarky.
After disassembling the tool I gave it a good scrub-down with degreaser, applied some new paste wax to the rosewood fences, and re-honed a few of the irons. I’ve not experienced any trouble pulling beautiful beads and forming perfect tongue-and-groove joints, and I can understand why some folks give up trying to produce shavings with this tool after only a few hours. Truth-be-told, the No. 55 looks more complex than it really is. All of those turn screws you see poking out from every direction are merely there to hold down the various fences and “skates” that make up the tool. And once you take the time to read the original manual, and try your hand at planing some scrap wood with it, you’ll soon learn that the 55 is a joy to use. I’ve had good success planing pine, cherry, and walnut. The key is understanding how to set the plane up for success. Here are a few tips.
Planing Beads with a Stanley No. 55
Sharpen the Iron
Step one is obvious. The iron needs to be sharp, with a nicely polished back. I had to re-flatten the backs of some of my irons using sandpaper in various grits. Then I switched to waterstones until I achieved a nice polish. Only then was I able to hone the bevel. The main bevel was easy to hone freehand on a stone. When it came time to hone the convex portion, I wrapped some 320, and then 400-grit sandpaper around an appropriately sized dowel and got to work. Then, just as with any tool blade, I flipped the iron over and lapped away the burr formed on the back using my finest stone.
A Dab of Paste Wax
It’s common to wax the sole of a plane for smoother sailing. In the case of the 55, it doesn’t really have a sole on the bottom-the bearing surfaces are the narrow edges of the “skates” and the rosewood fences, so take a moment to give them a nice bit of paste wax for easier handplaning.
Adjust the Skates
Located in between the two rosewood fences are the “skates.” Aptly named because of their shape, the skates should be aligned with the edges of the bead cutter. You’ll use 4 of those 326 hold-down screws to lock the skates in place [sarcasm].
Bring in One Fence
To cut a bead along the edge of a workpiece, I only need one fence. Just be sure to set it in such a way that it covers one of the two fillets on the bead cutter. The fillets form what’s called the “quirk” in a bead. You only need one quirk, so cover up that second one. You can slide the fence in along the two steel dowels for a macro adjustment. To micro adjust the fence’s position, Stanley provided a nice dial and set screw. Works like a dream!
Cut Your Bead
Fix your board to your bench with the grain running in the proper direction and set the plane atop your workpiece, registering the fence against the board’s edge. Hold the tote with your dominant hand (right, in my case) and grab the rosewood handle attached to the fence with your left hand. You want to rely on the weight of the plane to do the work and push using your right (tote) hand only. The left hand is there merely to add a bit of lateral stability as you work your way down the board. I’ve found that one of the keys to using the 55 is a soft touch. If you bear down on the tool, it’s going to cause tearout.
And there you have it, a nice, well-formed bead. Granted, I’ll probably never use half of the irons that came with this tool but that’s alright. I plan on hitting the road with my 55 and building some small furniture pieces at the local farmer’s market where I sell my wares. Folks always get a kick out of seeing this crazy contraption in action, and from my end, I can’t help but love the fact that I’m building furniture with the aid of a tool that was cared for and used, at around the time when Theodore Roosevelt was president. If only this tool could talk.
Planing a bead into these two pine boards was easy with my well-tuned Stanley No. 55.
The result? Nice crisp beads. Granted, these pine boards are a snap to plane, but I've had similar success with cherry and walnut.
To cut a bead along the edge of a workpiece, I only need one fence. Just be sure to set it in such a way that it covers one of the two fillets on the bead cutter.
Thanks to a simple micro-adjust mechansim, it's easy to dial in the position of the rosewood fence.
Here's what the 55 looks like in action.
Located in between the two rosewood fences are the "skates." Aptly named because of their shape, the skates should be aligned with the edges of the bead cutter.