Plane Speaking

For more information on planes, see our beginner site Common Woodworking.

I was 15. My plane arrived with Mr Cheapie, boxed in a Stanley orangey-yellow box with a dark green and white lable. At the bench Cheapie watched me unwrap the wax ed aper from the plane and checked I was happy with it. I paid him my week’s wage, £3.50 for that and a screwdriver and he left. I didn’t know what I was feeling. It was a sort of manly thing I was unused to. I felt excited of course, but somehow that had much more substance to it. It wasn’t toyful. I was on the cusp of transition to more a manly thing unknown to me. Manhood for me was the shift into an adult world where the tools I would buy and use were meant to last me through my lifetime as a working man. It was a pivotal point I suddenly fell into, enduringly rich, unexpected. I look back on such minutes knowing that the expectation of that moment and many others had proven the value of durability. My craft has sustained my life and the lives of my family. Those early days were preparing me to develop into a workman, a craftsman. Nothing fancy, not a presenter on YouTube with hollowness but a robust furniture maker with a background, a backbone and a collection of working hand tools that served me through half a century.

George was my mentor though we would never use such a word. His gangly frame and cheery smile took me in. I worked with him. He was kind, skilled, intelligent. he cared about me, befriended me and trained me. He protected me, shielded me, encouraged me. From the other side of the workbench he reached his long arms to my new plane and said come here. We dismantled the plane piece by piece. He named the parts for me. The names stayed with me, in my mind. I guarded them, repeated them, registered them. The names stayed there, locked away. I hadn’t planned such a thing, I just did it. George took the iron and bevelled the corners. He showed me how to sharpen it and stropped it on his leathery hand. Up, down, up, down. He showed me the burr, peeled it away between his finger and thumb. We talked about the burr, how two flat faces came together in union to create clean, continuous cutting edge. He made me do the same, over his. He showed me how the yoke pivoted, locked into the rectangle of cap iron sent the blade down and retracted it back. What a marvellous thing a man invented. He spun the depth adjustment wheel that tipped the yoke. I saw the yoke engage and alter the depth. I understood. From there he explained the purpose of a cam, explained ratios, pivot points, the physics of applied leverage. Power, kinetics. We dwelt on these things. Fully loaded, sharp, adjusted to the right depth, I placed my plane to the pine, pushed and a rippling shaving lifted from the wood in a ribbon. The scent lifted too. My plane, my basic, basic Stanley #4, still works perfectly. Is it just inanimate if it speaks such things to an old man?

20 thoughts on “Plane Speaking”

  1. As he taught you you taught me I only wish it had been across a bench and not across the internet , but I’m still greatful, I am the custodian of thousands of pounds worth of tools and machinery but my most prized tool is a car boot #4 I brought back from the scrap heap with your teaching, thank you

  2. Good story! Sculptor/artisan Toshio Odate wrote about his Japanese apprenticeship and also described the purchase of his first plane. As I recall, he had taken it out to admire during meal time, and his master took it away. He was told that his level of skill was too low, that he did not deserve such a fine tool at that point, and that it would be returned at some future time. Your work environment sounds considerably more supportive.

  3. I bought my first plane 30 years ago, a Craftsman replica of a Stanley #4. It was horrible to use and I put it away because my machines could do a better job. Five years ago, I found you, Paul, on YouTube and my whole outlook on woodworking changed. Last month, I found that old Craftsman plane. I took it apart, beveled the corners, sharpened the blade on my diamonds, set the foot and flattened the sole of the cap iron. After putting it together, I took the first shaving and it was beautiful! You may be across the Atlantic, but you are beside my every time I pick up a plane or a chisel. Thank you and please keep teaching us!

    1. Mario – amen and amen – only my moment from Paul was seven years ago now – life changing for me as it was for you and now thousands of us – how exciting ??

  4. MIchael Murphy

    Thanks Paul, not only are you a superb craftsman and teacher but a gifted writer as well. You paint a picture with the words you write. One can virtually smell the pine aroma as you tell of the experiences of long ago. The value of the mentors in our lives is too often understated. I did not have the benefit of that kind of a teaching influence, though I do hope to pass on what I have learned to a willing mind.

  5. When a ribbon of wood comes off the plane there is something spiritual that happens inside of me. And yes it is a Stanley that was owned by my grandfather.

  6. I love stories like these. I can sit and listen to old people talk about life experiences all day long.

  7. Beautifully written, Mister Sellers.

    And thank you for mentoring me. You’ve changed my woodworking world.

  8. The more I use my #4 (and also my #7, just use it a lot less than the #4), the more I keep being surprized by its useful elegance. So effective, quick and simple (relatively speaking; it’s a highly complex contraption compared to a wooden plane).

    And often I wonder why people stopped using them. Have the same with shaving with a safety razor. Good grief, you can’t really call it progress what most people use nowadays ?! And the Stanley Yankee #131 pump-action screwdriver is my faithful companion on every DIY project.

    Your post clearly depicts what a valued possession those tools once were to their original owners. I sometimes tend to forget that the 2nd-hand high-quality tools I buy at fleamarkets etc., were once very expensive top-of-the-line tools and someone’s prized possession, before we ended up today where they (the tools, but also the owner?) were considered outdated and old-fashioned.

  9. Many of your most loyal fans would love to see you display more of your marvelous tool collection in your videos. I know you decided to go minimalist, but perhaps as time goes on you might reconsider. Seeing those tools is inspiring for both beginners and seasoned woodworkers.

  10. Your biographical essays are a joy to read. I would love to read more about your journey from apprentice at 15, through your experience in America, to your videos on YouTube. I still remember your blog about using a spokeshave to trim an old house that survived WWII titled THE 151 SPOKESHAVE – WHERE I MASTERED THIS UNIQUE PLANE. To me, this information is rare and valueable.

  11. I enjoyed it Paul, your story telling. Your stories make me think of my all but untold stories. No one to listen to mine, but I enjoy remembering. Some time I feel like my old tools, which were once shiny and new, a little tired and out of adjustment. Spurts of energy and thought bring me and the tools up to speed all for another round of activity.
    I like working wood, it is a beautiful thing!


  12. Adriano J M Rosa

    You are not only a master artisan but also a very good writer.
    Thank you mr Sellers for sharing your memoirs with us.

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