Apologia for the Custom Handplane
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The best logic for these high-end tools may not be what you think.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Popular Woodworking
OROver the past decade, I’ve built somewhere approaching about two hundred custom planes, both for my enjoyment and (since 2010) as a full-time occupation. I’d like to take some time here to tell you why every carpenter needs a custom airplane in his shop.
But I can’t do it.
The truth is, most carpenters need a modern “super” plane in exactly the same way my 6-year-old son needs a jet pack.
So let’s fix it right away. The offers from Lie-Nielsen, Veritas, Clifton and Old Street Tool have brought the modern airplane to already rarefied levels of performance. Properly installed and tuned, the tools of those companies far exceed the needs of almost all carpentry shops.
In any case, local flea markets and auctions are sources for the classic Bailey model and for wooden planes, most of which can be tuned to meet the needs of a shop with a little care and attention.
In addition, there is a whole range of viable airplanes that have no justifiable alternative in the world of custom aircraft. Scrubs and bow tops, jack plane, fillister and plows – not to mention molding plans of all varieties.
And yes, this is my sales standard.
Now that I have shot my business on the feet, let me tell you why I am engaged in tools that apparently have just relegated to the land of unicorns and altruistic stockbrokers – and why some carpenters still have good reasons to want custom planes in so that my son can take care of Spaceman Spiff’s couture.
First, let me debunk some myths about the attractiveness of high-end custom planes.
Myth: jewelry shelf
One of the most basic hypotheses about custom planes is that their main aspect is their appearance: that they are not made so much for users as for collectors.
In my experience, while aesthetics certainly matter a lot, every modern producer will tell you that when he exhibits at events and shows, it is not seeing that ends with a commission. It’s the use.
My whole marketing strategy, from soup to nuts, is to “try the plane”. There is something about how tools work that simply calls some carpenters. (Learn more about how they work soon.)
Myth: muffled spirits
Another common misconception is that filling planes in particular have an advantage over other designs because the wooden bed dampens vibrations. This is a simple nonsense – and in fact it is 100% opposite to reality.
This myth will not last a second if we consider the most commonly used and desirable woods for the production of plants. Rosewood, boxwood, ebony – almost for one, they are woods appreciated for their hardness, stability, low elasticity and high density.
In fact, almost all of these woods are considered woods, and are especially appreciated for their ability to carry vibrations, not to dampen them. This is not an accident.
Myth: mass appeal
There is a surprisingly widespread idea that high-end aircraft are particularly effective because of their high mass and corollary improvement in the momentum of the aircraft in use.
This is a fairly recent (and oddly lasting) idea. For the vast majority of the history of written carpentry and for the vast majority of modern carpenters, unnecessary weight is considered 100% harmful to the flat function.
Let me say it as clearly as possible: everything else considered equal, less weight is almost always more desirable in a leveling plan.
First the finish
At this point, I think it is important to recognize that the vast majority of custom planes are ponies without makeup. They are made to do one thing – and only one – extremely well: perform the final leveling. Period.
Since they don’t have to fulfill a wide range of purposes, they can be meticulously optimized for this task and the manufacturer can tune a plane to meet a specific set of needs and circumstances.
For most planes in the custom world, material costs are in the order of around 10% of the total price of the plane; the vast majority of costs are in the work that goes into making the tool.
So when you buy a custom plane, what you are paying for first and foremost is the manufacturer’s technical skill and long time. From a performance point of view, what you are getting is an in-depth technical skill and the setup of someone who eats, sleeps and breathes these tools all day, every day.
The standard features of a well-made and tuned top – flat soles, accurate beds, fine mouths etc. – they are all brought to the highest levels here.
An aspect that I consider underappreciated, however, is the remarkable degree of feedback that the best personalized planes transmit. This (finally) is the “how” in the “how they work” that attracts so many people to the intestine and, in my way of thinking, it could be the most important performance advantage of custom-made instruments.
To explain what I mean by feedback, allow me to divide the smoothing technique into two categories that I see several times during fairs, meetings and in my shop.
Technique One is what I call planing for speed. In this method, the carpenter is almost throwing the plane through the wood – often making good use of a plane’s inertia to hold it in a cut and to move very quickly and smoothly in routine work.
This approach is good when there is a lot of ground to be covered and when the selection of wood has been carefully considered. Straight-grained and relatively figure-less woods forgive incredibly when approached with a well-calibrated sharp instrument.
I also think this explains much of the appeal of the mass – because as the woods get harder (think of African and Australian timbers), it’s tempting to try to exchange the growing momentum that a heavier tool can bring. This is the exception to the rule that the lighter is better for some carpenters.
Technique Two is what I am referring to as planning sensitivity. It comes into play in works where the work surface is not straight grain, is highly figured or where the tear would be more than uncomfortable – it would be catastrophic.
Consider high-end furniture, where woods with heavily shaped and intertwined veins such as quilted or bird’s-eye maple are often awarded a prize, not to mention expensive exotic figurines.
Planning these materials often requires a degree of finesse which is unnecessary in most handwork, and this type of work benefits from a dedicated tool made to carry out the activity.
Sensitivity planning relies on the carpenter’s senses to adjust the plane’s angle, speed, direction and angle to compensate for grain movement and smoothen the surface for optimal effect – and avoid the ravages of tearing.
Eyesight and hearing both come into play in this arena, but more than anything else, the talented carpenter who is familiar with his instrument, in this case literally feels the grain that changes on the table and compensates on the fly.
That heightened sense of physical contact with wood is the point where the highly tuned personalized piano shines, because the construction and operation of the instrument are intimately concerned with providing information to the carpenter’s senses, in particular the tactile sense.
What exactly is it about these plans that makes them such good communicators?
Above all, the greatest structural strength of today’s custom planes is due to the methods and designs used to build their shells. There are two common methods used to join the hips and soles, but basically each of them ends in a cold-forged shell in a single structure.
On more traditional filling surfaces (where the inside of the shell is entirely filled with wood), the sides and sole are usually joined by a double dovetail joint, while more modern designs often use a series of bolts or pins with peined for carpentry.
In both cases, once completely assembled and peeling off, the results are often invisible and end in a singular structure that is irreversible, extremely strong and rigid.
Structural integrity also extends to the litter box. The most common bedding solutions include a thick “mouthpiece”, which is generally joined directly to the sole with through rivets. The bed is lengthened by the mouth or with wood or metal, which in turn is riveted through the sides.
Stripped and aerodynamic
To bring information from the tip of the hand to the user’s hand, the vibration must be transmitted very carefully through a certain path and, in custom plans, that path is usually much simpler than a modern Bailey style plan.
Without adjustable mouths, moving frogs and often without regulators, there is simply less opportunity for lost stiffness and feedback that brings information to the hand.
Handled with care
The biggest loss in feedback transmission in most Bailey planes comes from the stock exchanges.
I couldn’t venture to guess how often I saw loose bags on old Stanley and Millers Falls planes, but I can tell you it’s an epidemic of any level.
Even if properly protected, the inclusion of a tote is often one of the main points for reduced feedback in the plane if the coupling and fixing are not performed very well.
Where bags are used, most modern planemakers mitigate the problem by connecting bags using much safer and more substantial methods than planes manufactured online.
Securing the bag is often one of the most interesting parts of aircraft design – with many manufacturers using extreme ingenuity and engineering to do the job.
Not handled with care
A remarkable range of custom planes has been designed at no expense, returning to more fluid designs once ubiquitous on the coffin or using wedges (or even the blades themselves) as handles to provide as much feedback as possible.
In general, the bag is no longer important for the cutting stroke, but for the return stroke – and is usually only needed on larger and heavier tools. Many smaller designs therefore give up the bag.
The smoother coffin, a fixture of pre-industrial cabinet-making stores, is still a flourishing project in the world of custom piano and, with a single piece of wood between the blade and the hand, its simplicity makes it a spectacular conveyor of feedback.
In fact, for many small planes I design the blade itself to be used as a handle, offering what I believe is the final signal path for feedback.
Summarizing (up and away)
As I said, the step for custom planes from a necessity or cost-benefit position is a non-start. They simply aren’t significantly better in key performance than today’s best mass-produced aircraft. Their highly tuned designs, friendly to feedback and adorable, however, will always appeal to some carpenters.
There is no denying that for me – or rather, my son – there is no objective need for a 1,600 horsepower jet propulsion jet pack. The minivan, bicycles, skateboards and the occasional plane ticket take us wherever we ever need to go. But that doesn’t mean I won’t spare every cent for the day the Google jet pack is released. I will do it.
Because for me (I mean my son), the charm of a cutting-edge device that raises the hair on the back of the neck in use – or even just makes me drop water balloons on my neighbors – is worth the expense.
Now please, turn the page before I start talking about what I spend on wood. PWM
Raney is a planemaker and filler carpenter at Daed Toolworks (daedtoolworks.com); his shop is located near Indianapolis, Ind.
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