Leon Robbins — Planemaker

Thursday afternoon last week Jimmy White of Crown Plane called to inform me that only a few hours before, Leon Robbins had died.  While most chairmakers who have studied at The Institute know Jimmy White, only the old timers remember Leon.  However, I knew Leon for many decades, and I am very sorry he is gone. 

I first met Leon Robbins in the mid 1970s.  He was one of the premier antique tool dealers of the time, and had a shop just off Route 1 in South Portland, Me.  His shop was a must stop for anyone looking for early woodworking tools.  One was always assured of a good selection, and I still own many tools I bought from Leon. 

After he retired from his day job,  Leon started making wooden planes to supplement his income. He called his business Crown Plane, and he used a crown stamp to mark his work. Even without the mark, his planes were distinctive and easy to identify.   Their stocks were segmented,  with a thick veneer of curly maple on the sides.  They were also stained a distinctive reddish brown which accentuated the curl.    

Not having a retail outlet for his planes, Leon wholesaled to catalogs, primarily Garrett Wade.  The upshot was that Leon worked very hard, and made a lot of planes, but made very little money.  When Susanna and I began The Windsor Institute, providing tools for a large number students was a problem for us.  All the sources for chairmaking tools that I have since developed did not yet exist at that time.  For students to complete their chairs, I had to let them use my tools, and these were taking a beating.  

When Leon heard that we had established a school and that I was teaching full time, he sent me a picture of a flat bottomed compass plane he made.  He asked whether or not it would be useful to our students.  I told him it was far too large, and that we used  a plane that was curved both along and across the sole.   I did tell  him however, that I would be more than happy to help him develop a compass plane that would meet our needs.  

I sent Leon sketches and other necessary criteria.  He made a prototype and brought it to a class for me to try.  I suggested several changes, many of which Leon made on the spot, quite brutally.  He used the band saw to hack off some of the prototype’s stock to make it shorter, and to cut out finger grooves.   He broke off an awkwardly placed knob with a hammer.  As funny as it was to see him desecrate the prototype, he made it more suitable to our needs.  The compass plane we all know  and use, was taking shape before our eyes.   

Two more prototypes, two more visits, and Leon had created the finished product.  Outfitted with an inventory of freshly made planes, Leon  began to visit each class on the second day when we made seats.  Students snapped them up.  These planes became Leon’s bread and butter. As he was now retailing, rather than wholesaling, the total sales price went into his pocket. 

Having a steady and reliable source of very high quality compass planes available to me, I next suggested to Leon that he  develop a travisher.  Again, I gave him mine as a model.  He felt very comfortable making the wooden body.  The cutter was the problem.  Leon produced his own plane irons, but did not have the ability to make a travisher blade.  I referred Leon to another acquaintance of mine, Charles Sterling in England.  Sterling produced  a curved blade, which he began to provide in quantity to Leon.  

We went through the same process of prototype-to-finished-product with the travisher.  I tested each and gave Leon the feed back he needed to produce a first class tool.  He now had a second tool to sell directly to the user, and he was on a better financial footing.  You can see why the Crown Plane compass plane and travisher are so good.  They were developed in a very different way than most tools. 

Usually, someone develops a tool, and then sends it to users to try and to comment.  If the tool maker erred, it is too late to make changes. The tool is already in production. That happened with a brand of wooden spoke shave and travisher that you see in some catalogs.  After they had been through development and gone into production the company sent me a couple of each to try.  I commented  on the problems and made suggestions as to how to fix them.  It was too late.  I was ignored, and if you buy those tools, you still get all their problems.  

Crown on the other hand, began with my specifications, and the first prototype was based on these. The tools developed  in response to my comments made directly to Leon while he  watched me use them.   Before Leon ever put his travisher and compass plane into production, all the  possible improvements had been made, and all the bugs taken out.   That is why these are such good tools. 

Students always express surprise that I can pick up their brand new Crown travisher or compass plane  and fix the most unruly patch of grain.  The reason is that these tools are part of me, and I am part of them.  

Chairmakers who have recently come to the craft assume that sources like Crown have always been there and that we here, like everyone else making chairs, just buy from an established source.  Not at all.  I sought out the toolmakers everyone uses, and I worked with them in developing their products.   As I have written before, all paths involving  Windsor chairs, lead back here.  Those who don’t know that weren’t here at the beginning, or are ignoring the facts.  The Windsor Institute started the Windsor Revival, and remains its brain and heart.  

Leon visited every class to sell his tools.  As he aged, he became less comfortable driving, and his son-in-law Richard began bringing Leon here.  We all became good friends.  Leon and Richard were part of The Institute’s extended family.  At the time,  Dave Wachnicki (now of Dave’s Shaves) worked with me.  Besides being an accomplished chairmaker and a great spoke shave maker, Dave is also a pretty good chef.  I still have in the showroom a framed picture of Dave and me  presenting  Leon with a chocolate birthday cake Dave had baked.  It was in the shape of a bench plane.  

Time passed, and Leon continued to age. He eventually reached a point where he could not physically keep up with the demand of producing all those tools.  His Grace Jim White, Sr. Duke of Windsor and son Jimmy, Jr. were looking for a business to start, or buy.  Both love to work with their hands, so  I suggested they approach Leon.  The sale of Crown Plane from Leon to the Whites was negotiated in The Institute’s library.  

Jimmy worked side by side with Leon long enough for Leon to teach him the business.  Gradually, Leon stepped aside and Jimmy took over.  Jimmy proved to be a good student and continues to produce Leon’s compass plane and travisher with the same high quality.   Jimmy keeps up Leon’s tradition of visiting every sack back class on Tuesday, the day we make seats.   Once students have seen these tools in use, they clamor to buy  any inventory  Jimmy has brought with him.  

I am sad Leon is gone.  A number of years ago, he had lost Alice, his dear wife.  As of late, his health had been poor, and I suspect he did not have a high quality of life.   I do regret that it required his passing for me to sit down and write his story.   

I do have one other regret when it comes to Leon. It is the injustice the woodworking magazines did to him.  About a decade ago one of the magazines discovered an elderly fellow in Maine  making a limited number of expensive planes for well heeled woodworkers.  His name was Cecil Pierce.  The magazine  did a profile on Cecil, and in lemming fashion, all the other magazines did the same.  Cecil became an instant celebrity.  

I called editors at every one of the magazines and told them they were over looking Leon.  I guess there can only be one celebrity plane maker in Maine at a time. The magazines all ignored Leon.  That is too bad. Cecil made a small number of expensive planes for a small number of  elites.  Leon made large numbers of tools for a large number of regular Joe woodworkers and chairmakers.  In my book, he is the celebrity, and he deserved better.  I am glad to set the record straight.  

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On December 13 I am having extensive work done on my left shoulder — rotator cuff and bicep tendon repaired, arthritis removed, etc. I will be out of commission for quite a while, and then, will be doing a lot of physical therapy.   I am not expecting to spend a lot of time in the office, and will be hard to contact.  As the operation is scheduled during our winter break, there is not likely to be anyone else here, either.  

If you try to contact me I ask you to be patient.  People are used to me responding very quickly, but it may be a while before I can get back to you during this period.  Also, if you have anything you know you will need, such as catalog materials, gift certificates, etc., it would be best to take care of those matters before December 13.  

If you would like to receive periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are outside the scope of this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at mike@thewindsorinstitute.com