Sunday morning I was in my garage working on my coffin smoother plane when a neighborhood kid happened to be walking by the driveway. I watched out of the corner of my eye as he cautiously approached the opening. I turned to face him and he called out “I really like your tools!” And with that he was gone. I had thought about inviting him in, but in this day and age inviting a kid you don’t know into your garage is asking for trouble on many levels. In any event, the kid thought my tools were cool, and that’s all that really matters, doesn’t it?
The coffin smoother I recently refurbished was not a tool I needed, it was a tool I wanted only because I thought it was cool. The truth is I have two smoothers already, a Stanley #4 and one I made myself. Both of those tools work fine. This coffin smoother is as redundant as it gets when it comes to what I will use it for, but it’s freaking cool, and that’s all that matters.
Two things worried me going into this purchase; one was the condition of the wedge and the other was the condition of the cap iron. That is why I am glad for Patrick Leach, as I believe he is a guy who would not sell a plane with a bad wedge, at least not without telling you first. The wedge scared me because on planes like these they can be the fussiest part of the plane, and to make a new one is not easy, at least not for me. The cap iron scared me only because of my inexperience in dealing with vintage models. Happily, both the wedge and the cap iron were in remarkably good condition. I was particularly impressed with the wedge, which was as crisp as I’ve seen on an old plane.
I began the first part of the rehab on Friday night by flattening the sole of the plane. I decided to use my LN jack plane because it is by far my best and most accurate plane. I know that statement may upset some purists but it’s the truth. My jack plane is a near perfect design; it never gives me any trouble, and the only thing I ever had to do to it was sharpen the iron. If I have one complaint about it I would have to say it was the cap iron, which is an extremely well made part, but every so often I get shavings caught in it. But that is something that can be fixed. Anyway, I honed and stropped the iron, fastened the coffin plane in the leg vice, and started planing.
I set the jack plane to take very fine shavings. There was a high point just in front of and just behind the mouth, and hollows between the middle of the plane and the sides. Also, the front of the plane had some shallow nicks which needed removing. I proceeded cautiously, and after a few minutes it became clear that the leg vice was not the place for this job, so I clamped the plane between a Veritas wonder dog and a bench dog. The task did not take long, and I checked my work carefully. Once I was satisfied with the sole I used sheets of 220 and 320 grit sandpaper on the bed of my table saw to clean it all up. All in all the whole process lasted less than ten minutes.
The next step I copied straight from the Paul Sellers playbook. I used boiled linseed oil and 0000 steel wool to give the plane a thorough cleaning. When I took the plane out of the shipping box it seemed clean to begin with, but the steel wool did wonders, and the photos I took do not do it justice. The cleaning clearly revealed the plane to be a “ Varvill & Sons, Ebor Works, York” and above that “J. Strafford Bolton The Tool Depot”. Either of those marks I’m not familiar with, but I’m sure that somebody out there is. Once the plane was clean I wiped it down, took the cap iron/nut, soaked it in WD40, and called it a night.
Part two of the rehab I started on Sunday. I began by working on the bevel of the plane iron. I always thought that it was a hard and fast rule to always flatten the back of a plane or chisel before working on the bevel. But both Graham Haydon and Paul Sellers worked on the bevel first on their plane rehab videos. Maybe it’s a wacky English method, but I decided to go that route as well. The bevel was in nice shape, with a slight camber and a few small nicks. It was clear to me even before I began the grinding that this plane iron had been hollow ground. I am not a fan of hollow grinding in the least(which I will not get into on this post), but there was little I could do about it. So I progressed from 320 grit wet/dry sand paper, to the diamond plates, to the water stones, to the leather strop. It probably took near an hour, and I was dripping with sweat (woodworking still isn’t exercise, which I will also not get into on this post). I never did manage to completely grind out the hollow, but I did get the iron sharp. It’s not pretty, but it works. I then turned my attention to the back.
During the initial inspection of the plane out of the box I noticed that the back was nice and flat across the face with no hollows, but from front to back had a slight hump. That concerned me at first, but when I reattached the cap iron that hump “straightened”. I’m not sure if this is a characteristic of this style iron/chipbreaker or not, but my concern was alleviated at that point. After the marathon with the bevel, the flattening of the back was mercifully fast and easy. I used the same sharpening mediums as for the bevel, and after 15 minutes I had an iron that was nice and sharp.
The last task of the rehab was cleaning up the grime on the iron and chipbreaker. The chip breaker had already been soaking in WD40, so I wiped that with steel wool, for the iron I used steel wool and linseed oil, same as with the plane. The cleaning revealed the iron to be manufactured by “Ward”, which is a maker I had heard of before.
Later, on Sunday evening, I added a coat of wax, buffed it off, and put the plane to work. The good news: The wedge and iron adjusted easily. I could seat it tightly and unseat it with just a firm tap of the hammer. I decided to use the plane to clean up the workbench top. Immediately I heard the throaty whisk that a wood-bodied plane resonates when it is working. The shavings were thick, so I backed off the iron and the shavings became better. In fact, I was able to take a shaving across the entire length of the bench top. Better news was the fact that the chip breaker did not trap any shavings, which is always a concern. The only not-so-good news was the sharpness of the iron. I think I can get it sharper; I know I can. But overall I am very pleased.
As of this moment the coffin smoother is perched along with most of my other planes on the new shelf above my workbench. I’m not sure how often I will actually use this plane, but that doesn’t concern me so much. There is something about these wood-bodied planes that has a timeless appeal. Quite obviously they were the only woodworking planes in existence for more than 1000 years, and at that they must have worked just fine. I don’t know the whole reason why the Bailey Style plane usurped the wood-bodied but I would guess that it had something to do with production methods. Some people may lament that fact, but I don’t, because the Bailey plane is a good plane, too.
Yet I can’t deny that the wood-bodied tools are special. I’ve heard dozens of different descriptions praising them: They have a warmth. They are more comfortable. They are aesthetically more appealing. Etc. The truth is, I agree. This smoother is extremely comfortable in the hand, and it does have a certain elegance that would make Obi Wan Kenobi proud. I love the way the sole of the plane feels silky smooth after it’s flattened; I love the way it sounds when it’s being used. I love the makers mark on the iron. It really is a beautiful tool.
The funny thing is that I don’t feel like I own this plane; I feel like I am borrowing it. I’m not trying to be all sappy because I’m not a sappy guy. But it feels like this plane will find another owner when I shuffle off this mortal coil. Maybe some of my other tools will as well. Who knows? But the next person who obtains this plane will be borrowing it, too. Borrowing it from me just as I borrowed it from its previous owner. I hope it isn’t a collector; I hope it is somebody just like me. Maybe they’ll see the tool and think the same things I thought. Maybe they’ll just think it’s cool, and worth saving, and worth using, because it will be. And in the end, that is all that really matters.