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The Return of the "Loopy" Infill Plane
Copyright 2010. This article originally appeared in the Fine Tool Journal

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A tool that started as a joke is a real contender compared
to other "superplanes."

 

Infill planes seem to be the stuff of legend among both the users and collectors of this distinctly British form of tool.

If you are afflicted with "infill disease," it seems that if you take a piece of exotic wood and secure it inside a metal shell that you can create an object that can 1) cut any piece of wood without tear-out, and 2) command an impressive price at any auction or swap meet.

For the rest of us, infills are curious. If you bed an iron onto a piece of wood (which moves) and a slab of steel (that doesn't), it stands to reason that you are going to have some problems ahead. And prices of infills have fluctuated wildly in my view, depending on how many people involved in the auction were afflicted with infill disease.

So as you might have guessed, I've had all my immunizations when it comes to infill disease. Sure, I think the tools are artful, even beautiful. But I don't think they are the ultimate expression of the planemaker's art.

However, dear reader, I want to admit to a (long) moment of weakness. For two months now I have been using an infill plane that is a legend among legends, and it is an engineering masterwork that has me double-checking my immunization record.

The plane in question is the so-called "loopy" smoothing plane made by Stephen M. Thomas, who runs an architectural millwork business in New York, has a head for engineering and nurtures a soft spot in his heart for handwork.

What, you've never heard of Thomas? You aren't alone. His contributions to the world of planemaking were significant, but they weren't noticed by too many people. So let's start at the beginning of this story because it's new for most of us.

Meet Stephen

Like many hard-working carpenters I know, Thomas is a wiry fellow from years of physical labor, he's got a mustache and ponytail from his years in the 1970s, and he has the thoughtfulness of a professor from years of reading and thinking hard about his chosen craft.

Thomas grew up near Frederick, MD, worked in construction and had been in the craft since 1975. He started his own business in the Washington, D.C. area but found he didn't have a good head for business. Lucky for him, one of his employees did.

So after a time, Thomas ended up running a one-man millwork shop in upstate New York and working as a subcontractor for his former employee, who scores interesting restoration jobs in Washington, D.C., from the Kennedy Center, to the Smithsonian to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Thomas's specialty is figuring out how to simplify complex jobs using jigs and clever purpose-made tools. After seeing a couple of his jigs, I can assure you that his head has the left brain from a machinist and the right brain from an engineer. And he has a soul that has a dash of counter-culture hippie an important part of the next part of this story.

Thomas first learned about infills through reading Fine Woodworking. He was curious about them but couldn't afford a vintage one. So he bought a casting from St. James Bay Tool and went a little nuts with it. He wanted it to have an adjustable mouth, like his beloved Stanley 60-1/2 block plane. So he welded and machined the heck out of the casting to give it an adjustable mouth.

He was happy with the results

Shortly thereafter he struck up a friendship with a tool collector, now deceased, who had a large tool collection. Thomas visited him, handled some world-class infills and showed him his own adjustable-mouth infill.

"He thought I could bring infills into a modern age," Thomas said. "And I got this irreverent idea."


 
Learn how. Discover why. Build better.
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