Dear Tool Manufacturer…

20

Old wooden hand plane, with laminated plane iron…why can’t you make thick irons laminated?

Why is it that my Grandad doesn’t grind. My Dad doesn’t have a grinder. And up until me buying swanky tools, I never had to grind?

Hard steels and thick irons.

It’s a combination which wasn’t found in my Grandad’s workshop.
And that thick hard steel takes some going to wear through.  So out comes the grinder.

This modern ‘improvement’ to our irons puts a spanner in the works of any old school sharpening routine.
A routine needs to be systematic, but what’s unique about an approach to softer steels and thinner irons, is that we can also be progressive.
It becomes a very swift cycle which allows us to continually optimise to the task.

Sharpening thick, hard irons also has to be systematic, but this time it’s rigid.

I’ll explain this further another time, but what’s important is that they differ. And to be efficient throughout our work we need to acknowledge this and approach them differently when we sharpen.

A modern thick iron alongside the iron from my Stanley. Not only is there more steel to work away, but the steel is a lot harder as well.

A modern thick iron alongside the iron from my Stanley. Not only is there more steel to work away, but the steel is a lot harder as well.

But my question remains.

Could we have modern tools, with thick laminated irons?

It would make our routine less disjointed.

Older thick irons, such as in wooden planes were mostly laminated. A thin layer hard enough to take the edge, was given mass from softer steel that could be worked away quickly. In most cases, soft enough to use a file. No grinder was needed.

With their extremely hard steels, the Japanese take this a step further and hollow out the back. Because no woodworker should spend more time working away steel than wood. Oh, and they are laminated also.

laminated wooden plane iron

Here the thin Stanley iron is seen with an old wooden plane iron. There’s a lot of extra thickness in the old iron, but it’s still fast to work, as the bulk of the bevel is soft enough to file away.

A nice thick iron can be very welcome at certain stages of a project.

So could this be viable?
Is it inefficient cost wise to laminate two steel types together? Even if it dramatically lowers the amount of fancy steel used?
Or is it just an unknown desire?

Planes made today from the likes of Veritas, Lie Nielsen are genuinely superb. But they’ll never be as versatile as my old Stanley because of this.

I don’t expect you to answer that.
But we are still taking in your own sharpening related questions through the Pre-order of our new video series.

Thank you to everybody whose queries have already been received, there’s a great variety and we’re now making a start going through the planning of that final chapter.
If you do have a question and haven’t asked yet, then be sure to do it today, as Chapter One will be up and running tomorrow. More details can be found here.

20 Responses

  1. Chris Buckingham

    I cannot believe that laminating two types of steel is a lost art, when we consider the requirements for a plane iron, and a mortise chisel, they have two very different requirements, the plane iron does not need to resist any levering as does the mortise chisel, mortise chisels are still available so the must be able to make the laminated steel, after all, it only need the two components to be heated to welding temperature, a flux being sprinkled on, and the two components bonked together, not a black art, but I think the problem is that we have become seduced by the thought of an iron with some fantastic hardness value quoted, that we appear to have forgotten the true value of a proper laminated iron, when I make my Norris reproductions I use laminated irons ground parallel , they are far better than the hardened through type I find.

    Reply
  2. Salko Safic

    I have been asking this question for years and only ever get the same reply, A2 steel is better because it holds an edge longer. But A2 steel’s ideal bevel is 30-35 degrees to hold that edge longer yet they all come ground at 23. All I know is that I get a keener edge with O1 but it won’t hold as long as A2, but A2 is a pain in the backside to sharpen because it takes so bloody long.

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  3. Julian Saxty

    Yup. My thicko LNs are all carefully labelled with their own respective grind equations, honed on the leather wheel and hand honed again, they look ‘ansome Sampson Delilah’ an there’re all thick’wi dust.

    Me clutch ‘o Stans thins an’ a singleton Norris five do all the proper work; they are whipped up in seconds on a stone, with maybe two and a half strokes on me leather stick an a touch a toothpaste. An I’m singin’ in heaven wi gossamer curls. The big old wooden thunderers wi sandwich irons get the same treatment an have been off the wall as poncy decorations these past five years and set to work, what ever was I doing….? They are an absolute dream, an not so much tap tapping with a touch of fiddlers rosin.

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  4. Adam Fletcher

    So what would you buy, I’m in need of a new No 7 blade for my previously loved Stanley?

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  5. Bernard Naish

    I have a Japanese iron sold by Axminster for my #4 1/2 Stanley plane it has a laminated blade and I bought it about 8 years ago. It works well.

    It is my personal opinion that thick blades have much to commend them as they do not vibrate or bend so much – both highly desirable in a plane. That why the thick irons and wood that damps vibrations work so well together

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  6. Matthew Platt

    In a word – cost.

    The best material for making laminated blades is wrought iron, the high proportion of glassy impurities in proper puddled wrought means it won’t harden, so you can heat treat appropriately for the good stuff and have no effect on the backing. Wrought used to be cheap and plentiful, but it is no longer made, so the only way we can get it in consistently sized billets is to buy re-rolled Victorian scrap. If you can get hold of it, this material is now many times more expensive than industrially produced edge steel.

    Hand forging a plane iron is a wasteful process, you start with a 2kg bar and by the time you have cut away all the frilly bits on the edges, the bit you were holding on to, and ground it to thickness, you end up with a 200g plane iron. It also takes a heck of a lot of energy, which was fine when there was cheap coal poking out of the ground all around Sheffield, but generating that much heat nowadays drives up the leccy bill a treat.

    Another difficulty with making a forge laminated iron is that you must begin by deciding which will be the front and back, even though at that point you have no idea which side will want to be convex or concave, so 50% of them will come out with a desirable concavity on the flat side and the others will have a belly. Good quality modern irons are ground after heat treatment, so you can pick the correct face to put the cutting edge on.

    It’s certainly still do-able, but you would end up with a product that you would owe you £50 before you even start to involve the VAT man, workplace pensions, the new profit tax and all the other headwinds. If you want a laminated iron, my advice is to buy an old properly knackered woodie for a tenner (please don’t buy the ones that have been turned into lamps – you’ll only encourage the upcycling vandals) and take the iron out of it. If it won’t fit take it to a machine shop and ask them to mill a bit off the soft side.

    Cheers,

    Matthew

    Reply
  7. stephan wintner

    Gents, Esp. Adam Fletcher,

    Here’s my answer : Japanses laminated blue paper steel, thin 2.2 mm blades, that drop into my Stanley planes. http://www.toolsfromjapan.com/store/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=339_514_546

    Admittedly, that means giving up on a bit of chatter resistance – but our grandfathers made thin irons work, so…

    The Tsunesaburo blades are available from other sources, including Dictum in Germany, and seemed to be the best plan to me (take that with a grain of salt, I’m a beginner too).

    Shifting gears. Speaking as a mechanical engineer by trade, I am pretty sure that unless you invest a fair bit of capital to establish a custom, heavily automated forging line to laminate your steel in quantity, buying a plate of A2 (or whatever) will be a much cheaper way to make a plane blade. Cutting, roughing, hardening, and finish grinding the blades would cost essentially the same – it’s about what plate stock can be bought from the forge.

    Specialty steel suppliers will make whatever you like, as long as you’re buying tons – I can say that from experience. So a small maker is stuck with “catalog” stock.

    I’m not sure how Tsunesaburo makes their blades economically. Presumably they’ve found a forge willing to make the laminated steel for them – perhaps the forged stock is also used for some other, higher quantity products.

    Third subject – as I said above, our grandfathers made a thin iron work. Nonetheless, if chatter is an issue, the stiffness of a blade (chatter resistance) is driven purely by thickness, not hardness. (The elastic modulus of steel does not change with increasing hardness.) The hardness only affects the edges life and achievable sharpness. Adjusting the chipbreaker down nice and tight to the edge should help, and a thicker chipbreaker would too.

    Reply
    • Julian

      Well, it seems to me that the thickness of a plane blade isn’t a factor in chatter, as both a thick and a thin blade are the same thickness at any line parallel to the cutting edge up to a distance equaling the length of the shorter bevel. Also, the thinner blade contacts its bed closer to the cutting edge than does a thick blade.

      Reply
  8. Kermit

    In my stable of Stanleys, they all have the irons they were born with, including one #6 that was my great-grandpappy’s from about 1880. There’s one #4 that was from a junk bin, no iron, busted knobe and tote. I put a Cliffton setup in it and set it up for smoothing highly figured hardwoods, but I hate sharpening it. My two go-tos are both Sweethearts, a #3 and a #5. I would never buy a hard-hard replacement iron.

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  9. John Gibson

    I may have the best of both worlds here. I have a few old “sweetheart” Stanleys with thin, laminated blades. They work a treat. The Hock replacement is great too – just a bit thicker. Metallurgy and economics I suppose make it hard (sorry for the pun) to manufacture a cheap and good laminated blade now. Just another reason to keep visiting he flea markets / boot sales.

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  10. Steve Voigt

    Richard, I have tried, and I know I’m not the only small-scale planemaker to try. The basic issue is that in the 19th c. (or earlier), labor was cheap and materials were expensive, but today the situation is reversed. I can get 20, or 50, O1 tapered irons made at a reasonable price, but the same quantity of laminated irons would cost a fortune.
    Now, if someone were producing say 500 or a thousand irons at a time, it might be possible to make laminated ones economically. Tsunesaburo is, or was, making laminated replacement irons for Stanley planes at a very reasonable price. But they were already set up for it, and they have the size to do it at a reasonable price. But in the Western wooden plane space, there is no one who has the volume to make it work. I hate to say that–I love laminated irons too–but there it is. My two cents, anyway.

    Reply
    • Salko Safic

      Glad to read that materials in your neck of the world is relatively cheap, but Australia is quite the opposite. It’s neither cheap in materials nor labour. can someone lend us a tugboat to bring us closer to the rest of the world.

      Reply
      • Steve D

        With respect to the cost of materials, the driving force in the old days was the difference in cost between the carbon steel and the iron for the body of the iron. Today there is an abundance of high performance material and labor is expensive. You still see lamination used in knifemaking. Mora makes some knives that are laminated and reasonable. I don’t know how many plane blades actually get worn out every year in the US but I would not predict too many. A lot of replacements I think are upgrades more than consumption.

        Reply
        • Salko Safic

          I agree I too don’t believe many would get worn out in fact I don’t believe anyone would wear one out in their lifetime, not in this day and age for obvious reasons. I think with all these marketing hypes of this and that is best people are just trying bits of everything till they come across the one that works for them.

          I must admit Bob’s post on tools from japan has sparked a deep interest in me to give their blades a try. They sound like the most ideal blades on the modern market, I’m frankly sick of spending so much time and energy sharpening these A2 blades and I’m only referring to the plane blades as there is more metal to take off, the smaller stuff is fine.

          Reply
  11. Jose

    For a reply to that question you could ask Tsunesaburo (or Stu at toolsfromjapan). I think they tried to make thicker laminated steel blades and failed to do so. I suppose this failure is related with cost, as their kanna blades are laminated and thick, but way more expensive than what is marketable for a western iron. I do have their thinner irons (adapted for using in the ECE horned planes, which involves changing the chipbreaker) and they are excellent.

    Concerning wrought iron, it is nice, but regular iron is also used for the kanna laminated blades.

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  12. Lloyd Pennington

    Before getting overly excited about plane irons being too hard, we shouldn’t forget about ‘toughness’ and ‘hot hardness’ which is what modern tool steels are designed for.

    O1 (oil hardening) tool steel of “ground flat stock” or “gauge plate” as it is sometimes called, comes in annealed at around 38- 44 Rockwell C and can be hardened to Rockwell 62C and then tempered to Rockwell 58-60C

    A2 (air hardening) can be heat treated to a little harder, around 65C maximum, but is also ‘tougher’ than O1 and is more typically used for low end press tools where ease of machining would be preferable over it’s even tougher ‘D2’ brethren.

    The famous ‘Stellite’ brand can be hardened to Rockwell 58-61C. Stellite 100 can be laminated by brazing to a softer “mild steel’ such as EN3A or low carbon steel such as EN8 or even EN24T alloy steel, without losing its hardness. I’ve done this many times as described to make router cutters and Stellite is quite easy to hone, and has good ‘hot’ hardness to around 500C, so can be also used for metal cutting (brass, mild steel).

    So, yes, it is still quite possible to make in small batches a “laminated” plane blade, with a tough, hard, thin cutting edge and a softer, durable and thick backing. But here’s the rub… Would anyone be willing to pay more for a blade than they did for their Lie Nielsen No4 manganese “bronze” plane?

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  13. Walter Ambrosch

    Richard,
    I have thought this same thing for years, after all… Japanese Plane Irons are Laminated.
    I believe homogenous steel throughout is easier to set modern machinery up for.
    Labor is one of the highest cost so reducing every possible variable is critical.
    Then there is Heat Treating, here too, the new Steels are more predictable than a laminated Iron.
    Having said all that… I’m sure is someone wanted to dedicate to setting up for and making ONLY laminated Replacement Irons it would not be any more difficult or expensive.
    I have heard of yet not found the Japanese Laminated Irons.

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  14. alfred kraemer

    Laminated, tapered plane irons are still not that hard to find, at least in the Midwest. I began to look for 2 1/8 inch wide plane irons, after finding and liking an Ogontz Tool wooden jackplane. Once I started to look for an additional iron, I found 5 over six months during three flea markey visits, and another one, an I Sorby iron, at a wood working web site. None of the was moore than $10.
    Most are from formerly mass-producing makers, e.g. Ohio Tool, Auburn, etc. I have not noticed a big quality difference among them.
    I did have to match some of them with spare chip breakers. One of my ‘rules’ was to not buy irons that had less than an inch left below the slot.
    Maybe the fact that there are still old ones out there in good numbers is another reasons why modern makers aren’t eager to make new ones,

    Alfred

    Reply

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