Curing Plane Addiction

The following is based on an article that originally appeared in Issue 250 of Furniture & Cabinet Making magazine. Thank you to Patrick Leach for his invaluable knowledge on historic Stanley planes, Philip Edwards for his assistance with wooden bodied planes, and Classic Hand Tools for photos of the Lie Nielsen range of bench planes.


My set of bench planes, from left to right: No.8 jointer, No.5 jack, and No.3 smoother

Step 1 – Admit you have a problem

1869 was a good year for woodworkers. Stanley had just started selling their Bailey pattern bench planes, which set a standard for metal bodied hand planes that endures today with tools made by the likes of Lie Nielsen and Veritas. In contrast to wooden planes, which were referred to by their function, those early Bailey pattern planes were helpfully numbered 1 to 8, with each successive number referring to an increase in size. The Stanley numbering system has become a familiar industry standard but also sets a trap for the unwary woodworker. Because while a standardised numbering system makes it easy to identify hand planes, instead of focusing on the function of a plane we start to look at our tool kits and at the gaps in the numbers. From there, it is only a short step to convincing ourselves that our work would be so much better if only we had a No.6 plane, or a No.2, or all eight. Yes, definitely all eight. Before you know it you are a tool collector, with an expensive habit to feed and a growing stable of tools to keep sharp and rust-free.


Jack planes are versatile tools – they can be used for rough stock removal, smoothing, and as short jointers

Now, hand planes are the most totemic woodwork tools and form the cornerstone of any handwork tool kit, as well as being highly useful even in machine-focused workshops. However, the available range of planes can be bewildering, particularly to the beginner woodworker. Even if we focus on bench planes and ignore more specialised joinery planes (for instance, plough, moving fillister, and shoulder planes), the range of smoothing, jack, try, and jointer planes is extensive, particularly given the modern proliferation of bevel up and rebate bench plane models.

But what planes do we actually need to build furniture? Do we really need all 8 bench plane sizes, or is a smaller tool kit sufficient to produce high quality work? I am happy to report that there is a cure for plane addiction, and it starts with ignoring the size numbers and focusing on what we actually use the planes for. Here’s how it works.


Smoothing planes come in a rang of sizes from the tiny No.1 (far right) to the much larger No.4 (far left)

Step 2 – Ask the dead guys

There are very few hard and fast rules in woodworking, but one that always holds true is that if you ask a question about which tools to buy, you will get many conflicting answers, each based on personal preference. The result is increased confusion and a longer shopping list. So lets take an entirely different approach, and ask woodworkers from the past 400 years. This approach is instructive, because pre-industrial woodworkers did not have the benefit of machines in their workshops, nor was pre-dimensioned timber as readily available as it is today. Instead, historic woodworkers relied on their hand planes to bring rough boards down to dimension, to prepare joints for gluing, and to smooth casework. And what is more, they needed their hand planes to work as efficiently as possible – time has always been money for the professional woodworker, and without a thickness sander or jointer to process stock quickly, efficient hand plane use was essential. Finally, tools were expensive so few craftsmen could afford to buy tools that would not be used. Even if you use pre-dimensioned timber, or incorporate machines into your workflow, understanding how pre-industrial hand tool workshops used hand planes helps to narrow the shopping list of bench planes.


For a jointer plane the choices are between the No.6, No.7 or massive No.8

Joseph Moxon

Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works by Joseph Moxon is the earliest recorded English language text on woodworking. Originally published as a series of pamphlets in 1678 covering a range of skilled trades, before being compiled into a single volume in 1703, Mechanick Exercises provides a detailed account of the tools found on the bench of the 17th century joiner, and how those tools were used. Moxon helpfully identifies five planes in the joiner’s tool chest: the fore plane, the jointer, the strike block plane (an early precursor to the mitre plane) and a rebate plane. Moxon does not give any measurements for the size of the planes, but does provide clear descriptions of their uses. The fore plane, Moxon tells us, is to prepare timber for the smoothing or jointer planes. The jointer is used to flatten a work piece, while the smoothing plane is used to create a finished surface on the work piece. These are functions with which the modern woodworker is very familiar.


Wooden jack and jointer planes by Philly Planes

Benjamin Seaton

Ninety-three years after Moxon published the complete Mechanick Exercises, a young Kentish joiner named Benjamin Seaton was building a chest to hold his tool kit. Seaton’s tool chest, built in 1796, is the most complete surviving example of an eighteenth century joiner’s tool kit, and is currently maintained by the Guildhall Museum in Rochester, Kent. Seaton’s chest is also of interest because the tool kit was assembled at a time when the first chip breakers (referred to in the Seaton inventory as “double iron”) were first coming into use, and Seaton appears to have bought the more traditional planes as well as planes fitted with chip breakers. The Seaton chest contains seven bench planes – two jack planes, a fore plane, a try plane, two smoothing planes, and a jointer. The pairs of jack and smoother planes include one example of each with a chip breaker, and one in the more traditional single iron format. If we discount the duplicated planes, Seaton therefore considered five bench planes to be necessary. One word of caution is that Seaton did not purchase the tools himself, nor were the tools purchased as they were needed. Instead Benjamin’s father, a successful cabinet maker, bought the tools as a complete set, and it is quite possible that a wealthy father might have bought a more extensive kit than was strictly necessary for a favoured son. Still, the contents of the Seaton chest are very useful in understanding the typical tool kit of the eighteenth century furniture maker, particularly as the planes are of similar dimensions to their modern equivalents.


The classic coffin smoother by Philly Planes

The Joiner and Cabinet Maker

Forty-three tears after Joseph Seaton bought Benjamin his tool kit, The Joiner and Cabinet Maker was first published. The author of the story about a fictional young apprentice is unknown, but they were clearly very familiar with woodwork and were perhaps a woodworker themselves, given the level of detail given about workshop practices. Despute being a work of fiction, The Joiner and Cabinet Maker can therefore be taken to be an accurate account of the ninetheenth century professional workshop. In the text, the apprentice Thomas makes use of a smoothing plane, jack plane, and jointer (referred to in the story as a “try” plane). The length of size for the planes is not given in the text, but as the story unfolds and describes Thomas’ work, it is clear that the author considered these three bench planes to be sufficient for the professional woodworker.


Using a jack plane to rapidly remove material from rough stock

Step 3 – Curing plane addiction

Hopefully this post, together with the supporting cast of historic woodworkers, has shown that there is no need to amass a large collection of bench planes, and that high quality work can be achieved with a limited set of just three planes. While it is not possible to direct a woodworker to the specific size of plane they need, narrowing the choice to the three key tools based on their intended function will make the final choice that much easier. Although I have focused on the numbering system used for metal-bodied planes, the same approach can be applied to wooden planes.


The smoothing plane excels at leaving a perfectly clean, finish ready, surface

The Secret Fourth Option

So far I have focused on how to go about selecting bench planes for your tool kit. But there is one other plane which I genuinely think no woodworker should be without, and that is the humble block plane. None of the historical sources discussed above make mention of a block plane, nor did it feature in the tool chest of Benjamin Seaton. This is primarily because the block plane has traditionally been viewed as a carpentry tool rather than something that the furniture maker needed. However, the block plane is a remarkably versatile tool, which is likely to become invaluable once you have spent some time using it. Likely uses include dimensioning small stock, chamfering edges, acting as a very small smoother, trimming end grain – particularly on runs of narrow moulding, and shooting small pieces to size. In many ways it could be seen as a smaller successor to the “strike block plane” Moxon described. As with bench planes, there are endless iterations of the block plane available, from the tiny 101 apron plane, to Karl Holtey’s incredible 983, as well as a choice in bedding angles for the blades.


So how do you go about deciding what block plane to use? Again, this all depends on what the scale of your work, your hand size, and what you might use the block plane for. The one feature which I think is indispensible is having a low bedding angle for the blade as this makes trimming end grain much easier and less likely to tear out. But beyond that everything is personal preference. The main thing is that you give the block plane a chance, and include one in your tool kit.

The Cabinet Maker at School… Part 8


The School Box has been sitting on top of a chest in our lounge for the past week, partly because I’ve not yet decided what to do with it, but also so that I could enjoy catching a glimpse of it every now and then. I may move it down to the workshop and use it to store my sharpening gear, or it may sit in the music room, I’m not sure yet. I have already promised Dr Moss a School Box for her study, and the pine is sitting in the workshop waiting to be worked. In the meantime, here is a brief beauty pagent of some of my favourite details.


Patinated brass is where it’s at!


The milkpaint allows the texture and details of the underlying wood to come through


Lid moulding – I really like the cove as a transition from the lid to the main case.


Milk paint and soft wax gives a lovely gentle sheen, and makes for a very tactile finish


More patinated brass – the escutcheon adds some visual interest but is still quite understated, I think.

The Cabinet Maker at School… Part 7


The great thing about milk paint is how ghastly the first coat looks…

A lot of woodworkers get indimidated by applying finish to projects, which I think is partly due to the endless variety of finishing products and solutions available, but also the vast quantity of voodoo waiting to ensnare happless forum readers. Finishing does not have to be complicated or difficult, and in fact the biggest single factor in my experience for a successful finish is having plenty of patience while things dry. But there again I’m a simple soul and have always liked simple finishes. So for the School Box there really was no choice but to go with the historically accurate milk paint, oil and wax combination.


The third coat looked much better!

Salem Red by the Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co looked like a good colour, and I mixed up a batch using Chris’ instructions from the Anarchist’s Design Book. The first coat of milk paint is always a test of faith as it tends to look streaky and washed out, but with each subsequent coat things improved significantly, and by the third coat I’d built up a good density of colour while still allowing the dovetails to be visibile on close inspection. I left the School Box to dry out thoroughly for 48 hours before applying a thin coat of Liberon Boiled Linseed oil. After 30 minutes waiting time I wiped away the excess oil with a clean rag and left for 24 hours to dry before applying the wax.


Boiled Linseed oil ragged on top of the milk paint provides an additional layer of protection.

So far so straight forward, but this is where things got unexpectedly… messy. When I came back 24 hours later the oil seemed to be good and dry, with no residue left on the surface of the paint. So I gently ragged on some home made soft wax (a bee’s wax, turpentine and white spirit recipe I learned from Derek Jones). But when buffing out the wax I ended up with a very streaky finish with patches of entirely matt finish in the middle of areas which remained sticky to the touch no matter how much I buffed them out. Definitely not ideal. I quickly eliminated the wax as the culprit because I had an entirely even low sheen on the interior of the School Box using the same batch of wax with no stickiness. Some reading around and talking to folk much more knowledgeable than I identified the oil as being to blame. Possibly I had a bad can which lacked sufficient driers, possibly I have angered the finishing gods in some way. Who knows.


The lid, showing the streaks and matt patches from the less than successful oil/wax combination.

The good news was that cleaning up the box was pretty straight forward. I put it to one side for an evening or so in order to chill out, and then using a judicious volume of white spirit and several rags removed the oil and wax gunk and left to dry over night (again). I confess I had been a little worried that the white spirit and vigorous rubbing would remove some of the milk paint, but the underlying finish was left intact and very little pigment came away during my late night cleaning session. In fact, the grain and joinery were showing through the paint slightly better, even though the colour density was still good, so I decided to skip the oil and go straight to the wax. This time the wax covered nicely and built up a gentle sheen that really suits the box – a high gloss finish would have looked entirely out of place on this project.


The finished School Box

I then fitted the hardware and stood back to admire what has been a really instructive and fun project. I’ll post a full beauty parade of the School Box next time around.

We don’t cut corners, except when we’re supposed to cut corners

The Cabinet Maker at School… Part 6


Building the School Box has been a wonderful experience – it is a lovely project and if you follow the text there are a great number of valuable handwork lessons to learn from. The element of this build I’ve been most nervous about was carving the corners of the base moulding. If you remember, I previously deviated from the text and dovetailed the base moulding, which meant that instead of neat mitred corners on the moulded edge, the front moulding crossed the corners and abruptly terminated the side moulding runs. I knew this would be the case when I decided to dovetail the moulding, and so I’d always intended to carve the corners of the front moulding to give the appearance of mitred corners.

Carving transitions of this sort is delicate work – one misplaced cut and that beautiful moulding will be butchered. So there is no room for error. The key is careful layout, and a methodical approach to the carving itself.


Clear lay out is key to carving the mitred corner

The ovolo pattern cut by my moulding plane consists of three elements – a central curved section on either side of which is a square shoulder. My first step was to strike a fine pencil line at 45 degrees from the corner of the carcase across the moulding, to identify the transition point for each element of the ovolo molding, and I shaded the waste elements for good measure.

When detail carving I prefer to order the work so that I use as few chisel cuts as possible. This reduces the risk of making a catestophic slip, and also provides a simple order of work for repeatable results (for instance, on the opposite corner of the School Box moulding). Using a wide chisel I defined the top shoulder of the side moulding, and pared down so it was level with the corresponding detail on the front moulding run. This gave a simple ledge from which I could then define the bottom shoulder of the ovolo, and pare down to that. I find a wide chisel is best for this sort of work as part of the blade can cut the waste material while the remainder of the blade registers against the moulding, which keeps the carved elements running in line with the rest of the moulding.


The top of the ovolo has been pared flush, just the bottom shoulder and the curved section left to cut now.

With all three levels then established, it was a matter of knocking the corner off the middle ledge and rounding it over so that it matched the ovolo from the moulding plane. I pared most of the material away with a sharp chisel, and then refined the shape with a fine needle file.


The finished carved corner.

The only other work that was needed before applying finish to the School Box was a gentle spot of clean-up – removing any remaining pencil marks and stray fibres, all of which is quite usual. Unfortunately, I also had to steam out a couple of bad dents left in the workpiece by my bench. My current Sjoberg bench has a number of metal fixings in the bench apron which used to be recessed in the timber, but which thanks to seasonal wood movement have become exposed (despite repeatedly adjusting them with a large hammer). The most prominent of these is just to the right of my face vise, which means that any stock secured in the vise tends to pick up some dents and scratches. When your workbench starts to destroy your work it is definitely time to build a new bench, and this only adds to my motivation to get started on the oak Roubo build. I’ve not steamed dents out of work before, but the Canadian pine I’m using responded very well, and only a few seconds with hot iron and damp towel removed all of the dents.


At top the dents in the box lid, and below the culprit – situation next to the face vise.

The School Box is now ready to be milk painted, which I’ll cover in my next post.

The Cabinet Maker at School… Part 5

Right, I’m making up for departuring from the sequence of work from the text of Joiner and Cabinet Maker, and am back working alongside young Thomas. Which means that the next stage of the build is fitting the partition to hold Master John’s marbles and other precious trinkets.


The finished partition, all ready for Master John to fill with marbles and treasures.

The partition introduces some new skills to the story, including cutting a stopped dado to accept the side of the partition, and then friction fitting the side and bottom of the partition. This is my first dado, and I followed Chris’ directions in the text by using a guide block to ensure that the dados on each side of the box lined up correctly. To cut the dado I used the prototype Bad Axe Luthier’s Saw – this fine cross cut saw is perfect for precise furniture grade cuts, and in my time testing it I’ve found that I reach for it far more often than the specialist name would suggest. One particular benefit I’ve found is that the fine teeth make it a very easy saw to start on the corner of a work piece, where bigger teeth can catch until a kerf has been established.


This isn’t sloppy work – the overcuts are hidden from view by the partition, and are fingerprints of handwork.

The waste was knocked out of the dados with a 1/2″ chisel and cleaned up with the small router plane, then the side was shot to length until it pushed cleanly into the dados. The bottom was glued to the side, and once the glue had cured I added 4d nails for extra holding power. Once fitted, the partition hides the overcuts at the bottom end of the dados but it pleases me to know that they are there as evidence of how I carried out that element of the build, and proof that the School Box has been built by hand. To support the base of the the partition I added 1/2″ thick cleats under each end, and these were fixed with 2d nails to the side of the carcase.

Once the partition was fitted I turned my attention to fitting the lock. When I fitted the lock to my Anarchist’s Tool Chest (a process I wrote about in detail previously) I used the same method as Thomas does in the Joiner and Cbinet Maker. Thomas’ approach is an efficient and accurate way to fit locks, so I followed his lead again here. There is no real trick for fitting locks, but accurately marking out the three mortises and cutting them in the right order, is essential for a fuss free experience. I used the small router plane to remove material for the top plate mortise, and a large router plane for the base plate and lock mechanism mortises.


A small router plane balances nicely on the edge of the box to cut the top plate mortise for the lock.

Cutting the keyhole is always a fun task, and I first drilled a hole to accept the key barrel. The escutcheon then slid over the drill bit and provided a template to sketch out the shape of the key hole, which was cut using a fine blade in a piercing saw before being cleaned up with a 13 grain rat tail rasp and needle files.


The escutcheon provides a handy template for marking out the keyhole shape.

Fitting the hasp is always the bit of installing a lock I find trickiest, mainly because lid moulding makes it impossible to sneak a small router plane in to bring the mortise to the correct depth, unless you balance the plane on the moulding (yes I have done this, but it’s not much fun). Next time I build a lidded box I will hold off installing any lid moulding until after the lock is fitted! That being said, it didn’t take too much work to get a good clean mortise into which the hasp would press fit, and the lock caught smoothly at the first turn of the key (which is always pleasing).


Cutting the keyhole to shape.

So all that is now left is carving the corners of the base moulding, and milk painting the completed School Box. Stay tuned for more coming soon!


The Cabinet Maker at School… Part 4


I’m approaching the rest of the School Box build a little out of sequence to how Thomas builds it in the text. This is mainly because having prepared the lid moulding at the same time as the base moulding, I was keen to get the lid moulding fitted. Also fitting the lid makes the School Box look pretty complete, even if there is plenty left to do!

The lid was planed to 1/2″ thickness from rough stock in the same way as the other components. With careful planning and layout I’ve managed to get everything I needed for the School Box save for the moulding out of a single plank of 1″ thick pine, and I think that one of the fundamental (if more subtle) lessons from The Joiner and Cabinet Maker is the economic use of material. The back edge of the lid was planed square and true, while the rest of the dimensions were left oversized.


The depth for the hinge mortises is obtained by setting my Hamilton4″ marking gauge to the thickness of the hinge leaf

Fitting hardware is a big milestone in any project, and also a critical stage of the build – no matter how tight your joints are or how pretty the finish, if hardware is installed sloppily it is all people will notice. For this reason I prefer to install hardware when I’m fresh and relaxed. The text offers some useful guidance for the proportional spacing of hinges in casework. Unfortunately the gorgeous iron hinges I’m using are wider than the strap hinges Thomas uses, and as a consequence the proportional spacing would have landed the right-hand hinge directly over the dado for the internal partition. This would not have been a disaster, but would require the hinge to be removed before the partition is lifted out, which I’m sure would not have pleased Master John. I moved the hinges a little further apart and towards the corners of the box so that there was a 1/4″ gap between the edge of the hinge and the side of the partition. This didn’t unbalance the appearance of the hinges too much, and stopped everything getting too crowded around the partition.

Because hardware fitting is such a critical operation I find that a clean fitting rests on accurate layout. Handmade hinges often have slight variations in the width and thickness of the leaves, so once I had determined the position of the innermost edge of the hinges I set the width and depth of each mortise based on the specific dimensions of that hinge, rather than working to global measurements. This paid off, as there was a marked difference in the width of the two hinges which would have left an unsightly gap in the mortise for the narrower hinge. Once the hinges were fitted to the box I then transfered their positions to the underside of the lid, and cut the corresponding mortises.


Cutting mitred corners for the lid moulding

With the whole assembly held in place by the hinges I marked out the final dimensions of the lid, allowing an overhand of 1/16″ on the front and sides. The lid was then trimmed down to size with my No.3 smoothing plane, ensuring that all the edges were square and straight. I was then able to fit the moulding to the lid. Both side pieces were left overlong, and instead of dovetailing the lid moulding (as I had for the base moulding) I followed the text and mitred the corners. The one advantage I have over young Thomas is that thanks to my good friend Ethan I have a mitre box (which apparently formerly belonged to Ron Bontz – hopefully some of his magic will rub off on my work!) which I’ve fitted out with a Bad Axe mitre saw. This combination makes angled cuts a cinch, and the saw leaves an incredibly clean cut which needs no further work.


Because every blog post must include macro photography. This joint is straight off the saw – perfectly clean and ready for glue, no planing required.

With the moulding trimmed and mitred all that remained was to fit it to the lid. Hide glue can act as a lubricant before it tacks, and to stop the moulding sliding across the lid I pushed 4d headless cut brads through pilot holes in the moulding so that they poked through into the lid, essentially acting as locating pins. The front run of moulding was glued and nailed to the lid, while the moulding returns were glued only for the front inch and mainly rely on nails to hold them in place – this is to allow for any seasonal movement in the lid without splitting the moulding.


Using 4d headless brads as locating pins while gluing the moulding in place.

Next up will be the internal partition, and then fitting the rest of the hardware before applying milk paint.