Razor Blade Planes: An Overview

INTRODUCTION

There are three fundamental techniques of paring leather in bookbinding: using a paring knife, using a modified spokeshave and using a paring machine, such as the Fortuna, Schar-Fix or Brockman. Often various combinations of these methods are used. Learning how to pare leather not only requires learning the technique of using a knife or spokeshave, but also the skills of how to keep the knife or blade sharp. The Brockman or Scharf-Fix alleviates the need to learn how to sharpen, although some thrifty bookbinders do resharpen their double edge blades. These paring machines are best suited for making small, thin flat pieces of leather — generally for onlays, labels, quarter bindings — rather than achieving a long, gradual bevel necessary for rebacking or English style full leather bindings.

There is a fourth, somewhat obscure method of paring leather which uses a razor blade plane.  There are numerous types of these planes, dating from at least the 1950’s until today. Originally, they seemed marketed to the home handyman, now most are marketed to model makers.  But at some point in time, bookbinders discovered these planes.

I’ve found little information about the history of using these planes on leather. Jim Craven, a bookbinder in Ann Arbor, Michigan, reports he recieved a Little Giant in the 1960’s, and is not sure when he started to use it on leather.  Judith Ivry, bookbinder and conservator, says they were somewhat of a craze in the 1980’s in New York City.  Occasionally I meet a bookbinder who uses, or has used them.

This post contains observations about these planes. American, German, Dutch and English versions are represented. Next week, in part two, guest blogger Eric Alstrom, Head of Conservation at Michigan State University, will present some tips for using razor planers on bookbinding leather.

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LITTLE GIANT

 Popular Mechanics, Sept 1956. p. 78

This is one of the most common, and better made than most. As far as I have discovered, this is the first oxymoronically named tool. The logo is well done, consisting of a curious kneeling ‘little giant’ supporting its own name that is shaped reminiscent of a dumbbell. This logo is a registered trademark, and the plane I have has patent pending cast on it. The instruction sheet lists it registered with  patent number  2,781,804, which was filed in 1955 and granted in 1957. I’ve seen at least two versions of the instruction sheet.

The two planes come neatly boxed, one for curved surfaces and one for flat.  The version with the flat sole is most suited to paring leather. If you are curious about using a razor blade plane, the Little Giant would be my first choice. Mine functions reasonably well with no alterations. The Little Giant is manufactured to a higher quality, with a more precisely ground sole and overall more solid feel than other planes I have tried. The flat model has a unique recessed finger area for positioning the angle and depth of the blade, while preventing fingers from making contact with the blade when planing. The curved model has two angles, one quite sharp, one more gradual, so the two planes can be used in three different planing configurations.

The box is printed, “Uses old razor blades” and the instructional sheet includes directions on how to resharpen double edge razor blades, although it is a bit difficult to understand how these very basic instructions could be of much help to a novice sharpener, especially one who had purchased a razor blade plane possibly in an attempt to avoid having to learn how to sharpen a blade in the first place. The finger position holding the blade looks frighteningly dangerous and seems to be putting a 45 degree bevel on the blade.

These sharpening instructions, from the late 1950’s,  which accompany the Little Giant are perhaps the earliest illustration of the  Scary Sharp sharpening method. They repeatedly mention using emory paper to resharpen double edge razor blades. But is Scary Sharp just using abrasives mounted on a paper of film substrate, or is it using a progression of these?

The informational sheet included with Little Giant planes shows three vignettes of the plane in use: a man trimming a door, a woman shaving down a drawer, and a boy making a model airplane. This is a tool not only for the man of the house, but the entire family. Note that it is advertised as being “sharp as a razor”. Yes,well, it is a razor.

Roughly 75% of the razor blade planes I have found appear unused, in the original box. The presence of so many “NIB” razor planes also suggests that they were likely used, or attempted to be used once or twice, then returned to the box. Perhaps the few beat up ones without boxes — a rarity — will prove desirable to collectors. The Little Giant is the only plane that I have seen that was painted; there is a light green, a darker green, a blue, and some are natural aluminum or pot metal.

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WIL-KRO RAZOR PLANER

Billboard, Oct 22 1955

The Wil-Kro (sometimes spelled Wilkro, even on the original box) is the most commonly found razor blade plane, in my experience.  It also works well in leather with little or no tuning. While some users may be content with the three blade configurations of a Little Giant, a Wil-Kro owner gets four:  a  flat sole, a bull nose, a chisel and a curved sole plane. It is one of the smaller razor blade planes, the most innovative in design, and quite comfortable to use. The blade depth is a slightly difficult to adjust on my examples, since the blade cap is actually part of the plane. A $2.50 price sheet is boxed with the model I have, although perhaps many enterprising home handymen took advantage of the discounted price of $72.00 for a gross! The small piece labeled “Fig. 8” below is often missing on planes I have seen for sale — examine the contents of the box carefully. This piece is used in the plane configuration Figure 4 on the instruction sheet below, useful for wood, but not really for leather.

The Wilkro patent  #2289504

Granted in 1942, the patent emphasizes many of the clever design features of the multipurpose handle which also secures the blade. This is the only razor blade plane I have that has the patent number stamped on the plane body, and it is the most innovative design. The patent application later notes that the blades are similar to the blades used in safety razors, but slightly different. In the instructions provided with the plane, however, ordinary double edge razor blades are recommended. The tightening knob evidently underwent some refinements during production, and has a much more elegant, almost horn like shape which is easier to align and tighten than the wing nut on all other planes. Since the body of these planes are essentially in two pieces, some users feel they are not as rigid as one piece models, though this does not seem to be an issue when using them on leather. The patent application describes this as a woodworking tool, which is perhaps its most ill suited use.

The Wilkro came with fairly detailed instructions.  The necessity for written instructions seems to indicate either a new or complex tool, or marketing to a realtively amateur market. Like the Little Giant, use in homes, possibly as a one plane fits all, seems to be the main focus for sales. Unlike the Little Giant, users of the Wilkro are advised to replace dull blades rather than resharpen them. Since the advertising I have found for both of these are roughly contemporaneous, I wonder if there was stiff competition between the two in the mid 1950’s?

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The plane also came with this Certificate of Assurance.  It certifies that the Wil-Kro is percision made and will give many years of service.  It then guarantees this performance for exactly fifteen days from the date of purchase.  The overall size of this cerificate (152 x 71 mm) is almost exactly the same as a dollar bill (157 x 66mm) and the green ink and boarder decoration also seem to visually imply paper currency. Most Wil-Kro boxes list “Craft Master Tool Co.” as the manufacturer and the contact for the warranty. One box I have, however, does not include a warranty and lists “Winston Sales Co.” as the manufacturer on the outside. Otherwise the boxes are identical.

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SELECT PLANER

The Select seems to have undergone at least three packaging styles, and one major redesign.  I think the version pictured above is earlier than the ones below.  The packaging is similar to the Wilkro: the company information on one end of the box is almost identical in layout, the “horn” tightening nut is similar, and even the complex shape to the blade holder all recall the Wilkro. In this version, the chisel blade position at the front is functional, later it is abandoned.  The complex flat blade holder design is also simplified in the versions below. The distinctive outward flair to the sides of the plane remain constant, however.

This is a somewhat interesting tool, the example I have has two different blade configurations, a flat and curved located at the back of the plane.   The instructions, located on the side of a bag containing blade caps and wing nuts, show two different types of assembling the plane. The box states the plane is for “Tradesmen, handymen, hobbyists, housewives.” Like the Little Giant, somewhat early marketing towards women. This plane feels distinctly larger than the previous two, and doesn’t seem to work quite as well on leather.

On one end of the exterior box the plane is shown operated a third way, like a scraper or chisel plane. The plane itself seems to have a vestigial place for a stud. But is it broken, did someone removed it, or were there manufacturing difficulties?  Made in USA, no patent. There is a nice slideshow of this plane on Howies Antiques, showing the same lack of a front scraper attachment. The packaging advertises it it useful in wood, plastic, leather, rubber tile, linoleum and pressed wood.  To me, this one looks later than the Wilkro or Little Giant, perhaps even 1970’s? Another version of the Select, with ribbed finger grips on the side and a fancier knob was also made.

http://www.petermcbride.com/magnum09/img/magnum_058.jpg

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RAZA-PLANE

http://www.flickr.com/photos/galoot_frank/1624654074/

This is the earliest razor plane (if it uses a disposable razor blade) I have seen. Also the only one made from cast iron, the owner reports 3 5/8″ long, 2″ wide.  This is a very common size for most razor blade planes.  I’m unclear how the blade clamping mechanism might work. There is a general thread about razor blade planes in the Old Tools Archive.

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ZIP PLANE

Modelflight

Made in England.The blade looks pretty easy to adjust from the sides. Marked Patent Pending. Like the Wil-Kro, the proper direction for planing is cast into the plane, which to me indicates a very low expected competence from users.

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DAVID (COMBI) PLANE

Dutch. Often regarded as one of the better old razor planes by model airplane makers. Three blade positions, and uses a wing screw rather than a wing nut. The 45 degree chamfer at the end, when the blade is in a chisel position,  let the blade be used as a knife. The sole may have too much surface area to work well on leather. Reportedly there is a plastic piece that deteriorates relatively quickly. The David is for sale at sky king rc products.

 Modelflight

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FIX PLANE (?)

German? This tentatively identified plane is perhaps the most elegant and ergonomic in form, to my eye.  It functions as a flat and chisel plane. It looks quite comfortable to grasp, and the blade is accessible from three sides for adjustment.

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SOLLINGEN BALSA PLANER

http://www.rcgroups.com/forums/showthread.php?t=183330

German. I’ve also seen this called the “Amati model ship planking razor plane“. Geometric styling.  The blade cap appears to rest on a cast stand, possibly concentrating pressure on the front edge, similar to ‘real’ planes.  The description claims this makes the blade rigid enough to plane across the grain, as well as with it. This raised area at the end of the blade cap may protect the users hand from jamming into the wing nut. The mouth on this one looks rather large for use on leather. Available from  A2Z Corp.

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MASTER AIRSCREW 4100 RAZOR PLANE 

Perhaps the most basic design imaginable. These are available from many retailers and seem to be the preferred new model among model makers. Simply designed. They use a proprietary double edge blade which is very thick at .017″ — most double edge razor blades are .oo4″-.008″. The two screws behind the blade seem to adjust depth and angle, which would make replacing the blade to the exact cut as the previous one much easier, though I wonder if the screws might damage the blade edge? The mouth looks too big to work well on leather.

Eric Alstrom adds that these are made of plastic, and “I never put it in the same class as the Little Giant.  Both for how it works and how it is made.  I’ve used it now and again for touch up, but the angle of the blade isn’t low enough to pare very effectively.  Mine came with a half dozen blades or so and I’ve only marked about half of them as used, so I haven’t used it that much.  You mention the “proprietary double edge blade” which is true they are proprietary, but my blades are only single edge.  The adjustment screws push against a flat edge.  I got mine about 20 years ago, so maybe they have changed since then.”

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LEE VALLEY RAZOR BLADE BLOCK PLANE

The Lee Valley is made in Germany, and has a rear handle that doubles for planing curved surfaces which is perpundicular to the usual planing position. The wingnut to tighten the blade is visible on the back of the handle.  The consensus among woodworkers is that  the plane is useful for basa wood, and maybe other some very soft woods, but not as a general use plane. It features three variable positions, normal use, as pictured below, as a chisel plane with the blade at the front, and curved at the heal.  Having a blade potentially positioned right on your hand seems like a poor design choice. Lee Valley advertises it as a plane to use when you don’t want to use your good plane, like on paint. The sole may have too much surface area to work well on leather.

Lee Valley, Razor block plane

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ARTU PLANE

FROM ARTU

The swiss army knife of razor blade planes with six functions. No image found, but looks the same as the plane Lee Valley is selling.  According to the manufacturer, uses special ice hardened blades at a bed angle of 27 degrees.  Some discussion about it from the Hip Pocket  Aeronautics Builders Forum.

CONCLUSION

The promise of not having to sharpen or resharpen these razor blade planes may account for their continuing appeal, as does their simple, unthreatening and lightweight nature.  Most of the packaging emphasizes their easy multi-functionality, appealing to a home repair/ hobbyist crowd. In fact, the packaging is possibly as interesting as the planes are. Even though the general consensus among users is that they don’t work nearly as well as their advertised purposes, there have been many variations of these planes over the past 50+ years and several are still in production.

Although these planes barely function on most types of wood, they are much more functional in soft materials, including leather. The combination of their curved blade bed, very low effective blade angle, the off the shelf sharpness of razor blades and small sole area prevent excessive stretching of  leather that can occur with more standard block planes.There are also many types of small planes with normal blades: block planes, miniature planes, musical instrument planes and spokeshaves, toy planes, Stanley 12-101 trim plane, Lie-Neilson model makers plane and 102 block plane, Veritas Apron plane, etc…. None that I have tried work very well on leather, primarily, I think, due to inappropriate effective blade/ bed angles, excessive friction from the soles that causes the leather to stretch, buckle or tear, and clogging of the mouth.

I find razor blade planes interesting not so much because they are exemplars of the toolmakers art, but because they are emblematic of the post-WW2 home handyman boom, the creation of suburbia, 1950’s advertising and other societal aspects. The packaging also reflects a change in tool marketing from primarily a male activity, to a family one. Tool snobs may consider these types of planes closer to toys than tools – and they may be right – but they are all tiny pieces of the total picture that inform our understanding of tool use as a fundamental human activity.

Next week : Razor Blade Planes: Tips on Using Them to Pare Leather.

17 thoughts on “Razor Blade Planes: An Overview

  1. Tom Conroy

    I’ve had a flat Little Giant and two Wilkros for fifteen or twenty years; I’ve never had boxes or instructions, and the other ones I’ve seen (in flea markets, I think) were also naked. I can’t remember where I got mine, and I never use them for anything, undoubtedly because I was able to sharpen paring knives and spokeshave blades before I got them. Their entire appeal (once you have tried one out) is to people who can’t sharpen. Although it is theoretically possible to adjust the depth of cut, I found that in practice it was difficult, the range of adjustment was too narrow, and they would not hold the setting. I do agree that the Little Giant is the better of the two, and have at times wondered if I might have used it a bit if I could get a version in bronze instead of decaying, oxidized aluminum. A new plane for Lie-Nielson, perhaps? The nasty feel of aluminum is one of the biggest strikes against both the Little Giant and the Wilkro. Also, I believe that one reason Stanley’s WWII-period line of aluminum bench planes failed was that the aluminum left dark oxide marks on the wood, though that wouldn’t interfere with paring leather.

    I had one problem with the Wilkro that made it, in my opinion, completely unusable. The left and right edges of my razor blades stuck out of the sides of the tool by about 1/16″, and I wanted to hold the tool exactly where they stuck out. Although unsharpened, the short edges of a razor blade are quite sharp enough to cut if you grab right down on them. I have always assumed that the standard razor blade of the 1950s must have been shorter left-to-right and would fit entirely inside the casting, but possibly I was the one with weird extra-wide razor blades. Because I regarded the Wilkro as unusable, I never realized that alternative configurations are possible; I’m looking forward to digging it out and experimenting with it when I get home.

    The information about them is fascinating, but I must say that I still regard these as ugly, nasty-feeling, useless tools. Even so, model-makers seem to like them. I suppose everything has someone to love it, as the warthog said to the tapir.

  2. Jeff Peachey Post author

    In regard to the Wilkro width, the blades I’ve tried in them stick out very slightly, enough to barely feel. When I was working on the post, I dug out my collection of antique double edge razor blades (maybe 30-40 or them) and was amazed how consistent the exterior size of them were. Only the inner punched diamonds, circles and slits varied with proprietary systems. Even the earliest blade I have, a King Gillette patented in 1904 is almost exactly (within a few tenths of a millimeter) the same size as a current industrial blade, which a Schar-Fix uses.

  3. Pingback: A History of Razor Blade Planes « The Sharpening Blog

  4. Jeff Burks

    I enjoyed the article and the pictures. Razor blade planes don’t usually get so much attention. I just consulted my notes and compiled a list of US patents that you may want to read for further information on the subject of disposable plane blades, from the 1920s until present. I removed the 2 you already linked in the article.

    1419400 1608349 2198530 2719554 3084729 2400929
    1487529 1608349 2213095 2839109 3481377
    1574725 1623644 2638947 2969097 4088165
    1585365 1745558 2645259 3027641 4492260
    1587746 1825859 2648363 3068921 6931733

  5. Stuart Walker

    Well, now you have let the cat out of the bag. This is the best method I have found for paring full skins or smaller pieces – as you say the Brockman and Schar-fix are not well suited for paring large areas, whereas this works very well and you’re not aways sharpening or readjusting a spokeshave blade. I have been using curved Little Giant planers since 1974, much prefer them to the flat planer, and recently bought one on eBay. They used to turn up in flea markets but are getting harder to find. I have various small tricks for positioning the blade and minimizing gouging, angling the direction of work etc. One major drawback is that they are cast from soft metal and the screw post can wear out or break, and then cannot be repaired.

    Stuart Walker
    Book Conservator
    Boston Public Library

  6. Jeff Peachey Post author

    Jeff Burks- Thanks a lot for the patent information. I will check them out.
    Stuart Walker- Do you know anything about who started using them leather? And why do you find the curved blade works better.
    Jeff

  7. Tom Conroy

    I dug mine out, and found that the blade doesn’t stick out of the Wilkro as much as I remembered— but its still too much, and cuts my fingertips. However, I did figure out a way to hold it with the nut/handle thing gripped at the web of the thumb and the plane nestled along the palm, which avoids putting the fingertips on the sides at all.

    I had forgotten, but the screw of my Little Giant is stripped, though not completely; I think I can still get it to work with a strip of thin cloth between the screw and nut.

    Stuart, I’m curious too about why the curved Little Giant planes work better than the flat. Have you used a Wilkro? Is its “nose plane” configuration anything like the curved Little Giant?

  8. Edward Santoro

    I use the Feather blades mentioned above in my Schar-fix with superb results. In fact, I consider these blades the best to use in the Schar-fix. I also use DORCO ST-301 and ST-300 blades, which are less expensive, with very good results. I have not used these blades in any of the planers discussed above, which leads me to a request for Jeff Peachey. If you still offer your custom-made stainless steel razor plane, I’d like to purchase one.

  9. Jeff Peachey Post author

    Thanks for the comment, I will get some of the Feather blades to try. So far, I haven’t made an aluminum body razor blade plane that works better than a modified 151 spokeshave, but if I do I will let you know. You might get one of the older ones, like the Little Giant, to see if you like the feel of them.

  10. Edward Santoro

    Thanks for your response, Jeff. I just read about 30 minutes ago an old post reply of yours discussing your modified 151 and the reason for not continuing with your aluminum body razor. I’m now in the process of getting a David-4 Combi and a Wil-Kro, and possibly a Solingen. I will also be on the lookout for a Little Giant.

  11. Edward Santoro

    I just received two of the David Combi Planes. Regrettably, they are not well suited for skiving leather.

    The David Combi Plane uses a proprietary blade that is thicker and more rigid than common razor blades (also much more expensive). This proprietary blade has specific cutouts so that the orange plastic holder will seat properly. Common razor blades must be modified in impractical ways for this orange holder to work properly. Or the orange holder must be sanded flat to remove its two side protrusions that are used to keep the the proprietary blade in place. Even with the proprietary blade installed, I could not get the David Combi Plane to skive leather. The problem as I see it is that either the blade does not stick out far enough, or the angle of the blade is not appropriate for skiving leather.

    If I have missed something, that someone has figured out a way to modify the David Dombi Plane so that it can skive leather, please correct me.

  12. Jeff Peachey Post author

    Good to know, thanks. Also, on your recommendation, I tried the feather double edge blades and really like them.

  13. Michael Arseanult

    i found a Wilkro Razor Planer in my cellar. Is it worth anything? M.J. Arsenault Saugus, MA

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