This is a remarkable thing: a dovetail saw likely first used before the American Revolution was over. As a tool, its nearly perfect. The handle is a thing of grace, but what really makes the difference is the back, which is massive. That weight, combined with a fairly aggressive pitch, makes for a very fast saw. That's a great thing, since slowness is the enemy of accuracy, in my hands anyway; every stroke of the saw introduces the possibility of error so I like to keep them to a minimum. Someone in the 1770s seems to have thought along those lines as well.
To do my small part in distributing the understanding that when furniture was made entirely by hand, what could be left coarse, was. Split it, saw it, flatten it, and move on.
When I smooth the backboards, generations of dead cabinetmakers howl.
I am a big believer in making one's own tools. Doing so offers a tremendous sensitivity to how a tool works, and this seems particularly true for planes. That is far, far from a novel idea; James Krenov's articulate argument for plane-making is well circulated. Unlike Krenov, I'm not much of an innovator when it comes to planes. I tend to trust the accumulated wisdom of traditional patterns.
I'm also a big believer in re-treads. Not for my car, but certainly in my workshop. I've made a good many planes from scratch, but I'm not adverse to letting a long-dead craftsperson take some of the load off. I think that modifying an existing plane can be a great introduction to plane-making, even if that means simply tightening the throat with an inlay. Doing so invites you to be sharply perceptive about the tool's form, the subtleties of its geometry. It also saves money.
At the moment, I'm in the midst of a commission that involves a good deal of long, exposed end-grain surfaces that must be planed very true. That's asking a lot of my bench-planes.
The traditional tool to meet a challenge such as this was the strike-block plane. These had an iron bedded at an angle significantly lower than most bench planes - 40 degrees or so - that facilitated easy planing of end grain. These bevel-down planes were, in time, superseded by bevel-up mitre planes and, now, by the wildly popular bevel-up bench planes. (There is a long discussion across the internet about the merits and demerits of bevel-up planes. Better informed, and better-funded folks can folks can keep that up, since these last tools cost at least $250.)
So.....I happened to have a beaten and lonely jack plane on the shelf. I cut of the handle. I planed the side and sole true. I reduced the angle of the bed from 45 to 35 degrees. I made a new wedge. Voila! Cuts like a dream, and, as Blondie said, "dreaming is free."
This might get a bit wonky. A couple of weeks ago, I purchased a plane that manifests so much of what I love about early tools.
It is a fore plane, intended for the job of rough surfacing. I would estimate that it was made in the 1780s or 1790s. The plane is beech wood, and is very well crafted. There is, however, no maker's mark and given the idiosyncratic detail on the wedge, I suspect it was made by a craftsman rather than a professional plane-maker. With its rounded chamfers and 50 degree bed-angle, the plane was probably made in England. The iron is pretty exciting to me. It is round-topped and stamped Newbould - an early mark associated with Samuel Newbould of Sheffield, which dates it to the 1780s or 1790s. It is remarkably thin. I've read that as high-carbon cast steel was expensive in the 18th century, early iron were thin, but this is remarkable. The iron is barely used, and still has the curved, or cambered edge meant for the rough planing of lumber. I am really interested to see how this single, thin, steep, iron cuts.But the best part? When I bought the plane, the price was low on account of the handle being a replacement. I had to take it apart, and when I removed the screw that held the handle in the body, it got my attention. When I did survey work of early 19th century architecture I had, oddly, the need to learn a lot about screws and how to date them. And this screw? 1820s-1830s And the handle itself is made of poplar, which is important.
So in the last years of the 18th century, when English steel tool-makers were still sending out batches of blades to be finished by laboring families, this plane iron was shaped and tempered and ground in a series of Sheffield households. It was bought by an English tradesman, who made a plane to fit it. Somehow, it made its way to the American mid-atlantic region, where, in the 1820s or 30s, its handle broke. Its owner carefully made a new handle out of the poplar so ubiquitous in the carpentry and cabinetmaking of that region; the light shows the scores of facets left by his knife. And, now, this plane sits on my bench. Amazing
In 2001, I had just graduated from college and my Great Uncle proposed we go stay in Sweden for a few months with our family there. I realize this wasn't exactly backpacking through Indonesia for six months with a passport, a backpack and trail of furtive hostel hookups, but it was an amazing trip.
A memento of it is the sketchbook I kept. I didn't have a digital camera, so when I would get sick of lugging my ancient Nikon, so I would just draw. At the museum where the sunken and raised warship Vasa is kept, I drew several of the discovered ship's carpenters' tools, among them a little smoothing plane:
And just last month, I came across a series of entries on Peter Follansbee's blog examining the Gerfschaaf - the Dutch version of the little horned plane. Since I use a 20th century horn plane that I bought in Sweden nearly every day, the notion of experimenting with its formal ancestor was intriguing. I thought I would make one based on a photograph Follansbee posted.
I actually have had a need for a new plane, as well as this curiosity. I've been worn out of trying smoothing these big planks of curly walnut with 45 degree planes. The higher the pitch angle of the blade, the better the plane's ability to manage reversing grain without tear-out. Over the 20th century, nearly all planes were made with irons bedded at 45 degrees, but steeper angles were once the norm for planing hardwoods and an increase of ten degrees to 55 makes a tremendous difference. Try back-beveling the iron in your smoothing plane 10 degrees, seriously.
It isn't perfect yet, but it has potential and a Swedish steel iron.
For some time, I've considered the the idea of making a veneer saw - not the wee thing used to trim delicate veneers, but a Veneer Saw.
From Hugh Chapman Mercer's Ancient Carpenter's Tools of 1929
Once, this is how logs too precious for pit sawing were reduced to veneer-thickness sheets.
I've never worked with veneer, but I don't have a bandsaw, and I imagined such a saw might be a faster way of resawing planks for drawer sides and the like. Also, I enjoy large, fast saws, and the frame would make it possible to employ a saw blade toothed for frightening savagery.
I should have made this a year ago. It took less than a day, and I wasn't particularly picky about the wood used. In the past, with smaller frame saws, I've riven the stock to be sure the frame members were straight-grained and clear, but here I just sawed out quartersawn ash ends and maple stretchers.
To size the saw, I stood with my fist against the wall and drew my arm back, as though withdrawing the blade from a cut. This distance turned out to be 28" to which I added 6" more for gusto and figured this was my maximum stroke-length.
How does it work? Beautifully. I assumed I would need to reshape the teeth on the 3tpi bandsaw blade I scavenged, but not so. Its first true test was sawing a stopped slot in an 8" wide slab of walnut and it was cruising downward at about 3/4" per stroke. At this point, I've probably lost the attention of any who isn't a woodworker, so I will address myself directly to you folks: This is outrageously fast. And easy to steer. And awesome.
Truly, I felt like George Nakashima last week on the drive home from a sawmill in Lincoln County with a huge, gorgeous and raw slab of Walnut in the back of the truck. In the following days, this slowly turned into a small, floating dining table for a client.
The very beginning is so often the best moment of a project. This time particularly so. The day before I started work, I visited my Great Uncle in his shop. He's been cleaning and sorting the shelves and boxes out, and we played a game I love: "do you know what this is?" I've gotten much better at this over the years, but that day, he stumped me with a few slender bits of stone.
"What on earth are these," I asked.
"Really? It's soapstone. Your Great-grandfather used this for his rough layout. You just rub it to a sharp edge."
He drew a line with a piece on the lid of toolbox and held out a handful of stones.
"Put 'em in your toolbox," he said.
Next morning, I stood beside that walnut slab with a saw and that stone, still sharp from the hand of Olaf Nilson, dead fifty-five years, whose blood is in my veins.