A letter on why no long planes?

Long time fan; first time contacting you.

Frstly I’d just like to say thank you for sharing your expertise and experience with the world. Your youTube channel and blog are wonderful resources that will, I suspect, survive both of us.

But my question is this: why do we never see you use the jointer plane? You talk often about your 4 and 4 1/2, and I’ve heard you talk about using a jack plane, but even throughout the workbench build, we never saw you straighten stock with a jointer. Nor is there any mention of you recommending a jointer in your `buying good tools cheap` series.

… just curious really.

many thanks in advance

Ben Foster
Norwich, Norfolk

This is a great question, Ben.
DSC_0179
I suppose technically we don’t really need them so much now that we have machines that dimension the wood to size and even plane surfaces parallel. Whereas it’s true, most lumber and timber(UK) suppliers have questionable standards of treatment to get their product to market and sold, in general we can rely on wood being planed to size and being square. Almost all wood is passed through machines whereby it would indeed be impossible for it to not to come out square. they are not using hands to make materials square but usually five-head cutter moulders that indeed make four sides dead to size and square.DSC_0039 So, even boards that are not straight are almost always parallel and, in my local UK store at least, well-milled from dry stock and stored indoors until sold.
I would say that long planes are basically a thing of the past because of this. I have found that a truly flat jack plane can joint just about anything straight and most long planes such as cast metal jointers are actually rarely flat. That being the case, a jack plane will indeed true up long edges and surfaces just as well if not better than their longer counterparts of old that are indeed out of true. In fact, for me, these shorter planes do a better job, are more controllable, comfortable, and easier to work with. Now wooden jointer planes are a different animal altogether. The planes do stay true in general, and they are wonderful to use as they readily glide across wood and work better than any of their metal counterpart planes.

Having said all of that, I do have longer planes, #6, 7, and 8, a Clifton, Stanley’s, Records and of course my favourite, the Veritas. From time to time I use these long planes, but usually, almost always, on really fine work. One thing I do love to do is take the plane of choice, really spend time sharpening the edge, and then edge joint or surface plane the wood I am working on to the nearest I could ever get to perfection. This is time-out for me; a sort of metaphysical therapy that somehow renews me in ways other aspects of woodworking might and might not. Of course it’s momentary, temporary but I think it has a permanent impact on my wellbeing. It’s aloe something I walk away from feeling warmed and renewed.

Often you will see me working on something using only a minimal amount of tools. I write this way too and it’s because I don’t want anyone to think woodworking is only a rich person’s pastime or hobby. I have never taught woodworking as a hobby but always assuming that people have an innate desire beyond themselves that calls them to work wood in real ways and not by machine methods only but in deeper ways using hands and hand tools. Hobby somehow has a real worth I think because it is somehow therapy for the soul of man to work fluidly with their hands. This amateur level has great depth to it. I consider myself an amateur even though I have worked full time at it for fifty years now.. Amateur, from the root word amore, to love. Much deeper than say being a professional, even though most professionals are amateurs like me too. What makes the difference? If you took away all of the machines, tied their hands and imprisoned them, they would still find ways to work wood.
At the end of all of this, I made the bench with few tools because people can do that in real life. The bench I built is now functioning for Phil Adams in the Penrhyn Castle workshops in North Wales. He loves it. He’s just like me. It’s so easy to put people off with fancy tools when all they need is a handful to get started. I would love to know how many people have built my workbench now. Hundreds if not thousands I think. All because of a two-cent backyard video on YouTube that many condemned in the beginning.

13 comments on “A letter on why no long planes?

  1. That’s one difference I guess: at work our wood comes in as 40cm thick planks, rough cut and with the bark still on it.

    Embarrasingly I managed to send some through an planing machine and not get it square. It is possible, apparently.

  2. that’s brilliant. thank you very much, Paul.

    I’ll hold off asking the wife whether I can buy a jointer…. for a while!

    Ben

  3. Paul,
    Your approach no doubt has encouraged many to go ahead with a minimum of tools or experience. I really appreciate it, even though I have many, many years of hobby woodworking and a shop full of machines and fine hand tools.
    I find myself turning to hand tools more and more, mostly as a result of seeing your videos and series presentations. Many thanks.
    As you say, there is a satisfying, restful side to doing work this way.
    I’m currently replacing my 30-year-old bench with your design, and I hand-mortised all the thru-mortises of the leg joinery and the apron housing recesses.
    Incidentally, I have a 3-1/2″ boatbuilder’s slick that came in really handy for flattening and leveling the housing recesses. Amazing what delicate and accurate shavings you can get with such a huge chisel. (If it’s truly sharp, which mine is, thanks again to you as I use your recommended method and diamond stones.)

  4. Too many spend a lot of money on poor quality tools thinking that they will replace skill. Their money would be better spent on learning rather than the acquisition of tools. Money spent on tools does not replace carefully thought out design.

  5. I’ve loved your approach to living, thinking, teaching and explaining woodworking so much since I’ve discovered your blog and vids that I’ve been in constant reading mode, reading just about everything I can every free minute I have…In a way, bad, because I need to work wood with the time I have, not read so much. For my son, now 9 and who really loves woodwork/handwork and seems to have a knack for it, it’s been great for us. We’re both learning but as his dad I need to stay a step ahead. I’m 47 now and wish the 7th grade Woods class I took was hand tool instruction… Sadly, it was just machines, actually just two, jigsaw and drill press, the rest too dangerous for the kids, and it was very limiting and a loss.

    • Wow! How exciting is this period in your/his life. I taught every one of my boys to work wood with their hands and then with machines when they became adults (that’s the right way around). Now they can do anything I can. I loved having my children with me as they grew up. Shaping wood is the same thing as shaping character and life is just like wood; It comes with knots in it.

  6. HI PAUL,
    JUST A FEW NOTES ABOUT YOUR TOUGHTS:
    AFTER EXPERIMENTING MYSELF, I KNOW THAT YOU ARE RIGHT WHEN SPEAKING OF LON PLANES: A BASICALLY PLANE JANE #4 AND A WOODEN JACK ARE MY BEST FRIENDS.
    I HAD RESTORED A WOODEN JOINTER AND A BAILEY #8, BUT NOTHING TO DO WITH THE SHORTER ONES.
    THEY ARE MUCH MORE CONTROLLABLE AND A FEW PASSES WITH MY #4 WILL RESOLVE ANY ISSUES ON EDGE JOINTING.
    LOVE INDEED THE BIG WOODEN ONES, BUT I THINK I WILL USE THEM ONLY FOR FLATTENING VERY VERY BIG STOCKS, SO DON’T THINK I WILL HAVE A USE FOR THEM IN FUTURE (I HAD FLATTENED AND TRUED MY WORKBENCH TOP WITH A SHORT WOODEN SCRUB AND THE #4, AT MY FIRST APPROACHES WITH HAND TOOLS, WITH GOOD RESULTS).
    NOW I WILL TRY WOODEN COFFIN BECAUSE LIKE MUCH MORE WOODEN ONES ON METAL.
    LET’S SEE WHAT APPENS.
    ALWAYS THANKS VERY MUCH TO YOU (AND JOSHEP, PHIL, ETC…).
    BEST WISHES,
    VALERIO.

  7. Paul,

    Just to let you know, I also have built your workbench. I use it just about every day and truly enjoy it. Mine is a little taller than yours because I found that, for me, a taller bench top is just more comfortable (69 years old).
    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us all. Your videos on youtube are incredible.
    Thank You,
    Carl Jr USA

  8. Everything you say has come to pass for me.
    6 years ago my spine collapsed in 5 places due to Osteoporosis, I had to re-build my life. As any bloke will tell you, you can’t spend your life in the house with the wife 24/7 so I had a shed built.
    I decided to try woodwork as a hobby and bought a bandsaw and many other machines but it took me 5 years and one of your videos to realise that hand tools are the way forward for me.

    I get so much pleasure from a #4 (copy) plane, that I can spend an hour happily taking fine shavings from a scrap piece of wood and then enjoy the process of sharpening it again that I no longer want to use the machines. I own a Planer/Jointer machine and a table router (made myself) but I no longer use them, I get more satisfaction from a #4 and a #71 that it makes these ‘machines’ obsolete in my thoughts of ‘how should I do this’.

    It might take me 10 times longer to make a stool but ‘by eck’, I know I’ve made it with MY hands using MY tools that I have sharpened myself!
    And it’s all down to you Paul.
    Thank you.

  9. Great article & posts. Until very recently, I’ve worked mainly with greenwood, so the idea of starting with raw, unmachined wood is not as outlandish to me as it may be to others. Indeed, among other things, I made planks from an ash branch to bend into a leatherwork clamp by riving, planing & steaming. Immensely satisfying. Machines scare me, people I know have had near-death serious accidents (angle-grinders seem to be a particularly underestimated hazard, to both users and bystanders).

    Starting late and being a novice myself, I failed to pass on my new learnt skills to my son, it just seemed too dangerous for us both to be learning at the same time. He developed his own interests. Recently I started to tell my son how to dispose of my tools when I am gone. I was surprised and delighted when he said, “Don’t worry. I might want to keep them and use them myself.” At the back of his mind, he has already started to plan to do this later in life, to follow in Pa’s footsteps perhaps! 🙂 He knows that I value, and feel closer to my father and grandfather, when I use their old tools. Yes, woodworking can be quite spiritual/therapeutic, like climbing and surfing. I am hoping it might also help me avoid some of repetitive strain issues associated with my sedentary work.

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