The new Union Mfg. Co. X0A plane
Note: In September I was asked to review the new Union Mfg. Co. X0A size 1 bench plane. I wrote this review in early October but was asked to not publish it until Union Mfg. Co. was certain of overcoming a casting delay with their foundry. The castings are back in the hand of Union Mfg. Co. and I can release this review. Since writing this review, I have been asked to serve in an uncompensated role on an Advisory Board for Union Mfg. Co. At the time of the review I had no affiliation with Union Mfg. Co, nor was I compensated in any way. No, I did not get to keep the plane. I wish!. Union Mfg. Co. and Robert Porter have not seen this review prior to this publication.
I recently had the opportunity to spend a day with the new Union Mfg. Co. X0A bench plane prototype. To be completely transparent, I am a Union X0A customer, having paid full price for one of these planes some time ago. I have also pre-purchased a new Union X 4 ¼ plane.
I host a weekly online virtual tool discussion, Hand Planes & Coffee, where I have interviewed the principals of Union Mfg. Co., Robert Porter, Emilio Lois Jr. and Bill Clark. I have a strong interest in hand planes, both old and new, and find the re-birth of Union an interesting subject.
Other than that, I don’t have any personal investment in Union and this review is neither sponsored by, nor reviewed by Union or their founders. Union asked for an honest opinion, warts and all, and this is what I did.
I am not a professional wood worker, just an amateur hobbyist. When I was contacted by Union and asked if I would be willing to provide honest feedback on the prototype, I was surprised and certainly willing. After all, like most of you, I too, am anxiously waiting to receive my finished X0A!
From beginning to end, here are my impressions of the X0A prototype.
The box the plane arrived in is an instant classic. It is obvious a lot of thought and design went into the packaging. The rustic font and sepia toned colors make it easy to picture the box resting on the shelves behind the counter of ol’man Finney’s hardware store back in 1905. Nice! And why not? I suppose a few dollars could have been saved using a plain cardboard box, but as a collector, we all know how prized an original box can be. These will be no different. I say, money well spent, thanks Rob.
Inside, I found a hand plane that looked like it came from a Swiss watch company. Admittedly, 199 of the 200 hand planes I own are all more than 80 years old and none are exactly pristine. I do own a new Lie-Nielsen bronze #3, and it is a beauty, but this X0A has been machined like none other. I compared it to my Clifton #4 and my Calvert-Steven #4 ½ on fit and finish. These two planes usually set the bar in quality, and you pay for it many times over. The result, Union quality was readily apparent.
I imagine the alloy of cast iron Union is using, combined with careful precision grinding of the cheeks and sole, give the plane an unparalleled finish. As I write this, I have my Lie-Nielsen plane sitting on my desk, just to be sure my impression of the Union finish is correct. It is. Something about the X0A just looks more refined. Certainly, the shape of the tote and knob and the tone of the Cocobolo give the Union a much more welcoming look. The X0A immediately feels right at home with my 130-year-old Stanley planes.
I really appreciate the cap iron with the cast UNION logo, the time, effort, and cost of detailing this casting is worth every penny. The X0A is equipped with a screw-cap not a lever-cap, more on that later. We all love the antique planes identified by their wonderfully unique lever caps. The 3-line early Bedrocks, the Orr & Lockett planes I would trade one of my children for, or those wonderful brass badge Sargent lever caps! I own plenty of great planes, many with unadorned lever caps, but I really value the tools that inspire me and the X0A does. Thanks again Union.
While I’m on the subject of identifying marks, let’s talk about cutter trademarks. Among my favorites are those wonderful V logo Stanley logos. Creative and unique. Also, the deeply stamped old Clifton cutters. You can just picture the glowing orange cutter being positioned in the press with a set of long tongs as the hammer comes down and deeply impresses that Clifton mark into the iron. Wonderful. But with today’s technology, cost and efficiency make laser etching a far more practical solution. That is the standard for today’s makers. Finely detailed, easily repeatable, and endlessly alterable. Want to change the logo? A few computer key strokes and shazam!, new logo. No waiting for a hardened steel stamp to be cut by a hard to find craftsman. No expensive and large press to maintain. With the new X Planes by Union, we once again have old world craftmanship rising above inexpensive substitutes. A beautifully designed and complex logo unforgettably stamped into the traditional O1 steel cutter.
If you are not aware, one of the uncommon and expensive features of the new Union bench planes is the adjustable mouth. The execution of this piece on the X0A is flawless! Out of the box, I could not even find the seams of the mouth plate when looking at the bottom of the plane. The mechanism for adjusting the mouth plate is hidden in the front knob. For those customers that aren’t paying attention, there will certainly be a few that never realize this feature exists, it is so well executed.
As for brass, of course brass is always welcome on a hand plane. There is no need to mention the polish or contrast it provides. I will point out the fit of the brass adjuster nuts to the posts is without any slop. The threads mate like the gears of a Swiss watch. Refined and comfortable knurling shows the same level of detail as the entire plane.
Lastly, the finish. The X0A prototype did not have the final finish applied, only a standard black enamel to prevent rust and provide an idea of the final appearance. Not the most durable, but this was only the prototype. The new Union X0As will be finished in a high-grade steel infused black paint. Is this the end-all-be-all of hand plane finishes? That is for you to decide. For me, nothing beats the traditional japanned finish of yesteryear. While modern finishes may be indistinguishable from japanning, for me, knowing my tools share this lost art of a finish with all their brethren is part of the warmth of artisan made tools. Impractical in today’s manufacturing world, and perhaps incompatible with today’s environmental concerns, a japanned line of new hand planes simply may not be possible. Still….it would have been the coup d’état.
The fit and finish of the Union X0A may herald a new category of hand planes, the Bespoke class. Even before I put this plane to work, I feel I have received extraordinary value for my money. So how does it perform its intended task? Read on.
This was my first experience with a number 1 size bench plane. Like most of you, I have not dropped $1200 for an antique Stanley #1. I have held one, but for the $1250 they were asking, putting it to wood was out of the question. Number 1 size bench planes are something of a novelty, regarded by some as only a display piece, or perhaps a toy plane intended to introduce a young child to hand tools. Some say these were really salesmen samples. While all these uses may be correct, the fact that so many historic plane makers produced and sold the #1 bench planes alongside all the others, tells me these tools served a more practical purpose.
It took a few passes to find my grip on this diminutive tool. The tote did fit nicely in the webbing of my thumb and the front knob was easily available to my left hand. The fingers of my right hand resting alongside the cheeks of the plane, I began creating those shavings. Adjusting an X Plane is a different experience from a standard Bailey pattern plane. Without going into details, it quickly became a simple matter. The X0A is not equipped with a lateral adjusting lever. There is simply no room for it. The larger X Planes will enjoy this feature. A few taps with the handle of my screwdriver and the freshly honed iron was sitting exactly right. Of course I honed it! Nobody can sharpen an iron like me, right? Precise and micrometer like depth adjustment with near zero backlash was a welcome deviation from the free-spinning Bailey depth adjusting nuts. Now for the real trick, the screw cap also serves to micro-adjust the depth of cut. By increasing or decreasing the torque of the cap screw, I could go from removing a dusting of wood fibers to watching a transparent full shaving stream out over the cap iron. This was fun! Pine, basswood, straight grained maple, a level of performance on par with my expectations under less challenging conditions. But what about putting that fixed frog, adjustable mouth, thick cutter to the test? Can it really control tear out?
I had a special piece of knotty twisted black walnut set aside for just this purpose. Only 4 quarters wide and 8 inches long, this small piece of trouble seems more appropriate for the little X0A. As I made pass after pass, slowly bringing the X0A cutter to bear, it became apparent that such small workpieces are what this plane was intended for. Finishing a highly figured piece for a small jewelry box, or perhaps a dollhouse, the small size of the X0A becomes an asset. Imagine smoothing a 1/2'” wide 4” long strip of figured inlay, and the feedback and control of a number 1 size plane makes sense. You could argue a block plane would meet the need, but the additional heft of the bench plane may well keep you moving smoothly through that twisted grain. Also, there is no denying we all want one more plane in the till, especially a #1.
As for that piece of twisted walnut. No problem. The X0A never hesitated. No chatter, no biting in and best of all, no tear out. I closed the mouth down to about 5 thousandths and the wood never had a chance.
What is my overall impression of the X0A? Having purchased one, at full price and on a promise like the rest of you, I got a bargain. My X0A will pull its weight just like all my other planes. I don’t own tools just for display, I expect them to work, and work is what the X0A is ready for. For those of you who plan to pack your X0A safely away and watch it reach lofty value as the years go by, I have no doubt you will be correct. These planes will be legacy tools.
And what faults are there? Only one…that it will be just a little longer before my next Union X Plane arrives, the even more useful size 4 adjustable mouth X 4 ¼ Union X Plane! I can’t wait!