The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Daily Archives: March 8, 2015

So close, and yet so far.

Yesterday morning I woke up early, even earlier than usual, and while waking up at 4:30 am wasn’t really what I had planned to do on Saturday morning, it did have an unexpected benefit; it finally gave me the free time to watch the “Making Traditional Side-Escapement Planes with Larry Williams” DVD uninterrupted. I found it a great instructional video for building and tuning traditional wood moulding planes, and for the first two hours I was not only enthralled, but also convinced that I could make my own set of moulding planes. Then….

Before I go on let me say that I’m not a traditionalist when it comes to woodworking. I believe in tradition, and I certainly believe that there are many traditions worth keeping. As far as moulding planes are concerned, some woodworkers would consider them an archaic tool, and the pre-cursor to the electric router, but I do not. The argument seems to make sense; moulding planes have been in existence for 300 + years, they are hand powered, and more than any other tool they have a traditional look and feel to them. An electric router can do many of the things that a set of moulding planes can do, and they are usually less expensive and arguably faster. But I don’t like electric routers. To me, an electric router is a carpentry tool used for making kitchen cabinets and installing floors, not a tool for fine furniture making. There are a million people who will argue that I am dead wrong, and there are woodworkers who can do amazing things with electric routers. I’m not trying to dissuade anybody one way or the other, but after using moulding planes for the past few months I’ve discovered that they can do many things that a router can not, such as easily add a bead to an already assembled piece of furniture.

In my opinion, electric routers are better suited to woodworkers with a professional-style shop. Routers are loud, which can be worked around for the user, but my wife and kid don’t necessarily like wearing hearing protection in the house. Routers are also messy, in particular when you are using one away from a router table. I don’t have any real dust-collection system; it’s not that I wouldn’t like one, but I don’t really have a place in my garage to properly set it up. Using a router by hand makes more of a mess than any other woodworking tool. On the other hand, a moulding plane creates shavings that are much more easily cleaned up, and it does it with far more control, and with a lot less noise. Once again, if you don’t mind the noise or the mess, then by all means do what you like. As I was saying, I’m not trying to convince anybody one way or the other. I’m just presenting my own reasons for using moulding planes.

Anyway, back to the video. “Making Traditional Side-Escapement Planes with Larry Williams” starts off with an introduction to different types of moulding planes and the tools/materials needed to make them. The good news for the prospective plane maker is that there are fewer specialty tools needed than I thought there would be, maybe $300 worth if all purchased new. Most of the tools used would already be owned by the average woodworker. Williams starts with a blank billet and in around two hours turns it into a beautifully shaped plane (he is making a pair of #10 hollow and rounds to be precise). The instruction is very concise, and the camera work shows all the steps clearly. Just as the plane body was being shaped and finished I had no doubt in my mind that I had the ability to make my own set of moulding planes. Then it came time to shape the plane iron.

I’m not a metal smith by any stretch. I know how to sharpen with a grinder, and at my former job I ground and shaped parts to fit on a weekly basis. With a little trial and error I know that I could shape moulding plane iron blanks into the workable tools. But there is a big problem: I don’t have the necessary space and equipment to do it. While I could possibly find a suitable grinder on the used market at a reasonable cost, there is nowhere on my property where I could safely heat treat the plane irons in order to harden them after the grinding process. My heart sank while watching that section of the video. I love woodworking and all, but I’m not about to turn my attached garage into a forge. I just won’t risk it; one misstep and my house is on fire.

The iron work not withstanding, I really enjoyed the video, and I just may make some blanks and search for the irons on the used market. Even if I never make a set of moulding planes, the video is a great resource on the inner workings of these tools, how they function, and how they can be restored. I highly recommend it to those of you who enjoy using moulding planes. I just wish I had access to a forge, because I would probably be attempting to make a set right now if I did.

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