I went to Lie Nielsen and all I got was a T Shirt!!
So as promised, I took a trip to the Lie Nielsen factory while vacationing in Maine.
We had less than perfect weather this year in Maine and while it made for bad kayaking and sun bathing, it was great for a pilgrimage to Warren, ME. Just up the road from the world famous Moody’s diner you see that telltale red roof come into view.
When you first step through the door into the showroom, you cannot help but take a deep breath and sigh. It is a beautiful showroom done in all hardwood floors, ceiling, and walls. It smells of wood shavings too. Arrayed around the room is a veritable museum of old Stanley tools. On the cases on the walls are all of the Lie Nielsen planes. What is most exciting is that you can walk up to any of these items, pick it up, and take it over to any number of the benches and go to work.
My wife accompanied me and I asked her later what she thought of it anxious to get the perspective of a non woodworker. Even she was taken aback by the quality of the tools. Heather will admit that she had no idea what each plane was or why you need so many, but I caught her picking up one or two and examining them closely with an impressed look on her face. I still don’t think she understands the reverence that I have for Lie Nielsen products, but at least she could understand the hard work that goes into all of their products. If nothing else she has plenty to make fun of me about as I raced around the showroom like a little kid in a candy store. I spent some time at the bench trying out the Scrub plane and Fore plane to reduce a rough board to approximately 7/8″ thick. I then went to town with the beautiful #7 jointer and the low angle Jack. The cool thing is that all of these showroom planes are tuned nicely and the shavings I was pulling off this curly maple stock were magnificent. Next, I pounded out a mortise using some of the socket mortise chisels, and finished it off using the little router plane. What a joy!!
I talked to Ted in the showroom and asked him about a tour of the factory and he was only happy to oblige. He took a quick poll of the 5 other guys there and of course everyone was interested in taking a peek behind the curtain. So we donned our safety goggles and tramped out into the rain and mud across the compound to one of the production shops.
This is the chisel line where the CNC routers are transforming bar stock steel into the socket chisels. Ted showed us the various stages of the steel from rough stock to finished chisel. What is fascinating is that the CNC machines really only do the rough phases and all the refinement is done by a human and a grinding wheel. In fact throughout the factory it was surprising just how hands on the production process is. I guess that is what quality is all about. In the picture you can see one of the chisels being lapped to 400 grit by hand.
Next we turned a corner and were standing in the plane blank area. Ted told us that all the blanks come from a quarry in New Hampshire. This is where both the bronze and iron casting is done. It was really interesting to see the rough blank as it shows up at Lie Nielsen and watch the various stages to take it to a shiny plane body. Most impressive were the boxes and boxes of plane bodies just waiting to be worked. Here is a box of edge trimming bronze planes.
The plane line was a mass of bodies and CNC machines. It was hard to really see what was going on at each stage but our guide Ted was kind enough to explain all the steps that these plane bodies go through. I took a bunch of pictures here, but upon examination they really don’t show anything and I deleted most of them due to poor quality. (I am inspired by the QC at Lie Nielsen I guess). One thing I thought was cool was the pile of shavings that they create in their shop. Just a little different from what I am used to in my own shop.
Next we tromped back out in the mud and crossed over to the blade room.
This was startling because it looked so familar. Granted the machines are bigger but the sharpening process is just the same as in any of our shops. Someone is grinding bevels on a grinding wheel, another person is lapping and honing using a scary sharp on steroids method. This is where the level of hand made quality really comes into play.
Just a short walk down the hall and into the assembly room. This was really cool as all you see are tubs and tubs of shiny parts. From knurled bronze knobs, to iron and bronze frogs and everything in between. Three people stood at a long table and were painstakingly assembling bench planes. While I was there, they were working on a batch of #4 bronze smoothers. I was once again struck by the meticulous nature of this work. A part would be added and it would be checked against a straight edge or checked for square. This was definately unlike any assembly line I had ever seen where mindless drones insert tab A into slot B. It was obvious how much care these workers put into their work. Across the room one worker was dong a final check on a run of inlay tools and the smell of Linseed oil permeated the room there.
That brought us back to the showroom. I played around with some of the tools some more, but that was it. My wife and I had agreed before the trip that we would just look and save our money for another time. (Woodworking In America in November!!!) Heather was nice enough to buy me a cool Lie Nielsen T shirt though and she now has a better idea why I am so taken with these tools. I have a strong suspicion that somehow something got bought while my back was turned and might show up on a future special ocassion though. The parting thought I had while driving away was how friendly everyone was in the factory. Many of the workers wanted to know where we were from and what we thought. Everyone knew everyone else’s name and they all appeared to be woodworkers themselves. The pride in their work is obvious in how they carry themselves and the products they create. All in all, I was so impressed. I couldn’t stop talking about it for days.
If you are in Maine, make a point to visit Lie Nielsen you won’t regret it. Oh and stop at Moody’s on the way back and get some pie: best stuff on the planet!!