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  • Writer's pictureRussell Denette

My favorite tool

The simple hand plane is the soul of my woodworking shop. A project about a month ago provides a good example of why.


I near completion of a project - this time it's a solid cherry dining table in the Shaker style. Straight tapered legs, cut on the table saw, now lay before me on the workbench. The table saw blade has left a rough cut, with circular saw burns and the occasional torn bit of wood. I could sand it down, I could force the wood into submission, but I know that there is time enough to do it right. I forego the sander and turn to the hand plane. First, sharpening. I collect my iron and stones. The ritual of sharpening begins, my hands guiding the blade across waterstones inked over with Japanese characters. The repetition is important; so is the angle. When I can shave the back of my hand with the blade, I know that it is sharp enough. A dull blade will make a fool of even a seasoned woodworker, tearing at the fibers and making the wood look worse than before. But now the blade is sharp, surgically so, and is deserving of the wood.


I insert the blade back into the plane body, feeling the solid metal bottoming out when it registers. I tighten the iron in place and adjust for depth of cut on a scrap from the same material as the cherry legs I'm working toward refining. My left hand grips the knob up front; my right melds with the handle. Without thinking, my feet take a wide stance, and I begin. First pass - no cut. Bring the blade lower. Second pass - still nothing. Lower the blade again. Third pass - the right edge of the blade digs in, but the left edge makes no contact. Adjust it. Now we are getting somewhere - a firm, strong pass. A few more adjustments like this and I'm taking even shavings from the full length of the scrap piece. I back the blade off little by little, until nothing is shaven, then advance it just forward again.


Gossamer-thin curls fall effortlessly to the floor when a well-tuned hand plane meets wood. Drifting like feathers on a breeze, they are so thin they dissolve in water. When you get shavings like that, you’ve found the sweet spot. . Look at the workpiece - after all, nobody is paying you to make shavings, they want furniture! Hold up the scrap to the light at a shallow angle, and the sought-after result is there. A mirror-smooth finish on cherry, created by hand with the pass of a plane. My face is glowing. This level of quality and precision is what carves hand planes a special place in the woodworker’s heart.


This is quite a different thing from sanding. Most people think sanding makes wood smother, but it actually does the opposite: sanding is the process of creating scratches in a consistent pattern in wood. You start with large scratches, then work your way down to finer and finer scratches until the pattern is so fine that the human eye has a hard time seeing it. Sanding is not a bad thing, but it is not ideal. By using a blade, the wood grain is kept more vibrant. A hand plane provides a truly smooth surface - as smooth as the blade it was cut with. This surface is free of any scratches, and it glows as a result.


Planing by hand requires planning - you can’t plane against the grain, because it will tear. You have to know how to read the wood for grain direction in order to use a hand plane. You have to know how the species you are working with will react to a blade. Sometimes, this planning extends all the way back to the start of a project. When picking the lumber for the cherry legs of this table, getting a clear straight grain that could be cleaned up with a hand plane was among the first considerations.


Meanwhile, sanding is a compromise through and through. Sanding is the same regardless of species - ash, oak, cherry, walnut, they all sand the same. Plane those by hand, though, and you’ll learn that ash changes direction fast and hard, but is easy to anticipate, oak is predictable and easy to cooperate with if you’ll listen, cherry is a sweet beauty never to be undervalued or disrespected, and walnut is a wild child that can’t make up its mind. You don’t learn that by flipping a switch and numbing your hands. Working with a hand plane lets you get to know the wood and the project more intimately. It grows your appreciation for the living medium you’ve chosen to work with.


I clamp the first of the cherry legs to the workbench. A few passes is all it takes on each face. So much thought and planning and sharpening and testing, all for this moment - a moment of brilliant subtlety, the execution of a perfectly planed surface. I watch the table saw lines and burn marks vanish as I carefully plane even, deliberate, slow, light passes downhill with the grain. It’s over almost as soon as it began, and that is perhaps the other great reason I love the hand plane - its efficiency. It’s a precision tool. Sanders have their place, but nothing can beat the glass-smooth face of a hand planed surface. Their visceral connection with the wood, their unbeatable quality, their direct translation of muscle to wood; these traits are what elevate the hand plane to the status of the most iconic woodworking tool.

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