Have you ever used a Gillette disposable razor cartridge and thought to yourself -- "Why don't they do this with a bench plane? It would save me all that time I spent sharpening my plane irons..."? Apparently someone at Stanley in the 1960s was thinking along those lines....and whether you love or hate that concept this little plane has an interesting back story and provides some insights into how bench planes were developed at Stanley in the 1960s and the market factors that were applying pressure to the company at that time.
This little plane was designed to compete against similar disposable cutter planes from Sears or Wards. The competition was using 4 sided cutters, but Stanley reasoned that they could undersell the competition by selling two cheaper 2 sided cutters for less than the competition could sell a single 4 sided cutter. From Clarence Blanchard's article "Stanley No. 140 Bench Plane" (Fine Tool Journal, Vol 53, No.2 Fall ’03) he mentions that the H140 (later renamed the H104) would likely have a list price of $3.50 to $3.75 as compared to the Sears or Wards catalog price of $2.98. So to me this sounds a bit like a failed attempt to use the Gillette sales model -- wherein Gillette famously said "Give 'em the razors, sell 'em the blades." Stanley hoped to sell a quality plane at an initial price reflective of that quality and make money on the sales of disposable cutters, but with a list price higher than the competition I bet that would suppress sales in the cost conscious handyman market. In a later memo from May 1961 (also from Blanchard's article) after more details were worked out on the plane and initial manufacturing costs that plane was approved for production and now had a sales price of $2.25. I suspect this lower sales price is indicative of the planes drop from the top-line production to the "Handyman" line.
If this plane could have been delivered to market for that $2.25 I bet Stanley would have had a more popular plane on their hands. But from digging into some period advertising I found the above Stanley ad from October of 1962 -- right about when we think the earliest of these planes were offered -- it lists the H104 at a whopping $4.49 -- which seems completely miss the mark in terms of pricing. This tool had some earmarks of a higher end tool, but was crippled in other areas to save on price. When it hit the market it came in too high at a time when the woodworking community was transitioning to hand held power tools in that segment, it is little surprise this tool did not find much of a home with tradesmen.
If you'd like to learn more about this interesting little plane -- how it came to be and how it handled in action, I encourage you to check out a longer article by James A. Clarke of Hilton NY that I transcribed into a blog post here. A big thank you to Jim for sharing that content with me and a big thank you to Clarence Blanchard for allowing me to use and share a copy of his article in that post as well.
Take care, -Bill