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Mouldings in Practice

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For the past six months or so I’ve been exploring the use of traditional wood moulding and joinery planes. I hate to use the word “traditional” because I’m not really  a traditionalist, but being that these tools are often described with the word, I will do the same. In any event, I use these tools not necessarily for traditions sake, but because I have very little room for larger equipment. I would love to have a giant SawStop cabinet saw sitting smack-dab in the center of a dedicated workshop; I don’t. When I needed to accurately make a couple of dados or ‘fillisters’, my best choice was to back my wife’s car out of the garage, roll the table saw out, attach the dado stack (or what have you) and make the cuts. If I were making twelve grooves or dados for a cabinet or bookcase I would have no issue in going through the set-up, but if I need to make just one or two joints it makes much more sense to do it with a hand plane. To put it another way: I just got tired of going through a bunch of nonsense to accomplish something that could be done much more simply. Now, I use a moving fillister plane whenever applicable.

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Once I purchased a moving fillister and began to incorporate into my furniture making, I began to explore the use of other “traditional” planes, beading planes to be precise. Because I don’t really enjoy using electric routers and never have, moulding planes were the logical next step. Yesterday, I received my first set of hollow and round planes, #10’s actually.  I’ve even started to take the first steps of constructing my own small set, which is a real possibility. I like the idea that with hollow and round planes, and some practice, I can theoretically make many different mouldings. And because I have very little practical knowledge of these planes, I ordered ‘Mouldings in Practice’ by Matt Bickford. The book arrived on Tuesday, and last night I finished reading it.

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Just as the title suggests, the book is a practical guide for using moulding planes, in particular hollows and rounds, to make many different profiles. The book is surprisingly fast to read; I finished it basically in one sitting. The step by step drawings are clear and color-coded to illustrate Bickford’s step by step process of creating different profiles, consisting of a series of rabbets and corresponding hollows and rounds. Using the drawings as lay-out tools, you could probably use machinery to create a fair portion of the mouldings as well, though to my mind it would actually be more difficult than using hand planes, but it should be possible. Of course, the book has a chapter on sharpening and maintenance which is well done. However, as far as sharpening is concerned, I stopped worrying about it and conversely improved immensely. In fact, I don’t want to read another article or book about sharpening ever again.

One thing that Bickford points out, and one thing that I had suspected from the get-go is that most woodworkers do not need a full-set, or even a half-set of hollows and rounds. In general, the majority of woodworkers can make a vast amount of profiles with just a set of #6 and #10 planes(as well as a rabbet plane). That is a good thing, because a new half-set of hollows and rounds costs a small fortune, and a decent vintage set isn’t cheap, either. Surprisingly, Bickford is not too keen on the purchasing and refurbishing of vintage planes; his theory being that the time spent rehabbing these planes, which often need a lot of work, could be spent making new ones, and that someone new to moulding planes can spend a lot of time and money trying to repair old tools that maybe are irreparable.  I can agree with that to an extent, but it does lead back to my argument concerning the need for mass produced tools, but that is (was) another blog.

One place where we differ, and maybe where I differ with a lot of woodworkers, is the “level of tuning” that wood planes need. Bickford states that vintage planes need to be tuned to an extremely high level in order to perform properly, to the point that it led him to stop even trying and build his own. Though I can understand his want to make his own tools, I disagree that wood planes need massive tune-ups to work. I’m not saying that a plane shouldn’t be tuned to a high level, but I am saying that you shouldn’t purchase a 200 year old plane and expect it to work “like new”. These planes are going to have dings, minor variances, etc. I feel that as long as you get the iron sharp and the soles reasonably clean and shaped then that is enough for woodworking. I have a strong feeling that old-time woodworkers didn’t keep their tools insanely tuned, rather, I think they were very familiar with their tools and used them accordingly, understanding that some of their planes were not perfectly profiled; a sharp iron fixes a lot of minor problems, and it’s my guess that these guys simply kept their tools very sharp.

While I don’t necessarily use hand tools in order to “be unplugged” or to keep machines from taking the “soul” out of my work, I have heard, meaning read, many woodworkers say that they do. I do like hand tools because they offer a different, not necessarily better, level of control that power tools do. “A plane is just a jig for a chisel.” That is a favorite phrase of some hand tool woodworkers. If that is the case, and you are tuning that “jig” to a machine-like level of tolerance often times using machines to do it, aren’t you really just using a power tool in a different capacity? If you are, that is fine with me, but I think you lose the right to preach if you do it. That being said, I don’t believe that Bickford is preaching; I’m just making a general statement.

If I have just one minor quibble with the book it would be with the black and white photos. While this book isn’t photocentric, it does include some pictures of moulding planes in use, as well as furniture to illustrate some of the complex mouldings made with planes. I have nothing against black and white photographs, but I think that color photographs would have shown more detail. To take it a step further, I believe that sketches of the planes, furniture, and completed mouldings, a la Eric Sloane, may have worked even better. Even so, my complaint is very minor, and does not detract from the book in any way.

While I can’t say that every woodworker will enjoy this book, I highly recommend it to those interested in using moulding planes. It is hard for me to say if woodworkers everywhere would be interested in this topic as esoteric as moulding planes; this book is about as niche as it gets, then again, woodworking in general seems to be a niche topic. I do believe that this book could be beneficial to woodworkers looking to expand their knowledge of furniture construction, even if they never plan to pick up a moulding plane. But that is strictly an opinion. I can honestly say that even if I never decided to pick up a moulding plane I would still have been happy to have purchased and read this book. Why? Because I believe that reading it made me a better and more knowledgeable woodworker, and that’s about all I can ask a woodworking book to do.

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16 Comments

  1. Jeremy says:

    While I’m all for the boutique tool maker movement and really enjoy making “fancy” tools myself, I totally agree that H&R’s production needs improvement. They are the place “traditional” (modern) woodworking needs most. Modern designs that are easier to manufacture quickly and inexpensively are needed as currently they are cost and time prohibitive. I have lots of ideas on this topic, but am not sure who would even be interested. Perhaps an “open source” design project would be in order.

    • billlattpa says:

      I wish I was in a position where I could make a difference in that respect. It’s easy for me to tell other people how to run their tool businesses and spend their money. But even though I may be “complaining” it doesn’t necessarily make me wrong. In the case of moulding planes, there are only two traditional makers that I know of, Bickford, and Philly Planes, that make a full line. In either case the tools aren’t inexpensive, which is understandable, but the lead times are what concerns me. Often, they are a minimum of a 12 month wait. Is there a way to mass produce these tools to make them more readily available? I wish I had the answer. Sadly, I don’t think it will ever happen, even on a small scale, but it would be nice.
      Thanks.
      Bill

      • Jeremy says:

        I’m with you. There are a few other makers too, Caleb James, Timewarp toolworks come to mind, but really while there are top-tier makers, there aren’t any mid-tier makers (LV sells smaller scale Asian H&R sets). It’s like having ScotT Meek and Konrad Sauer but no Veritas. What is needed to make them more available to the masses is either a kit form (think Hock Krenov planes) or else a “large” scale manufacturer to get the key parts affordable. I believe most of the trouble is in the irons, which traditionally are necked (proportional to width) and tapered. These work well and allow a simple wedging. L-N offers these irons, but are fairly expensive due to the high level of processing required. Perhaps a usable design could be made that would allow shorter straight & flat irons and a lever cap (possibly an adjuster of sorts) that would retain the side escapement but allow quick construction and less precise handwork.
        I’m wondering if an open-source design project of sorts could come up with something new and useful in the changed manufacturing priorities of the 21st century. Perhaps it’s time to bring this out of the shadows of my mind an into the open.

      • billlattpa says:

        I very nearly purchased a few of the Asian tools just to give them a try. I couldn’t find any tool reviews on them, and because I’ve never even seen one in person I backed out.

        I love the idea of kit form, as it would make the tools more readily available, yet save the exacting phases of the construction process for the end user. The final assembly is usually the most costly part of manufacturing, though I have no idea how cost effective it would all actually be, but it’s an idea.

        Most people have argued that there isn’t enough call for moulding planes to mass produce them. That could be possible, but I think that is partly due to the fact that the tools now are deemed as extremely expensive for lack of a better word, and most woodworkers, even die-hard hand tool guys, wouldn’t go back to them for the cost. 40 years ago I would have agreed, but I do think there is a market now for moulding planes, obviously not as big as it would have been two centuries ago, but I do think it is there for the right tool company to implement it and make those tools in a more cost-effective manner.
        Thanks.
        Bill

  2. theindigowoodworker says:

    Thanks for the book review. I’ve always wanted to have some molding planes but the thought of buying a half set of new or even used set makes my checkbook scream NO. Top that off with my furniture taste does not run to the style that they would be used most and it simply has never happened. A set of 6,10 and a rebate might be doable. I’ll have to get a copy of Matt’s book and have a read.

    As for his spiel about rehabbing, he is after all a new plane maker. There might be some prejudice going on there. I have to agree with you that the planes do not need to be perfect.

    • billlattpa says:

      I think I’m going to attempt to make the #6 pair myself, unless I stumble upon them on the internet at a decent cost. Either way I may just do it regardless; I think it would be fun to make the attempt.

      I’m hardly an expert woodworker, but when looking at mouldings, it’s pretty easy to see that you can do a lot of them with just a few different sizes. Two or three pair is probably the most that the majority of woodworkers will ever need. Bickford also recommends a plough plane, but says it isn’t totally necessary.

      As far as the book, it was interesting, and easy to read. As I said, it probably isn’t for everybody, but I think that most woodworkers will find something interesting in it. While the book may be about a fringe topic, it isn’t dully written, like many books on fringe subjects can be. Any woodworker with a little experience will be able to follow the book no problems.

      I agree that Bickford may have a little prejudice in regards to used planes, but I was surprised with his recommendation to not even attempt a rehab, which he basically flat out says is usually a waste of time. I can respect his opinion, and he definitely has the experience to back it up, but I would still like to find out for myself if a rehab is worth the effort.
      Thanks.
      Bill

      • theindigowoodworker says:

        I’ve found that with rehabbing the biggest obstacle (at least for me) is finding a tool in good enough shape to rehab at a cost that makes it worth the effort. If money were not an object I’d call up Phil and say ship me one of everything you make. This of course is not the case so like the vast majority of us it’s a constant battle of rehab or new and which tool to get next. I don’t dismiss either option and weigh them both to see which works for me.

        Making tools is another option which I’m finding more and more attractive. It’s a challenge which can be expanded upon for me and honestly my need for more furniture is pretty much non-existent these days. I’ve never really cared that much about what I was making anyhow. It’s the act of making that most entices me.

      • billlattpa says:

        I think the biggest mistake tool rehabbers make is trying to turn an old tool into a new tool. I only own a few moulding planes, but I ordered them all from dealers. Dealers are obviously going to charge more than a seller on Ebay, but at least I knew that the tools were fixable, rather than just taking a big leap of faith. I’m sure that experience will tell whether or not a plane can be fixed, but I think it’s really not that hard to see. As you said, finding the ones worth fixing is the hard part.

        Like you, I have become sold on the idea of making my own tools. I’ve made 4 planes, and though I’m hardly an expert they’ve all worked well, some extremely well, and they’ve gotten progressively better. More importantly, I enjoy doing it. After watching the video from Lie Nielsen I am convinced that I can make my own moulding planes. The only obstacle is the irons, because I don’t have the set-up at home to make my own. However, I was shown a company that makes hollow and round irons, and the price is reasonable. So, once I get a few projects I had been planning to build out of the way, I think I may make a few moulding planes this summer.
        Thanks.
        Bill

      • Every now and then I peruse the internet for comments on this book. I found yours this evening. Thank you for taking the time to both read and review it.

        I’m always interested in woodworkers’ take on this book because LAP and I didn’t really know how it would be received. The content made sense to me. It made sense to Chris. It also seemed to make sense to the many people to which I previously explained the steps over the course of the years leading up to publication. It was, however, just a process I acquired by myself in my basement and refined during many conversations. I’m happy that it appears it have made sense to you.

        That being said, I feel the need to clarify a few points addressed in your blog and comment section. I do have a prejudice in regards to antique planes. I stated that specifically in the book. However, I did not recommend staying away from antique planes. I gave a list of things of which to be aware and a source (not mine) to help address them. Antique planes are not a waste of time if you know how to correct various issues that may, and usually will, present. You just need to know what can go wrong.

        My prejudice did not lead me to purchasing planes, however. It led me to making my own, which is what I encouraged in the book: try antiques and if they don’t meet your expectations then consider making your own. I never thought of this option until Larry Williams came out with his dvd.

        I don’t know that I even stated I sell planes in the book because I hope that the content outlives my career. The book was not a marketing pamphlet for my business, I’m not that good of a salesman.

        Another point I’d like to clarify is again specifically addressed in the book. There are varying degrees to which a plane can be tuned but a plane can only take a shaving as fine as the sole is flat, among other things. If you intend to make a cove in pine vs. maple vs. blending two curves into continuity then you’re talking about different degrees. Yours may be different than mine which is different than what Sketchup drawings afford, but the goal should be perfection because it makes everything about using the tools easier. If you think that sharpness is everything and disregard the shape of the iron vs. the sole, the bedding of the iron, the mouth, the flatness of the sole, the wedge’s many aspects, etc. then you may be disappointed, which was my point: be aware, buy aware.

        No doubt that a plane will function to a degree without fine-tuning, but will it meet the expectations that the ideas in the book intend to create and the tools ultimately demand? No.

        These subjects were part of the appendix and not chapters because they were not the focus of the book, but add-ons that needed to be addressed. LAP wanted a chapter on tuning antique planes and I stated that I’m not the person to do it because of my prejudice. It wasn’t appropriate, thus and appendix.

        I am genuinely concerned that woodworkers purchase planes that are ‘ready to go’ and then the tool fails expectations and the user concludes there is something wrong with the technology, which there is not. “‘Ready to go’ does not mean ‘ready to go,'” but many people have been fooled.

        Finally, there is a reason that the pictures are black and white. Chris wanted color but he hated the color of my hands. He was certain that there was something wrong with my camera, which there is not.

        Thanks for checking out the book. I’m fascinated that people share my fascinations.

        I hope you’ve successfully made the planes you’ll need and you’re decorating your edges as you want, without Freud’s input. Send me an email if your planes don’t meet your expectations because I may be able to help; there is a lot going on in the mouth, after all. I want you to be as successful with your tools as I happened to be with mine.

        Be well,
        Matt

      • billlattpa says:

        Matt, thank you for the comment. I’m not sure whether or not you’ve checked out this blog before, but I often do not post book reviews. Most books, including woodworking “how-to” books, are deeply personal, and I would find it difficult criticizing something that a person poured his heart and soul into doing. Though I’ve had little problem sharing my opinions, as “radical”-in a woodworking sense-as they may be, I’ve always tried to keep things from getting personal. And considering that I am far from a professional writer or professional woodworker, I try not to be too critical of professional work.

        That all being said, I reviewed your book because I enjoyed it, and I thought that other woodworkers would too. More importantly, I think it is to the benefit of woodworkers that they, including me, learn and understand how something such as a moulding is formed. I think the most difficult part of making furniture is understanding how it is made. The other stuff: sharpening, sawing, etc. can be learned with time and practice, yet you could be the most accurate sawyer in the world, but it wouldn’t mean much if you don’t know how to put it to practical use.

        Mouldings are probably one of the least understood aspects of furniture making, and even hardcore hand tool woodworkers either leave them off their work, or use an electric router with the corresponding bit. Though I have nothing against power tool woodworking at all, and I believe that a piece of furniture made with all power tools is no lesser than a handmade item, I simply don’t care for using an electric router because of the mess they make, and the fact that you often need to perform additional work after the fact. So I turned to moulding planes because I like hand tools, I like how moulding planes look (there is an artistry to them IMO), and I like the idea of making mouldings without an electric router.

        You pointed out that I misinterpreted some things that you wrote. If it makes you feel any better, my misinterpretations were honest ones and not meant to be critical in the negative sense. I try not to “get into a writers head” because that would be putting words into your mouth, which I wouldn’t want done to me. So I’m just giving my take on what I read.

        As far as my own attempts with moulding planes are concerned, I have around a dozen of my own, all vintage, and all obviously needed some restoration of varying degrees. They all work, some better than others. I’ve found that the round planes are usually the most difficult to restore, as most of the planes I’ve come across have irons that were very poorly sharpened/reground over the years. The ovolo and beading planes seem to be easiest to restore.

        I made one set myself with irons that I purchased. They work as well as some vintage planes that I’ve restored, though I have no comparison to a new, pristine tool because I’ve never used one. I enjoyed the experience, but with the very limited amount of time I have for woodworking I don’ think I would do it again until I get to a point where I am retired from my day job, which is still a long way away.

        As far as the photos, that really wasn’t a criticism, more or less just a personal preference I had. I would be willing to be that many people prefer black and white photos. In the case of mouldings, I think that they can be “shadowy”. Once again, some may prefer that look.

        So thanks for the book. I enjoyed it and I still reference it. I hoped that you generally liked my review, and that it possibly convinced another woodworker to try your book and to give moulding planes a try.
        Bill

  3. theindigowoodworker says:

    Could you give a name and or link for that iron supplier? I can make them, not really interested in doing it though.

  4. I believe it was Rob Lee (LV/Veritas) who said that a plane is just a jig for a chisel. l also believe it was a jig, made of cast iron to accept a 3/4″ chisel (Chisel plane) that was Veritas’s first foray into the journey of making planes.

    In any case, I’ve managed to scrounge up a few molders in decent shape. I just haven’t yet developed the patience and finesse to fart around with tapping irons and wedges juuuust-riiight.

    P.S. I’m the guy who wrote the “Why I love Ikea” article in this month’s P.W. mag. O.K. force shields back up to full power now….

    • billlattpa says:

      I do agree with the “..jig for a chisel” statement. In fact, I take that statement as pure fact and not just opinion. But, when hand tool “purists” take hand planes that are manufactured to levels of tolerance that can only be read by micrometer, and then brag that they do everything “by hand”, I think the “hand tools are better than power tools” argument looses some of its steam. To me, a handplane made of wood does not need to be “tuned” to the level of a metal plane, nor should it be.

      With used, or vintage tools I’ve been generally very lucky. My first few purchases were disasters, but once I started purchasing from dealers my luck has been a lot better. Of course, the dealers charge more money, but the quality has been far better and more consistent. The way I look at it, I’m still saving money, and using a dealer brings peace of mind.

      As far as your article, firstly, congratulations. I will likely never have a published article in a woodworking magazine. Secondly, it was well written, and I like the idea that you salvage wood from discarded furniture. However, like I’ve said many, many times before, if Woodworking as a hobby/profession has a problem of some kind, and if IKEA is somehow related to that problem, I would then call IKEA a symptom of the problem and not the cause.

      If woodworking as a hobby/profession does indeed have a problem, in my opinion that problem has everything to do with expense. For the hobbyist, wood is expensive, woodworking tools are expensive. For the furniture buyer, custom furniture is expensive, even semi-custom furniture, such as kitchen cabinets, are expensive. Now, somebody will say I’m confusing cost vs worth. I’m not. A Rolls Royce may be worth every penny, that still doesn’t make it affordable. The same goes for custom furniture. I could spend $10,000 on a custom made desk that will last for centuries that would be well worth the cost, but, it still isn’t what I consider affordable.

      Just about every woodworking writer on the planet (who writes about this topic) accuses people of not understanding “value”. Firstly, making a statement like that is completely off base because it is completely unfounded and cannot be proven. Did that writer interview thousands of people who shop at IKEA and come to a mathematical conclusion? Or, more likely, is he just passing off his opinion as fact? Secondly, I would say that the writer, and not the shopper, is misunderstanding the difference between value and worth, though I will call that my opinion rather than fact. A $100 kitchen table from IKEA can carry far more value, and by default, worth to a person that has only a limited amount of money to spend on furniture, than any heirloom piece of furniture made by a master craftsman that is out of the price range of many people. I’m no expert on Marxist theory by any stretch of the imagination, but I have read Das Kapital, and I do understand at least a little bit of the principles of the labor theory of value, which works both ways, despite what some people in woodworking would like to think.

      I would be willing to bet that there are many uninformed shoppers who purchase things from places like IKEA only because they are cheap (meaning inexpensive). I would be willing to bet that there are many who understand that it’s cheap, complain that it’s cheap (meaning not necessarily well made), but still buy it anyway. But I would also bet that many people shop at IKEA because they like it. To pass the blame onto those people that they have somehow destroyed the trade of ‘Traditional Woodworker’ is ridiculous.

      I’ve been told that when I say that I cannot afford custom furniture that in reality that I am choosing to not afford it, and that also can be said for others who do the same. That point is valid; there are things that I could cut out of my budget if I chose. But I hold more value in a reliable car than I do custom furniture; I hold more value in saving money for my daughter’s education than I do in custom furniture; I hold more value in going out to have Sunday breakfast with my family than I do in custom furniture; I hold more value in internet access to tell you the truth. In the ideal world I could do it all, but the world is not ideal.

      So when people take things out on places like IKEA, it’s just my opinion that it’s not really the store they are talking about. As I said before, if all it took to “destroy traditional craftsmanship” was IKEA then it was already on life support anyway. Traditional craftsmanship destroyed itself, with some help, and it would take history book to really get into the how and why. Some woodworkers hate IKEA, I don’t care either way. Everybody has a right to an opinion that is informed and reasonable, including you and me. Even if I don’t agree with it, I can still agree to disagree. Unlike other people, I don’t hold it as some sort of character flaw when somebody doesn’t agree with me. If that is the way it worked, there would never be any open discussion.
      Thanks.
      Bill

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