• The Plane Dealer

The Decision To Restore a Rare Plane, One guy's perspective

What's interesting to me about restorations is how personal it can be to some. There was a recent post on one of the FB groups I follow from a fellow who'd just obtained a Number 1 size plane. He'd asked the question about how far to take a restoration. The comments were all over the place from "do nothing" to "soak it in Evaporust". Clearly, most folks are in the middle but most have an opinion as to how they think one should restore. 

In the earlier article I wrote about the subject, "To Restore or Not to Restore? That is the Question" ( https://www.plane-dealer.com/single-post/2016/02/29/To-Restore-or-Not-to-Restore-That-is-the-Question ) I suggested that a car collector who owns a "ratted out"  '57 Chevy probably didn't buy it to let it sit and rust away in the yard. That car was meant to look good and be driven so why wouldn't you restore it to that condition? Planes aren't quite the same thing but to me, in a way they are very similar.

OK, for me, 9/10ths of the fun of collecting antique planes is in seeing how well the plane works under the conditions and for the purpose for which it was created. Why inventors invent stuff often intrigues me, especially why one "mouse trap" is better than another. One can read about the patent, design, practical application of the components in any number of published articles. However, rarely do you find articles that describe how well a patented plane performed, whether it was a practical design or why it was designed as it was versus some other equally complex, (or less so) design. Being interested too in the progression and development of the inventors' designs (does Bailey's vertical post work better than his earlier split frame design or the final "Bailey Pattern" plane that we are all familiar with today. ) and why they were or were not commercial successes. 

Bailey vertical post Number One size

I am fortunate to currently be caring for some very rare planes, including a Bailey split frame smoother, one of my first really rare acquisitions. I didn't do much restoration, just a gentle cleaning. But having a lot of questions about it and not a lot of answers I also did what many collectors would consider an unthinkable blasphemy and sharpened the iron. I thought that by actually using it for its intended purpose I'd get answers to some of the questions I had like why it was such a complex design and how well it worked, or didn't work, why it was produced in such limited quantities. You know stuff that makes you look at it and say "hmmmm". I learned that it works...OK. Interestingly, it was made with a narrow mouth, similar to what you might find on a plane designed for a thinner iron. But, according to a number of sources, it came with a thick, tapered usually Moulson Brothers iron, which this one has. Now, because of the combination of a narrow mouth and thick, tapered iron, the

L. Bailey Tool Co. Split Frame smoother c1856

leading edge of the iron barely clears the leading edge of the mouth, consequently allowing for minimal adjustment. It works because the cutting edge of the iron is adjusted by changing it's angle of attack rather than physically extending the blade as with the Bailey Pattern planes. Changing the angle of attack requires moving the entire top section of the body by turning a couple of knobs that are held in place by tension springs and then having a real interesting time trying to get it just right. Precise adjustment is built in to the design but practice and skill are required. I can see why it was so expensive to make and probably not that easy to figure out. Wouldn't have known any of this had I set it on a shelf and just let it collect dust.

Now, I'm not trying to gloat here as my mother taught me that it's just not something polite boys do, but If you've been to my pages that illustrate the examples I have in the collection, you'll see a lot of planes very similar in rarity to the split frame. I've a couple of Bailey vertical posts, including a number 1 size, BTC Victor and Woonsocket "Battle Ax" planes, Morris patents, Tower and Lyon, Challenge, Rodier's, Standard Rule right on down to the earliest Knowles and Holly patents. I'm pretty sure that not a single one had recently seen wood. But that changed with me. I discovered that they all function, some are simple, some more complex than necessary, some are fragile, some are beasts. The one thing that they all have in common is that they all do what they were intended to do. I can't tell you how much fun it was finding that out.

Hazard Knowles Patent smoother

I know that there are many of you who will shun me, look the other way when I enter a room and un-invite me to the plane collectors society parties, "persona non grate" if you will. That's OK, it won't be the first time I've been looked upon with disdain and contempt. I was a cop for nearly 40 years and am not considered by my more liberal progressive family members and friends to be overly politically correct. (They speak in whispers when I'm in the same room) But I have learned more about the design and function of the earliest patented planes in America, than the "shunners" may ever know. It is most gratifying to be holding and actually using a plane that was held in the hands of a craftsman nearly 200 years ago. It's like sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House but for plane historians.


My advice to those of you who wish to restore a plane is simple, be judicious but practical. Understand first the real value of the plane historically, monetarily and personally. Consider how your restoration may affect the historic relevance of your plane, if there is any. Consider the monetary value potentially lost by the degree to which your restoration takes it. Many collectors, some who'd otherwise pay big bucks, won't touch a plane that's been "messed with" (whatever that is). Finally, how personally gratifying will your work be to you when you're finished. Ultimately, it's your plane, your decision but understand too that once you go too far, it's too late. If in doubt, be conservative.

Birdsill Holly patented smoothing plane c1856

Those of us who have the desire to understand what we collect will need to be prepared for the "old schoolers" criticism and ridicule for doing what is to them unthinkable. But you will have something that they won't, and that they probably really desire.


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I'm not an appraiser and I no longer provide estimates of value. So, if you have a plane you'd like to sell me please bring along a price with your offer. Thanks.

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