Nuts & Bolts
One of the most satisfying aspects of woodworking is using a well-tuned handplane that responds exactly as you want – feeling the changing texture of the wood as it is being cut – anticipating the surface it leaves behind. This does not come about by accident – it requires countless hours in the shop using the plane under working conditions. I am not just talking about high end planes either – a $15 Bailey No. 4 can be the perfect tool – you just need to spend time getting to know it.
The same attention in using a handplane is also required in its construction. I made many very deliberate decisions when I started making infill planes. One of the first, and perhaps most significant, was to make them with basic tools. While this may seem strange or even backwards in thinking, it has turned out to be one of the most valuable choices I have made and one that fits with who I am. To understand this, it may be helpful to explain my approach to furniture making.
I started making furniture many years ago – and for very practical reasons. We could not afford or find the furniture that we wanted to use in our home. I started with hand tools, because they had a lower initial cost, and we did not have the space for machinery. I also had a strange hunch that quality handtools were capable of more than removing paint from the edges of stuck doors. Working by hand was slow, and while this is contrary to society’s desire for “faster, better, cheaper” – it suited me just fine. It meant I could catch an error before or as it was happening. Taking an extra shaving with a handplane is much more controlled than with 3,000 rpms – not to mention safer. I also realized there were many tasks that handtools were just better at. Why spend 20 minutes fine tuning a tenon on the table saw, when I could get the perfect fit with a shoulder plane in 5 seconds? As my furniture making improved, so did the demands on my tools, and within a few years, I had upgraded most of them a few times over. Then I found an unhandled Spiers coffin smoother. This plane clearly outperformed anything I had used to date and quickly became my most trusted tool. It also proved to be the inspiration I needed to start.
THE NITTY GRITTY
Using hacksaws, files and common woodworking tools meant I did not need to invest capital in machinery. Working slowly allowed me to anticipate problems before they became costly errors, not to mention giving me a lot of practice honing essential metal working skills. Using a hacksaw and the more than 50 different files and rasps in a controlled manner is more challenging than you might think. These basic skills have proven to be vital to the success of the plane. Working by hand also allowed me to make changes and tweaks as I was working – something that is quite difficult and costly in the middle of a CNC run.
Working by hand ultimately enabled the complete customization of a plane. I can remember showing one of my first planes to someone and they commented the tote felt a little small. It was a great observation and I enlarged the tote on their plane to suite their hand. I now ask for either a scan or photocopy of every customer’s hand, so I can build their plane to suit. This is done at no additional cost as it makes no difference to me if the tote is a little bigger here or there. To my way of thinking, this is just part of custom work.
After a few years of using mild steel I upgraded to 01 tool steel for all the planes. There were a few reasons for the switch despite the increased cost. The piening process (cold forging the dovetails) is rather aggressive, and can introduce stress to the materials being forged. I found it challenging to control the amount of distortion during the process, and it showed up when I went to hand-lap the soles. I switched to 01 because it is stress relieved and am very pleased with the results. Not only has the lapping time been significantly reduced, I prefer the aesthetic quality of 01 steel. There has been another significant change to my process, and that was to use waterjet cutting for the sole and side pieces. Waterjet is fairly accurate, but there is still a lot of hand work to square things up and file and fit all the joints. There is no question though – it has been a huge help getting the course shaping done.
THE DEVIL IN THE DETAIL
The difference in the quality of infill planes, either original ones or those made by modern makers, is the fit, finish and attention to detail. The line between functional detail and aesthetic detail is often rather blurred because they are so interconnected. Something as basic as grain orientation and selection is a good example. Making sure the color and texture of the infill matches from end to end is just as important as making sure the overstuffing is tight to the sidewalls and oriented for structural integrity. This often means studying a piece of wood before it is roughed out to the basic infill components. There have been many times I have spent hours mapping out the first few cuts in order to best utilize this valuable material. It is time well spent, as the rewards are evident in both the technical and aesthetic qualities of the finished plane.
There are many details that are common to all the planes. The metal dovetails do not have any gaps, totes are fully rounded and smooth and the relationship between wood and metal is seamless.
Some details are left up to the customer. For example, take the front and rear extensions of the sole on panel and jointing planes. They can be left rather square or they can have a long gentle radius on them. The tip of the tote is another subtly detail. Some people prefer these to be very long and delicate, while others prefer them to be more stout.
Chamfering is often an underrated detail – you don’t realize how important it is until you have seen a plane done badly or without it. The degree and depth of the chamfers is changed to suit the individual plane. I do the chamfers by hand with files – so they are not perfect from a technical standpoint. What I mean by that is if you were to mic the height of the chamfer at one end and then at the other end, they would likely be off by a thou or two. They are done by eye – and when they “look” right – they are right. When appropriate, little details can be added to further enhance the plane. These two different treatments are a good example of this.
These are more aesthetic details, but I am convinced that they offer insight into the overall quality of the entire plane.
In September of 2003 I began developing my own version of the Norris adjuster. There were a few improvements I wanted to make. Most notably, there could be no backlash, and the mechanism needed to be much finer than the original, or any of the modern adjusters I had tried. The modern adjusters were simply too coarse for the application. I wanted to be able to positively rotate the knurled bronze knob and make sub-thou adjustments. The first prototype I designed was 90% of the way there. It took a full eight months and numerous prototypes to get the last 10%. It was worth every effort. These adjusters have a very fine mechanism - moving .008" per full revolution.
FINDING & USING EXOTIC WOODS
As it turns out, this is the most challenging aspect of planemaking. I am very fortunate to have been given access to a substantial private collection of exotic woods. Not only is the range of stock impressive, it is also all very old – in excess of 50 years. The advantage of this is twofold. The quality of the timber is vastly superior to what you would find at a local supplier. The growth rings are tighter, the color is richer and the density is incredible. The other, and more important issue, is that the stock has been properly seasoned - it is dry. I have enough variation in my supply that customers can select an individual plank for a plane and subsequent planes can be made from that same piece.
Here is a list of the exotic woods I keep in stock. If there is something you are interested in, but is not listed here – feel free to ask. I may have some squirreled away in a corner. So far – no one has stumped me!
- Honduran Rosewood - Dalbergia Stevensonii
- Violet Rosewood (Bois de Rose) - Dalbergia Maritima
- Indian Rosewood - Dalbergia Latifolia
- African Blackwood - Dalbergia melanoxylon
- Brazilian Kingwood - Dalbergia Cearensis
- Gaboon Ebony - Diospyros Piscatoria
SELECTING INFILL MATERIAL FOR LARGE PLANES
Infill panel and jointing planes are much heavier than a similar length cast plane. This is important to keep in mind because choosing the infill material is not just about how it looks, but how heavy it will make the plane. African Blackwood is the heaviest infill material I offer and is noticeably heavier than Rosewood. That said, I have made many Blackwood panels and jointers, and people are thrilled using them. It is just something to keep in mind when considering infill material.
BUILDING YOUR OWN PLANE?
If you are planning on building your own infill plane – or any plane that has wood components, please, spend the time and money to buy the best material you can find. In the grand scheme of things – it will be money well spent. If you are buying from an exotic wood dealer, explain what you are making and ask for instrument grade wood (if they have it). It will be more expensive, but it will be the best quality available, and often dryer. Dryness is the biggest issue. If you find suitable material, get it home, and rough it down to within 1/4” of the final dimensions. Keep it in a climate controlled environment and monitor the dryness. It can take years.
Here is a list of exotic wood suppliers that I know to be good suppliers. There are others, but I have had good experiences with these: In Canada: ExoticWoods (Burlington) A&M (Cambridge) In the US Gilmers (Oregeon) In the UK Timberline (Kent)
PATINA & USING BRASS OR BRONZE
Over time, brass and bronze will lose their shine and develop a patina. I have chosen to let this happen on my own planes as I like the look of it and it speaks to the fact that I do use them. This picture shows the difference between a new bronze sided A6 and one that is 4 years old. One advantage of using brass or bronze for sidewalls is that they do not rust – a common problem with original steel sided infill planes.
SELECTING A PLANE IRON
This is a very personal decision but I will offer a few thoughts based on my own experience. I have come full circle with regard to iron choice. My first infill had a cast steel iron in it and it worked wonderfully. It was easy to sharpen and I was able to restore a dull edge quickly. Over time, I started experimenting with other types of irons – A2, D2 and M2. The edge retention was incredible and so I started to move in that direction with my own plane irons. There was one defining moment that caused me to do an about face. I was planing a walnut table top and noticed the iron needed to be touched up. It was an A2 iron in my A6, and for a split second, I hesitated as the thought of stopping to restore the edge caused me to consider pushing forward and taking a few extra shavings. When I realized what I was contemplating - I knew I needed to make a change. One of those few extra shavings would certainly have torn the surface, and I would have had to start over. I have since switched all of my personal planes to high carbon steel and could not be happier. I may have to stop and restore the edge more frequently, but I do not hesitate in doing it, and at the end of the day, my work is better for of it.