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.
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