a woodworker’s rite of passage

wooden handplane

I am pretty much 100% self-taught as a woodworker. I would glean what I could from the many carpenters I worked with over the years, some of whom were true masters of the trade, while a great many others taught me by example what NOT to do with handsaws, chisels, planes, and wood.  Over time, I found that for the most part there was an inverse relation between true skill and verbosity— the gregarious ‘talkers (a lot of them great guys, with good stories, and lots of  jokes) almost always had much less to offer with respect to the craft than the more reticent ‘doers’. So I realized early on that if I wanted to learn anything on the job, I would have to 1) find the quiet ones who seemed absorbed in their work; and 2) watch them like a hawk, as they weren’t about to tell me how to do anything.

The upshot of this was that most of my learning had to take place through reading—I would voraciously devour any wood or woodworking book or magazine I could get my hands on. Translating that information to actually working with wood required that I reinvent many wheels, as you can imagine how many crucial details got lost in the process. This would not have been the case had I grown up in an era where long-term apprenticeship to a master tradesman was the norm. I think most young people today interested in pursuing a career in the trades, short of those fortunate few who have access to a ‘doer’ who is also a ‘talker’, have to similarly bootstrap themselves forward through sheer determination. In retrospect, I can say that there were larger lessons about patience and humility that some ‘old-timers’ were trying to convey through their ‘non-teaching’ (lessons I actually desperately needed at the time), but like most impetuous youth, I knew better, and had to do things my own way. I am actually astounded that some of them tolerated my hubris and incessant (and I’m sure highly annoying) questioning as long as they did. In any event, while this path definitely instilled in me a strong sense of self-reliance and an aptitude for problem-solving (I wouldn’t have gotten far otherwise), it left me without any rites of passage that would normally mark  steps along the path in a traditional apprenticeship. So I invented, or in this case perhaps I should say borrowed, one when I made my first handplane.

James Krenov was one of the most influential woodworkers of the 20th century. Before his death in 2009, he inspired countless aspiring woodworkers, primarily through his books, which dealt at least as much with the philosophy of craftsmanship as with the work itself. He also founded and ran the cabinetmaking program at the College of the Redwoods in Fort Bragg, CA, for 0ver 20 years before he retired (the program continues today), at which students learn to make many of their own tools, and in particular, their own wood-bodied hand planes, which to me were (and are) as much works of art as highly refined (and highly efficient) woodworking tools. Learning to tune, sharpen, and work with iron-bodied planes is enough of a challenge to have deterred many a would-be woodworker, but to be able to create a plane (in the inherently unstable medium of wood no less) capable of shaving a few thousands of an inch in a pass, this was a challenge I knew I would have to accept.

I had harbored these ideas about plane-making for a number of years prior to attempting my first, so was fortunate to have put aside some 4×4 blocks of straight-grained Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) far in advance. I sealed the ends of the blocks with latex paint to minimize checking and cracking as they dried, put them in the back of a closet in my shop, and basically forgot about them for a few years, by which time they had thoroughly dried and acclimated to the ambient humidity of my shop space. This acclimatizing process is vital to any woodworking project (as anyone who has attempted to do refined work with unseasoned wood can attest), but is especially key to plane-making, as any residual instability in the plane body will cause movement (bow/twist/cup) that will render it completely unable to do its job—an interesting paperweight, perhaps, but not a functional tool.

I wanted to work with a local species, and while locust is not native to this part of New York, it has thoroughly naturalized after being planted in countless farm woodlots over the past two centuries. It is a highly rot-resistant wood, so makes a great fencepost or natural substitute for pressure-treated lumber for use in construction. It is also a very heavy and dense wood, which makes it a superior firewood species. This weight and density, as well as its toughness and wear-resistance (despite a somewhat open-grained character), made locust a superior choice for this plane.

Robinia pseudoacacia wood

If you’re going to attempt one of these yourself, the best way to learn would be to seek out someone who has built a bunch of them, and to pester them (and maybe throw money at them) until they agree to help you along; however, if you’re at all like me, and would rather spend your hard-earned money on more wood to work (0r maybe more tools) than on the expense of a teacher, an alternative recommendation would be for you to get your hands on a copy of Making and Mastering Wood Planes by David Finck, which was invaluable to me in making my first. I got my copy from the library, so was able to get my hands on the necessary information free of charge (maybe there were some late fees, as I was hesitant to part with this dense, well-written book until I had thoroughly digested it, but you get my meaning). You can also find relatively brief but highly useful instructions on how to make and use these planes in the most hands-on of Krenov’s books,  The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking.

In his instructions, Krenov urges the planemaker to put much care into the first attempt, as once discouraged, many are reluctant to try again (true of a great many endeavors in life). He also states, in his characteristic understated manner, that “…the balance between success and something less is often delicate.” Translation: Be patient and mindful at every step, or risk fucking things up (custom hardwood paperweight, anyone?). This is an excellent apprentice level (or higher) exercise for precisely this reason. As someone once said (in a different context), in mastering one trade, you master them all. So, by approaching this challenge with the care and exactitude required, the foundation is built for a much broader level of mastery that extends far beyond the world of woodworking.

While one can get hardcore and make or adapt their own iron (blade) for the plane, I took the easier way and bought a high quality, laminated steel blade and chipbreaker set designed for this purpose from Ron Hock, which takes and holds a razor sharp edge.

plane blade

Here’s a photo of the plane bottom, showing the tight tolerance of the ‘throat’ opening that allows for clearance of shavings while maintaining the fineness of work desired in this type of plane (the cutting edge is at the top, and you can clearly see the lamination line dividing the hard from soft steel that gives this iron its combination of hardness and strength):

plane bottom

Interesting thing with this type of plane—despite its fine tolerances, the depth of cut is adjusted by tapping either the top of the iron or the back of the plane body with a hammer (see top photo)! Seems kind of crude, but with practice this type of adjustment works quite adequately. As wood-bodied planes move with changes in humidity, a perfectly adjusted plane one day will need a little tuning the next, which keeps things interesting. Another great thing about these planes is that they can be made in all different sizes, depending on the job that they will perform, from small block planes, thru smoothers, and even long jointing planes. The one I made is about 11″ long x 2 1/2″ wide, putting it in the mid-range as a smoother. For comparison’s sake, here’s a photo of it next to a small block plane (Lie-Nielsen–GREAT plane), and a Stanley #5 Jack Plane (good all around workhorse in the shop):

three handplanes

A wood-bodied plane has a whole different level of responsiveness to the lumber being worked than does an iron plane, something that Krenov would wax poetic about regularly in his books. When built successfully, working with  these planes is akin to driving a sports car instead of a more utilitarian vehicle that would get you where you’re going, but without the same subtlety and nuance of experience. Some folks actually make them to look as sleek and polished as a sports car, which seems more than a little fancy to me for a tool—in my view, the proof is in the pudding, or in this case in the planing, not in frilly aesthetics. Also, a rough finished body is easier to grip without slipping in your hand. In the end, my first plane ended up in the very good but not great category—for those in the know, it takes a shaving of 4/1000 of an inch, which for me puts it in the class of refined surfacing, but not final finishing, of most of my projects. Not bad for the first time around. After I make a bunch more, I look forward to the day when I can share this hard-won knowledge with an eager young buck like I was back in the day—but he’ll have to pester me for a while first.

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