I had three opportunities to show my planes to potential clients this fall - two Lie-Nielsen hand tool events here in California and the Woodworking in America show in Cincinnati - and came home with commissions for two planes in hand.
Actually, what I had in hand were two challenges to take my work to a higher level, and the good news was that my two new clients had told me to take my time.
I spent six weeks following the Cincinnati show re-thinking every step of my production
processes in a thorough-going effort to rid the planes I’d been making of certain details that bothered me. I’d seen the work of Konrad Sauer and Raney Nelson - infill planes that hang together in every respect, from design to execution – and I knew that the difference, as Nelson told me, was all in the details.
You see no trace of the dovetails joining the sides of their planes to the bases, for example. Sometimes you can’t see mine. Sometimes you can. Nearly always, you can see a gap on my planes where the front and back ends of the sides meet the base. How come? More important, how might I eliminate those gaps, along with the traces of my dovetails?
I recalled seeing one of Raneys Norris-style smoothers in the raw at another show last spring, and memory told me that he had the tails on the base of the plane and the pins on the sides. I’d been making my planes the other way around, with tails on the sides and pins on the base. Would it make a difference to switch?
I tested the idea on new steel only to find that the peening made the front-and-rear gaps worse - no surprise, really, since I had chosen not to create double dovetails by filing small nicks into the corners of the pins.
I did a second test, this time with double dovetails, with only marginal improvement.
I’d seen an exploded view of a Karl Holtey plane showing not dovetails but rather steel dowels and machine screws holding the sides to the base. So I thought: Why not tap and countersink 8-32 brass machine screws through the pins into the base of the plane? At the least the screws ought to hold the sides still while I peened them, and the brass might look nice once filed.
The brass looked nice indeed so long as I located each screw in a straight line and countersank each one to the same depth - hard to do on a drill press.
Besides, an 8-32 screw is a lot of screw going into a base ¼ thick; if you don’t drill straight into the base, the screw shows. I tried a smaller 6-32 screw only to find that it’s damned hard to tap that small a screw in 0-1 tool steel.
Seeking a simpler solution, I drove steel dowel pins into 1/8-inch holes drilled through the tails into the base of the plane. The pins have grooves cut into one end that expand when peened, securing sides to base. This was a step in the right direction, though the front-and-rear gaps between side and base remained visible.
Tackling that problem, I redesigned the sides of my planes, adding small tabs front and rear to fit through matching slots on the base - the idea being that if I peened carefully, the gaps that got me to thinking about all of this would disappear. It worked. It takes time to drill and countersink the holes for the pins, and the tabs want careful peening, but
the gaps are gone, gone, gone.
Meanwhile, I spent two full days tuning and re-tuning every plane I had on hand, wondering why my planes sometimes chatter and don’t always produce those curly ribbons that come out of Konrad and Raney’s planes. Worse, the shavings sometimes jam in the mouth of my planes.
The bases of my planes were flat, so that wasn’t the problem. And the irons were sharp. But when I studied the mouths on my planes, I realized that the geometry differed from one to another and that I was getting better results from some over others. I also realized that I had never asked the question: Just how does one shape the mouth of a plane?
If this sounds like a question I ought to have asked long ago, it is. And I offer no excuse for my tardiness in getting to it. But I am grateful that my two new clients had told me to take my time making their planes, as otherwise, I don’t know when Id have thought the matter through.
In any case, the answer to the question, according to David Charlesworth in Fine Woodworking October 2004, is that you file the front of the mouth from the inside at a 15-degree angle until the bevel reaches the base. I did so on all the planes I have on hand and voila, big improvement.
Last but not least, wondering how I might file consistent chamfered bevels on the sides of my planes, I came across a You Tube video showing how knife makers use a special vise to bevel the sides of a knife. I adapted the idea to give me a 30-degree bevel, and - well, voila again.
All in all, the fall months have proven fruitful this year. I don’t yet make perfect planes. I make better planes, and that’s what I had in mind all along.