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JOEL Joel's Blog

The Stanley Number One


The Stanley No. 1 in the palm of my hand
The Stanley No. 1 in the palm of my hand

A few weeks ago I wrote about creativity and the idea that you are probably doing "it" all wrong. There are a lot of blind alleys in design. The Stanley No. 1, manufactured from 1867 to 1943, is a case in point. Anyone who's ever used one can attest that the plane is uncomfortable. It's also quite tiny and has really limited application. A question that pops up every few years in the tool collecting press is, "What was the point of a Stanley No 1? Why did Stanley make it in the first place?" I'll go out on a limb at the very beginning and say flat out I have no proof of anything I'm about to say. Fortunately, no one else does either. It's all conjecture. I suppose for hammer everything is a nail. And for an engineer, everything is a design process. That's where my thinking lies.

There are a lot of theories about the purpose of a No. 1. The plane is only 5-1/2" long and fits in the palm of your hand. But for actual use, it is a bevel-down bench plane that is very awkward to hold with one hand but a little small for two. And of course it has a very narrow blade (1-1/4"). Aside from size, the main difference between the No. 1 and the rest of the Stanley Bench planes is that the No. 1 does not have a lateral adjuster. But considering the plane was introduced in 1867, that absence is not surprising. Lateral adjusters were not added to the rest of the bench plane line until 1885. Some people have hypothesized that Stanley either couldn't really fit a lateral adjuster in, or didn't find them worth updating. The planes are rare today, which means that they never sold very well. So why did it stay in the catalog until 1943?

I've read a bunch of theories why they were made. Planing bamboo for fishing rods was one theory. A plane for kids is another. Another one that goes around all the time is that it was a great salesman's sample that you could easily carry around.

There is documentation that somebody used one to plane bamboo. But there is no body of work explaining why this plane specifically is such a great tool for this purpose. The salesman's sample theory makes no sense. Salesman's samples of Stanley planes do exist. Some of them are cut in half to show the mechanism, and they're all larger planes. Also, why use as a sample a plane that is both annoying to use and missing the lateral adjustment feature of the post-1885 planes? It might be light to carry around, but it's a crappy salesman's sample.

And this is where the material I wrote about how to be creative comes into play. I think the entire plane was one aspect of a great idea that was superseded by another idea.

Before Bailey, metal planes were few and far between, but small wooden little planes were available. They were bevel down, like a bench plane, but they were very very small - from an inch and up. They were used in instrument-making, coach- and stair-making, and lots of fancy Victorian casework. A classic wooden smoother is really only about 7 inches long. So in general, wooden planes were smaller than a Stanley. The Stanley No. 4, the standard metal smoother, is 9 inches long - a good bit longer. It makes perfect sense to me that when Leonard Bailey started designing bench planes he wanted to cover the entire range of plane sizes. And the planes were bevel down because - with very rare exception - wooden planes are all bevel down. The only bevel up planes at the time were metal miter planes (and wooden copies of them), which were for the most part during that time period (1) larger planes and (2) in the United States quite rare. The same year, 1867, that Bailey and Stanley introduced their bench planes Numbers 1, 2, 3, and 5, they also introduced what they called their Number 9, a "Cabinet Maker's Block Plane," a cast iron copy with an adjuster of an English box miter plane. The rest of the original bench plane line (Nos. 4, 6, 7 and 8) were introduced in 1869. It seems obvious from the numbering that the entire early series was planned from the start and the longer planes were introduced a few years later for manufacturing and capacity reasons.

Small block planes that could be held in one hand seem to be part of a second wave of design that took a few more years with the introduction of the Stanley 9-1/2 and 9-3/4 in 1872.

So here's what I think happened: Bailey designed a full line of bench planes covering all possible uses, from tiny little planes to big jointers. Eight sizes efficiently numbered from one through eight. It was 1867, so none of them had lateral adjusters, and except for their respective lengths and widths, the planes are all essentially the same. To cover the higher-end market, Stanley added a No. 9 miter plane. And they went to market.

The planes were expensive, but they sold. But not equally. Sure, the No. 1 was cute, but it was uncomfortable to use. But the idea of a plane that could fit in your pocket was actually a great idea. A few years after the introduction of the main line of beveled down bench planes and the No. 9 plane, another light bulb went off in Bailey's head, and the small bevel up block plane was born. This is a plane that is small, and light, and fits in a pocket and and is much easier to hold in one hand. Block planes are probably the most popular style of plane today.

The No. 1 tries to answer the need for a plane, but because it's uncomfortable to use, it doesn't. The Stanley version of a miter plane, the No. 9, has a mechanism that can be scaled down and is low on the plane body so the plane can be easily grasped by one hand. But the No. 9 is huge. The block plane in the form of the smaller versions, the 9 1/2 and 9-3/4, take the size of a No. 1, and the comfort of a 9 and turn it into a very usable and popular pocket plane.

As for the question why Stanley didn't discontinue the No. 1, which sold poorly for the next 70 years: for me, the answer is simple. It's not because of a niche demand. It's because if you are a rich company, and you've already paid for the tooling for your cute little button plane whose number is No. 1, you might be kind of hesitant to discontinue it. It's just easier to say we have planes No. 1 through No. 8 rather than explaining why you don't have No. 1 anymore. Every few years you pull the tooling out of a closet and you run a batch. You don't bother updating it for a lateral adjuster or waste time and resources on potential improvements.

Above are pictures of my Stanley No 1. I'm guessing it's from around 1900, but I don't know for sure because the No. 1 was never updated the way their other bench planes were. The only thing I think Stanley changed in the years is the lever cap (and I am not sure about that). It would make sense because they would have wanted the logo and the branding to be consistent with the rest of the tool line. The blade is from a box of five that were bought brand new from a hardware store in the 1970's I also have the original blade (which is pitted but barely used).

Note: Leonard Bailey invented and started making adjustable metal bench planes earlier (1858-1867). But this series of planes from 1867 really marks the start of the design and mass manufacturing that continues to this day. .

Side by side with a Stanley No. 4
Side by side with a Stanley No. 4

From the back
From the back

Disassembled the No 1 is pretty much the same as all the other early Stanley bench planes.
Disassembled the No 1 is pretty much the same as all the other early Stanley bench planes.
Join the conversation
03/15/2023 Michael O’Brien
Thank you Joel for that good historical review of the No. Stanley. I sure learned a few things.
Cheers, Michael
03/15/2023 Brian Moran
Joel... another possible explanation. When most of us start out, we buy specific tools so we can complete specific tasks. As I get older, I find myself buying tools and then thinking up tasks I can use them for. Maybe Bailey did the same..."Gee... now that I've made a palm sized plane, i wonder what I can use it for?" A ship wright I took a few classes from has the Lie-Nielsen one. I really liked it. I have big paws, but it wasn't that awkward for me to hold. And it has more heft than standard block planes so its mass did a bit more of the work. It's sort of like my 102. When I picked one up, I wasn't sure what I'd do with it, but I find I reach for it a lot. I'd love to get a Stanley no. 1 some day, because if I did, maybe I could...
03/15/2023 Rob Beebe
Joel - Another possibility, although unlikely, is that Bailey, when designing his line of product, thought a number one would sell well and ordered way more grey iron body and associated castings from his foundry vendor than the market would support. So, that raw casting inventory stayed on the books - and on the shelf - for many more decades than proved necessary. This meant that, with some of the essential parts on hand and paid for, the #1 bench plane endured. And, another not entirely unlikely explanation might be that the boss himself just liked the number one, so it remained in the product line. That used to happen in industry more often than the public would ever know.
03/16/2023 Kevin Frey
Joel, can you explain what the blue coloring on the brass screws and adjuster is, on your #1 plane?
03/16/2023 jim
This is the most logical reasoning on this I have come across.
Blue was caused by a reaction between the brass on the plane, and the rust prevention paper for steel not brass, that this plane was stored in for a very short period of time. The pictures make it seem worse than it actually is. And frankly I didn't notice the blue until I was posting the pictures. I didn't have time to remove it and reshoot, although I knew I would get some comments.
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