Toolmaker Thomas Lie-Nielsen
First, what's the correct way to pronounce
Lie-Nielsen: It's a Norwegian name, pronounced
WN: Can you
tell us a little about the philosophy upon which Lie-Nielsen Tools
was founded and operates today?
I worked at Garrett Wade in the late 1970s, customers were always
looking for tools that the large manufacturers no longer made, and
complained about the quality of what was on offer. Being fascinated
by tools, I thought that with modern materials and technology, it
should be possible to produce better tools than ever before, and
began with some of those obsolete, hard-to-find models that at least
some customers were very eager to have. Today we are expanding our
range to include some very interesting specialized tools and
ultimately plan to offer a complete tool kit for hand tool
woodworking, including workbenches.
When did you make your first tool?
L-N: I made the
first tool, the Bronze Edge Plane, in 1981, which means we are going
to have our 25th anniversary year next year.
Did you have any formal training in tool design and
L-N: No, I'm an
English major, self-taught in machining, foundry work, pattern work,
metallurgy and all the other skills essential to making our
WN: Where do
you get ideas for new tools to manufacture?
always working on a list of tools that intrigue me personally. I get
lots of comments from customers about what they would like us to do,
and from people like Brian Boggs who have specialties that fit well
with our line. Sometimes technical issues delay bringing a certain
new tool to market (like the chisels), even though we may be working
on them for some time.
WN: What's your
favorite Lie-Nielsen tool?
L-N: The Low Angle Jack
WN: Which tool is the most difficult for you to
L-N: The 1/2-inch shoulder
plane, which has a wood infill and a bronze casting, has
always been the most challenging and labor intensive.
WN: How did you get
into making saws?
L-N: I admired the
top-quality job Independence Tool Company did with their dovetail
saw, which was modeled on a classic 18th century design. When they
stopped production, we approached them about taking over and it has
worked out very well for both of us.
WN: How far do you
think you will expand your line of tools?
L-N: Not sure. We
are now making saws, chisels, and trying to get high quality benches
into regular production. My goal is to offer as complete a kit for
hand woodworking as possible. Now that we are making most of the
basic tools, we are likely to be making more specialized tools in
WN: Where do
you see the woodworking hand tool industry heading in the near and
L-N: I think the
woodworking hand tool industry is enjoying a renaissance. There are
by far more high-quality tools being made today then when I started.
Whether or not that will continue is anybody's guess, but as long as
there are woodworkers who appreciate quality tools, the industry
will be healthy I am sure.
WN: Lots of the
new tools being created for woodworkers today seem pretty much like
gimmicky gadgets. What's your reaction to the tool market moving in
L-N: I've never
liked gimmicky gadgets. They are no substitute for learning basic
skills. Part of the pleasure of woodworking is developing those
skills and using them. I much prefer the elegant simplicity of a
properly-designed, well-made tool.
WN: For the woodworker
who wants to purchase his first plane but doesn't know where to
start, what are your suggestions?
L-N: If you live
in an area where you can find classes with someone who emphasizes
hand tools, you will get the most experience in the shortest time.
Second best is lots of reading, including the online
It would also be worth your while to try to find
a source of good quality used tools in good condition. That way you
can learn a lot and not spend as much until you do. I do think,
though, that using poor quality tools is discouraging. The good ones
work so much better. With poor quality tools, you are fighting the
inadequacies of the tool while you are trying to learn about
technique. And a really good tool will be a great
The single most useful tool is a low angle block
plane. We have several, and any of them would be used every day in
the shop. Next, I would consider our Low Angle Jack
Plane. It is a very versatile tool, and in many people's
hands it can double as a smoothing plane. It is also a unique tool
with no other equivalent. With those two tools you can do a lot of
work. Third, I might like a dedicated Smoothing
recommendations do you have for a beginner just learning to sharpen
L-N: We have been
teaching a technique involving just two waterstones, 1000 and 8000
grit, a honing guide (the side-clamping type makes it easier to keep
your blades square and to control curvature if you want to put a
slight curve in the blade). By using a secondary bevel about 5
degrees greater than the 25-degree bevel that is standard on most
plane blades, you can hone the very edge of the blade precisely and
efficiently with just a few strokes on the 8000 stone. This
technique is very powerful, but is hard to explain in a few words,
so we have produced a DVD with David Charlesworth that thoroughly
describes the method, called Hand Plane Techniques: Part
One - Plane Sharpening (221533).
WN: How do you make
L-N: It goes
without saying that the blade is the most important part of a hand
plane. Our blades are thicker, sometimes much thicker, than other
manufacturers', for a solid cut. And they are harder, at Rockwell
60-62, to provide a longer-lasting edge. Careful heat treatment
produces a fine grain structure so that the blade will take a very
fine edge. The final step is a full surface grinding of the top,
back and cutting edge, giving a smooth flat surface requiring little
honing before use.
We have been experimenting with various
tool steels and cryogenics for some time. We have decided to change
our steel from W-1 that we had been using to A-2, because our
research convinces us that cryogenically-treated A-2 will hold an
edge significantly longer if properly done. It can still be
sharpened with conventional abrasives, while some other special
alloys can't. Proper heat treating of this steel involves a 20-hour
soak at -320 degrees F and double tempering. Our new A-2
cryogenically-treated blades can be distinguished from our regular
blades by the Lie-Nielsen USA logo stamped on the top
WN: In your opinion,
hook or no hook on scraper plane blades?
L-N: I use a hook,
but it is much easier for a beginner to learn to use a scraping
plane without a hook. I suggest that people sharpen our scraper
plane blades like regular plane blades and only move on to using a
hook once they are very comfortable with the tool. A properly turned
hook makes a more aggressive and cleaner cut.
WN: What is the
primary use for a toothed plane iron?
L-N: A toothed
plane blade is great for dimensioning very difficult-to-plane woods
without tear out. Follow with a very sharp, fine-set smoothing
WN: Why do you make
many of your tools out of bronze?
L-N: We started
using bronze because of it's weight, durability, the fact that it
doesn't rust, and that it's ductile enough to bend rather than
break, as ordinary cast-iron breaks. For the small tools we started
with, it is an ideal material. Since then we have been making many
more tools out of ductile iron, which is a little less expensive and
also is a material that does not break.
WN: What's so special
about the ductile iron used for your iron body tools?
L-N: Ductile iron,
also called Nodular, is a specific formula iron alloy, specially
processed to produce castings of great strength, approaching that of
structural steel, and ductility or elasticity. For the woodworker,
this means that the tool will not break if dropped on a cement
floor, something that happens all too often.
I had heard good
things about ductile iron and liked the way it machined, so I
decided to see how tough our planes are. I took a machined No. 5
body casting out in the shop and threw it up to the 14-foot ceiling.
The casting bounced on the cement floor but was not damaged. I did
this many times but only succeeded in dinging it up. Then I laid it
on its side on the floor and went after the unsupported top edge of
the side with a 10-pound sledge hammer, putting some effort behind
it. It did bend. A little. These castings will not break. I
WN: We enjoyed your
book. How did you get into writing? Do you plan to
write any more books?
L-N: The Taunton
Press asked me to contribute that book to their CIG series. I liked
the format — step-by-step photos. My goal was to make sharpening as
simple as possible for people. Another topic may present itself
someday, but at the moment, I have no plans to write
Note: Highland Hardware carries the complete
line of Lie-Nielsen