Thomas Norris is famous for his highly crafted and beautifully made infill planes. E. Guymer reminisces about a time when he was first introduced to Mr. & Mrs. Norris and how he would eventually became a part of the family.

Interview With Plane Maker John Economaki

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John Economaki is widely known amongst fine tool aficionados for his wonderfully crafted woodworking tools, made from brass, steel and exotic rosewoods, which he first started to produce as a one-man enterprise way back in 1983. Since then the business has grown from strength to strength and both collectors and users have coveted the squares, bevels, scratch awls, gauges and other tools that Bridge City Tool Works have produced.

A number of years ago now Bridge City decided to move into the, somewhat obvious (we think), field of hand plane manufacturing -- and woodworkers the world over have been the better for it. These innovative and distinctly different looking planes are some of the most beautiful and finely crafted tools you're ever likely to encounter. While they're not cheap - no tools of this sort of calibre could be produced cheaply - the planes compare favorably, money wise, to the great British infill hand planes of generations past. Likewise they are equal or better than anything Messrs Spiers, Norris or Slater could have produced in their era.

How do Bridge City Tool Works know what to make and when? How do some of those complicated and intricate looking planes go from the drawing board to the customer? Handplane Central managed to catch up with John, in between his hectic work schedule, and asked a few pertinent questions.

Plane Maker John Economaki
The innovative VP-60 variable pitch bench plane from Bridge City Tool Works.

H.C. - When did Bridge City Tool Works begin to make hand planes and what was the first one made?

John Economaki - Our first plane was a low-angle block plane introduced in 1999.

H.C. - Bridge City Tool Works produce some of the most stunningly beautiful and innovative hand planes found anywhere in the world. Who, mainly, is responsible for coming up with the designs from a stylistic point of view?

John Economaki - Every tool we have produced since 1983 has come off of my drawing board -- thanks for the kind words!

H.C. - How many people are employed at Bridge City Tool Works and, more specifically, the hand plane section of the business?

John Economaki - Since 9/11 we have de-centralized our manufacturing. Today, all of our planes are made in the USA -- components come from job shops all over the country and assembly is done in the Pacific Northwest. Prior to the decision to decentralize, we had approximately 50 people involved in the tool making process which includes all of our products in addition to planes.

H.C. - Much of what goes into the making of your planes is done by hand. Would you be able to give an approximate percentage of the hand work/ machine work ratio?

John Economaki - From my perspective, the process of how we build a tool is unimportant compared to the final product. If there are machines that can make what I have designed, great -- if not we make it with hands. That said, there is way more hand work in the totes than any other component of our planes.

H.C. - Would you be able to give some examples of some of the processes that are done by hand?

John Economaki - Regarding the metal components in a bench plane, all buffing and sanding is done by hand, as well as the final fit and finish. Rear totes are mostly hand work.

Plane Maker John Economaki
The FL-1 Flushing Chisel.

H.C. - It could be argued that Lee Valley and Lie-Nielsen have most of the market wrapped up as far as high-end users are concerned. How do you see your position in the market? Do you find Bridge City Tool Works catering more to the collectors of hand planes or to the users of them?

John Economaki - I disagree with the suggestion that others have the plane market wrapped up -- I believe there is, and perhaps more important, there always will be market opportunities for good products. There is plenty of room for anybody who wants to make tools! It is however a small community -- we all know and often consult each other and perhaps this may seem counter intuitive, but is in all of our best interests that we all succeed! Bridge City planes are five to six times more expensive than Lee Valley offerings and two to three times more expensive than Tom’s planes. All of these planes make excellent shavings, so there is an example of market striation independent of function. The revenue from our planes totals millions of dollars and is growing partly because we have planes that nobody else makes -- the VP-60 Adjustable Pitch plane and the HP-6 with the interchangeable soles are two examples. The marketplace grows when there are choices, price point is but one of the decisions that leads to a purchase.

The second part of your question is more complex. I have never designed a tool to be "collected" and believe that all of our tools should be used. It is no irony that all hand tools "sit" most of the time doing nothing so in a sense every woodworker is a tool collector. I believe that while a tool sits, it can still contribute through its form and craftsmanship by being a silent voice of encouragement that inspires one to do their best work, both technically and aesthetically. Research amongst our buyer database indicates that approximately thirty percent of our customers buy Bridge City Tools for non-shop purposes -- so that is a large piece of our pie and we would be foolish to ignore their needs. We are always thrilled when people purchase our products, whatever the reason.

H.C. - Many of your planes are of a limited edition production run. What is the reasoning behind this?

John Economaki - The main reason for limiting a run is that I get excited about designing and creating new tools! The second reason is that we simply do not have pockets deep enough to put products with production values (and expenses) as high as ours on the shelf. We really are a "make to order" company. In the late 80's we had millions of dollars of inventory on the shelf and our bank had a fit. In the mid-90's we had more inventory and the bank had another fit. Inventory is great until you need cash and then it is an albatross. Being the slow learner that I am, I find it preferable for multiple reasons to keep minimal inventory and this does cost us sales at times. Over the years I have learned that there is one business model that absolutely depends on a steady inventory and there is another model that does not -- as a niche business the later model fits us better. We have no vision, or desire really, to be a "mainstream" tool producer.

H.C. - Do you prefer the process of creating new items or do you just find that the market for high quality planes is just too limited, resulting in smaller runs?

Plane Maker John Economaki
The CT-7 Low Angle Block Plane became BCTW's 1999 "Commemorative Tool".

John Economaki - Designing is in my blood, and as such, it is not work! So I believe it is fair to say that my best work is always ahead of me, and that is why I love this business.

Every market, regardless of the product, looks the same on paper -- it is a pyramid. The higher the price, the smaller the market share in unit volume and often in dollar volume as well. That does not mean there is not a market at the top; it means that the market potential, measured in unit volume, is larger as you go down the pyramid. It would be insane for us to make 15,000 VP-60's at $1,500 apiece in the initial run -- so we use historical data for determining our run sizes using common price elasticity metrics.

H.C. - The dovetailing featured in some of your planes is done a little differently from the traditional peened dovetails found in older British planes. Could you talk us through the process?

John Economaki - In the USA today, there are two readily available brass alloys, 260 and 360. The later is also known as free machining brass and as such, this is what we use for our brass components. The downside to this material is that when you "peen" it, it work hardens and then breaks off, creating one heck of a mess. This was a problem that needed to be solved.

Back in the late 90's when we made our first double-dovetailed plane body, it took us a couple of months to find a method that was 99% successful when filling the aggressively angled dovetail cavities on the sole of the plane. What I will share, without shooting our production investment in the foot, is that we do not peen the dovetails and the by-product of pressure is heat. Others have been successful peening 360 brass but I don't believe they were making as many double dovetailed planes as we were and thus were not as sensitive to how unreliable peening can be. Brass alloys available two hundred years ago were completely different than the recipes used today and from what I can tell, this material was much less likely to work harden.

Plane Maker John Economaki
CT-12 bench plane made from cocobolo, brass and steel.

H.C. - Stanley Tools were masters of finding a niche and then creating a plane to fill it. Similarly I find Bridge City Tool Works being an innovator in this regard. What are some of the determining factors in deciding which ideas to pursue and what sorts of planes to make?

John Economaki - I was a professional furniture designer/maker in the mid-70's thru 1982 and unfortunately became hyper-allergic to wood dust. When I started Bridge City Tool Works in 1983, I hoped there were others who did not want to work with cheap, poorly performing tools. My experience as a furniture maker really drives most of my tool ideas. I couldn't get a try square that was square, so I made my own. Short stubby scratch awls are worthless as a layout tool so I made my own. I have always felt that each thing I make has an opportunity to stick around long after I have kicked the bucket, so a great deal of time is spent on design -- function is always a much easier problem to quantify and solve than aesthetics. Because I had to make a living from my furniture, I could not afford to ignore the benefits of an abrasive planer for tables and larger flat surfaces. I was obsessed with speed and knew exactly how much work I needed to produce to stay in business so I used my block plane for just about everything. I always wanted a smaller plane for detailing bevels and other touches that really make the process of "discovering" craftsmanship such a joy. So we now have a little plane for such purposes, it is not inexpensive but it is pure pleasure to use.

You can't have a professional furniture studio and not rely on the numerous benefits of the router. I had several but you pay a price; I still go to sleep every night with ringing in my ears from those 120 decibel monsters. I also thought that a fifteen pound router spinning at 20,000 rpm at 120 decibels was a bit much for many jobs. Our popular HP-6 plane, which is really a little molding plane is my solution for those jobs where the router robs the user of the joy of pure handwork. Is it practical? Maybe not for many, but what a fun tool!

Plane Maker John Economaki
The CT-8 is a 20 degree precision block plane.

H.C. - Coming up with ideas for different types of planes is one thing, but what are the main factors for producing a variable pitch plane such as the VP-60?

John Economaki - Well, I just wanted to know if it could be done. If you are a serious woodworker and really enjoy hand work, you need several planes pitched at different attack angles. When you add up the cost of each of these planes, you get a target number that is attractive enough to embrace alternative solutions.

I try to go on a work retreat each year to have several weeks of uninterrupted thought, and each trip I give myself an assignment. At the time, I did not know if a variable pitch plane was doable, and I did not know that anybody else had tried to make one. I did know from experience and previous ideas that a low pitched, bevel down iron was prone to chatter and if a true variable pitch plane were to be conceived and built, this issue needed to be solved.

From my research, I now believe the notion of a "chip breaker" is pure nonsense and I have several high-end Japanese planes that make phenomenal silky shavings and they are all sans chip-breaker. Chatter is the real issue and there are several ways to address it, I took the approach that if the iron pitch was variable, the cantilever of the iron had to increase the lower the pitch and therefore this was the real issue.

H.C. - The adjustments on the VP-60 look quite complicated to use. Are they?

John Economaki - Well, there is an adjustable front throat just like every good plane so that is no big deal. The "frog" is really a back stop that makes a 30 degree range of motion possible. One hex nut holds it rigid to the body and there is an indicator that tells the pitch the iron. When the iron bevel is down, the plane can be pitched from 30 to 60 degrees and when the iron bevel is up, it can be pitched from 60-90 degrees. It is anything but difficult.

Plane Maker John Economaki
The limited edition CT-10 Low Angle Smoothing Plane.

The cap iron has a telescopic pressure bar that applies pressure directly behind the cutting edge. This is what completely kills chatter -- regardless of the pitch. Lateral adjustments of the iron are topside of the plane, and this is a really cool feature. Lastly, at extreme low angles, if one is flushing a tenon or similar work on small cross-sectional components, the rear throat should be moved forward to avoid having the protrusion fall in the cavity behind the iron. That's it. For what the VP-60 does, it is an elegantly simple solution and it works as good as any plane using "traditional" manufacturing techniques.

H.C. - What are the benefits of using the VP-60 over, say, two or three more conventional type hand planes set at different angles?

John Economaki - In many shops space is an issue so that may be a consideration. We have been told by many customers that they do not want to buy multiple planes because they do not spend that much time in their shop anymore. Some people find that the VP-60 can bail them out of some tricky situations and it is thus an attractive option. On the other hand, there are others who assume that because this tool is adjustable it is compromised somehow. This is not true. From my perspective a plane is jigged chisel that makes shavings, and it is nice to have choices.

H.C. - The articulated lever cap fitted in the VP-60 and CT-12 planes is of a unique design. Can you explain the reasoning behind this?

John Economaki - Everything has a "natural frequency" and this includes a bedded plane iron. Performance of a plane iron will suffer if this frequency is attainable in use. The extreme example of frequency modulation is when an item resonates. As an example, the frequency of a plucked guitar string doubles when fretted half-way down the neck, and with a cantilevered plane iron, similar vibrations can occur.

Plane Maker John Economaki
Close-up of the adjusters on the CT-12 bench plane.

I worked with several mechanical engineers to understand the mathematics behind frequency, mass, dampening options and through that process, designed a mechanism that uses a pivoting cap iron that terminates with a pressure bar and a dampener. A jack screw is used to tighten the cap and consequently "loads" the iron to a point that is not attainable in actual use by wood resistance, so the iron, in engineering terms has been attenuated.

To many this may sound like folly, but it was fun, the concept works great. That said, it is all a moot point if you do not know how to sharpen.

H.C. - The steel "shoe" on the lever cap pivots on one central screw. Wouldn't this design place undue pressure on one small area, rather than distributing the pressure over a wider section.

John Economaki - The pressure bar does not pivot on a screw, that would be a really poor design decision. The screw is used for retaining purposes, the pressure bar pivots on an integral shaft. This design can seriously damage a finger if one is tempted -- the pressure is indeed distributed over the entire length of the bar with enough force to deflect the iron.

H.C. - The interchangeable bases on the HP-6 are a great idea and extend the versatility of the block plane as a whole. Will Bridge City Tool Works continue to expand the range of bases that can be used on this plane in coming years?

Plane Maker John Economaki
Another view of the CT-7 Low Angle Block Plane.

John Economaki - This is really a fun plane! I have about 30-40 combinations scheduled for this plane, and think of new ones frequently. We just introduced the corner beading option for making molding, and I cut a beautifully profile in eastern hard rock maple in five or six passes -- it is really fun to see the profile emerge with more clarity after each stroke. Ironically, I designed the HP-6 as a tool that so this experienced with profiles could make their own wooden soles and irons, but apparently there are not many who want or recognize this option.

H.C. - 25 years ago there were very few makers of high quality woodworking hand tools anywhere in the world and Bridge City Tool Works, along with others, helped change this by raising the profile of the smaller manufacturers. Nowadays there's a lot more products available from a myriad of different makers. Obviously this means that the competition is a little more fierce, but do you feel that's a good thing or not?

John Economaki - In twenty-three years of making tools, I have never felt pressure from competition. We do what we do and thankfully there are enough people to appreciate our efforts. I actually think if more people were making quality tools it would be better for everybody in this business. Awareness is a great thing and very expensive to generate.

H.C. - Earlier this year you attended an event where some of the best planemakers in the world gathered, talked about themselves and their work and tried out each others tools. What are your thoughts on the experience?

Plane Maker John Economaki
The HP-6 Multi Plane. Heaps of molding add-ons and more to come.

John Economaki - It was two days with a bunch of tool freaks in a woodshop -- what is there not to like? It was awesome! I have known Tom Lie-Nielson for a long time and we always have a good time when our paths cross -- I just came back from his 25th anniversary party and that was a complete blast. I had not seen Rob Lee for a long time -- he was a little kid when I started Bridge City Tool Works. Ron Hock reminded me of his call for some marketing tips when he first started his business, so it was fun to finally meet him. The wooden planes from Clark & Williams are stunningly crafted and a joy to hold. Mark Swanson, Tom Lie-Neilson's pattern maker used to work at Bridge City and it was fun to see him. I had never met Chris Schwartz, the editor of Popular Woodworking but his passion for hand tools is off the charts and he is a bright guy to boot. There are several up-and-coming young plane makers and if they can get their hands around the business demands there will be some cool tools down the pike.

H.C. - Around about how many hand planes have you made altogether over the years?

John Economaki - Thousands and thousands, and not counting all the permutations of the HP-6, about a dozen different models.

H.C. - Where does Bridge City Tool Works see itself in 10 years time?

John Economaki - I would like to think on an island paradise somewhere but I don't think that is going to happen. With the methodic elimination of industrial arts programs in America I think we will all spend more of our efforts educating because we are now faced with the first generation that has had little or no exposure to working in wood. Each year there is a different challenge -- currently we are just trying to keep a few pounds of brass in America, China is eating metal at an alarming rate but that is another story!

To check out more planes (and other exquisite tools) from Bridge City Tools, click here to go to the website.

Last Updated: May 9, 2015 @ 11:04 pm

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