Something old, something new…

I’m finishing work on four No. 3 infills to take to the Lee-Nielsen open house next month in Maine – two in Honduran rosewood, two in Gabon ebony – and the wrinkle on the prune is that two of them come with more-or-less traditional knobs in front, displacing the “gasping fish” buns that have graced or, as some would have it, defaced my planes until now.

Here are the two in ebony:


And the two in rosewood:


The rosewood fish-mouth plane won an honorable mention last summer in the Design in Wood competition at Del Mar, and as I happened to glom onto a quantity of ebony earlier this year, I decided to make a second No. 3 to match it, more or less.

I had some rosewood, too. So, what the heck, I decided to make a plane with a knob – actually, two planes, one in ebony and one in rosewood. With lots of help from Nick Obermeier, who makes replacement totes and buns for Stanley hand planes, I tested out maybe eight different iterations of knobs before settling on the design you see in the photos, which Nick turned for me.

I had the new planes in running order, more or less, two months ago – “running order” meaning capable of spitting out a decent shaving. But I wanted better; I wanted gossamer shavings. And I remembered what Raney Nelson told me some time ago – that I’d reach a point in my planemaking after which everything would be in the details.

So I had no choice but to sweat the details on these planes. Lying awake at night I went over every step in my work processes seeking points at which I might change this or that task and possibly end up with a substantially better plane. For starters, this meant taking great care in bedding the irons against the tote so that at no point could I get an .0015 inch feeler between one and the other. It meant filing the front of each mouth at a 15 degree slant to give the wood shavings room to escape.

It meant taking six hours out of my day to drive to Los Angeles and back to buy a craigslist surface plate – a fine Starrett Grade A specimen, 18x18x4 inches – on which I might flatten the backs of the irons and the soles of the planes. It meant laboring hours and hours over many days to get the finish I wanted, starting with half a dozen wet-sanded coats of Tried and True Danish Oil polished to a high luster, then four coats of Tru Oil brought to a high shine with rottenstone and baby oil, and finally four coats of Mylands wax.

Last but not least, it meant working the irons to give them identical shapes, and chamfering the chipbreakers at identical angles, and giving identical shapes to the brass lever caps, and milling flat areas into the curve of each lever cap on which to stamp my logo.

Does all this amount to overkill? I think not, because I like the result. Here’s what one of the planes did with some ornery black locust:


Here is the same plane working against the grain:


Which is not to say that I am wholly satisfied with my work on these planes. Indeed, I’ve already made a list of things to do to ensure that the next plane I make will be better than these.

Meanwhile, I can’t wait to get to Warren, Maine, to see what folks think who come to the Lee-Nielsen open house.


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And Sometimes the Imperative Is to Act…

On the theory that in woodworking as in love and war, you must seize the initiative and keep it, I knew what to do as soon as I heard the snakewood crack: figure out what had gone wrong, ask my client for additional wood, and work it carefully.

This is what I saw when I pulled the cracked tote from the body of the plane:



The replacement cant arrived later, weighing in at nearly 13 pounds and bearing a smiley face from my client.


There was only one way to get a tote out of the cant with the proportions I wanted:


Against the odds, my usually-unreliable band saw actually made a decent job of it:


Wary of subjecting the snakewood to the stresses of machinery, I made sure to secure the wood firmly on the table of my mill before drilling:


I roughed out the back of the tote on the band saw, but after that it was all hand work:


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A No. 4 in snakewood, without doubt the most ornery wood I ever worked

IMG_4593I finished work just yesterday on this No. 4 in snakewood, without question the most challenging wood I ever laid tool on. The stuff is gorgeous – and it splinters, cracks, explodes, and otherwise gives you headaches once you start asking it to do what it doesn’t want to do.

The tote you see here is the second one I made for this plane. The first cracked wide open after I had shaped and fitted it to the body of the plane and was drilling the first of two holes sideways through plane body and infill to contain 1/8 inch steel rods which, when peened, would secure the tote to the body of the plane.

My bad. I used an ordinary drill bit with shallow spirals for removing waste and didn’t back it out to clear the waste often enough. I heard the snakewood pop, and my heart sank.

Rest assured, though, that I went at the snakewood very, very cautiously the second time around, taking care to keep the wood as far away from my machinery as possible and instead doing most of the work by hand.

More fun that way, to be sure, but no less difficult or, for that matter, less stressful, as I surely did not want to go back to my client, who had given me a small snakewood cant for the infill, to ask for more.

In the end all went well, and as I closed in on finishing this baby, I breathed more than one heavy sigh of relief.

The sides are mild steel, the base 0-1 tool steel; they are joined by dovetails and pins. The iron is A-2 tool steel, one quarter inch thick, pitched at 45 degrees. I make the irons myself but have them professionally heat treated.

I outsource the basic shaping of the body to a machinist shop with a waterjet where I live, in Santa Maria, CA. With that exception – and the heat treating of the irons – what you see is entirely the work of my hands, as usual.

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Honorable Mention at Del Mar

IMG_4172Here’s happy news. This No. 3 in Honduran rosewood won an “Honorable Mention” ribbon last week in the “Design in Wood” juried competition at the San Diego County Fair at Del Mar, said to be one of the toughest, most prestigious woodworking competitions in the country.

As is true of all the planes I make these days, this one has 1/4-inch mild steel sides dovetailed and pinned into a base of 1/4-inch O-1 tool steel. The iron – 1/4 inch thick, 1 3/4 inches wide – is A-2 steel pitched at 50 degrees and beveled at 30 degrees plus microbevel.

The rosewood got a hand rubbed coating of Tried and True Danish oil topped by three coats of Myland wax.

The radii on the tote’s cyma curve, incidentally, are in the classic proportions of a golden rectangle, and the design of the tote as a whole is deliberately radical in service of my theory about planing boards.

In my view the job really boils down to an effort to balance the plane fore and aft on the all-important point where the tip of the iron meets wood – and the more natural and relaxed the motion required to get the job done, the better.IMG_4177IMG_4165

To that end, I design the totes on my planes so that the hand comes to rest not behind the tote, as it would on a plane with a traditional tote, but above and behind it. This creates a straight line out of forearm, wrist and hand vectoring directly at the tip of the iron. To emphasize the importance of this, I suggest that my clients hold the plane as if it were a pistol, with the first finger not wrapped around the tote but rather outside the tote pointing at the blade.

There is, I tell them, a kind of zen in using my planes; everything focuses on the only thing that really matters – getting a good shaving.

Mine are not traditional planes, whose design almost forces you to crouch down over the work piece and push the plane largely from behind. Because the tote stands more or less upright on a traditional plane, you must cock the wrist in order to move the plane across the board. The good news here is that the stance gets the whole body into the work of planing the board. The bad news is that this is totally unnecessary, if only because resulting stance is unnatural, and the motion of the arms, shoulders, body and legs in using a traditional plane is, to say the least, less than relaxed.

The better idea, it seems to me, is to let the mass of the plane do the work, not the mass of the body, and to design every element of the plane with this goal in mind.

Like the tote on my planes, the gaping mouth on the bun seeks to make my theory tangible. I want the fingers of the one hand to wrap into the mouth of the bun while those of the other hand come to rest with the web between thumb and first finger nestled right under the horn of the tote, or as I call it, the crown.

In this way, with either or both hands you can push down, push forward, or lift up as necessary to create the shaving you want, and the motion involved in planing a board becomes relaxed and natural, even easy, despite the mass of the plane (about four pounds in the case of my No. 3 plane).

All in all, I seek to marry design to mass in a coherent whole focused on getting the job done as quickly and easily as possible – and if in the meantime I end up with something that’s also nice to look at, that’s all to the good.

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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.

Here is the finished plane.IMG_4234

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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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