The Cyma Curve

The tote you see here, made from English walnut given to me by my friend Will Richter up in Berkeley, will go into one of my shorebird planes, a No. 4, so-called because the crown flips upward, giving the whole thing the shape of a shorebird’s head seen from the side. I’ve written about the first shorebird plane I made about a year ago. I’d studied a photo of one of Ron Brese’s planes with a crown that seemed to disappear into thin air behind the plane, and I wondered: What happens if I flip the crown upward?

I liked the result despite the risk that a delicate crown can break. Later on, at one of the Lie-Nelson hand tool events, someone saw in the shape of the crown what I hadn’t seen myself – the head of a shorebird, possibly a godwit with a short beak – and I realized that the inspiration had come from the Sunday afternoons that my sweet wife Elise and I spend on the shore north of here, in Pizmo Beach, gazing at the heaving sea and the godwits and other small shorebirds skittering across the sand as the waves slide back into the sea, searching restlessly for food.

At that same Lie-Nielsen show someone else asked whether the curve created by the design was a cyma curve. It wasn’t, as I discovered once I got home and analyzed the drawings, but it was close. I’ve made maybe five planes since then with shorebird crowns seeking a cyma curve that pleases my own eye, and I think I nailed it on this plane: The radii of the arcs are in the proportions of a golden rectangle – the result of many hours thinking and drawing and making cyma curves.

In making the plane into which this tote will go I will put into practice one other really important thing: Having identified the rear edge of the frog as a reference point, I have shaped both tote and steel body so that everything matches up – the rise and slope of the shoulders, the slope in front of the tote on which the iron rests, and so on. I have also refined the mouth and frog and fashioned several jigs, at the moment pretty crude, to enable me to make repeatable chipbreakers.

The tote for a No. 4, in English walnut

The tote for a No. 4, in English walnut

All in all, these things mean that in making this plane I will reach the goal I set for every new plane: that it be substantially better than the last one. My job now is to find ways to make the next plane substantially better than this one.

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The Thing That Bequiles the Mind’s Eye…

I was born impatient and become more so as I age. I make haste in worry that my hands, my eyes, my determination will give out before I make the perfect plane – the one I see before me at all times: a tool beautiful and useful, vivid in the light of the mind’s eye.

But even as I make haste, I grow increasingly willing to spend hours upon hours focusing on a single element in the plane in hand, step by step striving to make that element part of a coherent whole. I spent the afternoon yesterday, for example, attaching the frog to the base of a new No. 4, and as evening came on I began to wonder why it had taken me so long to achieve what seems a simple end.

Thinking back, I catalogued the steps I’d taken to get the job done and realized that if the end seemed simple, the means to that end weren’t.

A No. 4 in the making. The wood - given to me by my friend Will Richter of Oakland - could be anything.

A No. 4 in the making. The wood – given to me by my friend Will Richter of Oakland – could be anything.

For starters, it took maybe two hours to mill the frog to achieve a just-so fit side to side in the plane, then another half hour to rough out a 50-degree bevel on the front edge of the frog and the same on the trailing edge of the mouth. It took 15 minutes or so to locate and drill three 1/4-inch holes in the frog. It took probably three times that to locate and drill the first of three matching holes in the sole of the plane into which I would drive and peen steel rods to secure the frog to the sole.

I was about ten minutes into peening that first steel dowel when I realized that I had missed my target by a hair: Having peened the frog snug against the sole, but not so tight that I couldn’t rotate it around the axis of the steel rod, I could see that when I had the leading edge of the frog perfectly perpendicular to the side of the plane and parallel to the mouth, it sat too far forward over the mouth, such that when I ran my finger over the line where frog ought to have met the beveled mouth seamlessly, I could feel the sharp edge of the frog.

Not to worry, however. If there’s one thing I know for certain about making infill handplanes, it’s that you must have a Plan B in mind for every step in your production process, given the ease with which you can screw things up at every point. So I told myself:

“Don’t fret. You’ll just have to do some more milling and then polish the bevel by hand.”

I peened that first steel dowel tight, checking for square as I went along, then drilled the second and third holes in the sole of the plane. I peened and filed, peened and filed steel dowels through these holes in half an hour, maybe 40 minutes.

It was now time to correct the errant edge of the frog. I spent 40 minutes setting up my mill for the job and another ten minutes milling a new, seamless bevel on frog and mouth. I spent another hour filing the corners of the mouth square and polishing the bevel by hand with sandpaper wrapped tightly around a narrow but stiff board.

I was now done for the day, having spent more than four hours getting nothing more done that I here relate. I had yet to work the leading side of the mouth, of course, but by day’s end I had a good mouth on the plane, the proof being that I couldn’t slip a 0.0015-inch feeler between the bevel and the back of the iron that will go in the plane.


The search for a reference point around which everything else revolves begins where the side will appear to rise straight out of the base of the plane, when finished.

At some point that evening I realized, however, that the work I’d done was but a prelude to something else – something more useful even than a nicely polished, perfectly flat, perfectly square bed on which to rest the iron that will go into this plane. What I’d really accomplished was to lay the groundwork for a solution to a problem I’d been trying to solve for some time. My friend Will Richter of Oakland, who is both master craftsman and good guy, had crystallized in an e-mail last week:

“My take is that a plane is a something that needs a number of things to be contributing simultaneously, which are relatively unrelated to one another, each of which has a threshold below which the plane won’t work, perfection of any one of which may or may not make it work better until one or more of the other factors is also more nearly optimized.”

Put another way, a nicely polished, perfectly beveled mouth is one thing, and a tote perfectly fitted at the mouth and everywhere else is another, and it ain’t easy to pull off that little trick because it means joining form and function together at exactly the right point.

I’d spent some sleepless hours lately thinking that I needed to stage everything I do in making a tote around a reference point, and in shaping that nicely polished mouth I’d come to see that the mouth itself wouldn’t serve to anchor the reference point I had in mind – the point at which the side of the plane rises vertically out of the sole toward the rear end of the plane. The design of my plane requires that the shoulders of the tote 1) rise up from the bed of the plane at the same point as the steel side, matching the vertical rise of the side – about 1/8 inch – and then 2) coincide with the climb of the short curve just in front of that point.

I had sensed that I might get those things done if I had total control of the work involved in shaping the bevel of the frog and base – the point at which mouth and infill meet at the business end of the plane. Why? Because if I knew everything about the location of the mouth, then I would know everything about the frog, including the precise location of the rear side of the frog in relation to my point of reference.

In plain English, if I knew where the back side of the frog was, I also knew where my reference point was, and I could use the knowledge to rout the shoulders of the plane with precision.

I rout those shoulders using wooden templates of the steel sides of the plane, and getting the mouth right is key to making the templates. It’s complicated, but if I give final shape to frog and mouth before I do anything else and then cut the templates to fit up exactly against the rear of the frog, I get templates that will exactly locate my crucial reference point, and thus everything else, on the billet out of which I will create the tote.

As my friend Will put it, lots of seemingly unrelated things have to work together in a plane, and Job One in getting them to do so is to find a starting point for every series of steps you must take in making a handplane. Once found, if you nail that point, you set yourself on a path at the end of which you might just know enough to build the perfect plane – the eidos of the handplane, as Socrates would put it, the thing that beguiles the mind’s eye.


Refining the bevel of the frog and base

Refining the bevel of the frog and base


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Fred West: In Memoriam

IMG_3226-2 copy

January 2014

Fred West –- furniture maker, tool collector, tireless supporter of those
who spend their happiest hours knee-deep in sawdust –- died last weekend
after a short and apparently brutal battle with cancer. Let us celebrate
this man’s life.

I took several of my infill planes to the Woodworking in America show in
Cincinnati last fall having never heard of Fred West, and I flew back home
to California with a single commission in hand, from Fred. I’’d seen him
talking with Konrad Sauer and Raney Nelson, and after someone told me who
he was, I introduced myself, asking him to look at my work.

He spent maybe 20 minutes doing so and then, without further ado, asked me
to make him a plane. Take your time, he said. There are things I like
about your planes and things I don’’t. Make me a good plane.

At that point I’d been making infill planes for less than two years; in
fact, I made my first two years ago this month, and like Fred himself,
there were things about the planes I’’d made in recent months that I didn’’t

Surely, I said to myself, I ought not to send Fred West the same plane I’’d
been making, with improvements at the margin. What I ought to do was to
backtrack through the steps I follow in making a plane to find those spots
that gave rise to the things I didn’’t like and then find ways limit their
impact and maybe, if I were really diligent, get rid of them altogether.

Now, I had no more idea than Fred did that time was running out for him,
but I knew I ran some risk in any such effort. It might take a while to
re-think my work, and Fred might grow impatient. Worse, I might end up
sending him the same plane I’’d been making, with improvements only at the
margin –- might end up, that is, with nothing to show for the effort.

No way, I thought. No way. Take the risk.

I spent six weeks holed up in my garage cum workshop knee-deep in sawdust
and metal filings and then e-mailed Fred with a longish note outlining
what I’’d been up to. The following came back December 15:

Thank you for the update. As things are always changing in life, mine has
taken a fairly major turn. About three weeks ago, I found out that I have
Stage 4 cancer. I am, without question, going to beat this but it does
change my priorities and time lines.

Accordingly, while in no manner do I want to rush you, please place a
greater priority on getting this out the door. If I have a chance, I will
write more….

He had no chance, it seems.

I went into overdrive, got the plane done, and sent it to him New Year’s
Eve for second-day delivery January 2, painfully aware that I’’d made my
first plane exactly two years earlier – and that I might be too late.

UPS attempted delivery on schedule Thursday, January 2, and again the next
day and the following Monday. By Tuesday, January 7, when someone,
possibly a family member, signed and took delivery, I feared the worst.
Yesterday, an e-mail from Raney Nelson brought news that Fred had died
over the weekend.

The good bet is that Fred wasn’t well enough even to look at my plane,
much less to figure out whether I had indeed sent him a good plane.

Had I done so? Maybe. I think so, at any rate. But I lay awake last night
thinking that it ought not to have taken me six weeks. On the other hand,
it’s also possible that what I really brought home from the WIA was not a
commission but the gift of time from a man who didn’’t have much left, and
that Fred West, having helped so many people like me, might think ours a
good bargain so long as I understood that my debt to him is one of
gratitude. He has that in spades.

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What I Had in Mind All Along…

December 2014

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 Raney’s 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 I’d 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.

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“If We Do Everything…”

September 2013

I’m off this morning to Oakland for a Lie-Nielsen “hand tool event” at which I will show three new planes – two smoothers and a larger, narrower jack plane that I finished this week.
I’ve worked hard to make these planes three very fine tools, and I went to bed last night thinking of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who when facing great odds in, I think, his first race for the Senate, told his staff, “If we do everything, we will win.”

He didn’t say “everything we can think of,” or “everything we have time
for,” or “everything we can get around to.” He said “If we do everything…”IMG_3208

I’m also thinking of something a friend of mine, a fellow writer, said  about luck. We were leading a seminar on how to make a living as a freelance writer, and someone in the audience asked how it had come about that I was writing a weekly column on middle-market finance and insurance for the biz page of the LATimes – a plum gig if there ever was one. I responded offhandedly, saying that I had gotten lucky.
My friend the writer corrected me instantly. “You got lucky, Juan. But you
were ready.”

I’m ready this morning.

Here’s the jack plane. The infill is black acacia, with
my usual modified French polish on top of hand-rubbed oil.
The iron is pitched at 50 degrees,and it cuts lovely shavings measuring
0.001 inch from some very old, very gnarly
quartersawn oak – the toughest piece of wood I have.

And the two smoothers. The infill is blue gum on the one, black acacia on
the other. The black acacia on this plane, incidentally, differs greatly
from that on the jack plane in both color and grain structure. The
explanation? The only thing I can think of is that the wood for the infill
on the smoother came from a source in Northern California, and that for
the jack plane from a source south of here, on the coast at Gaviota.

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New Beginnings…


July 2013

As the sun began to set on December 31st, 2012, having spent
the entire year making one infill plane after another, I found myself
thinking about Dick Kazan, an entrepreneur I had known in Los Angeles some
years back.

Dick spent the last two weeks of each year studying his calendar for the
preceding year and planning the coming year. What had his goals
been as the preceding year began? What had he done to achieve them? More
specifically, did the entries in his calendar show that, without
exception, he had done something each and every week to move himself
closer to one or another of his goals?

Then taking a sheet of paper, he wrote down his goals for the coming year,
ranked them in order of priority, and transferred his results into his daily
calendar. And on New Years Day, he began his pursuit of those goals.

All this came to mind as I finished work on the plane you see here. Why?
Because it occurred to me that I had followed Dick’s example in building this

Was it perfect? Of course not. It was a good plane, in some respects a
very good plane. It cut a fine shaving for example, and it felt good to
the hand. I liked the lines and curves of the sides and I really liked the
shape of the bun.

Most of all, I liked the fact that, having begun the year determined to
learn how to make these things, I ended it having made significant
progress, and I was certain that the next plane I made would turn out
better than this one had.

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You Got to Know When to Shut Up…


I learned long ago to stop talking and start listening when I ran into
someone who knew more than I did, and the lesson came in handy when I
committed to taking a booth at the Woodworking in America show in Pasadena
in September, 2012, in hopes that I might come home with some orders for
my infill planes.

That didn’t happen, but something far more valuable did. Yeung Chan, the
master woodworker and tool maker who had been engaged to teach two classes
at the Pasadena show, one of them on making your own hand tools, stopped
by my booth to look at the plane pictured here.

I had no idea who he was, so I launched into my trade-show spiel, telling
him that I had begun making infill planes only months before, that the
plane he held was the tenth plane I’d made that year, that the infill was
spalted pashaco amarillo, and so on.

The look on his face told me that I wasn’t making much of an impression.
He didn’t roll his eyes or shake his head as he turned my plane this way
and that, and to be sure, he made no polite noises about liking my work.
Instead, he looked the plane over in silence, and then he started talking
about design.

As he was a perfect stranger to me, I wondered whether the appropriate
reaction on my part was to think him presumptuous. Who was this fellow,
and why did he take it on himself to lecture me about design?

He had said only a few words, however, when a small crowd gathered around
him, among them several people who had stopped by my booth earlier in the
day and several others who had seen my booth but had passed on without

Clearly, the people in front of my booth had gathered not to admire my
plane but to hear what Yeung Chan had to say about it.

It seemed a good bet to follow their lead, so I stopped talking and
started listening.

Half an hour later Yeung Chan had moved on down the aisle to another
booth, gathering another small crowd around him, and I was rummaging about
in my bag of supplies for a pen and some paper, because I wanted to make
some notes. He had asked: Was there a particular element in the design of
my plane that I liked? A curve, perhaps? The proportion of one element to

I had answered that I liked the long sweep of the crown of the tote – the
part that extends backward, over the web between the thumb and the first
finger of the hand.

Go home, he said, and design a new plane centering on that particular
curve. Pick up, turn it around, reverse it, invert it – play with it, he
said, and see whether you can get everything to coalesce into a single

It took me three months to make his advice tangible, as evidenced in the

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In the Beginning…


Two smoothers

June 2012

You’re looking at the first two working double-dovetailed infill smoothing planes I made, and I emphasize the word “working,” since the truth of the matter is that before I made these, I had already consigned three other enthusiastic but crude efforts to the shelf in my shop marked, “This Is How You Don’t Do This Stuff, Schmuck.”

I look at that shelf pretty much every day mindful of the many, many opportunities one comes across for screwing things up when making handplanes. This is useful exercise, since it makes clear that I have availed myself of every one of those opportunities, and many of them more often than once, since I made the two planes you see here in January, 2012.

I like to look at these particular planes for another reason, however: They were pretty good workers, all in all.

I followed something akin to conventional wisdom in designing the plane with a tote insofar as I made sure that it had a tote, for one thing, and a bevel-down iron bedded at 45 degrees, for another, and a half inch steel frog directly behind the mouth, for yet another.

The plane measured roughly 2.5×10 inches and weighed about 4.5 pounds, and it had a low center of gravity and excellent mass. I used 3/16-inch steel for the sides, mating them to a 5/16-inch steel sole with double dovetails, cut and filed by hand and peened together with care, one by one.

The wood on this plane, like that on the other, was probably myrtle, though I picked it up at a garage sale and can’t be sure. I shaped the infill to support the iron half way up its length, to avoid chatter. The throat opening was vanishingly small – a mere sliver.

I ignored conventional wisdom with the second plane – my tote-less baby.

It measured roughly 2.5×9.5 inches and weighed about 4.5 pounds, with an iron bedded at 25 degrees and beveled also at 25 degrees. This plane also got a frog behind the mouth.

The throat, however, was no mere sliver. In fact, it gaped open at about 3/8 inch, or quite enough to make purists gag. How come? Well, the sole of this plane, like that of the other, measured 5/16 inch thick, and I wondered whether that might give the iron too much of an overhang, leading to chatter. What to do?

As an experiment, I filed the sole all the way through at 25 degrees, so as to support the iron right up to the point where it touched wood.

The trade-off worked reasonably well, since the plane cut a pretty nice shaving – against the odds, to be sure. But I blush and rush to tell you that I did not walk down this particular primrose path in making my third plane. Indeed, I had no idea why this plane, like its kissing-cousin toted plane, cut a decent shaving. But I saw the risks inherent in any prolonged effort to ignore conventional wisdom when you’re new at something and decided that henceforth I would not sneer at conventional wisdom until I had good reason – and knew enough about planemaking to justify my breaking of the rules.

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Coming soon…

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