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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.
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.
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.
Last month I needed to order a few items from Amazon.com. My order total fell just a bit short of free freight, so I added Alex Bealer’s book ‘Old Ways of Working Wood’ to the list, which only cost me around $2.00 after taking into account the deletion of the freight charge. The book sat untouched since it arrived, but a mild bout of insomnia on Saturday night led me to pick up the book and read it, which I did in one sitting-almost cover to cover. As far as woodworking books go, it was okay. I’ve read better, and worse. But something did surprise me, or rather, something didn’t surprise me.
‘Old Ways..’ was published in 1980 I believe. In literary terms, thirty-four years is hardly a long time, but it was written by a member of the G.I. generation. So we do at least have a perspective which is 3 generations removed from today. With that being said, Bealer’s views on hand tool/traditional woodworking are very similar to quite a few acclaimed new books that I’ve read over the past couple years. In fact, you could say that those books are almost identical to Bealer’s work. The message in ‘Old Ways’ is no different than in several “must read books that blew me away!” Here is the truth: There is no new woodworking information, it’s all been said before many, many times. While furniture may change in style, the way it is built has not really changed in hundreds of years. We, as woodworkers, are using the same joinery and virtually the same tools that have been used since the 17th century. The moral: There are no new woodworking books, and there haven’t been in a long time.
Would I recommend Bealer’s book? Not really. It’s not bad, but I liked Roy Underhill’s ‘ The Woodwright’s Guide: Working wood with wedge and edge’ much better, and both generally contain the same information; Underhill’s book was more fun to read. As far as woodworking books are concerned, I don’t know if I can see myself purchasing another new technique book. The older books are generally less expensive, and contain the same, if not better, information. While I’m all for supporting new authors, I do expect at least some new information, not information that has been rehashed over and over again for more than three hundred years. So while my “discovery” was hardly shocking, it did leave make me wonder about the future of woodworking books, as in, how many times am I going to read the same old thing in every new book?