Dear Tool Manufacturer…

by | Feb 6, 2017 | 47 comments

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.

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About Richard Maguire

About Richard Maguire

As a professional hand tool woodworker, Richard found hand tools to be the far more efficient solution for a one man workshop. Richard runs 'The English Woodworker' as an online resource and video education for those looking for a fuss free approach to building fine furniture by hand. Learn More About Richard & The English Woodworker.


  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.

  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.

  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.

  4. Adam Fletcher

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

  5. Ivars

    Why not to try Japanese Kanna planes? They mainly have laminated iron

  6. 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

  7. 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.



    • Marvin McConoughey

      Years later, and I still don’t agree that cost should be an adequate reason for blade manufacturers to shun laminated steel blades to the major extent that they now do. Consider what we woodworkerrs pay for our favorite eye candy tools. Often many times what a marginally adequate big box store charges. Let’s have more laminated planes, tool companies. If the Japanese can do it, why can’t the USA?

  8. 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.

    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.

    • 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.

  9. 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.

    • Kevin

      Question here. Can we just epoxy mild steel to or plane irons to thicken them?

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

        • 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.

          • David Weaver

            They are, unfortunately, not better than a good O1 or 52100 iron of solid steel. Larrin Thomas has micrographs of them and I have photos of their edges in a wear test (this site won’t allow me to link photos) – the carbides aren’t well dispersed in any of the blue steels and the surface finish is worse than O1 or 52100 driven higher in hardness.

            You’re better off making your own irons. I wish that weren’t true. I’ve had the tsune irons twice 9 years apart, and both were the same (larrin thomas’s page “knife steel nerds” made it clear why little pocks were coming out of the edge of the blue steel blades – you can see how the carbides group in blue steel and it’s not finely and uniformly, unfortunately. He was using test blades, I was using tsunesaburo planes. Two different sources in different countries both showing the same problem.

            I made a comment below about liking their hardness – when I did a standardized planing test and took microscopic pictures against an O1 iron, both wore the same amount of time (which shouldn’t have been given the blue steel irons hardness) and to my surprise on the same piece of wood, the O1 iron finish was brighter and clearer. I made the O1 iron, but it wasn’t anything special, just good quality starrett steel tempered to about 63 hardness). Side by side tests often disprove things that I thought I liked better – often a disappointment!!

    • David Weaver

      Well, you beat me to this one by about 7 months!! I said the same thing below about tsunesaburo. They are very hard, but the thin ones grind by hand easily if you have a stone that will cut them. If tsunesaburo had a market for it, they could make them at different thicknesses with the same steels that are used to make prelaminated knives.

      I had one of them (but it left in a plane that I sold). It was a lovely iron – like carbon steel of vintage, but harder.

  12. 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.

  13. 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?

  14. Walter Ambrosch

    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.

  15. 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,


  16. Salko Safic

    I can’t help but wonder why the silence on the blog, for what it’s worth I do enjoy reading your blog your input is valuable as many blogs are out there. I hope all is well with you.

    • Len Aspell


      I was thinking much the same. Be good to hear from Richard and Helen again. Patiently waiting for the plane build video series.


      • Salko Safic

        Didn’t know they were planning on doing one

        • David Germeroth

          Yes, I too am patiently awaiting the plane build series. More importantly, I hope the silence is a matter of choice and not necessity.

        • David Germeroth

          Yes, I too am patiently awaiting the plane build series. More importantly, I hope the silence is a matter of choice forced by the normal hubbub of life and not some unpleasant necessity.

  17. Salko Safic

    It seems like spammers have now taken over this blog. Looks like Richard and Helen have left. Richard if you do come across this post for what its worth I want to say your a craftsman and I enjoyed reading your blog and watching your videos. I hope maybe one day you could write an article for my magazine. Good luck to you both, I wish you all the best

    • Helen

      Hi Salko, and everyone else who’s keeping an eye on progress here!
      We just wanted to drop a line to say that all is well, and the silence is only temporary whilst we complete various building work.
      We’re working on a lot of new content, both video and blog posts, and will be back in full swing very soon.
      We’re getting ourselves prepared to be very active content wise, so once we start back up you’ll have the plane build to look forward to, along with much more.
      Many thanks for your thoughts, and sorry to keep you hanging! 🙂

      • Salko Safic

        That’s great news Helen thank you for letting us know, I will get in touch with you about an article write up in the near future.

      • Len A

        Hi Helen

        Great to hear from you and to know that you and Richard will be back shortly with renewed enthusiasm and ideas and videos. I did wonder whether you were heavily engaged in the building work you had both previously trailed.

        We have missed you both so you will be warmly welcomed back. Perhaps I might bump into you both at the EWS in September if you are attending. 🙂

        • Len A

          Oh and forgot to say the plane build really is eagerly anticipated. I have actually made one in Ash with a mahogany wedge and learnt a few lessons along the way so can’t wait for a more refined design but it does take very fine shavings when adjusted properly.

      • Duncan

        Hi Helen and Richard,

        Thanks for letting us know. Great to hear you are fine and are planning more content.
        Take care.

      • Brian

        Really great to hear/read this update!!! Looking forward to more content (that I’ll pay for!).

  18. Sten

    Ahhh, that really good new. I was getting seriously worried that something was wrong, and you and Richard had stopped woodworking all together(extremely relieved that you are not)

    Really looking forward to more builds and videos

  19. David Weaver

    You can order rikizai (prelaminated) steel from japan without issue, but I suppose that means that you have to machine it and then heat treat it. It wouldn’t be 10 dollars like a chunk of O1 is for an iron, though.

    Tsunesaburo makes thin laminated irons, and I’d mentioned to a japanese dealer years ago that I thought there would be a market for the irons at 1/8th thick for bench planes. He offered months later to send me some irons in various thicknesses (as he was trying to convince tsunesaburo of the same thing), but I never heard anything of it again.

    The irons tsunesaburo makes would easily work well at 62 hardness, or something softer than where they come in at, and they are fine grained. Their composition is blue #1, which is similar to O1, but cleaner and with more carbon. The material on the backing is soft iron.

    I think there just isn’t much initiative for it because as much as we’d like to believe there are lots of people out there talking about sharpening within the cycle of work and desiring efficiency, there just isn’t that much of a market. It’s like re-introducing the superbly useful washita stone. You can serve that market in a couple of months and then there will be no more orders.

    In terms of the tapered irons, I have gotten two planes that were marketed more than a century ago in the US as having premium irons. They were nearly a quarter thick (they were tapered irons) and laminated, and when setting up the planes, I had to regrind them. They were a pain to even *grind*. If one wants to use modern irons these days, you can grind A2 without issue with a crystolon stone, but you have to have an oil setup to do it. A long run of 80 grit paper roll (aluminum oxide) also does it easily. To go up from what is normally 1/8th and below in thickness is pretty pointless – it screams for someone to learn to use a cap iron instead. So while it would be nice to have someone learn to laminate and make laminated irons, the reality is the market is too small and the cost is too high. Some of the manufacturers (LN comes to mind) can’t even handle the warpage that comes with O1, and they definitely couldn’t fully harden water-hardening irons when they made them.

    All that said, *you* could take on a project of having prelaminated blue steel ground and then commercially heat treated.

  20. Dan M

    Is Richard OK? Haven’t seen any new content in months

  21. Walter Ambrosch

    I believe it all comes down to cost.
    It is cheaper to make homogenous Steel Irons even if the alloy costs more and is harder.
    I am also sure we could develop the technology to mass produce Laminated Thin or thick Irons at least at a similar cost.
    But… We are not the makers so we don’t make the decisions.
    It is like the proliferation of A-2 Steel vs O-1 which is more than adequate for the bulk of our needs.

    Thanks for posting and keep it coming.

  22. Patrick

    When all is said and done, me thinks its time to buy a grinder and get on with it.

  23. Aaron Devin

    If someone has ever had laminating problems, read this blog. This is big stuff.
    Thanks a lot!

  24. Joe

    You are so correct about the older thinner steel blades being better. I bought a Lie Nielsen 4-1/2. Got tired of sharpening the blade in it and put in a Ron Hock O1 blade. It still thick but easier than the LN to sharpen. Recently I bought a Stanley Sweetheart 4. I was blown away at two things. The thinner blade was much easier to sharpen. The lighter weight was much nicer. I appreciate the LN refinements but really wish they would out the planes and blade thickness on a diet. It would make a huge difference.

  25. Lawrence Tailor

    Great article. Couldn’t be write much better!

    Keep it up!

  26. paul kellitt

    When I was an apprentice engineer at Stanley Tools (Woodside Sheffield) in the mid 80’s an engineer I worked for developed a laminated blade for mass production it was tested by a furniture maker for us and his feedback was that the time between resharpening was about 10 to 20 times greater planing tapered mahogany table legs.
    Never made it to production and only about 20 samples were ever made. It was rejected due to the aesthetics of the blade and the sharpening techniques required were alien to most joiners. 1 incorrect sharpening and it was ruined. Cost was not really an issue it was more expensive but nothing like a conventional process.


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