I Think It’s Good

My day unfolds without a plan some days, but I embrace the steps as each one obviates the course I’m taking. Today I cut wood for the dovetail tester box I promised and I was happy that from it’s rough state it planed out so well with a jack and smoother. Sharpening up takes but a minute. Three diamond plates and a strop is all I need to get in the zone. No noise, no fuss, no eye protection or masks for breathing. It’s too simple!

The wood looks like a cross between sapele and miranti and feels the same way as it looks in the working of it. There is just a little tear-out but it comes out with a second shallow-set stroke. Most woods are unpredictable if you treat them all the same. Best to learn them. After a while you get to know as soon as the plane sits on the wood what you are up against. I place it there and push ever so slightly. From that tiny nudge I read the grain, flip the plane and plane away. I like that predictable unpredictability. It means I have engage with the wood, interpret the message I get and adjust my attitude as well as my plane, its depth of cut, its direction, the pressure and my hands, arms, shoulder and head. So many adjustments in split seconds. And even then it’s not done. the adjustments are change according to what I feel beneath my hands though most of the time it’s a subconscious way of working. Negotiating more than just working. All woodworking with hand tools is about negotiating. We must compromise all the time – that much is predictable.

I just sharpened up – yet another non negotiable. Sharpness can never be compromised and my experience tells me that this is indeed the most delinquent of tasks for most woodworkers. the first non negotiable is staying in tune. Engaging with the material at the most maximum level but then too listening, feeling, watching and, in less obvious ways, bringing in the very core of your being to decide whether to take that stroke or not. This risk of work as Pye so cleverly phrased it is your decision alone. Machinists love the predictability of machining their wood, and then too the ease with which you feed it into those spinning jaws. Funny if you think about it. Every stroke you take with a saw or plane is 100% efficient yet machinists will tell you that hand tools are inefficient. In reality though, a machine makes hundreds of thousands of cuts to cover the same distance a handsaw does in just a few. If I rotate the wheel of a bandsaw by hand I can make one revolution to cut two inches of wood and yet when the motor is engaged it makes two or three thousand rotations.

What I have enjoyed this morning is both using the bandsaw with a new blade installed and the slicing of the evenness to thickness. More than that, I see my power planer that could joint and thickness my 20 pieces in a matter of minutes but I chose, yes chose, to true and square and thickness my final stock using a bench plane. I enjoyed using the vernier to establish thickness and I have a very unique system for getting all the pieces to the same thickness without measuring every piece. I doubt anyone else uses my system but it works even within a thou’.

And now, I just finished a wonderful lunch of home made French onion soup with hearth-baked bread and I must jump back on my bike because in 10 minutes we are filming my critique of dovetails people sent in for me to cast my eye over. I go past the lake along very muddy tracks. I cover the winding, twisting paths at 12-13 mph. Fast enough for an old bloke on a bike. But I am looking forward to my afternoon. See you in the video later.

19 thoughts on “I Think It’s Good”

  1. Ok, now I have to ack about your method for getting the same thickness. Don’t believe I have seen anything other than the jig for small pieces.

    1. Michael Ballinger

      Instantly wondered the same, I made a long version of that thicknessing jig and it worked a treat on a ring box I made for my wife. Love to see how the wider stock gets tackled to that level of accuracy. I think I have the same timber as in Paul’s photos which I thought was sapelle, it’s quite soft with amazing wirey grain. Planed beautifully though.

  2. Thanks for the post Paul, I enjoy your work and life perspective. Have you documented anywhere your system for getting multiple pieces the same thickness without measuring? I’d be very interested to learn it.

  3. “The wood looks like a cross between sapele and miranti”…
    So what is it? Or are you saying that a sapele tree and meranti tree were cross bred?

    I’m genuinely curious on this?



    I know that wood very well. To guitar makers, it is sold as African Mahogany (it isn’t mahogany, it’s Khaya) and I use it t make the necks for my acoustic guitars and sometimes classical guitars too. Predictably unpredictable, that is exactly how it is. You can actually see where it wants to tear out. But I like it, I think it is beautiful.

  5. Yes, please, The technique….within a thou…Hope I can do it either sitting or my legs will recover (a dozen years now, so not likely).

  6. I’ll venture a guess on the thicknessing technique: given the piece in the vise, my bet is that Paul super glued two wooden pieces on the interior of the vice jaws to use as rails to hold the wood at exactly the right distance from the top of the vise and benchtop, which are used to register the plane against. Am I close?

      1. I think you misunderstood. I’m aware that Paul puts wood on the inside of the vise jaws. My guess was that he super glues *additional* pieces of wood to use as rails and the bottom of the work piece sits on these. Paul has numerous times in his videos temporarily super glued pieces of wood in place for use in various types of jigs; the super glue allows you to simply pop them off when your done.

  7. Paul, you follow in the path of the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu. This from his parable of “The Dexterous Butcher”:

    Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

    “Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

    Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

    “A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

    “However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

    “Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”

  8. Thank you for sharing your process! It is so great not only seeing the work you are doing, but I appreciate how you take the time to tell us about your day as well.

  9. Off topic slightly, but i just have to thank you Paul for your advice to buy Stanley planes on eBay.
    I inherited a “Span” brand no.4 plane from my Dad, but although ok, it wasn’t very good.
    I have just bought a vintage Stanley no.4 on eBay for £20. It is pristine and compared to the Span, I can see that it will be miles better.
    So Paul. thank you very much for everything you do for those of us who can’t afford, or lack space or the will to use power tools. Through your help I have a Stanley no4 and a 71 router plane, and i love them. No.5 next! 🙂

  10. Hello Paul,
    Do you always sharpen starting from the medium diamond plate, through to the fine and then extra-fine? Or do you more often only use the fine and extra-fine.
    I find that the medium is a little too coarse for routine sharpening.
    Thank you.

    1. I religiously go through the grits every time. Starting not on the medium but the coarse because `i find no benefit in skipping the first level as it’s this one that gets rid of the worn edge quickest and easiest.

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