A Higher Plane In the woodworking crowd, a rivalry splits the power-tool set and a splinter group of unplugged purists.


Three years ago, Anatol Polillo had a close encounter with an electric router that nearly cost him a thumb. "It got ugly pretty fast," Polillo says.

A self-taught woodworker and free-lance video producer, Polillo knew there had to be a safer way to build an end table. He found the answer, and a new obsession, by tapping into Web sites and mailing lists where subscribers spoke ardently of such wonders as rabbet planes, hewing hatchets, draw knives, wooden scrapers, levels, chisels and gouges.

In forums like the Electronic Neanderthal Woodworker and the OldTools mailing list, the Baltimore resident found himself exploring a new universe of antique tool buffs. There, self-proclaimed "galoots" poke fun at the power-tool crowd's dependence on "tailed apprentices," their plug-in gadgets. Soon, Polillo was scouring auctions and flea markets for vintage planes and sawknives to replace his power tools.

Polillo, 31, had joined the growing community of "tool fundamentalists," those who worship antique planes, saws and chisels for their history, utility and beauty. These are implements made by master designers that reached a peak of craftsmanship in the 18th century. They come from an era before the Industrial Revolution, when woodworkers depended solely on hand tools, whether to build a simple foot stool or ornate crown molding.

Crafted before planned obsolescence, these tools were built to last and if tuned correctly remain more effective and easier to use than hand tools mass-produced today. They're regarded as artifacts worthy of the attention of curators and academics. Collectors have been known to pay in the tens of thousands of dollars for a rare specimen, such as a Sandusky Center wheel plow plane made of ebony and ivory.

The old-tool market is soaring. "It's crazy," says Patrick Leach, a hand-tool merchant in Massachusetts. "It's absolutely nuts!" Ten years ago, "the common planes that Stanley made, you couldn't give those things away at tool events. Everybody wanted the rare stuff." Now, guys go crazy over the most basic of tools, he says.

As the "Luddites" of woodworking, Polillo and his colleagues are in the minority. While 6,000 power-tool counterparts will be ogling band saws at this weekend's Baltimore Woodworking Show at the Timonium Fairgrounds, about 200 antique-tool buffs will be stroking plow planes and hand saws in York, Pa., at a meeting of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association, an international organization that's 4,000 members strong.

There, participants will engage in "tool drool," defined as "rapturous description of newly acquired tool"; self-effacing jokes about hand-toolers' "being stupid enough to spend hours doing something that would take five minutes with a power tool"; and, of course, gentle razing of their power-tool counterparts.

The two tool camps have waged a friendly rivalry ever since a group of hand-tool fans defected from an online woodworking list a couple of years ago because it emphasized power tools and shunned "Neanderthals." Sure, we are, the old-tool crowd affirmed, and proud of it. Roy Underhill, host of the PBS program "The Woodwright's Shop," even opened one show with the battle cry: "Say no to power tools!"

At the Baltimore Woodworking Show, there'll be some hand-tool colleagues around to demonstrate nearly forgotten skills like saw sharpening and dovetailing, but the place will primarily team with "Normies," power-tool aficionados who emulate Norm Abram, the electric drill-packing host of PBS' "The New Yankee Workshop."

Some of each

Of course, only purists of either woodworking stripe abjure any association with the other side. It's a push-and-pull situation, says John Lavine, editor of the San Francisco-based Woodwork magazine. "It's almost impossible to make a living only using hand tools, [but] by the same token, there's no substitute for hand work."

Often, hobbyists who don't have to worry about bottom lines and deadlines begin with power tools and later discover that working wood with hand tools can be "much more satisfying and gratifying," Lavine says. "I think eventually it becomes a very layered process, and [each woodworker] figures out a combination of hand and power tools that is the most appropriate."

Just the same, Lavine says with a chuckle, after Woodwork recently ran a story about John Alexander, a Baltimore hand-tool master who makes post-and-rung furniture from green wood, an angry reader wrote something to the effect of: "This is the age of power tools, dammit!"

Donald Skinner, a member of the Baltimore Woodworkers Guild who'll display his work at the Baltimore show, is a power-tool guy. Skinner, 74, started out using hand tools as a teen and graduated to power tools to make furniture and jewelry boxes as a hobby.

Skinner likes power tools because they're faster and more efficient. "You can get your product done a lot faster and can enjoy it sooner," says the retired civil engineer from Towson.

When Guild members were asked to complete a hand-tool project recently, only Skinner participated. "In my opinion, it was a flop," he says. Hand tools present a unique challenge, but Skinner's not sure that challenge is worth pursuing full tilt. "I just don't think that's the way [woodworking] is going nowadays," he says.

Among hand-tool zealots, such capitulation is unthinkable. Without their undivided attention, they fear that the skills required to build furniture, homes, instruments and other implements before the Industrial Revolution will be lost.

The video

It is this concern that led Polillo to apply his professional expertise to the woodworking craft: Last year, he produced a 90-minute video on the history and use of planes made by one of the country's oldest tool manufacturers, the Stanley Rule and Level Co. in New Britain, Conn.

"Stanley Planes by the Numbers" covers Stanley planes from the coveted No. 1, patented in 1827, to the No. 444 dovetail. It's narrated by Patrick Leach, an Ashby, Mass., tool maker and historian conversant with every detail of Stanley's sweeping repertoire of basic and gorgeously ornate products.

Leach, speaking extemporaneously and a bit nervously before Polillo's video camera, tells would-be collectors which planes are rare, how to look for fatal flaws (such as hairline cracks or missing pieces) and how planes evolved from wood to metal.

The video concludes with Leach's loving tribute to Stanley's most frivolously ornate planes, ones made during the Victorian era that could easily double as sculpture.

So far, Polillo has sold 320 copies of the $29.95 video and plans three more videos focusing on the fine art and esoterica of saw sharpening, the universal combination plane and 17th century joinery.

Last year, Leach left a software engineering career when he realized he could make a living out of his passion for old tools. "I buy and sell woodworking tools and machinist tools made before World War II and I find happy homes for them around the world," he says.

Without being specific, Leach says he does well. "Rest assured that I'm not standing on the street corner with a sign that reads 'Will trade tools for food' around my neck," he says.

Chalk up the burgeoning interest in hand tools to progress. "People are so bored with high-tech life," Leach says. "Most of these guys I sell stuff to are engineers, educators and scientists who sit in front of a computer all day. When you get home and want to unwind, the last thing you want to do is be a slave to another machine, which is what a power tool is."

How does one get to be an expert in the narrow field of planes? Leach's parents were passionate antique collectors, and before first grade, he could spot a Hepplewhite chair with the best of them. A fascination with architecture led to the fascination with planes: Leach became versed in planes when he dismantled, moved and restored an old post-and-beam house built in 1810.

For the uninitiated, watching a video on the history of planes, in which the liveliest visual is a flying wood shaving, may be akin to watching paint dry -- even if it is punctuated by Leach's homey humor. (Of one bull-nosed plane he notes: It looks like "Fudgie the whale sticking his tongue out at you.")

Link to the past

But for the hand-tool nut, this is hot stuff. Vintage tools are a tactile connection to the past. Alexander, the Baltimore builder of green wood furniture, has entered the 17th century through copious research and shares what he has learned in lectures around the country.

Re-creating and using early technology is a way of "trying to understand not only how the objects were made, but also the economic and social settings in which they were made," Alexander says. His 1978 book, "Make a Chair From a Tree: An Introduction to Working Green Wood," became gospel for hand-tool advocates.

The closer you are to the wood, the more you learn about it, Alexander says. Traditional woodworking techniques not only avoided the problems inherent in wood, but also "emphasized and exploited the best characteristics of wood, one of the most remarkable engineering materials ever."

Even if they comprise a fraction of woodworking enthusiasts, old-tool fanatics are a diverse enough crowd to warrant numerous publications, museums and organizations with disparate missions. There is, for example, the Early American Industries Association, a more "intellectual" clique whose members like to "sit and talk about how you would use a fleshing knife to skin a sperm whale, or how to use a croze to cut a groove in a barrel to put in the head," Leach says.

There is the Midwest Tool Collectors Association, whose members "wear overalls, drive Ford pickup trucks and have crud under their fingernails." Those guys really use their tools, Leach says.

Polillo has learned the beauty of using a well-sharpened, 19th century wooden plane. And he has learned the joy of the hunt. On his rounds, he even found a beautifully patinaed wooden sash plane made by a Baltimore manufacturer by the name of Mccubbin in the 19th century. He hasn't forsworn the machinery that sits unplugged in his wood-stove heated workshop; nor is he in a hurry for another close encounter with the router.

"There's no skill really to running a power tool," Polillo says. And, with hand tools, "you don't have to worry about waking up your neighbors."

The growing tool pool

As the fascination with antique hand tools spreads, organizations, Web sites and publications proliferate. A sampling:

Early American Industries Association: John S. Watson; P.O. Box 143; Delmar, N.Y. 12054-1043.

Mid-West Tool Collectors Association: William Rigler; RR 2, Box 152; Wartrace, Tenn. 37183.

Potomac Antique Tools and Industries Association (PATINA): John Cox; 6802 Nesbitt Place; McLean, Va. 22101

Electronic Neanderthal Woodworker: www.cs.cmu.edu/People/alf/en/

Patrick Leach's Web site: www.supertool.com (Leach is an Ashby, Mass., expert in wooden planes.)

John Alexander's Web site: www.deeppool.com/greenwoodworking.html (Alexander is a Baltimore expert in 17th century woodworking).

Fine Tool Journal: You can order by calling 207-688-4962.

"Stanley Planes by the Numbers" video: You can order through vTC ALP Productions, 3706 Ednor Road, Baltimore, Md., 21218-2049 or e-mail anatol_x.netcom.com. The tape is $29.95 plus shipping and handling and tax for Maryland residents.

A woodworking weekend!

Woodworkers and woodworking fans have two shows to choose from this weekend:

Baltimore Woodworking Show: Power- and hand-tool exhibits from more than 100 manufacturers at the Timonium Fairgrounds in Baltimore County. Expected to draw about 6,000 enthusiasts. Noon-7 p.m. tomorrow, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday in the Cow Palace, 2200 York Road. Admission is $7 for adults; free for children 12 and under. For more information, call 1-800-826-8257.

Midwest Tool Collectors Association auction: 10 a.m. Saturday at Days Inn Conference Center, on Route 30 between Route 83 and the Harley-Davidson Plant in York, Pa. Preview of auction items opens at 8: 30 a.m. For information, call auctioneer Barry Hurchalla at 610-323-0333.

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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