Seeing the Art in Hand Planing—Part III

I hear how others express this or that about the using of hand planes. It’s as if there is but one way to hold the plane, one height at which to plane, one angle at which to plane, and so on and so forth. I’m sure there are as many ways to hold a plane as there are woods to plane. Many skew the plane to get a slicing cut because they were told that that was the the way to present the plane and that you must do it that way to get the plane to cut. It’s surprising how many things are passed down that way and become law. Mostly the plane is presented in response to what’s felt in the wood. We must be able to flex midstroke and adjust our attitude as we negotiate they right path by what we feel minute by minute. Knowing what to do takes time to understand over a number of months and years. It’s good not to pursue a one way approach because most craft work is about flex not rigidity and legalism. In my view it’s more about something called suppleness you see. Keep supple.

Some say that apron clamping is a must for getting straight edges trued and others say the plane sole is the guarantee to straight edges.That’s far from true. It’s about flex and suppleness, sharpness and sensitivity. Whenever you create a fist you are ready for a fight. You lose sensitivity. Believe me, I know these things. As an apprentice with masters they never trued their soles on dead flat diamond plates or glass plates with stuck-on abrasive. They trued their wood intuitively, squared edges to dead ninety and edge jointed two long edges in the vise with no bench dogs, holdfasts or continuous bench edges to clamp to. These men were non-obsessives in a non-obsessive culture of real-world woodworkers. There was no such thing as studio furniture yet many a fine design came from the workshops of people who were unpretentious in their making. People like Edward Barnsley, a well known English maker who designed and made and lived his life as a pure maker. I’m glad i was exposed to the reality that the men I worked with wrought into the inner fibre of my life. There were no plane socks, thick irons in cast steel bench planes and yet every surface got planed with unrusted and trusted planes with ordinary thin irons. It was true and pure genius for me to watch them because as I have grown older this reality remains: woodworking is the crafting of the artisan in every dimension. It’s unpretentious to see a man and now a woman emerge with realness. I have watched this with each of the dozens of apprentices I have trained through the decades and years and now, in Hannah, I see it in the first woman apprentice I have had. Not because I chose not to before now, but that she was the first one to ask me to. This sad reality is a condition of society. There are in my view too few women entering the realms of woodworking. I am not sure it will change much in my lifetime. I am sure it’s mostly to do with perception. Most people think woodworking is site carpentry. In reality it’s mostly nothing to do with site carpentry because site carpentry has very little to do with woodworking. Chop sawing dimension wood and nailing and screwing cuts together is processing assembly. Not much to it in this present day and age.

So realness is for me a most remarkable thing. It’s unpretentious living in work. Realness. When I see it happening over a number of weeks and months and years I am amazed by seeing skill change people’s lives. I am amazed that unremarkable things become the things I speak of all the more.

Back to my experience with planes. I know that the men I trained with owned long planes but I never actually saw them use them. Everything they did was using a smoother and a jack. Flattening, straightening and squaring seemed so intrinsic to them and they effortlessly square edges and fitted parts like doors and drawers with a dexterity I frankly no longer see even in isolated pockets. I am hoping that people will regain what’s been lost. I live in hope and do what I do because i do in fact have hope for the future. It wasn’t accidental for me to become a craftsman capable of confidently truing stock almost without thinking, it was my pursuit of perfection and an ideal. Somehow these elderly men knew, as I do now, when something was out. We use methods in our truing of wood that mostly defy words. They’re unspoken. We work, the plane squares and we have trued surfaces squarely adjacent to one another in a few strokes. It’s in the doing of such that we understand and by and in that we become experts by the experienced. Never underestimate the power of real mastery with hand tools. never expect to at some point be qualified. There are far too many professionals feeling qualified by bits of paper. The qualification we strive for in excellence always defies paper certificates and too many ‘qualified’experts‘ are very unqualified. The problem is, in my view, there is nothing there to disqualify them.

I have shown you a few of my hand positions. I use them all the time every day and change them second by second. To start out you may well start with the familiar fist-and-punch grip and movement, but that’ll change. Embrace this reality and you will short circuit the learning curve by your relaxation. There is nothing at all wrong with the fist-and-punch to start out, but I hope I can persuade you to question authority and relax into other options as shown. In the long run you will become your own authority as did the craftsmen before you. They adapted and adopted and led me that way through those opening years of my experiencing the plane. You will settle into hand positions one by one as and when you develop the sensitivities of the hand plane, the wood and the execution of the work. The video I have on the way to show you will help you. It is just the beginning. If you are like me you will develop additional positions to work with.The styles and techniques will be yours to own. Try the ones shown in Part II of this series for yourself and put the ability in your hopper to draw on in the next project you make. Each hand hold will take development. You can do it!

It’s a funny thing, the silliness I hear about overhead, upper-body bearing-down planing from above. You see if you have nothing to compare to you might accept such lack of common sense stating as some kind of dark arts wisdom. Self experimentation, trial and error, will prove quite different over the long term. Whereas minor experts of an unknown background have crept in on a global scale to expound on woodworking, this was only possible because of the dearth within a dying sphere left vacant over three and four decades. I think that mostly you all may know more than they do, you just might not believe it. Lots of so called expert woodworkers I have come to know through the years lived their former lives selling planes and they have become the modern day experts. But watching them handle a plane is plane painful sometimes—dispiriting even. They never really learned to relax into it.

The plane posted on the sides of carpenter’s vans and trucks mostly depict the clenched fist and punch grip. It’s that macho-man thing raising its ugly head again. The plane hands have many positions fore and aft to the plane. Four fingers and an opposing thumb wrapped around the rear tote and then so too the front knob. My experience is that full fist grips at the fore end of the plane often result in rapped knuckles twixt wood end and fore part of the knob. After some early learning and a little gentle nudging from George I learned to be decisive and fully aware about how to place my forehand. To be looser in the grip, to be flexible and easier. Sometimes, quite often, my hands opt for ten different positions in my planing a rough board to smoothness and trueness. My mentors did the same as did theirs. These are the men to look out for if you can find them. They have something of substance and they earned it by decades of hard work without any more than an apprenticeship and a six day week. Most of these men had put 15,000 hours in at the bench by the time they were 21 years old. But the new generation of woodworkers is emerging with a different mindset. There are so many genuine woodworkers who just love woodworking and they do it in spite of the lack of mentoring. These are the special ones. They spend time in the quiet of sheds with low light and non-specialist equipment. They do it without pay for a few years and nothing stops them, especially not having the right wood or machines or money to buy with.

16 thoughts on “Seeing the Art in Hand Planing—Part III”

  1. Ronald Kowalewski

    Less than 3 yrs ago i began my journey with a video on restoring a hand plane. I knew i had inherited 1 or 2 from my Dad when he passed. I spent the better part of an afternoon cleaning them up, then gave a well intentioned, but poorly executed sharpening to the blades that had been neglected for 30 +years. I Quietly began shifting my energy from table saw sleds and dust collection, to dovetail boxes for shop and home. Several sandpaper caddies, handmade replacements drawer for my kitchen, 25-30 shaker candle boxes, cheese boards, spoons, cutting boards, lap desk, keepsake box, Shaker Table, cabinets, a bench, tool boxes, and the best workbench in the world have been my meager apprenticeship to date.

    I came into this with a background in the trades as Plaster, and am employed as a Carpentry Teacher, i also play accordion and front a touring Zydeco band.

    The vocabulary of expression and the joy of discovery you have given me through your teachings is profound. As my sensitivity of the wood increased so did my musical, and my professional sensitivity. To care about the work, any work is virtuous, but when you can apply the awe of discovery as a motivation your day is mostly joy.

    My students are learning sensitivity as they finish their cheese boards, shaped with the stop-cut method and spokeshaves of course. I now know when its time to sharpen up and how to do it well, both planes and saws. I feel confident in four-squaring any board and my record 4 1/2 is my go to smoother, but i do use most of my modest fleet on any given board or project.

    As i work on preparing the boards for 2 bespoke tube amplifier cabinets in Walnut and Cherry i fall in love with the wood once again as it reveals itself, slowly. I will sharpen before i begin again not because my plane is dull but because i’ve felt it sharper!!

    Inside of the 3 years that i have been following your words and teachings many great things have happened, and my days are filled with enthusiasm.

    Thank you Mr. Sellers

    1. Ronald,
      Thank you for so eloquently expressing the very same feelings of contentment and new found joy that Paul has brought to my woodworking life. Well said sir…well said.


      1. Ronald R Kowalewski

        My pleasure. I wish i had more time to write. I read every word our mentor writes, and gladly rewatch videos on Masters classes many times. The wood and and the work give so much, ten-fold sometimes what i put in. When i get a little overwhelmed with life and such i love getting lost in preparing some stock! This skill was not in my bag less than two years ago, all my training and i had never really worked a handplane for 42-43 years. The joy of sharing and teaching this joy is the only thing better than the wood or the work!!

  2. You mention Hannah so often, like a proud father. It is wonderful to see her smile as she shows one of her projects. And they all look outstanding. She is already a master. Great to see!

  3. Rodrigo Fuenzalida

    Damn it Paul these three blog posts have been the most inspiring woodworking articles I’ve read. My english is not advanced yet to fully express my gratitude and sense of fortune for having you sharing everything you share with us.

    Thank you Paul


  4. Great series again, Paul!.
    I can totally relate to this content because I ventured into using wooden planes after reading your comments on them. Those guys usually have a handle at the heel for you, but at the toe you are on your own. And what about a coffin smoother or a wooden plough?: No visual cues at all. Well, I have collected a great deal of frustration for myself with those planes until I stopped just pushing and started thinking about what I was doing. Looking, touching and listening. Then I understood that a coffin smoother is just a block of wood not because the maker didn’t have the time to stick a handle to it but because he needed room for different grips.
    Thanks very much for your insights! And also for that 2trust your own judgement” advice to your students.

  5. I’ve always enjoyed working with wood, but I always thought I had no right to call myself a woodworker because I had no formal training. Everything I know is from watching others and experimentation. Then I saw your videos for the first time. Everytime I watched you I found myself saying “Hey, I do it that way too”. I just assumed because no one taught me the “proper” way what I’m doing must be wrong. Well, I just want to say thank you. Thank you for showing me that what I’m doing has meaning and is worth pursuing.

  6. Thank you Paul. I’ve been woodworking for about 3 years. About a year ago, I noticed rather dramatic improvement in sawing to a line if I relaxed. I was doing the exact opposite, if I was having troubles with a saw, I would tense up even more. That. Seemed to make things worse. I will have to try more consciously to relax with the hand planes.

  7. Richard Harnedy

    Great article Paul, I really enjoyed reading it. For me you are regularily writing the right article at the right time. I am one of the people in the shed no heat and low light for a couple of hours most nights. I find your words encouraging. I could never justify spending thousands on machines with young family so i get by with the handtools in your book on essential handtools. My first hand plane experience was with a 4.5 stanley on rough sawn wood.. it did not go well. Some of the shavings went under the frog and the plane kept clogging up. It took 2 days to figure that out but i fixed it and all of a sudden smooth even shavings. The learnings from this experience are with me for life and this kind of troubleshhoting is so important to learn the craft. Next the fillister plane.. similiar very rough uneven rebates and then after sharpening and slow setup i nearly have good rebates. All of this is work in the shed is stopping me watching tv or netflix but i simply dont care. 2 hours a night with something to show at the end is much better that watching any tv. I am still at the stage of using building timber… i am very shortly moving to ash oak and poplar for picture frames and i cannot wait! I never put exclamation marks in when i write but this one is apt.

  8. Michael J. Ostrander

    Thanks again for the great post Paul. Right on the money, as usual. I have watched many of the so called “experts” demonstrating the use of hand planes with a death grip on the plane and the application of so much downward pressure that they can hardly get the plane to move. I see their white knuckles and bulging forearm muscles and wonder how long they can keep up going till exhaustion sets in.

    I’ve learned, after years of your advise, that friction is the enemy of almost any hand tool operation. a little lubrication, a shop and well set tool, and a light touch are all that are needed to achieve the desired surface. “Let the tool pull itself to task”, never were Truer words never spoken Paul and a mantra for all of us struggling to achieve hand tool competence.

    Thanks again for all of the great support you offer!!

  9. Hm. “Plane socks”. For a moment I understood this as ‘plain socks’, of which I have plenty – in fact, all of my socks are plain. But if someone would be trying to sell me socks for my planes I’d check the calendar to see if it was perchance April 1st.

    Did a quick search for ‘plane socks’ and learned something new. Very surprised such a thing exists. I thought I take good care of my planes but obviously I’ve been neglecting them by not socking them but just wiping them with some 3-in-1 oil at the end of the season.

    Surprized no one marketed a clamp-on LASER to aid in guiding and directing your plane yet.

    Maybe this Christmas I should hang a plane sock on the chimney and see if Santa gets the hint and fills it properly …. (#5 or 5 1/2 please)

  10. You mentioned site work, My experience has been that most of the methods you speak of transfer very well to construction and carpentry work. I think those of us who like to build can only benefit from the methods. I framed out a window today. It was for a window with inconsistent drywall depths. I installed the board and manually hand planed section by section so that the entire board was flush. I found the grip I needed to plane a board above my head 🙂

    I appreciated the ability to work fluidly and make the wood how I needed it. I also hand sawed several angled rabbet joints today using knife walls and the marking methods you’ve shared. I honestly tried to machine some of this with my table saw, but the panel saw proved to be more accurate, efficient, and enjoyable.

  11. One of my woodworking pleasures is adjusting my 4 wooden planes .All different sizes and the tricks I use now to get the blades in just the right position are firstly to use a hockey ball to dislodge the blades with a sharp rap on the ends .For gently tapping down the blades I have a left over assembly of old brass tap junctions which just happened to be all in one unit . The square shaped bit taps the blade down without distorting the steel as brass is a softer metal . Then an old candle to make smoke marks to check the wedge for a close fit on the blade.
    Do you often put your steel planes in the vice upside down to fettle some very light pieces? It works well on violin lining strips .
    The opposite scale is the shipwright at Portsmouth docks who starts to plane part of a ship`s mast with the plane angled about 45 degrees. At that position the wood “thinks ” a sharper edge is cutting it . It`s all down to geometry .

  12. I am old! Paul and I are about the same age. I am NEW to woodworking and especially to hand woodworking. I (and my lovely wife) have run across an issue while planing. We will get 5-10 really nice cuts, then BAM the place gouges in. Is the plane set up poorly? Or is it possible our grips get tightened up? Thanks for tolerating noob questions.

    1. Bruce, It can be a variety of reasons that cause the dig in. One, if the blade has insufficient pressure via the lever cap the setting can skew or slew out of alignment and the depth can shift too. check that first. Check that the blade is fully aligned so that it is perfectly parallel, this video will help with that. Often though it is the wood. If the grain is rising up against the plane you must plane from the opposite direction.

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