Wayne Anderson’s planes are inspiring
appreciate things that are well-made, fashioned by hand
and extraordinarily useful. So it’s little wonder
that Wayne Anderson stays quite busy.
From a small
basement workshop in Elk River, Minn., Anderson makes
custom infill planes one at a time to sell to
woodworkers and collectors.
Unlike many manufactured
tools, Anderson’s planes marry solid plane mechanics
with fluid curves that would be difficult – if not
impossible – to create using machines.
Two planes from Wayne Anderson: A full-size smoothing
plane with ebony infill (top) and a small plane inspired
by some of the earliest metal-bodied planes from Europe.
Photo by Al Parrish
One recent chariot plane from his workshop resembles
a scarab beetle. The front grip of the small plane at right is filed
into the shape of a curved acanthus leaf. And though some of these tools look delicate, they
have the souls of small tanks. The sides and soles of the planes are
joined with hand-filed double-dovetails.
The wooden infills are secured with brass or steel pins
that are pined in place. The soles are hand-lapped dead flat.
The mouths of the tools are extremely fine. The result of this
alchemy are tools that are extraordinarily beautiful to the eye and
spookily responsive in your hands.
During the last year I’ve
examined more than a dozen of Anderson’s planes and used four of
them in my shop for a wide variety of tasks. They all work as
well as any hand plane – vintage or new – I’ve ever owned. Despite the fact that many of his tools lack a mechanical adjuster,
I find it unnecessary – in some ways, the lack of an adjuster can be
quite liberating. Because every part fits so perfectly, the
tools respond predictably and precisely every time I pick them up.
Setting the irons is an easy task with a hammer. Anderson’s planes
generally have a generous surface for bedding the A2 irons. When you
drop a freshly sharpened iron on the bed it practically sticks there
because the parts fit so well. A couple hammer taps and a turn
of the lever cap screw are all it takes to get the plane working
beautifully. I’m not alone in my assessment.
Ralph Brendler, one of the ringleaders of the Internet-based e-mail list
called “oldtools,” owns a few of Anderson’s planes that he uses
regularly. “If I had my druthers, every plane in my cabinet
would be from Wayne,” Brendler says. “The miter plane he built
me so far exceeded my expectations. I was just stunned when I
opened the box. … My jaw hit the floor.”
Engineering & Artistry
For Anderson, his plane-making business is the logical culmination
of his artistic tendencies as a boy and his career path as an adult.
He worked as a machinist, then in a metal fabrication shop and now
is a mechanical designer. This training makes Anderson equally
adept with both a file and the high-powered computer he uses at his
day job for a defense contractor, where he is currently working on
designs for a weapons system for the Army.
Add to that a
passion for collecting vintage tools and it’s little wonder that
Anderson stays busy on nights and weekends building tools. Or
that he has recently shifted into high gear by going part-time at
his day job so he can focus even more on building planes for
clients, almost all of whom are repeat customers. One
enthusiast owns 14 of Anderson’s planes.
Wayne Anderson files the
bed of a chariot plane in his basement workshop. Tools on
the back wall serve as inspiration and they lend a hand with
the woodworking on occasion.
Photo by David Hyttsten
“I find myself in the enviable
position of having loyal customers and an understanding
employer who allows me to do this thing that I love so
much,” Anderson says.
Anderson’s path to becoming a
professional plane maker began several years ago when he and
a friend would haunt the local woodworking supply stores.
One day Anderson was in a used tool store where they had a
copy of the now-famous poster of the H.O. Studley tool chest
– a small wall-hung tool chest that holds more than 300
artfully fit hand tools. “I found myself riveted to
that image,” he says.
“Something clicked. And I
decided to amass a small collection of vintage tools.”
So Anderson began buying old tools (he now holds the title
of director of area A for the Mid-West Tool Collectors
As he plunged deeper into collecting, Anderson
stumbled on a story about British infill maker Bill Carter and was
so intrigued that he decided to make an improved miter plane for
himself. He still owns that tool.
“I call it ‘plane-a-saurus,’” Anderson says with a laugh.
“It had 3⁄16"-thick sides and a 1⁄4" bottom. It’s butt-ugly,
but it functions well. It’s like your kid’s artwork.
It’s not worth a nickel, but you wouldn’t sell it for a
million bucks.” Encouraged that he could make a
functioning tool, Anderson built more planes (lots more) and
started posting pictures of them on the Internet.
Woodworkers began to take notice and ask Anderson to make planes for
them. Now he spends most of his free time in his shop filing
and fitting and fussing with all the details that go into one of his
planes. He has a few machines that assist his work: a small
drill press and band saw lend a hand.
And he recently purchased a
small benchtop milling machine to cut the mouth of the planes.
But much of the work is by hand and by eye. What’s most
striking about his finished tools is how they don’t look much like
anyone else’s tools. Unlike some contemporary planemakers,
Anderson doesn’t revel in making reproductions of classic infill
tools from Norris, Spiers, Mathison or Slater.
Anderson’s keen eye and impressive collection of files create planes
with fluid sidewalls, sculpted and scalloped wedges and details that
are found on fine furniture more than on tools. “I was never
one to copy a Norris or a Spiers,” Anderson says. “Those were the
production planes of the era. I was never impressed with the
style.” As you can imagine, one-of-a-kind hand-built planes
are more expensive than manufactured ones.
charges $100 per inch of length of the finished tool, plus extra for
exotic options such as inlay. So the 9"-long Scottish-style
miter plane below cost me $900. For someone on a writer’s
salary, that was a lot of saving and scrimping. But I have to
say that I consider it money well spent. Anderson’s tools have
an undefinable appeal to me that cannot be boiled down to price
A lot of hand work goes into the furniture I build for this magazine
and myself, and there is something fitting about using a hand-made
tool in my work. As I wipe the plane down and put it away, I
often find myself marveling a bit at the workmanship and detailing
of the tool.
And I hope that my own work can measure up to
Anderson’s. From a pragmatic point of view, Anderson’s planes
are quite reasonably priced compared to the cost of the vintage
infill planes that are prized by tool collectors.
tools of this caliber are far
more expensive and may or may not even be usable. In fact,
other tool makers and collectors consider Anderson’s planes an
astonishing bargain for what you get.
Here is an improved miter plane with
Scottish influences. The infill is ebony with a
small ivory inlay on the front bun.
Anderson says he isn’t
driven by money. He merely prices his tools so he can stay
busy making them, that he can do the kind of work he wants and make
a tool that’s within reach of the serious plane user. “These
are user planes,” he says, tapping the table for emphasis. “It’s a
tool. Take it into the shop and use it.”
WOODWORKING, June 2005