Still No Cure for ‘Infill Disease’

Larry Williams of Old Street Tool has a lot of good jokes about people with “Infill Disease.” This expensive malady plagues woodworkers who become smitten with these curious tools – infill handplanes – and spread the contagion by claiming that they outperform all other tools.

Larry, who recovered from Infill Disease many years ago, now makes beautiful wooden-bodied planes in an Arkansas workshop with Don McConnell. Their wooden handplanes put to rest any notion that wooden-bodied planes are anything but world-class.

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Like Larry, I struggled with Infill Disease early in my woodworking career. I was deeply curious about the performance claims that got thrown around about these tools (“They don’t cause tear-out – no matter the grain direction!”). Plus, the tools just looked so damn different from the metallic and wooden-bodied planes I grew up around.

After years of using infills side-by-side with other planes, I concluded that a handplane’s performance is 99.9 percent in the hands of the user. After that, I sold or traded away most of my infill planes to help send my kids to college and improve my workshop (hello, windows!). But I still have a handful of these tools in my shop. Why? Because each one is a story, a relationship or a history that I can hold in my hands.

Wayne Anderson Infill Miter

1-3/4” blade; 2”-wide x 8-5/8”-long body

This was my first infill plane – I bought it in 2004 back when Wayne charged $100 per inch of the finished tool – and I know it as well as my wife’s hands. It also had the craziest journey of any object I’ve owned. You can read the whole tale here. But the short version of the story begins when it was stolen at a woodworking show outside Philadelphia. 

Ten years later, the tool resurfaced and was sold privately. It had been caught in a hurricane and became a rusted barnacle of its former self. After some horse trading, I got the plane back. My original goal was to restore the plane to its former perfection. Then I had a change of heart.

I’m not one to hide scars. I have a gash on my left hand that could be easily concealed, but I leave it as a reminder about the wrong way to push a knife. So I decided to fix the miter plane to work the way it used to, but I let the cosmetic flaws remain. Raney Nelson at Daed Toolworks did me a huge favor by refiling the plane’s ebony bed; I took care of the rest of the exterior.

Even with its flaws, I love this tool. I pick it up and remember meeting Wayne for the first time at a farm in Illinois and falling in love with his aesthetic. Every Wayne plane is different – I’ve never seen two that are identical. That idea, which was foreign to me at the time, continues to resonate with my stick chairs: No two are alike.

Daed Toolworks Infill Miter

1-1/2” blade; 1-15/16”-wide x 7-1/2”-long body

When Raney Nelson started selling infill planes (many years after he began making them), I was one of the first people in line to buy one at Woodworking in America. We have similar aesthetics tool-wise (and music-wise). So the steel miter plane with boxwood infills spoke directly to me. 

The mouth on the plane is as tight as any I’ve encountered. Of all the infill planes I’ve owned, it comes as close to fulfilling the “superplane” myth that gets thrown around. It remains a fantastic tool that is easy to set and use. Plus, Raney is a good friend, so I always smile when I get to use it. Corny, but true.

Robert ‘Bob’ Baker Infill Miter 

1-1/2” blade; 1-13/16”-wide x 7”-long body

This plane, made in 1983, was a pioneer. It was featured in an early issue of Fine Woodworking magazine, and Baker was one of the early American makers of infills.

Bob and I met only once, in 2006, but I was immediately charmed and drawn to him (like others were). And we kept in touch after that meeting, exchanging jokes and emails about tools until he died before his time in 2010.

But that’s not why I own the first infill plane he made.

Tool collector Carl Bilderback had purchased the miter because of its provenance and beauty. And he used it in his shop in LaPorte, Indiana. Carl and I met about 1999 or 2000 when he called to complain about something I had written in Popular Woodworking about Norris-style depth adjusters. After that day, we became good friends and hung out at tool meets and woodworking events for many years. (You might remember Carl singing the National Anthem at the first Handworks event in Amana, Iowa.)

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As Carl was losing his battle with cancer, he asked Megan Fitzpatrick and me to visit him in LaPorte for lunch. There, he presented us each with a Bob Baker plane and said there was only one string attached to the gift: I had to use the tool. So now when I pick this tool up I think about two wonderful people I have lost.

If you think this story is getting sadder, don’t worry. It gets worse.

Bristol Design Thumb Plane

1-1/4” blade; 1-1/2”-wide x 5”-long body

While teaching at David Savage’s school in Devon, England, he gave me this small plane as a gift for coming all the way from America. It was a prototype tool made by Bristol Design. David said it was the only plane that worked better than his Lie-Nielsen block plane, and it was one of his favorites.

It was a special gift because David had become a father figure to me. The man was incredibly encouraging about my work – more so than any other person I’ve met. And his encouragement and attention came at a time in my life when I needed it badly. The relationship was, at first, bewildering to me because his woodwork is simply on a different level than most people (and certainly mine).

Aside from that, David was also a bombastic writer, self-deprecating, generous, a snappy dresser and all-in-all a lovely person to spend time with.

I don’t connect with many people, and I’m always circumspect around others. But within a few weeks of meeting David I was telling him things I had told only my wife in the dark.

When David died of cancer in 2019, it was almost one year after I’d lost my father to cancer. I felt the loss of both men acutely, and I don’t think I have yet to recover.

The good news was that we managed to publish David’s book, “The Intelligent Hand,” before his death. It’s a book that Megan and I are quite proud of. David’s furniture and mine look nothing alike on the surface – his is insanely perfect. But the book, his design process and his way of looking at the world are forever stamped on my brain.

Whenever I want to remember that relationship, I have only to reach for this plane. The tool might not be a so-called superplane. It’s just a couple castings, two pieces of wood, a screw and two thin slabs of steel. But like any plane, it’s what the user brings to the tool that makes all the difference.

— Christopher Schwarz


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