Questions answered

This is a letter I received from a US participant. I have given him my answer here because it will help others.

His letter begins:

I just completed your DVD series, and was very pleased with the information. I’ve just recently started to transition from machines to hand tools, though the machines I used were geared toward home remodelling, not furniture-making or craftsmanship. But it has indeed changed my approach. Today I was building some shelving in my garage, and when needed to smooth the edges, I thought first to reach for a hand plane, instead of the power router, which is what I would have used before.


I know you feel that mortise chisels aren’t needed most of the time, but would I be right to think you would not recommend that most woodworkers need even a fraction of the tools available to them?

Much of this is about preference over need. You make do with what you have most of the time and whereas an undersized screwdriver works, it’s far from ideal in a large screw head. Ideally the exact sized screwdriver is in the toolbox but most often we use the wrong sized screwdriver because we are too lazy to walk to the toolbox.
We also live in a country of luxury where we have tools by the zillion. Our first-world problem is not not so much having but having too much. We live in a pluralist society where our problem is not whether to buy but what and when and from where. Catalog companies know that and their quest is to present multiple options most of which are highly objective and enticing. Their bottom line is your dollar in their account, generally speaking.

In my daily work here in tgenerally generally if not always for the Narex chisels now, even though I have Marples (the old original Sheffield-made Marples) in the same tool chest. It’s what I reach for that tells me my preference. I have mortise chisels too, but, even though I have mortis chisels, I have just cut 68 mortise and tenon joints, most of them in oak, using the Narex bevel-edge chisels aquired from Veritas. It’s an ease thing as well as a practiced methodology for cutting dovetails that I have shown the efficacy of in my YouTube video recently. That said, I think there is a place for the more robust mortise chisel’s if you cut lots of mortises on a regular basis or indeed you cut large or, moreover, deep mortises that require much greater leverage of waste from the deeper realms of the wood. As most mortises used in furniture making are rarely deeper than 1 1/2″, bevel-edged chisels slice it for me and thousands of others.

And that inexpensive tools can be sharpened and adjusted well enough to do a good job?

In most cases , absolutely and unequivocally, yes. There is a difference of course between cheap and inexpensive. Just as the western world is now paying the price for its demand for cheaper imports so luxuries can be increased to satisfy its pluralist illusion, so we woodworkers are paying the price in the quality of tools that have so damaged the economy of domestic manufacturing. The price for cheap goods is high when you have unemployment as a direct result of buying say Chinese chisels. But the time was when Chinese chisels were low grade and poor quality as was the case with planes, saws and others. Now we see high quality tools coming in from the same place and we blame the Chinese for our demanding cheaper goods. Companies like Woodcraft once sold high end planes, espousing American made as a virtue. That’s not the case now that their planes are made in China. All of their planes are imported from other countries and as far as I know they do not stock a domestic plane at all. They do not stock a US made chisel either, only imports. Now they do stock a domestic saw at $249 for a small dovetail saw under the Rob Cosman brand name, which is a high price for something you can get for much less if you know how to sharpen a saw: something every hand tool woodworker must learn regardless of the cost of the saw if they are to progress, but, also, something every woodworker shies away from and especially if they paid so high a price for a simple saw. The point here of course is that if the saw stayed sharp for the price it would be worth the money never to have to sharpen a saw again, but of course it’s no different than any other saw when it comes to edge retention on carbon steel saws. How could I possibly encourage a new or seasoned woodworker to buy so expensive a saw when I wouldn’t buy it myself?

eBay chisels can be flattened and sharpened and will compare to anything made in Mexico, China or elsewhere. I am not a protectionist but a pragbmatist in this case. I still buy Marples chisels online from there and so too many other tools that I need. There is of course the second hand dealers like Tony Murland and many others both here in the US and Britain if you want the quality of the old makers. I buy when I see something I value at a price I want to pay. Garage sales and fleamarkets, secondhand shops and tool dealers are all good sources. I enjoy the restoration process more than simply buying in something that’s ready to go, but that’s me and not everyone else.

I already own the Veritas block plane and the Veritas low-angle jack plane, along with the Narex bench chisels, and the Veritas backsaws. But I was thinking I’d still need to get a whole lot more, like paring chisels and all sorts of other planes. But having watched you work with the same set of tools, I’m rethinking it.
I’m curious as to your feelings on this. Perhaps you might write a blog post to help others in my position? Or if you’ve already written about this, to point me to the location.

Of course I have vocalised my view on this in previous postings consistently to try to balance out the misinformants of the age. I don’t particularly like heavyweight planes, which is obvious to anyone following my blog. I do respect the engineers that have developed such high standards of engineering, but I would never look to them to tell me what I need as a working craftsman. Fact is that saws and planes don’t stay sharp and salesmen selling planes and tools master only sufficient levels of skill to sell their porduct. In most cases it’s very unreal at a woodworking show to evaluate what they have. I can’t work out sometimes whether they are selling planes, wood or shavings. It is mesmerising to see a slitther of wood rise from the throat of a handplane if you cant get your old Stanley to do that. So, in true fashion, we buy thinking that it’s the plane, when we don’t see behind the scenes how much effort went into sharpening and setting the plane and the iron beforehand. Most woodworkers don’t realise that hand planes are used for more than just planing a piece of maple two feet long and an 1 1/2″ wide. Applying it to a door or window frame or planing an 18″ wide chest with dovetailed corners is a whole lot different than what we see at the shows.

You will come across tools you need as you grow in your knowledge and craft skill. I would hold off buying paring chisels and Planes beyond say a #4 or 4 1/2, 5 or 5 1/2 as long as I could until I had a greater sense of what I was really looking for and need, unless you have pots of money that is, then it doesn’t matter where you throw it. I would never pay some prices for a panel saw made by a modern maker that knows nothing of the demands I want in a saw when I can still buy a good old Henry Disston D8 for under a hundred dollars. A Stanley #4 is still one of the very best planes on the secondhand market bar none, and so too the Stanley #4 1/2, but not the Stanely sweetheart models made in Mexico, or any modern day Stanley for that matter I hasten to add.

I do hope that this will help. Don’t be enticed by bevel-up planes straight off the bat. The ones mentioned above are more important to start. Bevel ups have their very limited place and though I do love them, they cannot substitute for the lightweight planes that stood the test of time for aver a century now.

3 thoughts on “Questions answered”

  1. Good response, Paul. I enjoyed reading it and I think that many (most?) woodworkers struggle with the question of which/how many tools are necessary.


  2. I agree, I must say though that I bought a set of the bevel up planes and they are spectacular for a lot of things. Under my bench, I have that set (jointer, smoothers, and jack plane), a standard Record #4 Plane, a veritas apron plane, and an old beat up Stanley #5 which I’ve turned into my jack/scrub plane. I had bought a Veritas scrub plane when I started milling wood by hand and I’m thinking of selling it because it just doesn’t work as well as the #5 with a concave sharpened blade on it. I must say that there is still much to be said about older tools. With a little bit of time and patience, older tools can and usually be better values than anything new you can buy off the shelf. It’s a shame, as Paul said, that there aren’t many companies making quality tools anymore that aren’t from China or Mexico. With the exception of Lie Nielsen and Veritas and the price tag that come with them, there aren’t many choices other than older tools. Truth be told, once you restore them to look like new and work like new, I promise you’ll value that older tool more knowing you brought something back to life, than any $300 chinese made plane. Thanks for all the insight you bring to woodworking and the teaching methods, Paul! I can’t wait for the next series of books/DVD’s

  3. I’m building my Paul Sellers european workbench right now and I have the first section of bench top laminated and the bottom hand planed. I’ve been a bit of a consumer, especially before finding Paul’s work, and I bought the New Stanley SW low angle Jack plane because the guy at the lumber yard recommended it… and it was the only no 5 that they had. I’ve read bad reviews of it but I have to say that in experimenting with it alongside my 4, 4 1/2, 5 1/2, it di a great job and was a real joy to use. (I guess it works well on other surfaces besides end grain butcher blocks.) Will it take the place of my 4 or 4 1/2? No, but it has its place and most importantly, I really enjoy it. I also have the new SW block plane and it does an amazing job. If I could just not drop the darn thing,
    If I had to survive with just one plane it would be the 4 or 4 1/2, and a nice flat set of winding sticks, (I use them to follow the plane and check flatness as I go on wider surfaces like the bench top) the combo is fun and useful but if you bought something else just have fun and learn to use it. A bit of creativity can make most of these planes very versitile.

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