Thursday, February 5, 2009

Bitten again

So, I'm getting ready to build some bookshelves, but I wanted to clear the deck of projects first. The shave horse is the primary project right now, of course, and I realized this afternoon that I need one more bolt to hold in the upper jaw. That aside, the thing is just about done. There only three serious moving parts on it, the treadle, which handles the upper jaw, the lower jaw, which slides up and down, and the toggle, which holds the position of the lower jaw. All three are now built and ready to go, so all I need is the actual upper jaw to get bolted in. I'll post pictures when it's actually complete, and explain the virtues. In the meantime, there are also the after hours projects, and I've been bitten again by the planemaking bug. It's a weakness of mine that dates back a while.

For some people, planes do more than just shape the work, they put a finished surface down. These people don't sand anything... they plane or scrape the surface with very sharp tools, and they lay whatever finish they're going to use on top of that. It's an interesting way of doing things, and I have a lot of respect for the people who can do it well. Wood carvers are another breed of artisan who do things this way, because in many cases, their tools leave a nice, shiny, burnished surface behind, and to sand their work would actually dull down the details. So there's no point in sanding for them. And a well-sharpened plane can leave a similar surface. BUT, it has to be really, really sharp... which is one of the reasons planes have captured my attention.

I've had a love affair with sharp tools that dates back more than half my life. I think I bought my first "serious" pocketknife at the age of 18, at the Chesapeake Knife and Tool store in Quincy Market. (I don't know what "serious," means, but at the time, I was really impressed with the knife, and it was clear to me that I'd crossed a quality threshold.) I practiced sharpening on that and other knives... a lot... while I was in the army. In 1999 I bought a really nice knife that was a cut above average for the 'serious' market, and I was hooked. And for the past 10 years, I've always had a knife in my back pocket, wherever I went. (at least, wherever it was allowed.) And I've refined my sharpening skills along the way. In 2003 my first class at North Bennet opened my eyes to what sharp really could be, and it was a kind of eureka moment for me.

In 2005, I started school full time, and during that first semester, we had a visit from Larry Williams, of Clark and Williams Planemakers, who taught a group of us in 2 days how to make a molding plane by hand. It's normally a week long class, so it was a pretty abridged version, but the basics came across very clearly, and I talked with him on the side about hand planes in general, and I was really excited about the idea of making my own planes for a variety of uses. Clark and Williams make old-school wooden planes that work very well, and among other places, are used at Colonial Williamsburg to do demonstrations.

That summer, I took a class with John Reed Fox, and learned about japanese tools. There's a long lecture on the topic of japanese planes in general, but there are two basic points that I think are relevant here.

First point... the focus in manufacture is different. In western (english/american) style planes (the kind most people I know are familiar with,) the focus is on the body and mechanics of the plane. The blade is made of very thin stock, and the rest of the plane exists to strangle that blade into being stiff enough to make a reliable cut. The japanese focus on the blade, which is a massive hunk of hand-forged metal, joining wrought iron with very hard tool steel. The blade is then stuck into what is essentially a wooden block.

Second point. Japanese planes work amazingly well. And I was astonished to see just what they could do.

So, when I went back to school, I was really turned on my sharp tools, and planes in particular. I built 2 planes that semester, and a few more in the years after that. But while I really enjoyed making tools, I had limited success on the first few tries. Generally, I had better things to do, as well, so the hobby died off and went by the wayside for a while. Still, I made a point to keep everything as sharp as I possibly could.

A week or two ago, I was working on something, and I was having issues with the lateral adjust on the plane. The lateral adjust handles side to side adjustments to the blade. Problem is, it works better on some planes than others. The idea is to be able to make sure the blade is coming evenly out of the throat of the plane. But depending on where the blade decides to pivot, the end result may not be very desirable... or controllable, which is a problem on bigger planes with wider blades. Back to a couple of weeks ago... one of the things I learned along the way with wooden planes was to use wooden pins near the mouth of the plane to hold the front end of the blade steady, so that when the lateral alignment was adjusted, it would pivot from there, making things more controllable and reliable. Aha! So, I drilled the sides of a cast iron plane, tapped it, and put in small set screws. It worked like a charm. So, I did a few more...

To be fair, this was something that had been sitting in the back of my head for a while, and as it turns out, one plane manufacturer already makes their planes like this, which I had forgotten. So I'm not such a genius, but I was finicky enough to bother retrofitting such an idea onto one of my own planes.

A few months ago, I was supposed to run a plane making class at the Woodcraft store in Woburn. It was a simple class, using a kit that was made by a company that also makes aftermarket blades. And so I've had the kit kicking around for a while now. Last night, I had some extra time, so I cracked open the box, and took a good look at how it goes together to see what I was getting wrong.

Later that night, I'd fabricated a new kit to go with a blade I'd had kicking around for a while. Tonight, I got it finished off. And I brought it home to properly sharpen the blade. I'm mildly concerned... If this one works out, it's entirely possible that I may end up building more of them. And the problem right now is that I have entirely too many things to keep sharp as it is.

Lastly, I have to remark on the irony of having all of these really nicely tuned up hand planes, and yet I'm using them to make more hand planes... which I don't necessarily need.

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