A Toolmaker's Vision

By Kerry Pierce

Thomas Lie-Nielsen has pursued his passion for manufacturing high quality hand tools for the past 25 years, building a well respected tool brand and a successful business.

Thomas Lie-Nielsen will likely be remembered as a visionary in the world of toolmaking. For the past quarter century the founder, president and head tool designer of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks has successfully proven that high quality hand tools can be manufactured. Likewise he and his employees continue to meet the challenges of growth while consistently producing some of the most highly respected tools in the woodworking field.

 What is it like to have your name on the front of the building and every tool and every piece of packaging around every tool? As the company founder who still conceives every product the company offers, whose presence is felt everywhere in the manufacturing plant and the company’s small office area, Thomas Lie-Nielsen has to be “on” all the time, fully involved whether greeting a customer or a company employee or a magazine writer. He meets that challenge with a remarkably consistent personality: patient, personable, articulate, and profoundly knowledgeable about the toolmaking world.

Tom’s office is large, cluttered and unfinished.  Like the Lie-Nielsen Toolworks itself, it is a work in progress.  The floor is awash with boxes of parts, books, and tools.  One such box is a wooden crate filled with perhaps a dozen very dusty LN #9s in a style he no longer makes, a style distinguished by bronze bodies and wood stuffing. It is the same plane recently auctioned on the Internet for considerably more than its original purchase price.  The crateful now in Tom’s office had been in storage for several years, and the contents are waiting to be cleaned up and sold to buyers on a waiting list.  

His desk is not what you expect to find in the office of one of the leading figures in American craftwork.  A panel of laminated hardwood has been thrown casually across three two-drawer OfficeMax-style filing cabinets with a kneehole space between two of the cabinets.  

Scattered across the desk top are stacks of paperwork, a phone, a laptop, and of course, tools.  One looks like the Stanley #71 router but with a heavier post and without the strange little collar the Stanley Company used to hold the tool’s irons in place.  It is – I later learn – a prototype of the LN #71, a tool Tom hopes to bring onto the market sometime in the next few months.  Also on the desk are prototypes for an LN #271 (a smaller router) and a small shoulder plane with an adjuster.

Tom Lie-Nielsen has succeeded in a field which has consumed some of his competitors.  The recent demise of the Shepherd Tool Company, despite the quality of their concept, points to the difficulty of succeeding as a maker of high-quality hand tools.  It is, Tom explains, a lot like furniture making, a “very hard way to make a living”.  How has he done it?

“A single-minded obsession for 25 years,” he answers with a grin.  “And when I started, I had a lot of time, and I didn’t have any financial commitments – no children, no mortgage – so I was able to spend a lot of time learning how to make things.

“Plus I didn’t have the Internet. (Without it) I was able to pursue what I wanted to do in obscurity.  Slowly, as I felt more and more capable, I exposed myself to a bigger market.  In those days, when you brought out a new tool, it wasn’t like everybody in the world knew like that.”  He snaps his fingers.  “Slowly people would find out about it in catalogs and magazines.  Today the exposure a toolmaker has is both a blessing and a curse.  If you’re in business, and you’re on the Internet and people order something, they want it right now, and they want it perfect. That’s a very hard thing to achieve immediately, right out of the gate.

“I’ve tried to do things slowly and methodically and deliberately.” 

Building a tool brand

At the same time he was building his product line – which began with a single tool, a variation of the Stanley #95 – Tom Lie-Nielsen was also building his business skills.  He realized early on that it wasn’t enough simply to manufacture tools. He must also manufacture them in a way that ensured consistent quality, and he must develop mechanisms for maintaining customer satisfaction after the tools were in the hands of those customers.  Plus, he has made an effort throughout his career to restrain the natural impulse to add to his catalog too many new products too quickly, an impulse he believes may have contributed to the struggles of  some other contemporary toolmakers.

The #95 was followed by a skew block plane and a ½" infill shoulder plane offered as a kit.  He then turned his attention to the Lie-Nielsen version of the Stanley #1, a tool prized by collectors because of its rarity.  Although it wasn’t his original intention to produce Lie-Nielsen versions of the entire Stanley numbered sequence of bench planes, at some point after the appearance of the #1, Tom realized he had solved many of the technological problems in bench plane manufacture and that expanding his line to include the whole Stanley #1-#8 sequence would be a natural extension of work he had already done.

Each of the Lie-Nielsen bench planes is based on the Bed Rock line of Stanley planes, the style widely considered to be the best of the antique bench planes offered by the Stanley Company.  The Bed Rock line offered the ease of adjustment Bailey-style users had previously enjoyed.  Plus it added a larger area of machined metal at the frog/plane body interface, making irons bedded in a Bed Rock more stable than those bedded in the other bench planes Stanley offered. These classic Bed Rocks are the tools of choice for both modern users and collectors of Stanley antique planes.  To the many functional virtues of the classic Stanley Bed Rock, Tom added improved metallurgy in the plane’s five castings, thicker irons, higher machining tolerances (in particular flatness) and an improved breaker. 

He also made an early and continuing commitment to aesthetics. Realizing that when a craftsman spends $300-400 on a bench plane he wants more than efficient operation; he also wants something that appeals to the soul.  As a result, Tom focuses considerable attention on his tools’ aesthetics, on the way each one looks on the shelf and feels in the hand. 

The Lie-Nielsen look

 The Lie-Nielsen bench planes, for example, include the distinctive flat-topped sidewalls consumers have come to associate with the Bed Rock line. But unlike the rosewood knobs and totes on the original Bed Rocks, the Lie-Nielsen planes feature American cherry, and most of his bench planes have bodies cast from bronze, not the iron of the Stanley original.  Also, every part of every Lie-Nielsen plane – even the head of every screw – is buffed and polished to a soft inviting sheen.  The result is a tool that evokes the classic Stanley Bed Rock while simultaneously asserting its identity as a product of the Lie-Nielsen Toolworks.  

Owners of growing businesses inevitably experience periods when it is necessary to commit often borrowed financial resources in the hope that somewhere in the unseen future a planned expansion of space or manpower or product line will somehow work out.

The Lie-Nielsen Toolworks has experienced several such periods.  “Right now,” Tom explains, “is a case in point.  We’ve grown a great deal in the last two years physically and in terms of numbers of employees. (They currently have 80.)”

Physical growth involved the recent construction of a large building on the company’s site in Warren, Maine. This new building was essential in order to tame the chaos that had developed in the company’s manufacturing areas in recent years – the inevitable result of trying to pack a #8-sized product line into a #4-sized manfuacturing space. With the recent addition of saws and chisels to the Lie-Nielsen catalog, there simply wasn’t room for the company employees to work efficiently. 

Chris Gamage is one of three LN employees who produce scrub planes. Here, he’s filing the mouth on a copy of the LN version of the Stanley 40 ½.

These crates of bronze frogs for #4s rest near the base of a row of Grizzly drill presses Louis Natale uses to drill holes in the frogs.

Tammy O’Donnell packs and ships every product that goes out the door. Notice the racks of boxed planes on the shelves behind her and DVD stacks in the right foreground. 

Unconventional solutions

The management of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks – in particular Tom Lie-Nielsen himself and his company Vice President Joe Butler – have looked for unconventional solutions to the problem of manufacturing high-quality tools at reasonable prices.  For example, while you will find some high-tech (and expensive) tooling on the shop floor, particularly in the new chisel area, more often you will find either reconditioned antique machinery experiencing a second life or consumer-grade machinery employed unexpectedly in a manufacturing setting.  In the bench plane area – for instance – machinist Louis Natale drills the holes in the bronze frogs for various LN bench planes on a row of Grizzly drill presses stabilized by a few 2x4s. The construction is distinctly – and refreshingly – old school.  It’s production work the way you would sketch it out on the back of an envelope over a cup of coffee.

This brand of unconventional thinking has been applied even to the task of adding shop space. Lie-Nielsen Toolworks employees – borrowed from their work as toolmakers – erected the new manufacturing building in a kind of 21st-century barn raising.  The interior work – the drywall, the wiring, the plumbing – was then done over a period of months by a small team of LN employees on long-term loan from their regular jobs.

This unorthodox approach to tooling and the expansion of the physical plant was done in order to keep costs down.  Plus, they don’t have, in Tom’s words, “a lot of managers running around.”  

Another decision – to adopt a Japanese operating style called “lean manufacturing” – has allowed the company to reduce materials inventory and consequently the need for expensive space to store that inventory.  Instead of ordering – and then warehousing – large amounts of raw materials, they have standing orders at their suppliers for frequent deliveries of small batches of these materials.  

The small-batch concept also extends to the way things happen on the shop floor. Instead of making 500 #7 jointers over a period of several weeks, the bench-plane group will complete a small batch on, for example, Monday, and then Tuesday switch to #8s and on Wednesday to something else.  This means it isn’t necessary to find storage space for large numbers of #7 frogs waiting for the next step in the manufacturing process.

Employees at the Lie-Nielsen Toolworks manufacturing  facility in Warren, Maine, produce some of the most respected hand tools in the woodworking field.

Lie-Nielsen employees, on loan from their respective jobs, recently constructed a new manufacturing facility to meet the demands of the growing tool business.

Jeffrey Hope (at left) does instructional videography at Lie-Nielsen Toolworks.  Wolfgang Busse (at right) does photography and design for LN catalogs and advertising. 

Revenue gaps

Although unconventional operating methods can reduce a negative cash flow, by themselves these methods won’t turn red ink black.  When a business expands its product line, work force, or physical plant, there is an inevitable gap between funding these expansions and enjoying the revenue they generate.

For example, at the time of this interview, Tom was several months into the planning of three new products, the two routers and the new shoulder plane mentioned earlier.  During the months the company’s design team – consisting primarily of  Tom and the pattern maker Mark Swanson – work on these new tools, their efforts generate no income.  During the weeks in which new shop procedures are designed and put in place to make possible the manufacture of these new tools, employees involved generate no income. The same is true for those employees involved in crafting catalog and Web site entries for these new tools.  

While the time spent developing three new products might have only a modest effect on the company’s financial bottom line, the construction of a large new manufacturing facility – like the one LN employees recently erected – has a much more consequential effect. Because your name is on the front of the building and on every tool that goes out the door that effect is not just an abstraction on the company’s balance sheets, it’s also a powerful force in your emotional life. How does Tom handle those periods when his business seems to be hemorrhaging cash through every door? 

“That’s been one of the hardest things,” he says.  “I’ve got a commitment to my employees (he’s never laid anyone off) and their families, who are relying on me – not to mention my own family.  It’s particularly scary in the context of the outside world. When the first Gulf War happened, the phones just stopped ringing.  The same thing happened on 9/11. 

“Larger companies in the field can afford to make mistakes I can’t afford to make.  I’m not saying my competitors don’t have sleepless nights, but this (Lie-Nielsen Toolworks) is a small business that has gotten big but in many ways remains a small business.”

A respected brand

Although I imagine Thomas Lie-Nielsen to be a first-rate craftsman, when you step back to take an appreciative look at what he has created, the skillful manipulation of woodworking or metal-working tools is irrelevant. What Tom has crafted isn’t an object, but a company, a brand known and respected by virtually everyone in the woodworking field.

For example, during a recent meeting with Woode Hannah in Louisville, Ky., the subject turned to tools, and Woode crossed the room, pulled open a drawer on his bench and revealed a small collection of Lie-Nielsen planes.  At other locations and times Maine furniture maker Charlie Durfee gestured proudly at a small grouping of Lie-Nielsen planes on a shelf,  and craftsman Charles Murray  pulled open drawer after drawer of Lie-Nielsen bench planes, shoulder planes and block planes in Canal-Winchester, Ohio. 

What’s remarkable is not so much the quality of those tools – which is a given – it’s the esteem with which Lie-Nielsen Toolworks is regarded in the woodworking field by customers as well as competitors.  

Larry Williams, one of the owner/operators of Clark and Williams, a Eureka Springs, Ark., company which makes high-quality wooden planes in the 19th-century manner, said of competitor Tom Lie-Nielsen:  “Thomas is as solid and honest as his tools. Contemporary woodworkers and toolmakers are indebted to his leadership in building and improving a mature woodworking technology.” 

For 25 years, Tom Lie-Nielsen has been in the forefront of the toolmaking field.  He was the first to demonstrate – for those of us working with wood in the closing decades of the 20th-century – that it was possible to manufacture hand tools built to a high standard. When other toolmakers were unable or unwilling to take the risks that would have moved them from their garage workshops into the dedicated facilities that permit the manufacture of tools in the numbers required by a national market, Tom took those risks. 

A Tool Is Born - Creating tools to meet the needs of woodworkers

Tom is planning to introduce three new tools this fall:  two routers and a shoulder plane.  While the shoulder plane was pretty well in hand at the time of this interview, he was still working out some of the details for the two routers, in particular what irons he should include as part of the router packages.  “Right now I’m working on how many configurations of blades we need to offer,” he said.  “Probably, there will be several – three or four different widths – some straight and some pointed.” 

The company does no formal polling in order to identify new products for manufacture. The choices are driven by Tom’s own interests and by input from a group of trusted woodworking craftsmen.

He doesn’t choose new products based on the expectation of big sales. “I’m interested in filling a woodworker’s need. The router plane may be a fairly moderate seller, but I think it’s a really important tool.  And if people get used to the idea (of excavating with a hand router as opposed to a machine router) more people will want one.

“We make the butt mortise plane, and people ignore it. They don’t really understand it, but it’s a great tool.  And if you can show somebody how to use it – and they have a need for it – it’s wonderful.  It’s a tool that we make a few hundred of a year, but I’m glad we do.”

Sometimes the unveiling of a new tool can be delayed by manufacturing problems.  “In the case of the router, it’s not really difficult, but in the cases of some other tools, we’ve had to work out new technologies to get something on the market.”

A new tool begins as an idea, often loosely modeled on a classic Stanley.  That idea is then converted to drawings which are then rendered as a model crafted by Mark Swanson.  

The model is then studied, not only for functionality but also for aesthetic appeal. When Tom is satisfied with the wood model, the tool is then reproduced in plastic multiples, which are assembled, in groups of two to a dozen, into a match plate. The foundry then works from the match plate.

This reliance on physical models, rather than computer simulations, is important to Tom.

“Some new tools,” he explains, “like a lot of other products, look like they were designed on a computer – because they were.  I think it’s much more human, and therefore more appealing to me, to have a tool that was designed to be comfortable to hold and aesthetically attractive and do its job well – all at the same time.”

Kerry Pierce

Pierce has been a professional furniture maker for more than twenty years. He is the author of 10 woodworking books – including the recently published “Authentic Shaker Furniture” – as well as dozens of magazine articles.    

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