Just Plane Crazy

A fascination with hand planes led Jim Leamy to literally invent a second career as a full-time, 21st-century maker of top-quality reproduction plow planes.

When I open the door to Jim Leamy’s shop and I step down from the kitchen of the comfortable two-story home he shares with his wife Becky, I step into a working environment that’s a little different than any other woodshop I’ve ever visited.  

First, Leamy has an elephant tusk.  A real one. It’s 3' long, standing on end, arcing up from a base about 4" across to a rounded tip. And then, right beside the elephant tusk, there’s a supply of brass bar stock in a variety of sizes, including one monster cylinder 2½" in diameter. Next to the bar stock is his supply of wood, but here, too, Leamy’s shop confounds expectations.  Instead of the neat pile of 4/4 material I find in the shops of most of the woodworking craftsmen I visit, Leamy has short lengths and random widths of 8/4 material, which he stores standing on end leaning against one wall of the shop. There’s boxwood, several kinds of rosewood (including cocobolo), aboyna burl, figured mahogany, bubinga, ebony.

Some of his machinery is recognizably intended for woodworking. For example, a big Jet table saw sits in the middle of the room, and a Jet thickness planer is crowded against one wall. But the room also contains equipment that would be more at home in a machine shop. His tool collection includes a milling machine, a metal lathe, and a small metal tapping machine.

  Then I remind myself that this is not the shop of a craftsman who reproduces period furniture. It is the shop of a craftsman who reproduces period tools.

Even furniture makers accustomed to the high cost of good-quality hardwood will be astonished by the prices of the materials with which Leamy works. The last time he found Brazilian rosewood in large enough pieces for planemaking he paid $125 a board foot, and each of the planes Leamy made from that material consumed $350 to $400 worth of rosewood.  Even the bar stock is expensive. The 18" length of 2½" brass came to $140.  And of course, those numbers are insignificant when they’re compared to the cost of ivory. Each of the five Sandusky presentation plows Leamy has under construction on the day of my visit requires the use of almost $2,300 worth of ivory.  

Leamy’s shop comfortably fills the 2½ car garage in which it’s housed. One wall is lined floor-to-ceiling with 19th and early 20th-century plow planes, all neatly stowed parallel to the wall with the fences out. Another floor-to-ceiling rack on the adjacent wall houses his collection of wooden molding and joinery planes. Next to the molders, there’s a third rack for patented metal planes, specifically the collection of Stanleys that started Leamy on his hand-plane odyssey over 25 years ago.

“It’s a dream job. Get up in the morning, walk downstairs, have a cup of coffee, walk out here, and go to work,”  Leamy says.

Leamy is a solidly built man in his early sixties, a man who favors blue jeans and flannel shirts worn over white T-shirts. His hands are thick-fingered, strong, and dexterous, capable of the subtlest manipulation of tools and material.

His voice is soft, uninflected, but prone to sudden staccato bursts of laughter. Although his face, like his voice, reveals little expression, it’s clear that he cares passionately about his work. This isn’t something he does in order to pick up a few extra bucks to supplement his military pension.  (Twelve years ago he retired after 30 years in the Air Force.) This is work that matters, not only to Leamy but also to his clientele, who often pay thousands of dollars for a single copy of Leamy’s creations.  

The truth is, this is work Leamy would do even if nobody paid him to do it.

Passion for hand planes

His love affair with the hand plane began over 25 years ago when, while stationed in the Seattle area, Leamy began to collect antique planes. On the West Coast, there are very few wooden planes that are available to collectors, so at first he focused his attentions on those planes that were available: the ubiquitous Stanleys.

Not long after he began to collect planes, he began to sell them, motivated at least in part by the desire to make his plane-collecting hobby pay for itself. This buying and selling of antique tools is an interest he continues today. Often, when he sets up a table at a tool show to present the plows he’s made, he sets up a second table on which he presents antique planes he’s offering for sale.

As his collecting expanded into wooden planes, he realized there were many he wanted badly but would never be able to afford. That’s when he began to look seriously at the possibility of making his own.  

At that time, there was little in the way of published information about how 19th-century plane makers practiced their craft. Kenneth D. Roberts’ seminal work, “Wooden Planes in 19th-Century America,” was in print, but in the pre-Amazon.com era, the simple fact of a book’s existence did not mean it would be known to everyone who might have an interest. And Donald Rosebook’s lavish study of Leamy’s craft, “Wooden Plow Planes,” was decades away from existence.

Fortunately, by the time he had decided to make plows, Leamy was an accomplished woodworker. Today, some of his antique tools are stored in meticulously executed wooden chests that Leamy made before his career as a plane maker had taken off. So despite the absence of historical information about the craft, Leamy began his work armed, at least, with a knowledge of tools and materials.  

These traits, although essential, aren’t enough to launch a career as a plane maker. Just as important is a marketing plan that will put the product in front of those relatively few people who have both the resources and the desire to make a purchase.

The tools Leamy makes couldn’t be sold at a Wal-Mart or even at a very pricey tool store. The truth is — Leamy acknowledges — that except for his modest line of infill smoothing and miter planes, none of the planes he makes will ever be used in the day-to-day operations of a woodworking shop.  These plows aren’t purchased by users; they’re purchased by the same collectors who pay $10,000 for an antique Ohio Tool Co. plow in ebony and rosewood.  This is a fate Leamy’s tools share with the work of other top-level toolmakers. No one who lays down $6,000 for a Karl Holtey smoother would ever use it to surface a tabletop because there are plenty of good planes under a grand for that kind of work. 

This circumstance is both good and bad. It’s good because it pays men like Leamy and Holtey enough money so that they can extract every last bit of quality from their material. It’s bad because their tools will never have the opportunity to do what they’ve been so carefully crafted to do.

Leamy’s marketing plan is pretty basic. He simply shows his tools at top-level antique tool shows and lets the work speak for itself. “The Midwest Tool Collectors have two big shows every year, and that’s where I get most of my business, from there and the Brown auctions,” he explains. “I also go up to Nashua (New Hampshire) for the two shows (the Live Free or Die Antique Tool Auctions) there every year.”

19th-century pace

“At one point, I was two and a half years behind. Right now, I’m probably 18 months behind,” Leamy says.

By now, Leamy reckons that he’s working at a pace comparable to that of 19th-century plow plane makers like Solon Rust. (Rust, the master plow plane maker at H. Chapin’s Son’s Union Factory during the late 19th century, is credited with several important technical innovations and is probably the best known individual in the field.)

“There’s a lot of little things I’ve learned over the years to improve my production, but I’m sure it took those guys as long to make a plane as it does me.” He hesitates, then adds: “They might have been a little quicker because they weren’t as conscientious about quality as I think I am.  A lot of them ... well, they were banging them out to sell.”

Typically Leamy works with production runs of only three or four copies, although last year he did a run of 10:  four centerwheel and six Montgomery plows. “That’s just ridiculous,” he says ruefully. “I had parts everywhere, and you got to keep track of them because they’re not interchangeable.” 

On the day of my visit, Leamy’s working on an edition of five copies of the record-breaking Sandusky presentation plow in ebony and ivory. These five plows are all made with authentic ivory (legally acquired from reputable dealers), although Leamy does offer the same plow made with an artificial ivory. With artificial ivory, the plow runs about $3,000. The price is higher with the real stuff; how much higher depends on the current price of ivory.  

After assembling the photos, drawings, special tools and materials that a run of plows requires, Leamy starts work by cutting out the bodies.  “I’ll rough-shape the handles, put the throats through, then finish the bodies off.”

He next mills the blanks for the molded fences. Ironically, instead of using a plow plane to do this rough work, Leamy removes the bulk of the waste with a table saw.  And then, instead of using molding planes — as Solon Rust and his contemporaries did (according to Kenneth Roberts in Vol. 50, No. 4 of “The Fine Tool Journal”) — Leamy creates the final profiles using scrapers. Only the very tiny beads are cut in the manner of Leamy’s 19th-century antecedents, using molding planes Leamy designed and built for this purpose.

Leamy estimates he can profile a fence in an hour or an hour and a half, once the rough work has been done on the table saw.  

Next Leamy turns his attention to the metalwork. All of his plows have metal parts which he fabricates from bar stock, but some plows, like these presentation planes, have more than others. For instance, in addition to the normal complement of thumbscrews and depth stop, this plow requires a nickel-plated brass centerwheel. Each of these parts is made one at a time, on either a milling machine or a metalworking lathe.  

The centerwheels are turned from a chunk of 2½" brass barstock. The bar he’s currently working from is about 18" long. He expects to get 18 centerwheels from that bar, each of which will take an hour to turn.

He doesn’t turn large lots of metal parts in advance.  Instead he makes up only what he needs for the run of plows currently underway.  

After the metalwork is done for the Sandusky presentation plows, Leamy focuses on the ivory.  Parts are first sawn out, then — in the case of the arms — turned on a lathe.  On the day of my visit, the ivory arms for these planes were turned and ready for the next step:  polishing. This process removes only a negligible amount of material, perhaps a couple of thousandths, and brings the surface of the ivory to the soft sheen buyers want to see.  

“The next step is to inlay the diamonds on the arms,” Leamy explains.  After the diamonds are inlaid, he will go to work on the ivory bridges that sit between the arms atop the fence. These  are dovetailed into the arms in the same way the bridges on other Sandusky centerwheels are dovetailed in place.

Leamy started this run of five planes in mid-December and expects to have them finished by mid-May. “I usually work six to eight hours a day, six days a week. And sometimes, I’ll come out here on Sunday for a few hours.”

Process evolution

The production of a plane nut is an example of how time and talent have combined to developed a process that you won’t find described anywhere else.  

First Leamy cuts a block — in this case, boxwood — of the right thickness, width, and length. He then scribes circles marking the outside diameters of the nuts. He bores the hole for the tap. (Notice that the hole isn’t drilled into the end grain.)

Leamy starts the tap, making several checks with a small square to ensure that the tap is entering the block 90º from the top surface of the block (Fig. 1).

Then, once the tap is correctly aligned, he begins to cut the threads. He cranks the tap around twice, then backs it off a half turn to clear the chips. After four turns, he backs the tap all the way out. This process is repeated until the tap comes out all the way through the other side.

Leamy saws the nut out on the bandsaw and turns it onto a threaded boxwood mandrel which he mounts in the lathe (Fig. 2).

With the tip of his skew, he makes a shearing cut to square up one face of the nut. This is the face that will be positioned against the body of the plane.

The nut is taken off the mandrel, its alignment reversed and then threaded onto the mandrel a second time. He begins shaping the nut’s outside diameter with a fingernail gouge as shown (Fig. 3). 

Although he does no measuring during this demonstration, Leamy always measures the length and diameter of each section of each nut when he’s making an actual part for a plane.

The next step is one you won’t see in how-to books on lathe work. Once the nut has been roughed in with a fingernail gouge and a skew, Leamy moves the toolrest aside and begins to fine-tune the nut’s profile with a little hand-held scrap of a tool he made from an old file (Fig. 4). “It’s easier to do the intricate details this way,” he explains.

The final surface of the nut is crafted by burnishing the nut with the end of a stick he wields as if it were a scraper (Fig. 5).  

Creative drive on display 

Each of the plow planes produced in Jim Leamy’s shop is a tangible expression of his creative drive. Some of those plows require the creation of processes not part of the shop repertoire of most 21st-century craftsmen. Some require the design and fabrication of new tooling. Some require both.

But none of these plow planes constitute Leamy’s greatest creative accomplishment. That distinction is reserved for the career he’s invented.

As a result of 12 years of unrelenting effort, Leamy has moved from part-time plow plane maker to a full-time professional in the field. This is a career he couldn’t have imagined as a child, a career no high school guidance counselor would have recommended to a young Jim Leamy.  

Leamy isn’t the first man to make a living as a maker of plow planes. There were many who worked in the field in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but Jim Leamy is the first full-time 21st-century maker of plow planes. He is also the first man of any century to make a living producing only the very best plows, from all of the very best plow-plane designers.

That’s a claim even Solon Rust couldn’t make. Leamy’s full line of planes can be seen at www.jimleamyplanes.com.

Kerry Pierce

Pierce has been a professional furniture maker for more than 20 years. He is the author of 10 woodworking books – including the recently published “Authentic Shaker Furniture” – as well as dozens of magazine articles. His work has appeared in many regional shows, including, most recently, Ohio Furniture by Contemporary Masters at the Ohio Decorative Arts Center.

Sandusky Presentation Plane

Ebony & Ivory  

In August 2004 at the Brown 25th International Tool Auction in Harrisburg, Pa., the original on which this reproduction is based, a one-of-a-kind, Sandusky presentation plow plane, sold for $114,400.  That price was a record for an American tool, and it’s fitting that this high-water mark was attained by a premier example of the plow plane.  While a smoother was the plane a 19th-century craftsman most often pulled from his tool chest, it was the plow plane that best represented the craftsman’s status. Journeymen owned simple plows in beech and boxwood with a few brass accents, while a master craftsman owned a rosewood or ebony plow with ivory details.

A plow plane performs a very simple task.  It “plows” grooves of varying widths and varying depths at varying distances from the edges of boards.  Grooves of different widths are accomplished through the use of irons of different widths.  Traditionally, a plow plane came with a set of eight, ranging in width from 1/8" to 5/8".  These irons are bedded against a metal “skate” which the iron bisects on the bottom of the plow.  Depth of cut is established by a — usually — brass depth stop.  The distance between the edge of the board and the groove is determined by the placement of the plow’s fence. The fence rides on a pair of arms each of which penetrates the plow plane’s body. 

Early in the 19 Century, plane makers redesigned this tool, changing it from something strictly utilitarian into something having the visual presence of a work of art.  

The fence was changed from a simple slab of wood to a complicated molding requiring a number of different planes to produce.  Brass was substituted for the boxwood thumbscrews and depth stop on earlier examples.  And instead of the beech or birch bodies common in the early American plows, these new plows were often made of rosewood or ebony, sometimes accented with ivory and even — in some cases — bits of silver.

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