Interview with Toolmaker Thomas Lie-Nielsen
Note: This interview was first published in Wood News in 2005
Wood News: First, what's the correct way to pronounce Lie-Nielsen?
Thomas Lie-Nielsen: It's a Norwegian name, pronounced "Lee-NEEL-sen."
WN: Can you tell us a little about the philosophy upon which Lie-Nielsen Tools was founded and operates today?
TL-N: When 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.
WN: When did you make your first tool?
TL-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.
WN: Did you have any formal training in tool design and manufacture?
TL-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 tools.
WN: Where do you get ideas for new tools to manufacture?
TL-N: I'm 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?
TL-N: The Low Angle Jack Plane!
WN: How did you get into making saws?
TL-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?
TL-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 the future.
WN: Where do you see the woodworking hand tool industry heading in the near and distant future?
TL-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 this direction?
TL-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?
TL-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 newsgroups.
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 pleasure.
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 Plane.
WN: What recommendations do you have for a beginner just learning to sharpen blades?
TL-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 video with Deneb Puchalski that thoroughly describes the method, called Sharpening Plane Irons.
WN: How do you make your blades?
TL-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 face.
WN: In your opinion, hook or no hook on scraper plane blades?
TL-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?
TL-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 plane.
WN: Why do you make many of your tools out of bronze?
TL-N: We started using bronze because of its weight, durability, the fact that it doesn't rust, and that it is 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?
TL-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 guarantee it.
WN: We enjoyed your sharpening book. How did you get into writing? Do you plan to write any more books?
TL-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 another.
Note: Highland Hardware carries the complete line of Lie-Nielsen Tools.