While it might look like this toolmaker came out of nowhere, he
was working for years behind the scenes before going public.
Toolmakers – like monkeys – tend to evolve.
Most toolmakers begin their careers with tools that function
well but then are refined to visual perfection after years of
building them. My first Veritas block plane, for example, looks
nothing like the latest ones. When the Canadian company started
making block planes, their tools worked well. But were not as
finely detailed as they are now.
Same goes for Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. Early planes from this
Maine company don’t have the same crispness of recent ones.
Individual makers also tend to get better over time. Ron Brese,
Wayne Anderson, Matt Bickford and so many others began their
businesses with tools that looked good and worked great. And
after years of work, their tools look gorgeous and perform even
The bridge on this Daed
Toolworks miter plane is Raney Nelson's design.
(photo courtesy of Father
That’s not quite the case with Raney Nelson, founder of Daed
Toolworks. To the outside observer it might look like Nelson
emerged fully formed from the toolmaking womb. His tools
withstand a high level of scrutiny, and they perform as well as
any highly tuned plane I’ve used.
Nelson took a different route to starting his toolmaking
business. He made about 40 infill planes before he decided his
product was good enough to show or sell to the public. During
these years of development he sought out opinions on his designs
from other toolmakers and picky high-end woodworkers.
And he was determined to come up with his own designs for tools
instead of making direct copies of historical models or those
made by other modern toolmakers.
His self-imposed difficult path to becoming a
toolmaker has paid off, in my opinion. When I first saw his tools at
Woodworking in America in 2010, I thought they looked like the
product of a toolmaker who had been at it for years (because he had
- it had
just been in private). I immediately ordered a miter plane from
I’m not alone in my affection for his designs. During this past
summer I’ve been carrying my miter plane and a coffin smoother
from Daed Toolworks all over the country while I teach
woodworking classes. Students openly covet them. Other
instructors ask detailed questions about them. The marketing
manager at Lie-Nielsen Toolworks set them up on a bench to take
photos of them for herself.
Here you can see all the detailing on this boxwood miter plane.
The profile of the wedge
and the ogee detail on the sidewalls caught my eye at Woodworking in
(photo courtesy of Father John Abraham.)
So where did Raney Nelson and Daed Toolworks come from? I know
that the question is a cheesy “History Channel”-like way to get
into a personal narrative, but it’s where I wanted to begin when
I interviewed him about his work and his business.
First off, what kind of name is “Raney?”
“I was born in 1968 to semi-hippies,” Nelson says. “They were
just hippy-ish enough to name me Raney. Honestly, there are
three completely different stories about the name’s origin, none
of which make a shred of sense; I think they just liked the
sound of it. Plus my dad hated having the world’s most common
name – John – so he made sure we all got offbeat names.”
Speaking of offbeat names, there’s also the name of his company:
Daed Toolworks. It’s pronounced “dead,” and Nelson dodged the
question about what the heck it means.
“Why not print: ‘Nelson is oddly evasive about the origin of the
name, which reportedly has something to do with a high school
misreading of Hamlet – but he unfailingly pronounces it 'dead,'
" Nelson says.
While Nelson was indirect about etymology, he was happy to talk
about making tools and the single event that launched him into
becoming a toolmaker.
Nelson began woodworking with his father, who really liked
buying and rebuilding houses. He also liked building furniture
for the house.
Raney also makes these great little plane-adjusting hammers
that have one brass head and one from rawhide.
(photo courtesy of Father John Abraham.)
“I grew up doing carpentry and building furniture using 1x3s and
chipboard,” Nelson says. “I hesitate to call it fine
woodworking, but I was always really proud that my father made
our own furniture, and it gave me a real love for the act of
making things, especially useful things.”
Nelson was a rebellious teen-ager, joined the Navy
for six years and then landed at Portland State University studying
physics, semiotics and literary criticism. At first he planned on
becoming a professor, despite the fact that he looks most
comfortable while wearing a baseball cap - not a tweed jacket.
“I kind of ran out of steam,” he says, “and I began to hate
After school he taught for a few years and then landed a public
relations job about 10 years ago working for a small independent
firm that consulted to about a dozen different audio and home
theater manufacturers. He also was getting into woodworking.
“It’s a common story. We were shopping for furniture and it made
me want to vomit,” he says. “So we picked up used furniture off
the street instead. Paying $600 for something I hate seemed
stupid. I’d rather spend nothing for something I hated.”
As he got deeper into the craft he started to use more and more
hand tools. And then came the moment that changed the course of
his working life: He saw one of Konrad Sauer’s coffin infill
planes. “It is hard to explain it,” Nelson says. “I had to have one. But
we’d had our first kid so there was no way I could spend that
kind of disposable income on a plane.”