The Stanley No. 55: King of Combination Planes

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The Stanley No. 55: King of Combination Planes

The Stanley No. 55 is unique among planes. Produced from 1899 until as late as 1962, this majestic contraption was touted as "a planing mill within itself," capable of cutting any molding profile imaginable. Unlike wooden molding planes, which could cut only a single profile and so had to be stockpiled by the trunkful, the 55, a single adjustable body that came with more than four dozen different cutters, could produce an endless variety of molding profiles. It is truly a minor mechanical marvel, and I confess to having a soft spot for it in my heart (as well as in my toolbox).

Swiss Army Knife of Handplanes.

With its single body and scores of interchangeable blades, the Stanley 55 was intended to replace the wooden molding plane. The 55 and the other multiplanes did upstage their wooden predecessors for some decades but were soon supplanted by the electric router.

Most often I call upon my 55 to run off a few feet of molding for a piece of furniture or a piece of trim missing from some architectural treasure. I can match nearly any molding, because if the standard cutters don’t suit, I can quickly make up custom cutters from unhardened tool steel.

Some woodworkers complain that the 55 is a booby trap, enticing them with visions of complex moldings easily cut only to frustrate their every attempt to use it. True, the 55 is not a tool you master the first time you pick it up. And it’s never going to replace the shaper or router table for cranking out molding in quantity. But with some persistence, an experienced hand-tool woodworker will probably find that the 55 is very efficient for small quantities of molding and is also a real pleasure to use. To avoid frustration, start out cutting simpler shapes to get the hang of the tool; then you can move on to more complex moldings. 

The Stanley No. 55: King of Combination Planes

I use routers for many things, but when I’m making a small amount of molding, it’s not hard to choose between the ear-splitting whine of a router and the quiet whoosh of a handplane.

This article by Mario Rodriguez is excerpted from Working with Handplanes from the Editors of Fine Woodworking. 

The cutters of the 55 are literally suspended in midair—without benefit of a wooden molding plane’s shaped sole to support the cut. Every setting and adjust ment to the 55 must be made with this in mind; the key to success with the 55 is to provide as much support for the cutter as possible. This often means using more than one depth stop, fence, or skate. The cutter should be supported by at least two skates, one from the main body and the other from the sliding section. Adjust the skates carefully so they line up with the profile of the cutter. If the cutter is wide or the pro file complex, the auxiliary center skate should be used as well.  

This article by Mario Rodriguez is excerpted from Working with Handplanes from the Editors of Fine Woodworking. 

The minimal support also means the cutters must be razor sharp and set for the lightest—possible cut; anything heavier will cause the cutter to dig into the wood and stall the cut, a common problem when using the 55.Another way to avoid it is to remember that unlike a bench plane, which works best with steady downward pressure applied to the front knob, the 55 cuts most smoothly when you get behind the handle and let the weight of the tool do the work. As you push the 55 forward, be certain to hold it firmly against the edge of the work- piece. Keeping the fence against the edge of the stock is essential to create a uniform profile. Unlike wooden molding planes, which are often “sprung”—made to be used while tilted to counteract the tendency to wander—the 55 must be held vertically. Any tendency to drift away from the work- piece can only be corrected with constant lateral pressure.

It is a mistake to guide the 55 by holding the rosewood handles attached to the fences. Gripping the tool there puts your hands too high above the cutting surface and too far from the main body of the plane to provide good control of the cut. And holding there also throws off your balance. I prefer to place my left hand below the rosewood handle and directly against the fence proper. 

The Stanley No. 55: King of Combination Planes

Stanley provided a valuable 22-page instruction manual with the 55. It covers all of the basics of setting up and using the plane. All of the plane’s parts are identified in a clear, exploded-view drawing, and a separate chart lists all of the cutters. An exper-ienced hand-tool woodworker could probably learn to use the 55 with this booklet and a few hours of bench time. The booklet has its faults-it doesn’t emphasize key points and possible pitfalls-but anyone learning to use the 55 will want to have a copy. You can get one free from Stanley by writing to: Repair Parts Dept. (Lori Goucher), 480 Myrtle St., New Britain,CT 06053.

This article by Mario Rodriguez is excerpted from Working with Handplanes from the Editors of Fine Woodworking. 

A Quick, New Cutter

To match an old cutter when none of the standard cutters will do the job, you can make your own. Paint (or use a marker) one end of a piece of unhardened tool steel and trace the old profile in the paint with a scratch awl (1). (The old molding must be cut at 450, because this is the plane’s bed angle) Use a hacksaw and grinder to remove most of the waste (2), then file the contour smooth (3), Finally, grind and file the bevel angle (4), and you have a cutter ready to be hardened, sharpened, and used.

Before hardening, while it’s still easy to modify, plane a few feet to check the cutter’s profile. To harden the cutter, heat it to red hot and then quickly quench it in oil or water.    

The 55 was designed for architectural work in softwoods like pine, but hardwoods can be worked with it as well. I’ve achieved great results with mahogany, butternut, and soft maple. For the best results your material should be straight-grained and clear. If the material has minor faults, such as small knots, be even more vigilant about keeping the cutters sharp, and set the plane for a very light cut.

Sharpening the cutters frequently is essential, so get accustomed to the process if you want to enjoy using the 55. I’ve read accounts of sharpening that suggest cutters should be laid flat (bevel-side up) on a hon ing stone to preserve the exact original profile. That method never made any sense to me, and I don’t understand how it could work. I’d no sooner sharpen my 55 cutters on their backs than I would my bench- plane blades and chisels. 

Exercising care, the contoured cutters can easily be honed with slip stones while held upright in a vise. I carefully match a slip stone to the contour of the blade, then pass it over the bevel from the heel of the bevel toward the cutting edge, while pre serving the original bevel angle. I start with a coarse Carborundum slip stone and pro ceed to a hard Arkansas stone of the same shape. My aim is to produce a burr on the back (flat side) of the blade along the entire profile. Then I strop off the burr on a flat stone. A variable-speed Dremel-type tool fitted with abrasive cones will also do a nice job.

I sharpen uncontoured cutters—dado and rabbet cutters, for instance—just the way I sharpen chisels or bench—plane blades: I start on the grinder, then hone the bevel on a series of waterstones.

MARIO RODRIGUEZ is a contributing editor to Fine Woodworking magazine. 

This article by Mario Rodriguez is excerpted from Working with Handplanes from the Editors of Fine Woodworking. ©2005 by The Taunton Press  


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