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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