A Packing Box in the Wild

I’ve written before about how when a project leaves my workbench I tend not to write about it again. Maybe that is entirely natural – it is very satisfying to write about the process of making, and there is an easy narrative arc to writing up projects and the insights offered by standing at the bench. But I do think that seeing projects once they have been released from the workshop, into the wild, can give a new context to the build process, especially when someone else is using something I’ve made.

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The Packing Box loaded up and ready to go to Tom

When I made my first Packing Box from the Joiner & Cabinet Maker I did not have a particular use in mind for the box itself. It was a project I had wanted to build for three years, and I could see that there was a lot of lessons hidden within what was ostensibly a simple project. And so I approached it as a training exercise. But when I finished the build I discovered that the Packing Box itself was really quite charming, and instead of letting it languish unloved in a corner of the ‘shop I wanted to find a worthy use for it. After some weeks of pondering, I filled it with craft beer, mix cds, and an OtW tee, and sent it off to my good friend Tom Richards to say thank you for the outstanding work he had done on creating the branding for Over the Wireless.

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Occasionally since last summer I’ve wondered what Tom did with the Packing Box. And suddenly last week a series of photos popped up on Instagram, showing a familiar forest of clinched nails. It turns out that Tom has purposed the packing box as a memory box, holding several decades of gig tickets, cards, mix cds, and other precious ephemera he wants to keep safe. When I mentioned to Tom that I’d seen the Packing Box on Instagram he replied to me that he had thought “how perfect for the box of a ‘memories box’ be one of the memories itself”, which was incredibly touching! Tom kindly agreed to share a couple of photo of the Packing Box here on the blog.

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Tom is now using the packing box as a memory box holding gig tickets and other precious ephemera

I’m intending to make writing about projects that have escaped into the outside world more of a feature of the blog (all of which will be captured under the “In the wild” category on the right hand side of the screen). Hopefully we can get a conversation going about projects that have left the workbench and found their way to other people – something which Shaun’s excellent blog post already started several hours ago!

Moving forwards in reverse: 2016 in review

Somehow it is January yet again. I’m not sure where 2016 went – the past 12 months have disappeared in a blur, and it seems like only yesterday that I was writing my 2015 round up. Every year goes by quicker than the last, and fatherhood has only accelerated that feeling. I’m a lot less sleep deprived than I was 12 months ago (the Apprentice has now been sleeping through the night since August) which definitely makes reflecting on the past year a whole lot easier.

First off, let’s get the important stuff out of the way. No year is complete without a mix cd of the best new songs, and a list of top 5 albums, so here are my top picks (in order):

  1. Real – Lydia Loveless
  2. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Sturgill Simpson
  3. Case/Lang/Viers – Neko Case, KD Lang, Laura Viers
  4. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
  5. Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & The Badseeds

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The finished pair of saw benches

A year at the workbench

Although I didn’t set out last January to have any kind of theme to my woodworking, looking back it feels very much like 2016 was a year of doubling down on fundamental techniques, and embedding a solid handcraft practice to my work. So I built two Packing Boxes and a School Box from The Joiner & Cabinet Maker (only the chest of drawers to go now!) and a pair of staked saw benches from The Anarchist’s Design Book, as well as  Moxon vise. Little did I know how important staked chairmaking was going to become when I settled on that particular saw bench design.

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There wasn’t much in the way of lutherie last year – the parlour guitar was put to one side so that I could start the Mysterycaster commission, and also so that I could work on the furniture projects.I will return to the parlour guitar, and the Mystercaster is a priority for 2017. But lack of lutherie aside, I’m really pleased with the selection of projects I worked on over the past 12 months – I am definitely feeling the benefit of spending much of the past year focusing on those all important fundamental skills (although there is always more to learn, and more practice to have). An epic build like an acoustic guitar can be very rewarding, but there is something very satisfying about working through projects that take a shorter period of time. Maintaining a balance of short projects and longer-term builds is something I’m going to try and do going forwards.

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I didn’t manage to get to any classes in 2016, but I did take a trip to Forge de Saint Juery, which was a wonderful experience and one that I highly recommend. After nearly two years of discussion and design between myself, Mark Harrell, and Susan Chilcott, the Bad Axe Luthier’s Saw was finally unveiled, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed testing one of the first production models at my workbench.

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The Bad Axe luthier’s saw – being involved in the design process for this has been a wonderful experience

In terms of writing, Over the Wireless more than doubled readership from 2015, and I was grateful to feature interviews on the blog with some really important members of the woodwork community, including Joshua Klein, James McConnell, Brian Clites, and Kerryn Carter. I was also honoured to write the inaugural post for the “Perfect in 1000 words” for the Daily Skep (thanks Jim!). Furniture & Cabinet Making published nine of my articles last year, including the Dancing About Architecture series, which are two of my favourite pieces of writing to date. The June edition of Popular Woodworking  also carried my feature on Karl Holtey, which was a real thrill. But the big writing development of 2016 still has to be the Life and Work of John Brown. This is a hugely important project and one that I am entirely humbled to be part of.

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So 2016 was quite eventful, although I’m quite sure that by many people’s standards that would rather quiet (and in no way do I want this round-up to appear self congratulatory).

…and the next 12 months

And now for 2017 (which  to be perfectly honest still sounds like the future to me). What does the next 12 months have in store? Well the main focus of my attention for much of the next two years will be on the Life and Work of John Brown – there is a great deal of research to do, many interviews to be undertaken, not to mention chairs to be built. But it is going to be great fun, and I’ll be posting as much as I can on Over the Wireless throughout the process. I’ve also got a number of articles slated for Furniture & Cabinet Making, and which I’ll be announcing in due course.

But what about the next 12 months at the workbench? Well, I’m going to be brave and nail my colours to the mast right now. The projects which I’ve got lined up for 2017 are as follows:

  1. The Police Man’s Boot Bench – a furniture commission I actually started today (new year, new build. It seemed appropriate);
  2. Staked Work Table from the Anarchist’s Design Book; and
  3. The Mysterycaster.

So now, if I don’t manage to complete those builds this year, you dear reader, have a full licence to tell me to get my act together.

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Finally, after a year of no courses or shows, I’m looking forward to travelling a little more and connecting with the wider woodwork community. So I’ll be at Handworks in Iowa this May, and then at the European Woodwork Show at Cressing Temple in September. Over the past two years woodwork has been defined for me by the community, and I can’t wait to see many good friends and readers at both events.

So, Happy New Year. And thank you to everyone who has read a blog post or magazine article, or commented on a photo on Instagram. This community is so important to what I do, and the past 12 months would not have been half as rewarding without you good people.

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Hopefully 2017 will involve more father-daughter trips to the timber yard

 

A Tale of Four Hammers

I don’t often write posts dedicated to tools. Not because I don’t love woodworking tools (I do – nice tools are one of the best things about woodwork) but because on the whole I’m more interested in processes, in how the tools are used and what they contribute to a build. But sometimes it is fun to do something a bit different, and after clinching the bottom and lid for the Apprentice’s Memory Box I’ve been thinking about the the relationship I have with my hammers. Most people, I’m sure, will remember the post when Chris suggested that hammers were as personal as “things you put in your nether regions“. And while most woodworkers save their superlatives for planes and saws, a good hammer can be a beautiful thing.

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My first hammer – a dainty ball pein hammer which used to belong to my Grandfather. She ain’t pretty, but she does the job.

There’s not much call for hammers in lutherie, apart from seating frets in their slots (for which I use a dedicated fret hammer). Sure, a hammer is a useful thing to keep around, but it isn’t what I’d call essential. So for years the only hammer in my tool box was a small ball pein hammer that used to belong to my grandfather. After decades of hard use it is unlikely to win any beauty contests, but for my limited needs at the time it did pretty well. To be honest I’m not sure I asked any more of it than gently tapping shell inlay into a cavity, or knocking in fretboard locating pins prior to glue-up, but it worked fine for those rare moments I needed it, and is still in my Anarchist’s Tool Chest.

It was signing up to the Anarchist’s Tool Chest class in 2014 that made me realise I needed a beefier hammer. That dainty ball pein hammer was entirely inadequate when it came to knocking in 6d nails for the bottom boards, or even the 4d nails I used to hold the top dust seal in place. So I dived into the boxes of tools I’d inherited from my grandfather and found a larger claw hammer. The sticker said Stanley, but I’m guessing the hammer was a modern product – it feels pretty unbalanced, the handle is far from comfy, and the face is perfectly flat. Not that I noticed these imperfections at the time. As I say, I was inexperienced in the ways of nail punishing.

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The small claw hammer by C Hammond of Philadelphia works like a dream when it comes to delicate work.

My first encounter with a great hammer came in late August 2015, just after the Apprentice was born. Among the gifts the Apprentice received from friends and family to celebrate being earthside, was a small claw hammer made in the nineteenth century by C Hammond of Philadelphia. This hammer currently resides in my Anarchist’s Tool Chest, on loan from the Apprentice (although it will be returned to her as soon as she enters the workshop). For driving headless brads and other small nails, this hammer is perfect – the balance is ideal for delicate work, and it instantly showed how lacking my other hammers were. It was a revelation, but one that meant I couldn’t go back to my Stanley hammer-shaped anchor. I needed a large hammer for driving nails into casework, particularly as I’d already resolved that 2016 would be the year I finally worked my way through the projects in the Joiner & Cabinet Maker.

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Up close – 8oz hammer by C Hammond

Unfortunately it is a long bus ride from Birmingham (U.K) to the nearest Mid-West Tool Collectors Association meeting, or most of Chris’ other suggestions to find a good hammer. So I decided that commissioning a blacksmith to make me a hammer to my exact specification would be the only way to go. The ideal opportunity presented itself when I started thinking about writing a follow up to the Dancing About Architecture article for Furniture & Cabinet Making. How could I put myself on the customer-side of the maker/customer relationship? I needed to commission something, but what? A larger hammer, obviously. I’ve admired John Switzer’s work for years, and knew that he could solve my current large hammer inadequacy. So we discussed a brief, including engravings of historic hammer patterns, and identifying all of my key requirements. Two months later, the last large hammer I will ever buy arrived from Beulah, Colorado. Like the smaller C Hammond hammer, the Black Bear Forge hammer is perfectly balanced and does exactly what I ask of it. At 16oz it drives larger nails with authority, the domed head reduces the risk of “frenching” the work, and the carved handle fits the hand just right.

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My 16oz hammer from Black Bear Forge. The last hammer I will ever buy – it is simply that good.

It is easy to look at something as apparently simple as a hammer, and to assume that all hammers are born equal. Afterall, it is essentially a chunk of metal on the end of a stick. But that would be to gravely underestimate the blacksmith’s art. Poise and balance are as important to hammers as they are to ballet dancers, and having had the privilege to use great hammers, as well as hammer-shaped objects, it seems to me that a great hammer wants you to get out of the way and let it do its job. I can clinch nails with my Black Bear Forge hammer till the cows come home, and never feel the slightest fatigue in my hammer hand or arm. A poorly balanced hammer on the otherhand requires steering and fighting in order to drive those nails, and tires you out faster than it should.

None of this is to to say that my perfect hammers are yours – Chris was right when he said that hammers were intensely personal. But making the move from a big box store hammer might just be a revelation. And if you can’t find a secondhand hammer you like? Well, there are some very talented blacksmiths out there…

The Apprentice’s Memory Box

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The School Box holds my sharpening kit. I like how the Salem Red looks against the brick wall behind.

There can be a tendency when writing about woodwork that you devote a huge amount of time to each stage of the build, but once the project has left your workbench it is never mentioned again. Which is fine up to a point, but sometimes a project is built with a specific purpose or function in mind, and when that is the case I think it is interesting if the reason for making the piece can be included in the narrative. I’m as guilty of this as anyone – having spent the summer writing about my experiences working through the projects in The Joiner & Cabinet Maker, I failed to make any mention of where the Packing Box and School Box are now, or what they are being used for. I filled my first Packing Box was with beer and a mix cd and sent it to a good friend, while the School Box resides in my workshop and holds my sharpening gear.

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Nailing the frame together. Placing a clamp across the grain minimises the risk of the nails splitting the edge of the workpiece.

I mention this because I’ve been working on a second Packing Box, but the intended function of that box has had a significant impact on how I’ve approached the build. In The Joiner & Cabinet Maker the Packing Box is an exercise in minimising work in order to build a sturdy box within a very limited period of time. So Thomas uses pre-dimensioned 1/2″ stock, and nails instead of more complex (read: time intensive) joinery. The lessons taught in this project are hugely important, and it is a great introduction to building case work. My second Packing Box is going to be a memory box for the Apprentice – somewhere for us to put all of the small treasures and ephemera that you inevitable collect over a baby’s first year (the first set of clothes she wore after she was born, the first lock of hair we trimmed, the scissors I used to cut her cord). I also intend to include a mix cd and a letter to her. Then we’ll nail the lid shut and put it in the loft until her 18th birthday, when we’ll give it to her (will they even have cd players then?).

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Clinching 4d cut nails hold the battens in place – instead of measuring I stepped off the nail locations with dividers.

The Packing Box is perfect for this – it is the right size to hold everything we want to put in, the nailed joinery will easily last the next 17 years (and many more after that), and it really is quite a handsome piece. But because this is an emotionally significant build, I’ve approached it quite differently.

Firstly, I’m not racing the clock on this build, and instead I’m savouring every element of the build. This is, after all, the first piece I’ve built specifically for my daughter. The big change has been processing all of the stock by hand, rather than using the timber as it came from the mill. So both faces have been treated with the jack, jointer and smoothing planes. The advantage of this, apart from looking good, is that I’ve been able to use 4d cut nails instead of the chunkier 6d nails I used on my first Packing Box. The pine I used on both Packing Boxes came in at 3/4″ thick rather than the 1/2″ thick Thomas used in the book. For my first Packing Box I followed the text closely and didn’t plane the faces of the boards, which meant that I had to compensate with longer nails. The difference when clinching 4d opposed to 6d nails is quite noticeable. You can clinch with 6d nails, providing you’ve got a weighty hammer (I’m using my 16oz hammer from Black Bear Forge) but getting the nails to bend smartly and re-enter the wood can be a little bit like real work. In contrast, the 4d nails bend easily and hold everything together just as tightly. So the extra work in planing the stock pays for itself with a smoother clinching experience.

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Inside – a forest of nails waiting to be clinched.

Working through a second Packing Box at a more leisurley pace also allows some of the deeper lessons to sink in. I built my first Packing Box at a fair lick (although still a touch slower than Thomas managed his – I would have been a bad apprentice) which meant that I was focused on the physical processes and the associated lessons in the text. So, squaring up the ends with only a smoothing plane (no shooting board for young Thomas!) and of course nail clinching. All of which are important lessons, and I got a lot out of doing a timed first build. The second time around, and not chasing the clock or having to think so much about the obvious elements of the build, the more subtle lessons really come to life and are consolidated. In particular placing the clinched battens using proportionate measurement rather than hard numbers has been a real delight, and it has me thinking more deeply about some of the ideas Jim Toplin and George Walker wrote about in By Hand and Eye. Working through any project several times helps to consolidate learning points, even when it is something as apparently simple as the Packing Box.

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Am I allowed to say “that’s a nicely clinched bottom”?

I’ve just got the lid to finish up and fit, and then we’ll be ready to fill the Apprentice’s Memory Box and stash it safely away for the next 17 years. This feels like a very apt project with which to finish the year.

A Very Victorian Apprenticeship

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The following is based on an article first published in issue 251 of Furniture & Cabinet Making.

We all have different ways of learning new woodwork skills and refreshing our grasp of the basics, but how many of us have undertaken a Victorian apprenticeship in order to improve their woodwork? Well, that is exactly what I spent the summer doing, all from the comfort of my own workshop thanks to a nineteenth century text that has been republished by Lost Art Press.

A Very Traditional Apprenticeship

First published in 1839, The Joiner & Cabinet Maker takes the form of a story following the apprenticeship of a young lad called Thomas. We see Thomas at the very start of his apprenticeship when he builds a packing box for a customer to transport books, at the middle of his training when he builds a small dovetailed chest for a customer to take to school, and finally at the end of his apprenticeship when he builds a chest of drawers. Although the identity of the author is unknown, they were clearly either a woodworker or very familiar with woodwork, as the projects and tools are described with great detail and clarity.

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Processing rough stock by hand is just one of the core skills taught in The Joiner & Cabinet Maker

But more than just being a historical curio, by describing in detail three projects of increasingly complexity the book offers an opportunity to develop solid hand-tool techniques, and build up a compact handwork-focused tool kit, in a systematic fashion. As a consequence, I would argue that The Joiner & Cabinet Maker is an excellent introduction to hand tool work for the novice woodworker, and also a valuable refresher for more experienced folk.

Becoming the Joiner’s Apprentice

Over the summer I built the packing box and school box projects, and now have just the chest of drawers left before I complete my virtual Victorian apprenticeship – you can read my detailed build notes and experiences working on these projects by clicking on the “Joiner & Cabinet Maker” tab to the right of the page.

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Cut nails waiting to be clenched

The first project, the packing box, is held together entirely by nails – battens are clinched to the top and bottom of the box, while the sides are secured with nailed butt joints. As this is the first project Thomas undertakes in his apprenticeship his tool kit is limited to ruler, chalk line, jack plane, smoothing plane, square, marking gauge, rip and cross cut saws, hammer, and either a brad awl or drill. The simple construction methods and limited tool kit therefore make the packing box a very accessible project to the beginner, and is a useful reminder that it does not take an endless list of tools to build furniture. For added excitement, Thomas is only given 5 hours to build the packing box, so there is the option to race the clock with this build if you choose!

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Nail clenching is an often overlooked, but very valuable, joinery technique

The individual projects are fun to build, but work through them in sequence, using only the tools and techniques described in the text, and deeper lessons become apparent. I’m not just talking about how to cut a good dovetail, although the text tells you how to achieve that, but more fundamental skills which are invaluable to successful woodwork. For the packing box, Thomas has a single board (12’ 3” long and 9” wide) with which to build a box to the customer’s dimensions. To achieve this accurate layout and efficient use of stock is essential, particularly to harvest the battens that hold the top and bottom of the box together. The School Box builds on these themes while also introducing the key skill of processing rough stock with hand planes, as well as fitting locks and hinges, and making mitred moulding runs.

The projects are nicely paced so that techniques and tools are introduced at a rate that makes them easily accessible to the beginner, and the first two projects are simple enough that results can be seen rapidly, which makes them very achievable. What is more, by working through the projects in sequence you can start with a very small tool kit that is slowly built up. The complete tool kit Thomas finishes the book with is still quite modest compared to that of many modern workers. The cost and number of tools needed for furniture building can often be seen as prohibitive, and giving new woodworkers a shorter shopping list can only encourage new entrants to the wood crafts.

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Dovetailed base moulding for the School Box – as well as dovetailing this project also introduces making short runs of moulding

The lessons offered by The Joiner and Cabinet Maker are not just for beginners. The projects also offer a valuable refresher, and new perspective, for more experienced woodworkers. One of my favourite moments from the packing box was squaring up stock in a bench vice with a smoothing plane rather than using a shooting board as I would normally do. This sounds like a hard way to work, but actually it works really well and doesn’t take too long. Yes a shooting board makes things easier (especially on wide boards) but the realisation that you don’t actually need a shooting board can be quite liberating!

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Cut nails hold moulding in place and allow for seasonal movement of the lid

A New Generation of Apprentices?

Working through the projects in The Joiner and Cabinet Maker has provided an entertaining and rigorous way to further develop my furniture building skills, and I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to delve deeper into hand tool furniture making. My daughter is a little young to have her own tool chest just yet, but when she is old enough to join me in the workshop I can’t think of a better way to start her off than with young Thomas’ packing box build.

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Cutting the keyhole for the School Box

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.