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
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
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
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."