A few weeks ago I picked up an old Stanley No 55 plane at an auction. In all my years in buying old tools, I’ve never seen an old Stanley No 55 quite like this one. Stanley referred to the 55 as a molding machine in itself. It came with 55 blades which interchange with the plane to cut different profiles. Stanley even provided a booklet with the plane to help the user create some of the different profiles.
When I won the plane at auction, all the parts where there except the screwdriver but who cares about the screwdriver other than a collector anyway? What made this 55 special were the two dozen extra blades that the original owner cut and used with the plane.
If you know anything about a Stanley 55, you know that one of the reasons that most examples that are found out in the wild are in pristine condition is because they were hardly ever used. The plane is notorious for being too complicated to set up with its various fence and sliding section adjustments. Most craftsmen simply gave up and stuck it on the shelf to sit and collect dust.
However, this plane was different. Most all of the blades were sharpened and ready to cut. Even some of the complex cutters had scuff marks on them from where they were used.
But what was most intriguing part of the plane was the extra cutters that came with it. These cutters weren’t special cutters available from Stanley at the time. These were probably handmade by the craftsman himself. The mere fact that this craftsman knew not only how to use the blades that came with the plane, but went so far as to make a couple of dozens of extra cutters and put them to use makes me green with envy.
I admit that I have messed around with a Stanley 55 plane in the past. And while I was able to make some of the simple profile blades cut well, I had very little luck with the complex ones. The biggest problem with cutting complex profiles with a Stanley 55 is the fact that the plane rides on skates and does not compress the wood in front of the blade like a wooden complex molding plane does. You often end up getting a lot of tear out in the grain ruining the piece you’re cutting.
So how this craftsman got the plane to work well enough to motivate him to make his own cutters and put them to work baffles me. The one thing I do know about making the Stanley 55 work well is to use straight grain wood and have a very sharp blade to avoid tear out. Apparently this guy was a master with the plane getting these complex blades to work. I just wish he would have left a pamphlet on how he did it.