Lie-Nielsen Headquarters

Commemorating a quarter century of planemaking history.

by Ellis Walentine

    Silver anniversaries are, by definition, few and far between. Only the most enduring enterprises and marriages ever reach this milestone. In July 2006, the woodworking world witnessed one such momentous occasion with the 25th anniversary of the Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, the well-known maker of handplanes and other woodworking hand tools in Warren, Maine.

    It was in 1981 that Thomas Lie-Nielsen, fresh from a low-level job at Garrett Wade Company in New York, moved to this outpost on the central coast of Maine and started making handplanes, with a machinist's zeal that the original Bailey/Stanley models only ever approximated. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Lie-Nielsen Toolworks has 70 full-time employees. Garry Chinn (right), founder and owner of Garrett Wade, was on hand at the anniversary party with his wife Nancy (far right) to congratulate Tom on his achievement. Tom's daughter Kirsten was on hand to savor the festival atmosphere.

     The party lasted all weekend, beginning with an open house on Saturday, attended by about 500 customers and well-wishers from near and far. Visitors were treated with demonstrations of hand-tool prowess by the likes of Garrett Hack, Kevin Glen-Drake, and engraving artist Valdemar Skov. There were other well-known woodworkers and friends in attendance as well, including Christopher Schwarz, editor of Popular Woodworking, and John Economaki, founder of Bridge City Tools, another member of the quarter-century club.

    Also on hand to document the occasion were Reed Smith from the new Woodworking Channel and his cameraman, Mason. No doubt you will be able to catch the reruns on the Woodworking Channel's website in coming weeks.

    Every half hour or so, like clockwork, Joe Butler, VP of manufacturing for Lie-Nielsen, conducted a tour of the manufacturing facilities, newly relocated to a long single-story building across the parking lot. (More construction is underway in other areas of the complex, a hint that further expansion is imminent.)
    One of Joe's tours concentrated on the planemaking process. Joe explained how Lie-Nielsen has refined its purchasing and manufacturing processes so that they never have more than a couple weeks worth of parts inventoried at a given time, to cut down on inventory cost and conserve warehouse space. Raw castings are transformed into the familiar plane bodies and frogs and cap irons by rows of Bridgeports and CNC milling machines clustered in the central area of the shop.

     Chisels have become a hot item for Lie-Nielsen in recent years. Joe walked us through the production process, beginning with annealed A2 steel rods, which are automatically fed, turned and cut off in one automated machine, then milled to size on two large CNC machining centers, imprinted with the Lie-Nielsen logo and surface ground to their final shape.

    Joe explained how the chisel handles, made from local Maine hornbeam, were chosen for this purpose. He described torture tests, with all manner of striking implements, that would not split or shread this intensely tough wood.

    On Sunday, the scene was different. This was an old-fashioned Maine "lobstah" bake, for all the Lie-Nielsen employees, their families and a guest list of woodworking luminaries, vendors and friends. Under the circus tent erected for the occasion, a local Celtic band entertained throughout the afternoon with strains of Irish and Celtic music, accompanied by none other than Tom Lie-Nielsen's daughter Kirsten on fiddle.

    Among the guests at the picnic, I spotted an old pal, Peter Korn, Director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship just up the road in rural Rockland, Maine. Here's a shot of Peter with his new bride, Michelle Dee. They met when she was a student in the woodworking program at the CFC.

    Another treat that Tom had arranged for the guests was this "boatload" of Pemaquid oysters, rumored to be the world's best -- and local to boot! -- served up by none other than Larry Schneider, oyster-shucker extraordinaire and runner-up in last year's national oyster shucking championship. You can read more about Larry and his specialty HERE .
     All in all, it was a big day for the Lie-Nielsen family and all the assembled well-wishers. Tom graciously invited us back to the next picnic -- 25 years from now! I'm already looking forward to that one.

. . . Ellis Walentine



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