In the United States, the words “tools and hardware” and “Stanley” are almost synonymous. The company began modestly in 1843, when Frederick T. Stanley founded a door-hardware company in New Britain, Connecticut. In 1857, Henry Stanley, Frederick's cousin, launched the Stanley Rule and Level Company, which acquired Leonard Bailey & Co. in 1878. Bailey held numerous patents on such mainstay tools as planes, which Stanley Rule and Level augmented with mitre boxes, rulers, hand drills, hammers, and, of course, its lines of wood and iron levels. By 1920, the two Stanley firms had merged.

While the Stanley name eventually became associated with everything from toolboxes to hinges to garage-door openers, it is perhaps best known as a plane manufacturer. Stanley entered that market in 1869, and by 1900 it was the dominant player, often buying out competitors.

One of the keys to Stanley’s success was to continually put tantalizing new products in front of consumers, whether they needed them or not. Frequently, many of these so-called “innovations” were surface changes that didn’t necessarily make the product better or easier to use. Thanks to this policy, Stanley released more than 300 plane models.

Two of Stanley’s most premium models, the No. 42 and No. 44, were made of gunmetal. The company also made six aluminum models, which have the letter “A” before their model numbers.

Interestingly, the planes that were not especially popular back in the day are the most valuable ones to contemporary collectors—they were only produced for around 15 years as opposed to the 60- or 70-year run of a normal Stanley product. These include the No. A45 aluminum combination plow and the No. 444 dovetail.

All Stanley tools were numbered; Stanley’s metal bench planes were first numbered based on size—the No.1 was 5 ½ inches long while the No. 8 was 24 inches. Many of the company’s planes and tools became standard for every woodworker’s tool kit, including the No. 80 scrapper (used to give wood a glass-like surface) and the classic No. 45 combination plane, which is like a plow plane but also cuts various curved molding forms.

The Stanley No. 45 was produced between 1884 and 1962, and is still used by woodworkers. When Stanley released an improvement on the model, the No. 55, it was praised by carpente...

When it comes to metal planes, it takes some doing to distinguish between the antique Stanley models and the contemporary versions—look for the Stanley name cast into the plane body or on the adjusting knob. Older metal tools were japanned (coated with black pigment), while later planes, like the Stanley No. 49 from 1898, were nickel-plated.

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