Some time ago I swore off transitional planes; it wasn’t a knee-jerk decision. I have come across many of them in my “travels”, most being the Sargent brand. And after many attempts to restore these planes to working functionality I finally gave up. I could never seem to get them to work correctly. Why the trouble you ask? Planes, in particular transitional planes, are relatively simple tools, a somewhat flat sole and a sharp iron should be all it takes to make a working hand plane, correct? Maybe…on paper, but in reality for a plane to work the iron needs to be bedded solidly, and it should adjust smoothly, and on every Sargent transitional I’ve come across those two factors were an issue.
My amateur diagnosis of the problem points to the flimsy lever cap on these planes. No matter how much refining I put into them they just never seemed to work, and always seemed to be far too loose or far too tight for accurate adjustment. If anybody comments on this post I’m sure they will suggest something to correct the issue, but I have tried just about everything and nothing seems to fully solve the problem. Well, there was one solution that did work, and that was adjusting the plane iron using a hammer…but that basically defeats the entire purpose of a transitional plane. And the fact of the matter is that I have several wedge based planes that are better than any transitional that I’ve come across. So why mess with a pretender when I already have the real deal? The short answer is that transitional planes look really cool, but they’ve always been 10 foot beauties…good from afar but far from good.
Yet, it seems I am a glutton for punishment. So when a co-worker who often attends auctions brought me another transitional jack plane to look at I was intrigued.
Firstly, it was not a Sargent, but a brand called Marten Doscher. I had never heard of the brand to be honest, but an internet search provided some basic information. Doscher was a tool maker out of New York circa the late 19th century. It seems the company didn’t stay in business very long, just around twenty years, but this plane was certainly unlike many of the transitionals I had seen before.
Firstly, the plane has an iron in the style of a wedge based plane, thick with a heavy cap iron, rather than the Bailey style iron that has been the standard now for more than a century. Secondly, and far more important to me, the lever cap is not the flimsy, tin-foil like piece I’ve come across so many times before. Rather, this lever cap is similar to the cap you may find on an infill style plane, and one that uses the body of the tool as leverage for clamping rather than the screw alone. This was enough for me to attempt a restoration.
At first glance the body of the plane was no better than any Sargent I’ve come across, meaning it was very utilitarian. The knob and handle were in decent shape, but the sole was pretty beat-up and very likely had never been flattened, though at least the mouth was fairly tight. But upon removal of the metal aspects of the body I was pleasantly surprised. The mortises were quite clean, unlike many of the Sargent planes I’ve seen. Even better news was the plane iron, it quite obviously had not been sharpened in a very long time, but whoever the prior owner happened to be knew something about sharpening, because the bevel was clean, and the iron had a very subtle camber that was actually even, meaning symmetrical, which I’ve found to be rare on any old plane, not just a transitional.
I restored the plane just as I have restored dozens of others. The metal aspects of the tool I soaked in a solution of warm water and citric acid. While those parts were soaking I flattened the back of the iron and sharpened it, which went quite well, though in fairness I never had an issue with Sargent plane irons either. Regarding the body of the plane, I wanted to keep as much of the original patina as possible, but I also wanted to clean up the sharp edges and make it just a touch more refined, not only on the body but the handle. I used a block plane, a ¼ inch chisel, and sandpaper to add chamfers as well as slight rounding at each corner, and thankfully it turned out nicely. I then gave it a very good cleaning with BLO. I wasn’t going for a brand new out of the box appearance, just the look of an old tool that had seen use, but was taken care of at least a little.
Lastly, I wiped clean the metal parts, which were more grimy than rusty, reattached them to the plane body, and proceeded to flatten the sole of the plane with my metal jack plane. Once the sole was flat I added a few coats of BLO, let it all dry, and coated the entire plane with Alfie Shine wax. The plane turned out rather well, but none of that would mean a damn thing if the plane didn’t work correctly.
The first test cut was on a piece of red oak. I set the depth for a bit of a thick cut, and the tool performed nicely. I then progressively adjusted the iron for thinner and thinner shavings. Guess what? It adjusted beautifully, and I was able to actually get translucent shavings. There was no wobble, no fussing, just good old adjusting the way it should work…smooth and easy.
Here is the best part. I brought the plane back to my co-worker and he told me that I should keep it. It had only cost him a few dollars and he would rather give it to somebody that appreciates it. So I thanked him, brought it home, and set it on my tool shelf. The truth is I have a very nice metal jack already, so the plane is redundant in that sense. But it is there if I need it, and most importantly to me, I can finally say I’ve restored a transitional plane to work exactly as it should.
Around 18 months, I decided to leave the world of woodworking blogs. When I made that choice, I also made my reasons clear. I will say it again and repeat myself in the process: Woodworking blogs are no longer about woodworking; they are political sound boards and SJW op eds. I did not want to be associated with that nonsense then, and I still don’t today. There were other reasons as well, but none so compelling.
Hell, maybe things have changed, but I doubt it, and I don’t care enough to look.
But, since I haven’t been blogging, I also haven’t been woodworking as often, and that has bothered me. My furniture making tools in many ways have become carpentry tools, and I am thankful for that because they are still very useful. My latest projects have all been homeowner related: installing a new attic door and trim, framing and trimming out for new attic windows, and most recently, converting my daughter’s bunk bed into a single, which was fun because I did it all with a hand saw, a chisel, and a cordless drill. But I hadn’t considered making any new furniture, that is until this past Saturday.
This past Saturday a local historic home was having a Colonial Fair (Colonial in the sense that its theme was mid-18th century America). The area of Pennsylvania where I live is rich in Colonial history, so these events are a pretty common occurrence in the region. Saturday was a nice day, and the fair was less than 10 minute drive away, so I decided to take my daughter to check it out. To make a long story short, I ended up at the Joiner’s tent, where a woodworker was demonstrating box making. He was very talented; I would mention his name but I don’t feel comfortable in doing so, nonetheless, his demonstration also included many nice examples of hardware, hinges, and colonial period locks that he makes. Not only that, he is also a very talented Windsor Chair builder. I ended up speaking with him for more than 30 minutes, and he genuinely seemed to enjoy the conversation. It got to the point that my daughter, who is much more patient than I was at her age, was tugging my arm, and I certainly didn’t want to monopolize the man’s time. It ended up being the nicest woodworking conversation I’ve had in a long time.
And, as often happens when speaking with a talented person, I picked up several nice ideas just by checking out his work. One of which was lining the interior/lids of small boxes and chests with period newspapers, which is right up my alley considering that one of my geeky hobbies is creating documents using authentic Colonial fonts and ‘laid’ style parchment paper.
So I would like to thank this ‘mystery’ woodworker for his time, and mostly for inspiring me to start making furniture again. For the first time in what seems like forever the topic of woodworking didn’t leave me wanting to throw my tools into a ravine; I’ll take that as a victory.
Some time ago on this blog I wrote: If all it took to kill “fine” furniture-making was IKEA then the trade deserved its fate.
I stand by that statement even more so today than on the day I made it, but I would like to add an to it an addendum. For the profession of woodworking may indeed have been “killed” by so-called cheap furniture, but the profession’s cousins, woodworking media and hobby woodworking, were murdered by the very people supposedly perpetuating their existence.
I have been woodworking on a regular basis, meaning weekends, for the first time since last November. However, I have avoided woodworking media, magazines, books, and even videos, almost completely…that is until this week. I checked out a few (there are only few left) of the sites I used to view almost daily and almost immediately I discovered both the murderers and the murder weapon(s).
What was most frightening was not the content, which was disturbing enough on its own level, but the comments made after the fact. Instead of woodworking, I found pseudo-intellectual babble, BS political and economic philosophy, sycophantic kiss-assery (if you’re going to make fun of the President at least be funny and original), and worst of all: no dissenting opinion.
Why would there ever be a need for dissenting opinion on a woodworking site? Because it appears that these sites no-longer are about woodworking, they are about pushing an agenda that is quite frankly scary to me. Of course, I’ve made mention of this before, approximately 5 years ago, but I did not foresee the fall happening so quickly.
So what murdered hobby woodworking and the media related to it? A small handful of woodworking journalists. What was the murder weapon? The ideology they created in order to destroy competition, drive up costs, and sell their own products. Who were the accomplices? That is a little less clear, but my money is on the people who leave all of those lovely comments.
As I have said over and over and over again, the one thing that would and could end woodworking as a popular and viable hobby is the alienation of the working people who once were the professionals in the trade, and the middle class people who were once the majority of the hobbyists. This small group of writers managed to do both, and I have to give credit where credit is due, they did an absolutely terrific job of it.
Allow me to do a quick assessment of the current situation in woodworking media…
The few magazine editors still left are all journalism and English majors who may or may not have had a relative who once was a carpenter. The site operators are more focused on pushing products, a political agenda, and a horrible economic philosophy than actual furniture making. And the relative few who still read the very few magazines still in operation are upper middle class/wealthy people (nothing wrong with that in general, mind you) who have somehow come to despise capitalism and are now waging a war against “the man” and his “machine”.
I have to break it to you folks, and I hate to bring political ideology into this on my end, but the vast majority of hobby woodworkers I have met were and are what I would call politically conservative. When they pick up a woodworking magazine or sign on to a professional woodworking blog they really don’t want to read a political diatribe against corporations, religions, and the government. They don’t want to read comments such as “I’m a risk analyst for Manhattan Life, but I hate corporations! Down with the man!”, and they don’t want to be told that THEY are the problem, because they are not.
So what is the problem? First and foremost, much of the crop of woodworking writers who appeared as the new millennium began were not actual furniture makers. As I mentioned earlier, they were a group who studied journalism, or English literature, or marketing, and they couldn’t find jobs in their field because those fields are competitive and don’t really pay much, and frankly are far less relevant than they were in the past (for the record I am not belittling any of these fields, they have merits just as any other line of work does. I am only stating that in the current job market these fields are somewhat saturated).
This group, who really couldn’t write about woodworking in a way that spoke to hobbyists because they were likely even less experienced than their audience, decided to write about esoteric topics disguised as woodworking projects while at the same time interjecting their own political and economic beliefs into their work. In these magazines, actual furniture making became less important and was replaced with witty banter and subtle jabs at those who were not indoctrinated into the writer’s own beliefs. While I have zero magazine editing experience, I can’t imagine that alienating a large portion of your target audience is good business practice.
As the magazine’s focus became more narrow, more readers were lost. Couple this with a bad economy and suddenly tool companies stop advertising (mostly power tools, which remember are “bad”) and cheaply produced internet shows begin to take the place of long running television series. Because power tool companies advertising revenue drops considerably, power tools are even more vilified by the writers. The magazines focus narrows even more to cater to a more narrow readership and soon enough many different options are replaced by very few.
The few magazines still operating focus on hand tool work. In and of itself hand tool work is a fun and viable way to woodwork, but the writers cannot keep from continually narrowing their views. It no longer is acceptable to use hand tools unless those tools meet a rigid criteria. Writers begin to focus on minutiae which has little to do with actual furniture making, but who forged your holdfast, where you purchased your saw, which company made your chisels, where you purchased your wood, and which country your workbench originated from. These things and not furniture became the focus of most woodworking media. Single furniture forms are pushed continually in order to sell books and videos. More and more people are turned off.
Who are those people who were driven away? I am one of them, and as a middle aged, middle class man I believe that not so long ago I represented the demographic which made up the bulk of hobbyist woodworkers.
Today, woodworking magazines are a pale shadow of what they once were. Woodworking television shows are virtually non-existent, and the woodworking “blogosphere” is a near black hole of nothingness. The few blogs remaining spend more time on political preaching than on woodworking. Corporate maligning has replaced content (a small-company can screw you over just as easily as a large corporation and you’re kidding yourself if you think otherwise). And woodworking experts have been replaced by internet gurus.
So, yeah, just as the profession of “fine” furniture making has died, so too has the hobby along with its corresponding media outlets. The profession no longer exists for a number of factors. Some people will blame large furniture manufacturers, and that is a part of it, but in reality the profession has died because it is no longer necessary for the survival of the human race, which is the same reason that dozens if not hundreds of now non-existent trades have vanished. It is now a quite minor specialty field. And though hobby woodworking didn’t need to follow suit, it has for the reasons I discussed in this post. It’s quite sad, really, because I used to enjoy the media aspect of the hobby. Now, I get my woodworking media fix the old-fashioned way; I watch re-runs of The New Yankee Workshop on YouTube.
I made a rare visit to the doctor’s office this past week. It was nothing serious, yet at the same time it was enough to get me to go to a doctor’s office. Either way, while in the midst of the prerequisite second waiting period, I relieved the boredom by looking at some of the posters hanging on the walls in the examination room and I noticed that all of them contained many photos. Considering that most posters are just large photos this was hardly mind blowing, but the content of the photos is the compelling factor.
While in that waiting room it occurred to me that medicine is very much a visual art. Of course you can call a medical doctor with a description of symptoms and they can probably come close or even very close to the mark in regards to a diagnosis, but a visual examination is generally far more precise. And this little revelation led me to write this post.
Not 20 minutes ago I was going through a few woodworking books doing some research for what I hope is an upcoming project. To be forthright, I have a love/hate relationship with woodworking books. Currently, I count 37 books dedicated to woodworking on my bookshelves (I had more at one point but donated quite a few to the local library) and I have an issue with most. That doesn’t mean I don’t like them, it just means that just as we are all imperfect, so too are all of those books. And their biggest source of imperfection is the lack of photos.
Woodworking is a visual art, and woodworking books have too many words, and that is the problem with nearly every woodworking book ever written. A photograph in a woodworking book is worth a chapter of written description. In fact, I believe the ratio of photos to pages should be a minimum of 1 to 1. It’s simple really; trying to describe the process of building furniture using words borders on stupidity. It doesn’t work. I read the instructions for attaching a lid to a chest and I honestly wanted to burn the book…yeah, I am not kidding. And this is not made up, I picked up my cell phone and watched Paul Sellers attach a lid to a chest and any confusion was instantly gone. Have I attached lids to chests before? Sure. That isn’t the point. The point is I paid money for an “instructional” book that somehow complicated the extremely simple act of attaching a lid to a chest.
Maybe you can blame it on bad writing, or maybe attaching a lid to a chest is something that really cannot be described in words; I don’t know, but I do know that there was not one freaking photo of the process on those 2 pages; not one….And a photo would have been a hell of a lot more clear than 4 paragraphs of nonsense.
And perhaps the worst part is that it gets worse. Read a description of sawing dovetails, or creating complex angles, or maybe worst of all: sharpening…I can almost guarantee that if you were not confused it will make you so. And now I know why I haven’t purchased a woodworking book in years.
For the record, I am hardly an anti-intellectual. I love reading, and I am at this very moment surrounded by many hundreds of books, all of which I’ve read, some of which I’ve read multiple times, and most of which I’ve loved to the point that they have become part of my lexicon. But of the 30+ woodworking books currently sitting on the shelves of my little library, I can count on one hand the number of them which consider “keepers”.
Why the vitriol? After all, they’re just books. Well, for the first time in more than 6 months I have considered making full-sized furniture again. And when I went to those books to find inspiration I found myself not energized but frustrated; I found myself remembering why I stopped blogging about woodworking. And it made me realize that it’s about time to take all but a handful of those books and throw them in the donation bin at our library. Then again, in doing that I may be doing nothing more than contributing to the frustration of other woodworkers in the area, and that is the last thing I want to do.
I haven’t written about woodworking for some time for reasons that I have tried to explain in prior posts. I would also add that I have been woodworking less, but I have hardly stopped. Considering that I have no real need for any new furniture, and there are only so many small boxes a person can make before they become a burden, much of my woodworking has revolved around home maintenance.
In the meanwhile, I have restored, or have attempted to restore, a large number of old tools, most of which I have given away, a select few which I’ve kept for myself to use, and some others which were beyond the normal range of repair that still have a nice appearance I’ve used as decorations on bookshelves. And it is these repairs that I want to write about briefly if for no other reason than to help out people who may be attempting a tool restoration. And it doesn’t hurt that these sporadic posts may add a Bobby Fischer-esque mystique to my once too great and now too diminished popularity (with apologies to John Dickinson).
But it is Sargent transitional planes that I would like to speak of…
To date I have restored five Sargent transitional planes to various states of workability, one jointer and four jacks. Do they all work? Yes. Would any of them be a “go-to” tool? Not even close. All of these planes were in some level of disrepair when I received them, some bad, some worse, but all needing a decent amount of work. While I cannot claim to be an expert or even accomplished tool restorer, I do know enough to repair an old tool into working condition in most cases. I’ve found Sargent transitional planes to be by far the most difficult hand planes to restore that I’ve come across. Initially I’ve chalked this up to both the nature and age of these planes, but after a few years I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe Sargent transitional planes just aren’t very good. So when a friend had me look at a Sargent transitional smoother that appeared to me to be barely used, I went against my better judgment and decided to give it a try.
Initially the plane was very dirty and had a dull coating of rust over the entire metal portion of the tool. Like every other Sargent I’ve come across, the wood body portion of the plane was unrefined but serviceable. But I was very pleasantly surprised to see the mouth of the plane pretty tight, and the iron I could see had never been ground or sharpened. I took apart the plane, which was a little difficult considering all of the threads were rusted, but I was careful to be very gentle. As the metal parts were soaking I got to working on the iron. The initial grinding was done on a powered grinder. I flattened the back using 220g sandpaper, 1000g diasharp plate, and an 8000g Waterstone. The bevel was worked on with the same sequence minus the sandpaper. I finished it all off with a charged leather strop. Happily, the iron sharpened up beautifully, and it only took around 30 minutes to go from rust to razor. With this early victory my hopes were up. So after cleaning up the other plane parts and reassembling the tool I clamped it in the vice and flattened the sole, which didn’t take much work because it was actually in pretty good shape to begin with. Once again I disassembled the plane and gave the threads another gentle cleaning and applied some 3-in-1 oil on all of the moving parts, and this is where the plane reverted to the Sargent planes I’ve come to know and dislike.
Every Sargent transitional plane I’ve come across adjusted roughly and this one was no exception despite being the cleanest one I’ve ever dealt with. I always blamed the adjustment screws, which I’ve found to be a bit rough, but, I believe I’ve finally discovered the real issue with Sargent transitional planes: the lever cap. The lever caps on these planes are quite frankly junk. Before, I blamed the poor lever cap performance on beat up frogs and chewed up bevels, but with this plane both the metal and wood portion of the frog were in pretty good shape. As with other Sargent transitional planes I’ve used, the lever cap would not properly clamp even though I had the cap screw perfectly clean and threading smoothly. This has been the same problem I’ve had with all of my Sargent restorations: the cap is too loose, turn the cap screw a hair, the cap is too tight for a smooth adjustment of the iron. In fairness, I was able to get the Sargent adjusted to the point where it took transparent and even shavings, but it took an unacceptable amount of time and effort, and each time I readjusted the plane it took several minutes of fussing with the tool to get it to work properly again. In comparison, I retrieved both my coffin smoother and plain Jane Stanley #4, both of which needed extensive restoration work when I received them, and in a matter of seconds both were adjusted and taking beautiful shavings.
So in short my advice is to stay away from Sargent transitional planes if you are looking for a tool to restore to top working order. A basic Stanley #4 is a far better option, and if you are looking for “wood on wood” planing stick with a traditional wedge based plane such as a coffin smoother. While the idea behind transitional planes may be sound: wood on wood planing with the adjustment ease of a metal bodied plane-I have found these planes lacking in several areas, the lever cap being the most obvious defect. I finished up the restoration yesterday, at least as far as I am planning on restoring it. The plane does work decently, but I can say with utter certainty that Sargent transitional planes are not worth the effort to restore.
Once upon a time I received quite a few comments on my blog posts. Some of those comments were actually posted on the blog, and quite a few were sent to my personal email (just to set the record straight, the hate mail to “fan” mail ratio was about 50/50). In fact, I received enough of those emails to warrant creating an email (gmail) address specifically for the blog posts. Strangely enough, once I did that, I received far fewer blog related emails..go figure.
Anyway, I received my first blog related email in quite a while, more than a year, asking the same questions I’ve been asked many times before: “Where are my fun posts?” “Where are my rants?” “Where have my fringe, op-ed pieces gone?”
I haven’t answered this persons email directly as of yet, but the answer I give him (or her) will be the same I’ve given before: It’s not worth it.
Some time ago I came to the conclusion that the world of woodworking is simply not worthy of my time and my opinions. I could go on a long diatribe explaining my reasons, but instead I’m going to break it down to this most simple phrase; Woodworking is dull.
Let’s face it; woodworking magazines, videos, books, and blogs (sorry) are or have become really boring, very bland, and more often than not, they suck. (Once again, sorry). At one time I liked to think of myself as a counter point to the boredom, but now I just don’t care enough anymore to bother.
So the last two paragraphs are going to be copied and pasted and given as my response to the email. I will continue to post on the occasional project or tool restoration, but my days of ranting are over. I don’t want to be lumped in with a group of boorish, pseudo-intellectual geeks anyhow (referring to trees by their Latin genus? C’mon)
On Saturday afternoon the Washington Campaign Desk project officially became a completed piece of furniture when I moved it from our downstairs family room into our “office”. In actuality, the construction of the project was completed two weeks ago and the finish applied over the course of a week. While I’m very much an amateur when it comes to finishing, and I may have already mentioned it in another post, I will briefly touch on the topic again.
In most cases I would have finished walnut with BLO and some wax. I wanted to go with something more refined, and after some online research I wound up with a product from Rockler called ‘Sam Maloof poly oil/poly wax’. The instructions were similar to other finishes: sand to 400g, burnish with 0000 steel wool and a soft cotton cloth, apply liberally, and immediately wipe off the excess with a soft cloth. (I’m glad they added the immediately, because letting the finish sit is a recipe for disaster no matter what anybody, anywhere will tell you). Anyway, the recommended sequence was 3 to 4 coats of the poly/oil blend, and 1-2 coats of the wax blend, with a 24 hour drying time in between coats. I went with 3 coats of the poly/oil, and 2 coats of the poly/wax, and I can say without any reservation that it was the easiest and nicest finish I’ve ever applied. Even better, it is dead simple to apply further coats in the future for renewal purposes. At $20 per pint it was not inexpensive, but in my opinion it was well worth the cost.
I have two regrets with this project: One, I wish that I had documented the little details a bit more. Two, I would have done a better job on the through dovetails at the back of the drawers. Don’t get me wrong, the drawers are square and tight, but compared to the rest of the desk, I think the through dovetails are a bit sloppy. Speaking of the drawers, I did not fully assemble (meaning glue them together) and finish them until after the final coat of finish was applied to the desk itself, just in case some final resizing needed to be done. And the last task, adding felt bottoms to the drawers, was completed yesterday.
I felt a great sense of accomplishment when we moved the desk into our office. I added some of my memorabilia to it and it really brought the desk to life. Everything looked like it belonged, and when I replace the oil lamp with a real candle lantern I believe it will look even better.
This desk was the first full-sized piece of furniture I built this year, and more significantly, it could be the last full-sized piece I make in a long time. Not that I’m planning on giving up woodworking, but the real truth is I have very little room in my house for more furniture. Currently, the living areas of my house contain 14 pieces of furniture I built. That is a respectable number. So from now into the foreseeable future, I will likely be making small boxes and such, which I am fine with, because whatever else happens, I built something that I am extremely proud of, and I set the bar higher. Now, I just need to find a suitable chair…