Stanley Tools Combination Planes at the MacLachlin Woodworking Museum


The Stanley 55: The Universal Plane

The Stanley Universal plane was introduced in 1897 and stayed in production until 1962. It was named the Universal plane as it was designed not only to do the symmetrical cuts of the Stanley 45 but also all the asymmetrical cuts of other complex moulding planes. When this tool was introduced most architectural mouldings were already bought pre-made from a lumber yard where they were machine made. The '55 was designed to enable a carpenter in the field to duplicate a moulding for a repair or wherever a short amount of moulding was needed. The tool was also a natural culmination is Stanley's development of combination planes of ever increasing complexity and function. Advertisements of the time may have oversold its capabilities. Many of the functions it is supposed to be capable of are possible in theory but too cumbersome in practice, and if you start out with one of the fancy cuts illustrated in the manual (like putting a beaded chamfer on a column)you are likely to conclude that the plane is useless. This overselling was probably a contributing factor in the plane having a reputation for being somewhat impractical.

In particular, the fence faces are meant to pivot so that the same mouldings can be cut at different angles on a board. In practice, at least one of the plane's skates has to regulate the depth of cut for the blade (the same principle used in the Stanley 41,45,46 and 47). This means that to make an angled cut you either have to advance the blade 1/32nd of an inch each pass until the moulding is finished, and/or shift the fence 1/32nd of an inch each pass to allow the moulding room to slip sideways into the wood. This may be the reason the 55 has a fine adjustment mechanism on one of its fences; you start out with it fully extended and then work it in a bit each pass. Again, we've never needed an angled moulding badly enough to find out, but it is interesting. If even describing these problems sounds too complicated that in itself is a good argument for sticking to perpendicular sinking cuts, which is what the plane is good at. It is really only worthwhile to consider planing perpendicular to the face of a board (using one fence) or on the edge of a board (clamping the board between both fences).

The Stanley 55 is the logical extension of the principles used in the 45 and other plow planes. Here there are three skates that can bear on the wood surface to regulate the cutting action of the blade. The 55 can be "stripped down" to a single skate and act as a plow plane or set up with two skates at equal heights to act as a 45. The confusing array of adjustments on the plane are due to having two of the three skates adjustable both horizontally and vertically. By lining up the three skates off three points on the cutter profile, virtually any shape moulding cutter can be employed.

Adjusting and Using the Stanley 55

Properly set up the 55 is incredibly easy to use. A major part of the learning process involves getting used to how the plane feels when it is cutting properly, so you can recognize when something is out of whack. Ideally of course the best thing is to have someone with experience setup the plane for you and show you what it can do. Failing that, you will just have to take our word for it that, properly set up, and planing with the grain, the plane will work perfectly. The cutting action is smooth, with fine shavings, producing a finished moulding that doesn't require any sanding.

Following the instruction manual is no guarantee of success so here is the process broken down step by step:

1 - Set the cutter in the main body skate, making sure that the cutter is snug against the inside channel under the blade holder. Adjust the height of the blade so that it barely clears the skate, then tighten the wingnut that holds the blade. All other adjustments are taken relative to the blade from here on, so if you re-adjust this depth you will have to reset everything else.

2 - Adjust the outside skate to the outside of the blade, the same way as was done for the 45. The width between the outside and inside skates must be fractionally less than the width of the blade, or the plane will bind as the moulding sinks into the wood. It is a good idea to check the distance between the skates , front and back to make sure the skates are parallel to each other. With the width set set the vertical adjustment so that the outside skate will regulate the exposed cutting edge of the blade. To do this, loosen the knurled bushings around the 55's arms, and raise or lower the outside skate by turning the double-threaded screw adjustment. This skate will raise and lower at an angle so that the outside skate will always support the outside edge of the cutter. It is critical to sight down the skate and set the skate to take as fine a cut as possible. To prevent backlash always lower the skate past the correct depth and then raise it to the correct cutting position. Once the skate is correctly set lock the bushings on the rods.
3 - Next, set the center skate. Move it horizontally to a point on the cutter where it can support the regulating action of the other skates, then adjust it vertically for a fine cut. Tighten everything down on the plane, and check the skates again to make sure that the skates will allow the blade to cut while at the same time minimizing the depth of that cut.
4 - Adjust the fences and depth stops. When starting out I would suggest working on the edge of the board with both fences clamping it. This will make it harder to plane as there is more friction with two fences, but it will be more likely to get you a good result.

There are lots of things that can and will go wrong. The force of planing a complex moulding (and many of the simple mouldings) often wants to force the cutter away from the wood. This means that if you plane the face of a board along the edge with one fence, the greatest difficulty you will have will be in trying to keep the fence tight against the corner. In fact, in this situation I find that I use more force with my left hand to control the plane than I use with my right to make the moulding. Traditional wooden moulding planes are "sprung" so that you hold the plane at an indicated angle and most of the planing force is down. For complicated mouldings you can spring the 55 by rotating the fences but it will change the geometry of the profile. Another solution is to start 1/8th inch in from the edge and use the excess to help guide the plane, after you finish trim the excess off.

If everything seems to be going fine but the plane starts taking heavier and heavier cuts until it is really chewing up the moulding you have a backlash problem. It seems as if the cutter is working its way down and exposing more blade. What is really happening is that the outside skate is being pushed back due to the bit of slack between the double threads and the mounting for the skate. The solution involves the setting up of the plane. Always lower the outside skate past the blade and then back it into position, and remember to tighten the knurled bushings.

It is important to hold the plane steady against the guides as it cuts. Allowing the plane to wobble will loosen the fence faces (if you are using both at the same time) or result in a moulding with slightly different heights along its length. This will be very noticeable if you are making any sort of moulded frames. The best way of holding the plane is with one hand pushing (with the index finger extended to hold your control) and the other hand pressing against the fence, which will help keep the fence against the wood and also keep the plane steady.

Another problem that may be encountered is that the plane stops cutting at a certain depth along the moulding, or that you find it will only cut if you wobble it as you cut. In both cases, this is because one of the skates is improperly set and is acting as a depth stop instead of allowing the blade to cut. Wobbling allows the other part of the cutter to cut more, and you get an uneven moulding. Make the necessary adjustments to allow the blade to work, remembering to reset anything else affected by this adjustment.

I think that each plane has its own peculiarities. Ours has one thumbscrew that always seems to work loose. You'll find that most of these problems disappear as your planing technique improves, and that you can change blades and reset them in a matter of three or four minutes once you know what to look for.

One last comment. There are really no shortcuts with the 55. You may be tempted to "hog out" lengths of wood with your tablesaw or plow plane, reducing the amount of wood to be planed and establishing depths to work the plane towards. This works well with wooden planes, because they have their blades supported by complete soles and can start cutting anywhere along the moulding profile. This doesn't work with the 55. It can only start cutting where the blade is regulated by a skate, and it will take longer (assuming it can even be done and you get it right) to set this up than it would to just go ahead and plane down all the wood.
The short rods(left), Depth Gauge (bottom), and Cam rest (top) accessories of a Stanley 55
The adjustable fence with a fine adjustment for the Stanley 55, shown here with the rosewood section detached. The inside surface is rounded to allow the fence to work at angles from 90 to 45 degrees. Sawdust often gets packed in this joint during use and should be cleaned out.

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Copyright 1999 01 Inc., NYC