H104 as drawn by James A. Clarke

Stanley H-104 — The Little Plane That Could

Some tools have an interesting story to tell. The little known Stanley H104 is one of those tools. Below is another guest post by my good friend James A. Clarke who shared with me a detailed write-up on this 1960s Stanley bench plane with disposable cutters that worked much the way a Gillette shaving razor cartridge works today. The content below is mildly edited from Jim’s original text to better suit delivery via a blog post, but I tried to capture the essence of his message and included some additional images. I hope that you will enjoy learning about the Stanley H104 plane — “The Little Plane That Could!”

The Stanley “Handyman” H-104 Plane
by James A. Clarke

Introduction to “The Little Plane That Could!”
This post is about the Stanley Tool Company’s “Handyman” Bench Plane Model H-104 offered in 1962 as a low cost alternative to their many other higher priced offerings. The so-called “do-it-yourself” movement was well underway following WWII through the 50’s and early 60’s, but by this time demand for higher priced planes was significantly reduced and thus gave rise to the need for manufacturers to appeal to budget-minded buyers with low-cost alternatives. It was also apparent that do-it-yourselfers and the “handyman” didn’t require the top-end line of tools for household tasks.

Stanley H104 Dis-assembled (Photo by James A. Clarke 2004)
Stanley H104 Dis-assembled  (Photo by James A. Clarke 2004)

At this point it needs to be mentioned that Clarence Blanchard in his excellent publication “Fine Tool Journal”, Vol 53, No.2 Fall ’03, had a rather thorough coverage of this plane from the standpoint of how Stanley progressed the development from inception to production based on an actual production folder containing drawings and correspondence between various departments withing Stanley. This is recommended reading and can be found here: Stanley H104 Bench Plane Article by Clarence Blanchard.

Of interest, it seems that the plan began as a Model No. 140, but then was changed to the Model No. H104. (It is believed that it started out as a higher-end offering!) What is clear, however, is that the H104 had a relatively short lifespan (4-5 years) when Stanley discontinued it on June 13, 1967 due to poor sales. (< 20,000 were likely ever made). This plane is ‘collectible’ and the most sought after Stanley “Handyman” low cost plane due to its low production numbers and unique features.

H-104 Features:

  • Polished side-rails, painted (blue) based, knob and tote, red lever cap
  • About the same size as the standard Stanley No. 4 with cast-in non-movable frog
  • Distinctive low side rails (lower cost!)
  • Body 10″ long, 2 1/2″ wide, with 2″ cutter
  • Low cost alternative to Sears 4 sided throw-away cutter line of planes
  • Lever (Screw) cap — knurled 1/4-20 screw to tighten
  • Depth of cut adjustment with shouldered/knurled 1/4-20 screw (this was a poor choice as it had too much slack)
  • Tote & Front Knob Screws #12-24 threads

Author’s appraisal — this is a very nice low-cost plane for casual (“Handyman”) service. The disposable blades can be sharpened or replaced as intended.

Figure 1: Stanley H104 as drawn by James A. Clarke
Figure 1: Stanley H104 as drawn by James A. Clarke

Description:

This description is accompanied by the hand drawn sketch above labeled as ‘Figure 1: Stanley H104’

To make these planes easier to use and maintain, Stanley revived the disposable blade concept, at a reasonable price and called it the “Handyman ‘Ready-Edge’ Bench Plane.” How many were actually made is unknown (From Blanchard — Less than 20,000) since not everyone was of the “disposable” cutter ilk, although it did have its merits and thus more than likely had a serious following. The real appeal of this little brother to the “standard” line (maybe not so little at 10″ long) is the various design solutions used for cutter height and lateral adjustments — the nicely executing castings and machined parts. For a so-called low-cost tool, this was a keeper! The H104 is about the same size as the other No. 4 planes in Stanley’s many-fold lines, although slightly longer but much lighter in weight at 2 1/2 pounds versus 3 3/4+/-.

The Frog

The H104 doesn’t have the traditional frog arrangement as used widely on Stanley and competitive bench planes. The fixed frog (making it a bit more like a block plane) is narrow, slanted (40 degree) “tower” cast as part of the base with two (1/4-20) tapped holes to accept the lever cap, the cap iron knurled blade adjustment knob. In this configuration there are three 1/4-20 screws:

  1. Pan head screw to hold the lever cap in place
  2. Special shouldered/knurled screw for adjustment of the cap iron/blade assembly
  3. Knurled screw to tighten the lever cap against the cap iron/blade and thus against the frog at its top

This simple design was also effective. One of the quarrels I have with this configuration is the use of 1/4-20 threads which are not normally closely machined resulting in considerable slack (“backlash”) which is not appropriate for this type of application wherein adjustments are made frequently. (Especially when Stanley used a finer #12-24 thread for the tote and front knob screws where it doesn’t matter!)

The Blade/Cutter Cap Iron Assembly

Chatter must have been an issue with this plane as the uppermost tip (an area of about 1/8″ x 1/2″) of the slanted “tower” frog is the only part of the frog that comes into contact with the cap iron/blade assembly. This arrangement is only slightly stiffened by the attachment of the “Ready-Edge” blade to the cap iron that doubles as lateral adjuster and facilitates setting the depth of cut. It should also be noted that the cap iron is about the size of a credit card and only about twice as thick which is not a lot considering the minimal support provided for it.

H104 Blade/Cutter
H104 Blade/Cutter (Photo is from from this ebay listing: http://www.ebay.com/itm/Stanley-H104-Plane-Replacement-Iron-Blade-Cutter-2-Smooth-Plane-Vtg-/320981752114 )

The disposable “standard” 25 degree bevel-angled “Ready-Edge” blade has two sharpened edges allowing it to be rotated and re-installed into position via two small (#6-40) pan head screws. This arrangement provides a narrow semi-adjustable cutting edge (reveal) between the cutter edge and the chip breaker (~1/32″-1/16″) and thus satisfactory for fine, medium or coarse shavings. When new the plane came with an extra blade in the box and additional blades could be purchased — similar to a shaving razor. A limited amount of sharpening was possible although apparently not expected by the “Handyman” population.

Lateral adjustment was a simple to the point solution (compared to what was used on Bailey, Traut and Shade designs) utilizing a slot in the cap iron engaged by a shouldered machine screw.

An interesting refinement is the key-hole slot in the lever cap — this shouldered/countersunk recess traps the head of the pan head screws to prevent creep/movement of the lever cap when the cutter depth adjustment is being made. Stanley originally used a ‘key-hole’ design on their top of the line bench plane offerings, but then “patented” a new kidney shaped design around 1933 intended to eliminate creep. While none of these designs effectively eliminated creep the H104 design was pretty much fool-proof — when the lever cap was locked into place it could not move.

The Knob and Tote

The hardwood front knob and rear tote were painted dark blue to blend in with the painted base (not the usual Japanning) with “STANLEY HANDYMAN H104” embossed/stenciled in red or white on the tote and “MADE IN USA” in the bottom casting. The rear tote is somewhat awkward to the feel and definitely not of the caliber of top of the line Stanleys.

Another interesting refinement can be found under the the front knob — three little spurs cast in at 120 degrees apart around the perimeter of the indented knob seat — presumably to prevent the knob from rotating. This was an unusual detail usually reserved for higher end planes and backs up Blanchard’s allusion to this plane possibly being developed as a higher end plane and then being downgraded to the Handyman line.

Stanley H104 (Photo by James A. Clarke 2004)
Stanley H104 (Photo by James A. Clarke 2004)

The Casting

The bottom casting is an excellent example of integral-base-casting and Frog “pillar” or “tower”with a raised boss around the tote and lateral brace ribs near the mouth that extend from side to side. The base side wall profile has a more modernistic look with rounded corners unlike the traditional curves you see on other planes. (This was likely a cost saving measure). The toe of the casting has the usual shallow curvature, but the heel has a blunted, almost squared off edge. Behind the frog a letter ‘U’ is cast and a ‘2’ is cast near the throat — presumably foundry casting numbers. The H104, although shorter, in profile looks vaguely like the Stanley No. 62 low angle plane, except for the side wall treatment and different bed angle — 40 vs 12 degrees.

H104 In Use

After sharpening and honing the blade at 25 degrees with a micro bevel at 30 degrees we were ready to make a few trial shavings. The plane was applied to pieces of 3/4″ x 6″ x 12″ of Pine, Butternut, Hard Maple, Soft Maple, White Oak, Red Oak, Ash and Cherry with honing taking place frequently but not for each wood sample. Skewing the plane was always necessary! Planing was done on two faces — the two long grain edges and finally the two end-grain edges. Planing effort was handicapped without the ability to vary the mouth opening — it is fixed, thus fine shavings were difficult to achieve. A variable mouth opening and more mass would be a significant improvements.

Stanley H104 in Ad From 1962
Stanley H104 in Ad From October 1962 (Seen in common publications such as Popular Mechanics)

The Verdict

The plane performed as expected — adequate but not exceptional. It would be satisfactory for “Handyman” tasks (via sharpening or extra blades) but unacceptable for serious woodworking/cabinetmaking. The plane cannot compare to a finely tuned vintage Stanley Bailey or modern premium plane (Lie-Nielsen, Veritas, Clifton etc)

Conclusions

Taking into account all of the opposing forces in play as this plane was developed it seems like a great deal of engineering design and manufacturing-engineering went into this presumably low end, and unfortunately low volume plane. It seems that parallel developments inside of Stanley and economic forces from outside forced them to release this plane into the “Handyman” line even if it was originally intended to be a higher end offering. Nonetheless this plane inherited some subtle levels of engineering excellence that often go overlooked when compared to its higher end brethren.

It’s unfortunate that the times (economic and technological change — moving to power equipment) lead to an early demise for this tool — in another time it may have seen a lot more use and wider adoption.

Approximate value — $75-$150 (Higher if in excellent condition and with box).

 

Acknowledgements from James A. Clarke:

I would like to thank fellow member of the WNYATCA Club (Wester New York Antique Tool Collector’s Association) Tim Rhubart for bringing this little ‘gem’ to the light of day. If it wasn’t for that, this author might never have known or become interested in the H104 since it’s not on everyone’s radar as a need to have collectible. Tim agreed to sell it to me for a reasonable price, and with some preliminary observations it appeared to have a story that needed to be told, and thus here in this post.

This writeup is dedicated to Tim, my “favorite tool dealer” and friend for bringing it to my attention and the “giants” of research — Roger K. Smith, Alvin Sellens, John Walter, Clarence Blanchard, Patrick Leach, Bob Kaune, David Heckel and several others — although they are not all necessarily students of the “Handyman” line, their methods and approach to research on the study of planes has greatly influenced this author’s modest efforts.

Acknowledgements from Bill Rainford:

A big thank you to my friend James A. Clarke for sharing this material with me and allowing me to share it with everyone online via the post. Also a big thank you to Clarence Blanchard for giving me permission to share a copy of his article on the Stanley No. 140/H104 Bench Plane from “Fine Tool Journal”, Vol 53, No.2 Fall ’03 here.

Take care,
-Bill

 

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