Thomas Lie-Nielsen is the ultimate do-it-yourselfer, a fact for which tens of thousands of other do-it-yourselfers are eternally grateful. Lie-Nielsen makes woodworking tools that are considered the best in the United States — some say the best in the world. The hand planes, chisels, and saws produced by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks in Warren are valued additions to the workshops of dedicated hobbyists and professional woodworkers, cabinetmakers, and instrument craftsmen. Industry leaders use phrases like "gold standard" and the "Mercedes of hand tools" when they talk about Lie-Nielsen's implements. They credit him with singlehandedly rejuvenating the high-end hand-tool business.
And it has all happened because Lie-Nielsen, 53, has an almost obsessive need to do it himself. When he couldn't find a company that could temper his tools to his standards, he bought his own tempering equipment and learned to do it himself. When commercial lumberyards couldn't provide the top-grade wood he needed for tool handles and workbenches, he set up his own woodshop to process timbers bought from small owner-operated sawmills. Only in recent years has he finally found a foundry that can cast the bodies of his planes to the high standards he demands. Before that, he operated his own foundry.
Lie-Nielsen's passion for perfection has paid off with a business that grosses about $5 million in sales annually and employs seventy-nine people in a complex of buildings just off Route 1. His showroom attracts woodworkers from all over North America who make the pilgrimage to Warren to visit the mother church of bench planes and butt mortise planes and mortise chisels.
It's not where he expected to be when he graduated from college in upstate New York in 1977. "I was an English major," he says with a laugh. But he had been raised around tools in his father's boatbuilding shop in Rockland, and his first job was in New York with Garrett Wade, a leader in hand-tool sales. In those days most top-quality hand tools came from small cottage manufacturers with erratic production schedules and short life spans. Lie-Nielsen thought there was room for a more business-oriented approach, but he couldn't sell the idea to any of the larger companies.
So he decided to do it himself and came back to a farm in Rockport, where he supported himself growing blueberries. "I started to acquire equipment and learned how to use it," he recalls. On Christmas day of 1981, he assembled his first hand plane, modeled on the old Stanley No. 1, on his kitchen table. The business grew, and in 1987 he bought a former icehouse and machine shop in Warren and lived in the office to save expenses. "I was able to grow slowly over four or five years," he recalls. "I couldn't do that today, in the Internet age."
The late 1980s and 1990s saw an explosion of interest in woodworking, both professionally and among hobbyists, and with it a new demand for high-quality hand tools. Lie-Nielsen first specialized in artfully crafted planes with perfectly flat bases and blades that slid through wood like butter. "You can't appreciate just how good a Lie-Nielsen plane is until you use one," says Tom Caspar, senior editor at American Woodworker magazine. "Fine craftsmen definitely gravitate toward the best tools they can get their hands on, and that generally means they're looking for Lie-Nielsen."
"We have a lot of doctors, lawyers, computer programmers," Lie-Nielsen says of his customers. Surgeons seem to have a special affinity for fine woodworking, he adds. "They find it's a great stress reliever."
"Tommy is in many ways responsible for the resurgence in demand for ultra-high quality tools," says Michael Dresdner, contributing editor of Woodworker's Journal magazine. "He's the gold standard and has been since the beginning. Everyone I know either owns one of his planes or lusts after one, including me."
"Tools just don't get any better than his," adds Christopher Schwarz, editor of Popular Woodworking magazine. "They're also awesomely beautiful, and that means something to woodworkers who appreciate the way a tool looks as well as how it works."
Beauty comes with a price. Even a small bench plane costs $195, and a No. 8 jointer plane goes for $475. Lie-Nielsen doesn't apologize. "Our tools are expensive," he admits, "but they're a good value."
Although the popularity of woodworking has slowed somewhat in recent years, Lie-Nielsen has been expanding to new markets in Canada, Australia, and Europe. His retail business now makes up more than half his total sales, with 35,000 to 40,000 customers buying tools each year.
"Quality tools will always find a market," Lie-Nielsen offers. "There's something really nice about building a chair or a cabinet with your hands, something that never goes away, and a lot of it comes from the tools you use."