Dating Record Bench Planes

The most complete reference prepared for dating record bench planes was created by David Lynch:

http://www.recordhandplanes.com

…and the information in this post is based on his research plus my own observation on some of planes I have bought on ebay.

As we already found out there are no very old Record bench planes – they started out in production in 1931 – and there are lots of them about, so ebay descriptions of “antique” Record bench planes are  something of a misnomer.

“Vintage”, in the sense of something from the past of high quality, might be an appropriate term for a record hand plane but, as we will see, manufacturing standards declined over time.

Several aspects of the plane’s manufacture varied over time, including the wood used for the handles; the metal finish and the design of the lateral adjusting lever; the adjusting nut; the cutting iron; and the frog).

All the variations in the manufacture of the various parts are compatible so there is nothing to stop people piecing together a plane from a combination of parts made at different times and this makes 100% confident dating impossible.  However, since these planes are commonplace and command relatively little money second-hand  there is little incentive for modern sellers to do this and it is unlikely it happens often (irons excepted, of course, since they are consumables that are expected to be replaced during the life of the plane).

Rosewood handle & knob

The earliest planes had a rosewood handle & knob and the newer ones used beech – presumably a measure that saved costs and difficulties importing the rosewood from Asia.

Only one of the Record bench planes I own has rosewood handles and it is quite easy to see the difference if you look closely at the end grain – the rosewood has very noticeable pores, and in the case of East Indian Rosewood, which is apparently what was typically used in UK tool manufacturing, they are particularly dense:

http://www.wood-database.com/wood-articles/distinguishing-brazilian-rosewood-from-east-indian-and-other-rosewoods/

The wood is from a rather attractive tree that is native to India and Nepal:

Dalbergia latifolia

The picture below shows the distinctive pores on the top of the handle:

rosewood

look closely and you will see a large number of pores in this rosewood handle.

David Lynch says that in practice rosewood was only used until the second world war, although Record continued to describe the handles as rosewood until the 1950s – here is an example from the 1949 catalogue1)of course it is possible they simply did to update the marketing documentation to reflect production, or perhaps they supplied rosewood when they could get hold of it and beech otherwise. On balance, the likely explanation is the documentation was not updated – a common failing for Sheffield manufacturers who seemed better at engineering than paperwork! :

http://www.recordhandplanes.com/Images/catalogue_large_3.jpg

http://www.recordhandplanes.com/Images/catalogue_large_3.jpg

Frogs and lateral adjustment levers

frogs and lateral levers

frogs and lateral levers

Before 1957 the frogs had straight sides and a flat machined face and after 1957 the surfaced is recessed and the sides have an ogee shape (see the plane on the far right, above, for an example) .  Mr Lynch is generous in his assessment of the new design  pointing out that it creates less friction when using the lateral lever to adjust the position of the cutting iron, but I have to say it is not easy to tell the difference in practice.  The more cynical amongst us may note it requires less iron to make and the final surface needs less grinding.

The plane on the left has a revolving disc at the base of the lateral lever arm – these were used until 1939.   The planes made during WWII had War Finish stamped on the lever arm (not shown), and after the war the arm changed again – this time a solid disc is used at the base (see 2nd from the left) and then once more between about 1952 and 1957 when “RECORD” was stamped on the arm (see 3rd from the left).

Adjustment nuts

adjustment nut

The nut on the left is rounded on the inside edge (to 1954) the middle nut has CUT  – ON – OFF  and a helpful arrow showing which way to turn the nut inscribed on the inside (’54-64′) and the one on the right is from a modern plane (note the square inside edge).

Lever caps and cutting irons

lever caps and irons

 

The original lever caps were nickel plated until 1939 (see above, left)2)the use of nickel was restricted by the government during the war due to its importance in producing stainless steel, hence the “war finish” stamp mentioned above , then a lacquered finish (2nd left) was used and chrome from 1956 (third left).  The modern plane lever cap is painted.

The cutting irons had a square top until the 1950s, and after which the round profile on the right  was used (note the #5 on the left does not have its original blade 3)the cutting iron has been replaced with one made by WS tools of Birmingham.  I could not find much information on this company –  they were bought out by Woden (of Wednesbury) in 1952, and Woden planes later became part of Record.

If you are interested in the dating of record planes or in finding other information about the manufacturer please do take a look at the recordhandplanes.com site – there is plenty of additional detail there.

Quality

Based on Mr Lynch’s guide, the planes (in the picture above, from left to right) date from 1931-39, 1945-52, and 1954-1957 respectively.   Apart from the use of rosewood for the oldest, there is no obvious difference in quality between the three planes.

However, things have taken a turn for the worse by the time the modern one on the right  was made (~10 years ago).   Here are the main differences:

  • thinner casting
  • the top edges of the sides are no longer ground smooth and are painted over
  • the handle and knob are made from plastic
  • the lateral lever adjuster is made of one piece of steel pressed into shape to form the finger hold (rather than two pieces welded together)
  • The frog is a lighter construction
  • The screw adjuster to allow the frog to be moved back and forward to widen or narrow the mouth has gone
  • the frog yoke adjuster (not shown in the pics above) is now a two pieced pressed steel affair rather than the original cast iron version.
  • Painted rather than chrome lever cap
  • Brass furled nut on the lever cap instead of the original thumb-push4)in the interest of balance, I should note that the new design is arguably an improvement.  I still would be willing to bet it was cheaper to make, though!

It is hard to avoid the impression that the primary motivation behind these changes was to reduce cost, and it is generally assumed the quality of the iron casting and the steel used for the cutting irons declined at this time also.  Although it is not easy to substantiate the last point, it is hard to believe that the company would have missed an opportunity to further reduce costs by doing this if it was possible.

Why did this happen?  It seems the most likely explanation is the development of the DIY market, practically unheard of before the 1950s, but a vast opportunity for manufacturers if they could produce to the lowest price point for a large market that, by and large, cared less about quality than those people who needed their tools in order to make a living.
So the lesson is that you can still get a very good Record bench plane, but you be as well looking for one that was made before the ’60s.  Having said that, as we will see in subsequent posts, even the most unpromising looking planes can be got to work with a bit of elbow grease, so don’t despair if you can only get a newer one.

References   [ + ]

1. of course it is possible they simply did to update the marketing documentation to reflect production, or perhaps they supplied rosewood when they could get hold of it and beech otherwise. On balance, the likely explanation is the documentation was not updated – a common failing for Sheffield manufacturers who seemed better at engineering than paperwork!
2. the use of nickel was restricted by the government during the war due to its importance in producing stainless steel, hence the “war finish” stamp mentioned above
3. the cutting iron has been replaced with one made by WS tools of Birmingham.  I could not find much information on this company –  they were bought out by Woden (of Wednesbury) in 1952, and Woden planes later became part of Record.
4. in the interest of balance, I should note that the new design is arguably an improvement.  I still would be willing to bet it was cheaper to make, though!

2 Responses to “Dating Record Bench Planes

  • Gerry Thompson
    10 months ago

    I’ve just bought a Record 4 plane from ebay and it dates from the earliest period 1931-38/9. It has the pre-war ring type fitting at the base of the lateral adjusting arm. But….I’ve just removed the shellac from the tote and knob and I’m pretty sure we’re talking brazilian rosewood rather than east indian rosewood. Both have a distinctive odour which I recognise from guitar building.

    • I defer to you on the type of rosewood Gerry – it does seem that the wood used varied over time, for instance my only plane from the same era as yours has some type of rosewood for the tote, but the knob is stained beech. Looking at the older ones that show up regularly on ebay, this seems to be a common configuration, despite the catalogues from that time claiming rosewood handles and knobs. I guess it is possible they varied the wood selection according to what was available, and that could extend to the type of rosewood used?

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