Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Union Manufacturing Company - an Interview With Robert Porter: Part I

Today I had the pleasure of conducting Toolerable's first interview ever with Robert Porter of the newly re-launched Union Manufacturing Company. We had a nice chat about the history of Union, the company's current projects and the future of the company. It turns out he is a woodworker just like us, and has a passion for good tools that we can use. He seems to know his stuff about materials, Rockwell hardness, history, and much more.
All rights reserved by the Union Manufacturing Company, Glenolden, PA USA” “Used with written permission”
His first bench plane is an X Plane in the #1 size. Not the most useful of bench planes, but highly coveted by collectors. We discuss this plane, but if you would like to get on the pre-order list, only 100 will be made in this first batch, and at the time of writing there are still four that are available. I suggest sending him an email from his website, and tell him you read this interview. I think it is an outstanding value at $425.

All photos on this post are Robert Porter's, and used with his permission.

I conducted the interview with a chat program. I've edited it minimally. My comments are blue, and Robert Porter's are black.
Hello Robert, thanks for being patient with me!

No worries.

I teach English online, so I'm lucky enough that my work day hasn't really changed much due to the virus.
But I had to keep my appointments.


About planes!

Straight to the point. A point we both enjoy as it seems!


Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. This is actually the first interview I have ever conducted.

So if it seems I am an amateur, it is because I am.

Ha. No worries.
First, why not a little history about Union Manufacturing?

The company was founded in 1866. It was founded with $100,000 USD in capital. Which for the time was a lot of money. The company was founded to become an overnight premiere casting company. Which it did. The investors came from all walks and all social classes. From plant workers all the way to corporate executives at other manufacturing firms. From the likes of Stanley, Landers and Frary as well as Corbin.

The name “Union” comes from the gathering or “Union” of those folks pitching in to make the company happen.

Are these all American companies?

Mostly from New Britain, CT USA

Typical for the time, I'm sure.

Well the original structure of multiple firms investing was a bit odd in that time.

The tool Mecca.

Well Union was a bit of a quiet giant during its entire existence. I have always held a special place for firms like that. Very similar to Joseph Marples LTD in Sheffield.

They had a way of influencing the tool world without being overly obnoxious.

I tend to look past a company’s marketing hype and look at the products when I choose where I’ll spend my money.

Indeed. Until I started researching for this interview, I always thought they were a small plane maker chasing after Stanley, like so many others.

No they in fact bid on and cast Stanley planes. As did Stanley bid on and cast Union planes.

Are you familiar with the tool-maker relationships in Sheffield England?

Only generally.

An "all for one, one for all" mentality.

That was New Britain via Union.

Got it.

A hinge per se.

Union was literally created as a support foundry that became a formidable force.

It's interesting that you say that. I got a chance to meet |Tom Lie Nielsen once, and he said about Lee Valley and Veritas that they are the perfect kind of competitor to have: one that raises the bar in quality and performance, making woodworking better for everyone.

Tom has always had a positive attitude towards competition and what it does in general to the quality of modern tools. An exceptional attribute.

Union cast butt hinges, lathe chucks, dies, a punch press machine, levels...... the list is exhausting.

It sounds like they were huge.
How did you wind up with this company?

Well, I’ve been researching the company for about a decade now and fell in love with the first X Plane I came across. It answered my complaints about other styles of planes. Love at first use.
Some vintage Union X Planes.

So as I became obsessed with the history and the offerings, I wanted more.
What's so great about the X plane?

Where do I start! 🤣🤣🤣


The two biggest things about the X Series that set it apart from every other commercially available plane are its strongest points.

Rigidity is HUGE for the X Series. Integral frogs are specifically designed to solve the age-old problem of chatter: a woodworkers biggest enemy.
Integral frog.

The rigidity is backed up by a thicker casting.

Then moving on the second monster in the room. The patented adjuster for depth.
Unique depth adjuster.

The yoke and double lock nut on vertical post design is designed for absolute control over micro adjusting the depth.

I have to admit, I've never seen an X plane. Have they always had thicker castings?

Yes. They were always thicker.
As were the Union made irons.

OK, I think that was unusual at the time for metal bench planes, right?
An example of bench plane blades. Stanley right Union left.


Almost twice the thickness.

A few makers seemed to believe in thicker bodies.

So no, I wouldn’t say it was unusual.

One advantage to a thin blade, it's been said, is that it is faster to sharpen.

Micro bevel......


It’s only a trouble if you’re attempting to sharpen the entire bevel every time.


Additionally, you never want to wait until that much material must be removed before sharpening again.

A good common practice is to touch up your iron multiple times in a work day.

Most replacement irons available nowadays seem to be a bit thicker, and I find I still like to use them.
I might only grind once a year, and touch up the rest of the time.

The thickness of the iron was odd during the early 1900’s in the US. Ohio Tool Co and Union were the pioneers there. Now all modern makers are doing it.

Yet another area Union was ahead.

I'm familiar with Ohio. I love that those planes have a thick, tapered iron. Except they tend to be a little brittle, in my experience.


Union was the only non tapered iron in the US market that was as thick.

Their cap irons were a little different, too.
Which brings me to Unions cap irons. What is special about them?

A new Union blade, chipbreaker, and lever cap.
There was a smaller amount of space between the area behind the irons cutting edge and the chipbreaker.

Less area to gather harmonics.

The X Plane was all about harmonics reduction. The entire plane was designed to almost eliminate harmonics.

Harmonics lead to chatter.

I can see that.

That’s why when you pick up a poorly tuned plane that cuts poorly it has a deeper harmonic note. A well tuned and designed plane makes more of a “wisp” sound.

Tighter harmonic wave length. Less inherent chatter as a result.

A common misconception is that a plane is “cutting” with a standard angle frog. It is not. It’s cutting via a scraping action.

If what you say about harmonics is true, a higher pitch would result in less movement during chatter, and a better result.

Being that the sound waves are closer together.


Think of the wave length like cutting edge movement. The larger the travel the more chatter.

This is why a low angle plane (which is actually shearing the fibers) makes a completely different sound.

Yes. Or, you could think of it as the string on a bass moves a lot farther when vibrating than a string on a guitar.
That makes a lot of sense. It's also why a standard plane can get such a smooth surface.


During my years of studying planes I’ve had thousands pass through my hands. This is where my data comes from.
Some of Robert's plane collection.

So let's talk about the X0A.

The new baby from Union!


I'm sorry, you'll have to check back tomorrow for the rest of this interview. We talk about Union's newest plane and some of what they have planned in the future. You won't want to miss it!

Leave a comment if you have your own questions for Robert.

See you tomorrow!


  1. Interesting discussion cant wait for next part. Great idea Brian, thank you Robert


    1. Thanks, Bob! You'll love the next part, too. Cheers!