The Stanley #55
Understanding an ingenious workhorse
by Gregory Schipa
The Stanley #55 Universal Combination Plane, be-
cause of its apparent complexity, is often relegated to
the collector's shelf. But you can put it back to work.
ost people, when they first set eyes upon a Stanley #55
Universal Combination Plane, are sure they've discov-
ered the ultimate contraption, though one undoubtedly too
crazy to work. That's what I first thought, yet many years
later the #55 has grown to be a part of me. As the Stanley
Tool Company modestly described it in their 1897 catalog:
Combining as it does all the so-called 'Fancy' Planes,
its scope of work is practically unlimited, making the
Stanley #55 literally 'A planing mill within itself.'
I have my reservations about that sweeping claim, but there is
no doubt that for the cabinetmaker, house joiner or restora-
tionist, the #55 is a most useful and even addictive tool.
With a little patience, you can set it up to do the job of any
one of a hundred specialty planes, and it will duplicate period
moldings you simply cannot find in the lumberyards, nor
even mill with a spindle shaper.
History—Although the #55 seems to have landed from
space, it is actually the product of a gradual, rational evolu-
tion. In the 19th century, single-purpose wooden planes, ba-
sically the same design as had been used in ancient Egypt and
Rome, had multiplied until a cabinetmaker or housewright
might have needed a hundred of them to fashion all the
moldings in style, an expensive and weighty collection to store
and transport. These beautiful wooden planes were also un-
stable, liable to check and warp.
The Industrial Revolution provided a metal technology
that avoided wood's drawbacks. In 1871, after successfully
marketing a series of cast-iron bench planes, Stanley intro-
duced the "Miller Combination Plane" as a replacement for
the carpenters' plow—it employed metal screw threads instead
of wood, and a sole that "would not warp or swell." Within
a few years Stanley came out with the #45, which replaced a
boxful of plows, fillisters and beaders. Meanwhile, improve-
ments in machinery resulted in abundant, newly available
mill-run moldings, which reduced the need for handwork and
hastened the decline of the wooden molding planes. It was
only a matter of time until the #55 came along and claimed
to be able to take over all molding functions.
My crew and I have four of the contraptions, and they are
invaluable for the restoration work we do. It's curious how we
came to discover them. I had been using old wooden planes
to duplicate moldings, and had even had a few new ones
made for me by Norman Vandal (FWW #37, p. 72). I'd
picked up some old metal planes, too, including a Stan-
ley #45 with interchangeable cutters. I remember musing to
myself that the #45 would be able to do just about anything
if only it had sole runners that could be adjusted vertically as
well as horizontally. And then I discovered the #55, which
has exactly this feature. In my own day-to-day work, I'd gone
through the same evolution as had a generation of 19th-cen-
The Stanley #55 Universal Combination Plane was devel-
oped by Justus A. Traut and Edmund A. Schade, who pat-
ented it in 1895. It was first marketed by the Stanley Tool
Company in 1897, with 52 cutters (the number gradually
climbed to 55), and remained relatively unchanged until it
went out of production in 1962. There were 41 optional cut-
ters as well, which are now quite rare. In addition, a crafts-
man could grind cutters of his own design out of flat tool
stock. The catalog listed it as a "molding, match, sash, bead-
ing, reeding, fluting, hollow, round, plow, rabbet and fillet-
ster, dado, slitting, and chamfer plane." It is 10 in. long and
weighs 15 lb., including all parts and cutters. The body is
nickel-plated, and the fences and handles are rosewood. As
much as the following description (quoted from the 1897
Stanley catalog) is a tangle of terminology, to a craftsman
who could use this versatility in his daily work it must have
been engaging reading:
This plane consists of: A Main Stock (A) with trans-
verse sliding arms (H), a Depth Gauge (F) adjusted by
a screw, and a slitting cutter with stop. A Sliding Sec-
tion (B) with a vertically adjustable bottom. The auxil-
iary Center Bottom (C) is to be placed in front of the
cutter as an extra support, or stop, when needed. This
bottom is adjustable both vertically and laterally.
Fences (D) and (E). Fence (D) has a lateral adjustment
by means of a screw, for extra fine work. The Fences
can be used on either side of the plane, and the
rosewood guides can be tilted to any desired angle up
to 45°, by loosening the screws on the face. Fence (E)
can be reversed for center beading wide boards. An
adjustable stop (J) to be used in beading the edges of
matched boards is inserted on left hand side of sliding
section (B). A cam rest (G) aids stability.
The #55 with all its cutters fits in a case the size of a
shoebox, and it will produce handmade moldings of consider-
able depth and classic shape. It was never intended that the
combination plane should outperform all individual molding
planes, but rather that it should allow the craftsman at the
job site to match whatever profile he might need. A #55,
trimmed for work, weighs at least 3 awkward pounds,
whereas a small beading or molding plane weighs a balanced
and comfortable 10 oz. to 14 oz. Over the course of a day,
the difference is significant.
Also, even though the #55 is more straightforward than it
at first looks, setting it up takes time. After setting three run-
ners, the blade, two fences, spurs and perhaps the cam rest,
you would certainly hesitate before disassembling everything
to cut a plain rabbet. You'd grab the nearest rabbet plane—or
an electric router—instead.
Despite its complexity, the Stanley #55 becomes easy to
understand when you examine its relationship to some of the
planes it replaces. In the drawing on the facing page, for in-
stance, we see three old planes. The first, one of a pair, is a
single-purpose plane that makes a groove on the edge of a
-in. thick board (the other plane in the set makes a tongue).
The next, a more versatile plow plane, has an adjustable
depth stop and a fence on adjustable arms. The fillister plane
has features that allow it to cut cross-grain rabbets. Both the
grooving plane and the plow plane, instead of requiring a
broad, flat sole like a bench plane, have a single, thin metal
runner that limits the depth of cut on each pass. The main
stock of the #55 has a similar runner. With one of its fences
attached to the metal arms, the main stock of the #55 would
closely resemble a plow plane, as shown at A, and, with none
of its other parts attached, could be used to plow a narrow
groove. A wider iron, however, such as cutter no. 15 in the
small drawing below, would be difficult to use with a single
runner, because if the plane tilted at all, the cutter would dig
in. The #55 therefore has a
second runner that can sup-
port the other side of the
iron, as shown at B on the
facing page. These two run-
ners suffice for most of the
#55's cutters. By designing
this sliding-section runner to
be vertically adjustable, Stan-
ley made the plane capable
of reproducing wide flutes
(cutter no. 55) and thumb-
nails (no. 64), as shown at C. An auxiliary half-runner is used
to support the middle of the wider cutters when necessary.
How it works—Setting the heights and locations of the run-
ners is the key to setting up the plane. Two pairs of arms
Stanley's 52 (later 55) standard cutters were originally packed
in flat wooden boxes. There were 41 additional cutters avail-
able, wider and narrower versions of the basic shapes.
come with the #55: one set is 4 in. long, the other is 8 in.
long. To adjust the plane for different cutters, you simply
slide the runner sections you need onto the arms, then clamp
them in place by tightening the wing nuts. Runners, when
you are using them at the outside edges of a cutter, should be
set as close inside each edge as possible, so that they can bear
against the sides of the groove being cut. To set the proper
exposure of the cutter, I find it simplest to set all the runners
exactly flush with the cutting edge, then to lower the cutter.
This is easily done by turning a single, knurled nut—it tracks
the iron up and down with almost no play.
The cutters: The 96 factory-made cutters, shown in the
photo at the bottom of the facing page, are used one at a
time in the #55. When a combination molding must be
made, a series of shapes can be planed next to each other
until the profile is complete. You usually plane the part of
the profile farthest from the fence first, working progressively
toward the edge of the stock on which the fence rides. Also,
you must plane each shape on all your sticks before you
change the cutter for the next part
of the profile. It is tricky to main-
tain consistency, and a slip in any
one of the operations means that
you've ruined your molding. You
need to plan for a lot of wasted
sticks. I find that the moldings cre-
ated this way are the least effective use of the #55 plane.
Stanley liked to think that there were virtually unlimited op-
tions and combinations, and technically there are. Most com-
binations of cutters on a single piece, however, take consider-
Grooving plane has only one function, hence no
adjustments except for the wedge that locks
the iron at the correct depth. The metal runner
acts as the sole, preventing the iron from dig-
ging in. Fence and depth stop are built-in.
Plow plane, with adjustable fence and depth
stop, makes grooves on the face of a board.
Some plows have assorted blades of different
widths; with others you plow grooves side by
side if you need one wider than the iron.
Fillister plane's fence and depth stop are adjust-
able. A sharp spur severs the wood fibers
ahead of the iron, allowing the plane to work
cross-grain. For efficiency, the iron is wider than
the cut: the fence adjusts beneath it.
The "main stock" of the #55 has features derived from the
wooden planes shown above. Instead of having a single,
broad sole like a bench plane, it has metal runners that
slide on the arms and adjust to an assortment of cutters,
as shown in the drawings at right.
At C the #55 performs as a
molding plane. The sliding-
section runner and the center
half-runner are horizontally and
vertically adjustable, and sup-
port various cutter profiles at
the points where the cutter
would tend to dig in.
At B the sliding-section runner
has been added to the arms
to support a wider, though still
At A is the main stock of the
#55, with fence attached,
performing the function of the
grooving plane shown above.
If limited to this single func-
tion, the plane would need no
adjusting screws except those
that set the cutter's depth.
Fig. 1: Evolution of the #55
able sawing and rabbeting in combination with the
actual molding cuts. This is extremely time-consum-
ing. Combined moldings usually come out a bit in-
consistent as well. Instead, it is more practical to make
a series of separate moldings, then combine them,
such as by nailing on a cove-and-bead below a reverse
ogee to form a nice cornice molding.
The fences: The #55's fences can be adjusted up and
down—by means of alternative holes for the arms—as
well as in and out. They also tilt to 45° for making
chamfers. There are two major fences that come with
the #55. The larger one has adjustment screws that
help in setting the fence vertically parallel to the side of the
cutter. Keeping the fence flat against the work is the best way
to keep the plane perpendicular. If the fence is not parallel to
the side of the cutter, the plane will run either into or away
from the work, binding and cutting poorly. Stanley suggests
using both fences whenever possible (one on each edge of the
stock), but I find that this causes the plane to bind, and
mostly I just use the smaller one.
When you use the plane, keep pressure toward the work,
so the fence won't ride off (especially on coves and thumbnail
moldings). Also, to keep the plane running straight, push the
#55 with your right hand only—use your left hand to keep
inward pressure on the fence.
Depth stops: The main depth stop adjusts with a single
knurled nut. It works the same as the depth stop on the
fillister plane in the drawing on p. 91, eventually contacting
the top surface of the work and preventing the plane from
cutting too deeply. There is another depth stop, located on
the main stock behind the blade, which should be used when-
ever it can make contact. When you use the front depth stop
alone, the plane tends to tip back. In addition, some of the
cutters accept a little, built-in depth stop that can be adjusted
with a screwdriver (note cutter no. 1 in the photo on p. 90).
The spurs: The main-stock runner and the sliding-section
runner both have adjustable spurs located just in front of the
blade. As in the fillister plane, these sever the fibers ahead of
the iron for a cleaner cut, and they must be kept sharp.
The slitting cutter: A knife-blade-like cutter can be set into
a holder located behind the usual blade location. It is used to
split strips off the edge of boards—similar to the Japanese
splitting gauge in FWW #34, p. 52—and works faster and
more neatly than a saw on thin stock.
Primary functions—Perhaps the function for which the
#55 is best suited (or at least most easily applied) is beading,
the creation of a small half-round with a groove (called a
quirk) on the edge of a board, or occasionally in the middle.
A bead was most often applied to embellish the joint (and to
disguise wood movement) between two matched boards, or as
the inside edge of window and door casings. If the cutter,
depth gauge and fence are set properly, the bead will be per-
fectly shaped. A flat-topped bead means the depth is set too
shallow; a flat-sided bead means the fence is too close to the
blade. If there is a flat on the outside of the bead, the fence is
too far from the cutter (you have created an astragal). The
most common mistake in beading is letting the fence ride
away from the work, which results in an enlarged quirk, and
a shrinking bead.
Rabbets and grooves are simple with the #55. It is always
easiest when rabbeting to use a cutter wider than the rabbet.
The smaller fence can be adjusted so
it bears on the edge of the stock be-
low the blade, as shown at left. The
plow function is accomplished very
handily as well, although the nar-
rower cutters are best.
Of the "fancier" moldings, the
#55 cuts some well, but it makes
others only with difficulty. The Gre-
cian ogees (cutters no. 102-106)
seem to work most easily, because
the plane has less tendency to ride
off the piece. On these and all fancy moldings, however, you
must take care not to roll the plane out, or the moldings will
be uneven and impossible to join on the same work without
carving. Profiles that drop off away from the work tend to
encourage this riding-off. Coves, Roman ogees and reverse
ogees fall into this category, and the simple "thumbnail" or
ovolo cut on the edge of a stile is the most difficult (the cutter
is referred to as a quarter hollow). These cuts all call for a
very shallow blade setting, and strong
pressure toward the work. On many,
Stanley recommends that you leave some
stock uncut on the outside edge, as shown
at left, to be trimmed off later. This traps
the bottom runner and prevents it from
sliding off the work.
Availability—Stanley's "miracle" tool is out of production.
The combination planes that are on the market (the best two
I've seen are the Record #405 Multi-plane and Stanley's
#13-050 Combination) do not have the vertically adjustable
fence and thus lose most of the functions that made the #55
so versatile. With the resurgent interest in hand-tool work,
the popularity of the #55 is again growing. Unfortunately,
these planes are usually found at the antique tool dealer's,
where demand from the tool collectors, the nemesis of the
joiner and cabinetmaker, has driven up the price. The planes
seem to be harder to find each year, but the major dealers can
usually come through with one for about $200 to $350, a
price comparable to a new combination plane.
The number of cutters will vary according to the year that
the plane was manufactured, but check to see that most of
them are there and in good condition. Check the rest of the
parts against a complete list (available from Stanley), and ex-
amine the castings for small hairline stress cracks, especially
on the depth-gauge housing. Also check that the runners are
not bent, but perfectly parallel. A hint: never put a #55
where it can fall from the bench—the results are disastrous.
When you get your new/old plane home, keep it well oiled
against rust, and spend some time sharpening and honing
your cutters—they have to be perfectly sharp.
Gregory Schipa, of Waitsfield, Vt., is president of Weath-
er Hill Restoration Co., which takes apart period houses
and refurbishes them. The Stanley Tool Co. will supply
instruction booklets to owners of the #55 (write R. West,
Manager, Product Research Standards, Stanley Tool Co.,
600 Myrtle St., New Britain, Conn. 06050). A 1980 re-
print, The Complete Woodworker, edited by Bernard Jones
(Ten Speed Press, PO Box 7123, Berkeley, Calif. 94707;
$7.95), has 16 pages on the fine points of the #55.
Putting an old #55 to work
by T.D. Culver
f you decide to buy a Stanley #55,
first examine the plane body and all
the parts for broken castings, bent run-
ners and chipped cutters. A plane with
bent or broken castings has been
dropped and will be cranky. A "bar-
gain" on a #55 may be no bargain. I
would not buy one sight unseen.
If the plane is okay, check the cut-
ters. Ideally, the bevels should still have
the grind marks from the factory. If any
of them have been badly honed, their
profiles will be wrong. Count the cut-
ters. My #55 came with 52 of the 55
regular cutters, including two sash cut-
ters, and none of the 41 special cutters.
I have yet to find a molding I can-
There are two positions for setting up
the stock to be molded: on edge in the
vise or flat on the bench. It is difficult to
hold a piece narrower than about 2 in.,
so glue it temporarily to a waste piece.
After molding the shape, saw it free.
If you are starting with a wide board
and making narrow moldings, plane
one edge, flip the board (paying atten-
tion to grain direction), and plane the
other edge. Rip these moldings off, joint
the edges and begin again. You can turn
out a surprising amount of molding in a
fairly short time.
The position of the stock determines
how the fences will be set on the #55.
When the stock is on edge, it is ex-
tremely useful to set up both fences,
because then there is no worry of tilt-
ing the plane and spoiling the molding.
Set the left-hand fence, place the #55
on the stock, and tighten the wing nuts
as you squeeze the fences together hard.
When you begin planing, there will be
quite a bit of resistance, but it soon eases.
When you're planing work flat on
the bench, the dogs and vise may not
hold it against the considerable side
pressure you need to exert. Or the board
may not be wide enough to be clamped
in the dogs and still overhang the bench-
top. A few finish nails through the work
and into the bench will hold and will
not foul the fence arms. You can sup-
pore the ends of long stock on sawhorses.
Usually only one fence can be set
when the work is laid flat, which allows
the #55 to tip and ruin the molding.
After five years of struggling, I finally
acquired a cam rest and it is worth every
penny I paid. Contra the instruction
manual, I set it opposite the fence on
the front arm. By adjusting the screw so
that the cam rotates stiffly around the
fence arm, I can set the bottom of the
cam even with the edge of the cutter.
Now the #55 rides on two points in-
stead of one. As the cut progresses, the
cam pivots and continues to hold up its
end of the plane. Be sure to twist the
cam back to its original position when
you start to plane another stick.
The cutter should protrude beyond
the runners at the sides, just as it must
at the bottom. Otherwise the runners
will foul the molding. The depth of cut
should be set very light for molding and
slightly heavier for plowing. The runner
on the sliding section may creep, causing
the cutter to dig in, unless the thimble
check-nuts are tightened. These are
round, knurled nuts located on the out-
side of the sliding section through which
the fence arms pass. Finger-tight is usu-
ally enough, though there are holes for a
tommy bar. If the plane throat jams
with shavings, you are taking too heavy
a cut. Check that the sliding section
hasn't crept up, or reset the cutter high-
er in the plane body.
You will find vernier calipers a great
help in setting up the #55. Once the
cutter is fixed, set the depth stop with
the calipers, measuring to the cutter
edge, not the runner. Then set the fence,
measuring at both the front and the
back, so that it is parallel to the runner.
Be sure to square the bearing face of the
fence to the fence arms.
It is especially important to plane
through the work in one continuous
stroke. Choppy strokes will choke the
plane and damage the molding. Clear a
space in front of the bench and walk
through each stroke with firm pressure
against the fence. Shavings will curl out
like excelsior and wind around your
wrist. Clean out the throat when you're
walking back for the next stroke, so the
plane won't jam.
Clear wood is best, although very
small, tight knots can be molded, with
luck, in an easily worked wood such as
walnut. Straight grain is helpful but not
essential on many shapes.
The #55 is surprisingly effective in
rabbeting and plowing plywood. Some
split-out can be expected, but a heavy
knife cut on the layout lines will mini-
mize this. In desperate straits, costly
hardwood plywood can be jointed,
plowed and splined just like solid wood.
The #55's no. 12 cutter makes a nice
groove for -in. fir-plywood splines.
The major problem with any antique
plane is finding parts, although some
parts for the Record No. 405 Multi-
plane do fit the #55. Cutters for the
Multi-plane fit both the #45 and #55,
but the selection is not as vast as the
original Stanley cutters. The fence arms
are the easiest to replace—pieces of -in.
mild steel rod work just fine.
I've had my #55 for six years, and
every year it seems to work better and
better. It is a complex tool, and it takes
some time to learn well. That time will
be amply rewarded one day, when you
stand ankle deep in shavings and hold
up to the light a crisp molding fresh
from the plane.
The #55 in full array, geared up to plane a quirked bead on a pine board.
T.D. Culver is a carpenter and cab-
inetmaker living in Cleveland, Ohio.