|Agnay Chuttani, plane maker|
On a foggy December morning I drove across New Delhi to a small town in neighbouring Haryana called Sonepat. There, at a little distance off the national highway, amidst wheat fields, stood a cluster of buildings which housed the makers of India's premium hand planes and other hand tools, Shobha Industries.
I had come a long way looking for woodworking goodies, particularly hand planes, and I was not disappointed. This was my equivalent of a toy factory, stuffed as it was with hundreds of planes of every description and workers patiently churning out even more of them.
There was an enormous warehouse where planes, measuring instruments, vices and all kinds of tools were being tested and packed.
The most fascinating part was the opportunity to closely observe the process of plane making, from casting to polishing and packing.
This was something I had wanted to do for a long time and it was made possible by the factory's young proprietor-manager, Agnay Chuttani, who had finally acceded to my request for a factory visit.
I found him courteous and soft spoken as he showed me around the factory, introducing me to rows upon rows of grinding machines, tapping presses, CNC machines, buffers and all manners of engineering contraptions each running quietly and intently at its prescribed task supervised by a uniformed worker.
The Shobha factory, from what I could make out, comprises three very large two-storied buildings and a smaller shed for castings.
The Sonepat factory was set up twenty years ago by Agnay's father, Rajiv Chuttani, and it just grew bigger and bigger over the years as they found it necessary to create in-house processes for many tasks that were initially out sourced.
|Shobha Planes being processed|
Agnay maintained it was necessary to maintain control over key processes in order to ensure quality and constantly improve their products.
For instance, in the initial years they had approached a well-known planes blade maker in Punjab for their blades but were forced to develop processes for making high quality blades themselves when the Punjab blade maker insisted on retaining his own branding.
This allowed then to experiment with various grades of steel, tempering processes and so on. It also compelled them to set up grinding machines to cut and hone the blade bevels to a fine edge.
Castings too which were initially out-sourced eventually became necessary in-house because they found the quality extremely variable. Today, Agnay said, he could maintain the quality by adding just the right amounts of additives to the steel let the castings sit for a couple of months for natural de-stressing.
Agnay, who has an engineering degree and an eye for detail, seems to enjoy his work. He loves his tools, particularly his hand planes and has a collection of some of the best planes from around the world.
The day I visited, he was admiring an old Clifton plane he had bought from the UK. It was a superb specimen, several years old but maintained in top condition.
"Take a look at this", he said pushing the Clifton towards me. "What first class machining", he remarked admiringly.
He was particularly impressed with its two-part, detachable cap iron. The blade could be sharpened without un-screwing the cap iron. I found the Clifton blade as sharp as the day it was made.
"It is the small details that count", he said, recounting his attempts to make small but continuous improvements to his products. He showed me how he had changed the knurling on the brass adjustor on Shobha planes to make them look better and turn easily.
Other changes to Shobha planes include the precise machining of the frog, introduction of very hard washers for the two screws holding down the frog, changing the shape of the tote, moving to Sheesham as their signature wood, more brass parts for the premium range, a shift to powder coating on all their products and constant attempts to improve the quality of machining.
These small but incremental changes, Agnay believes, is what will ultimately make their hand tools absolute top notch.
As it is they are easily the best regarded hand planes and tool makers in India with the bulk of their clients in Europe and North America.
Another area that seems to require constant attention and innovation is in the manufacturing process, the machines and systems. One innovation Agnay is proud of is a CNC controlled router exclusively designed for shaping the Sheesham totes of their regular bench planes.
I was also surprised to discover the amount of painstaking grinding that goes into the making of a plane. The soles, sides and bedding points have to be milled very precisely, the blades and cap iron ground one piece at a time and so on. All this involves a considerable amount of labour.
|Range of Planes made by Shobha Industries|
As I was packing to leave, Agnay directed me to their packing and testing unit. Here workers were packing tools and stashing the packages on pallets for export.
At one corner of this building was a glass partitioned area with a number of granite and lapped cast iron flat surfaces where workers were testing various vices and other instruments.
In another area, two laser scribing machines were busy etching numbers on precision vices, chucks and rotary tables.
Agnay unveiled a new hand plane, which was a version of the Stanley No. 62 low angle Jack Plane. He said they had just started this line of planes and would be happy to gift one of them to me.
I of course was delighted with the parting gift and more so because he had my name laser etched on it. A great way to end a great tour, I thought, as I drove away.
12 December 2016