I have an open mind about tools, especially hand tools, and I’m certainly not welded to one brand or even one woodworking tradition. I’ll use Japanese, Chinese, Scandinavian or English style tools depending on the task. Every tradition brings with it certain strengths and weaknesses and it’s one of the joys of being a modern woodworker that we have all the world’s tools to play with.
But if you put me on the proverbial desert island and said ‘you can only have one hand plane’ it would be the Lie Nielsen low angle block plane. This sweet little plane welcomes my hand like an old friend. The manganese bronze body is satisfyingly heavy for such a small tool and the A2 steel holds a durable edge. I can’t tell you how many kilometres of shavings I’ve taken with this little plane, but I have nearly worn out the original blade.
In 2001, I was lucky enough to be travelling in the USA on a Churchill Fellowship. While spending two weeks at the Centre for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine, I realised that Lie Nielsen Toolworks was literally just down the road. I borrowed a car one Saturday morning and less than twenty minutes later I was standing in the Lie Nielsen showroom on Stirling Road, Warren.
The Lie Nielsen buildings are typical of the area, with weatherboard walls and steeply pitched roofs to handle the deep winter snows of Maine. The timbered showroom held well-loved workbenches with every Lie Nielsen product available for testing. There were pieces of lumber available for the visitor to trial the tools on. I confess that I was a little overwhelmed at the time, because in 2001 I had seen very few Lie Nielsen tools let alone used them.
Then a tall curly haired gentleman sporting a dramatic moustache came out of an office. I don’t know why I should be surprised that the owner of the business would be in his own showroom, but I was quite taken aback to be talking to Mr Lie Nielsen himself. Before I knew it, he was taking me through the back to look at some of his machines and meet the few staff who were working that Saturday trying to catch up on orders.
“It’s hard to imagine what the hand tool landscape would look like without Lie Nielsen”
Tom Lie Nielsen re-introduced quality hand planes to the West almost single handed. In the early 1980’s, stimulated by the demands of the wood craft revival, he started manufacturing re-interpretations of classic Stanley planes. Essentially, as the demands placed on hand tools had declined with the introduction of machines, so too had the quality of those tools. Serious woodworkers scoured flea markets for ‘old’ Stanley planes, but there were not enough to meet demand. Lie Nielsen did not radically redesign the tools, but he went to extraordinary lengths to use the best materials available and made the tools as beautiful as they were useful.
Many observers at the time thought that he was mad, pointing out that there were not enough professional craftsmen still operating who would value such hand tools enough to buy such expensive items. Lie Nielsen understood that the core market for his tools were woodworking enthusiasts who loved the romance of woodwork, not the professional market. From modest beginnings, Lie Nielsen Toolworks has grown to become arguably the most iconic brand in fine woodworking tools.
But Lie Nielsen’s contribution goes well beyond his own tools. Many other toolmakers learned from the Lie Nielsen experiment, and a whole raft of niche tool makers emerged from the late eighties through to today. Perhaps they would have done so anyway, but somehow I doubt it. Lie Nielsen set such a high standard that I believe he lifted the whole expectation of the buying public. I think he also more or less ‘invented’ the modern tool collector.
As a professional craftsperson, I have a lot to thank Lie Nielsen and the woodworking enthusiasts for. People like me could never support a company like Lie Nielsen because there simply aren’t enough of us. Yet I can call up Anthony from Lie Nielsen Australia and have pretty much any tool in the Lie Nielsen range in my workshop within two days, thanks to all the enthusiasts who really support the company. I only buy tools when I need them, not when I want them, but when I need them, and I really need them now!
It’s hard to imagine what the hand tool landscape would look like without Lie Nielsen. I have Veritas, Gordon and Japanese planes in my collection. I even have a couple of old Stanleys, but my hand is often reaching for that low angle block plane…
Lie Nielsen and Wood Dust
Lie Nielsen are a feature exhibitor at Wood Dust. Tom Lie Nielsen himself will speak at“The Tool Makers” yarn at the Wood Dust Yarns at The Q lecture series on Thursday evening the 18th of October. Tom is a feature guest alongside toolmakers Terry Gordon and Chris Vesper, Veritas Tools technical adviser Vic Tesolin and Australian craftsperson Carol Russell. Secure your seat at this very special evening, tickets now on sale.
Tom will also be leading a series of Short Masterclasses featuring Lie Nielsen hand tools, details announced soon so stay tuned. You can also meet Tom and his team at the Lie Nielsen Australia stand alongside Australian distributors Anthony and Venita Powell at the Wood Dust Timber & Tool Marketplace held at the Bungendore Showgrounds on Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st of October 2018. Tickets to the Timber & Tool Marketplace are available online now.
Come and meet Tom Lie Nielsen at Wood Dust 2018
Hear him speak at the Wood Dust Yarns at the Q lecture series
Learn more about Lie Nielsen Toolworks at www.lie-nielsen.com and follow them on Instagram at @lienielsentoolworks
Or visit Lie Nielsen Australia at www.lie-nielsen.com.au and follow them on Instagram at @lie_nielsen_aust