Larry Williams, woodworking plane maker
The evidence of Larry Williams’ skill litters the floor of his cluttered, one-room workshop in Eureka Springs: rumpled little spirals of wood, so hair-thin and translucent that they look like strips of rice paper. Hold one up to the light and you can almost see through it.
Though his work is all about turning fine hardwood into fine little shavings, it’s the way it all gets from point A to point B that has people calling him night and day. As one of the only makers of traditional wooden woodworking planes in America, Williams was named an Arkansas Living Treasure in 2006. Through research and perseverance, he has almost single-handedly recreated a craft and market that nearly died out with the whine of power tools and the hum of mechanization.
Originally from Denver, Williams moved to Eureka Springs in 1980, seeking peace, quiet, and the hardwoods used in his fledgling restoration carpentry business. That work — and a good bit of frustration — soon led Williams and business partner Bill Clark to a rather startling conclusion: As good as modern power tools are, they can’t do everything; especially when it comes to reproducing moldings, stairs and other woodwork in old homes made with even older tools.
“If you’re doing carpentry in someone’s house, you’re doing a one-of-a-kind thing,” he said. “Well, a power tool’s strengths are repetitive work. So there are times when they are certainly useful, but a hand tool is more efficient.” After awhile, he and Clark began collecting traditional wooden planes for use in their work. After buying an incomplete set of hollows and rounds, tools to make curved profiles in wood, Williams decided to try making his own planes to fill in the gaps in his set. That’s where he hit what might be called the knowledge wall.
“There just isn’t any good information out there on plane making,” he said. “It’s basically a lost trade.”
After taking a class on wooden plane making and finding himself less than impressed with the crude and too-modern result, Williams started researching the function of 18th- and 19th-century planes and how they were once made, sometimes resorting to working backward from antique models. Not only did he have to learn plane making, he had to learn how to make floats — the delicately curved, hooked, pointed and sloped files once used to make wooden planes — which required him to buy equipment and learn metal-working. It was a tedious, trial-and-error process at first, he said.
“The first time we showed our planes anywhere,” Williams said, “we took some to a tool collectors’ meet, and we had a sign that said ‘Can you imagine how many mistakes these few planes represent?’ The way we learned is by trying it. If it doesn’t work, start over.”
Twelve years after making the first set of hollows and rounds and 10 years after they started selling planes, Clark and Williams are among the most sought-after plane makers in the country. Though Williams is able to turn out a completed plane in about a day and a half, his backlog for deliveries now stands at two years.
The first bench planes made by Clark and Williams originally sold for $200. Their current price for a half set of hollows and rounds is $1,940, and a large plow plane will go for just under $1,000 with shipping and handling.
Williams estimates that they have sold 50 to 60 variations of the plane over the years, from the two-foot bench planes Bill Clark makes, to the delicate models used to cut moldings around the tops of harpsichords.
Williams said the market is mostly amateurs and hobbyists who are drawn to traditional planes for the quality, safety, tactile feedback, and the things that power tools simply can’t do.
“If you’re a surgeon, every time you turn on a table saw, you’ve got your career at risk,” Williams said. “Also, there are a lot of period furniture makers, and as soon as they get into it, they realize that router bits and shaper cutters aren’t available in the profiles they want.”
It’s not surprising that one of Clark and Williams’ repeat customers is the furniture making shop at Colonial Williamsburg, the recreated 18th century settlement in Virginia. Because the craftspeople there use their tools day in and day out in a workshop setting, Williams said, it’s a great place to see how their planes hold up under the rigors of constant use.
“They’ve got to have period tools, and they can’t use the old tools, because they wear them out,” he said. “That gives us a place to see how our stuff is doing. There aren’t many places that use the tools to the extent that Williamsburg does. So it’s rare that we get to see a plane that has had really heavy, daily use — a situation real similar to what they would have been. It shows us how we’re doing.”
After 10 years of working sometimes 16-hour days in his workshop, Williams is looking forward to a little rest. A move to a larger space in Eureka Springs is forthcoming, as is the hiring of a few apprentices to lighten the load. Though a slip on icy steps some years back put him out of the carpentry business, plane making has been good to him. In coming years, Williams hopes to be able to build up the business to the point that it can be sold.
Though he said that the work can be tedious at times, he feels good knowing that he is contributing to the history of tool making. Too, he said, there’s something satisfying in making something and putting it to good use.
“I spent years trying to tune the old planes and get them to work right,” he said. “Well, after years of frustration, it’s really pretty satisfying to say gee, this is virtually exactly what an 18th-century plane would have been, and guess what? This one works!”