The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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7th (or 8th) time’s the charm..


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.

IMG_0068[1]

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.

IMG_0070[1]

A comparison of the Sargent and the Doscher plane irons and lever caps. Note the “spigot” style adjustment knob on the Doscher.

IMG_0069[1]

The plane sole as finished as I will take it…

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.

IMG_0072[1]

A before and after picture of the iron and its components

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.


4 Comments

  1. bloksav says:

    Hi Bill

    The side by side pictures of the lever caps is really interesting. Like you say, it reminds a lot of the system used on infill planes.
    If I have to plane a lot, I have come to appreciate using a wooden bodied plane due to the ease of pushing it over the surface. So I could see the use for a transitional in those respects. But only if the plane worked as intended.

    I think that you have rightfully deserved to experience a functioning transitional plane given that you have been disappointed by the on prior occasions 🙂

    Brgds
    Jonas

    • billlattpa says:

      Thanks Jonas! There is a part of me that wants to go all out and restore this plane completely..new paint..high polish on the cap..and making the tote and knob look brand new. At the same time, I also think about giving it to a new woodworker. I already have an LN jack, and I have several other transitionals and wedge based, wood planes that are technically jack planes as well.

      As you mentioned, after my attempts to restore half a dozen+ I finally got one to work as it should, and for the moment I am happy with that small victory.
      Bill

  2. James Franklin says:

    Thank you for a very interesting report. Could I trouble you to give details of the citric acid mix and timing next time you publish. Also what is BLO……..sorry for my ignorance!!

    • billlattpa says:

      James, thanks for the comment. When I use citric acid to clean metal, generally I use a ratio of a heaping tablespoon of citric acid per quart of warm (on the hot side) water. Some people will tell you that you can get away with less acid, but it isn’t really an exact science. I usually let it soak for a minimum of an hour, but it can go much longer. Just this past Saturday I soaked some rusty auger bits for around 4 hours before removing them..
      BLO is basic boiled linseed oil, which I use to clean every wood bodied plane I own, at least during the initial clean up. As far as the handle and knob, I will very likely give them both a good hand sanding and apply 3 or 4 coats of Birchwood Casey Tru-Oil, which is used for finishing gunstocks. I’ve found that it is my favorite finish on wood tool handles.

      Hope this helped.
      Thanks!
      Bill

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