A Gem of a Remnant

I planed wood and stood staring into the depths of chatoyancy. Each reflection, I knew, reflected the significant order and the significance of order I placed on every facet of my working. As I looked with single-eyed resolution into the eye in the wood I sensed the prize of fine workmanship that was soon to come.

It was in the USA where I learned the term ‘trash wood‘. No, it’s not a type of wood, more perhaps a type of attitude just a few people had and even still have do some degree to the lightweights that might have little deep colour of the more flamboyant nature of say the exotics we all know of. I’m currently working spruce. The wood planes quite readily though the knots can be as hard as teeth to the cutting edges of my tools. Even so, to get a true reflection of light in the surface requires the perfected demands that come only through order and structure in the work and the way I work it. My panels must be twist free when completed and so my opening efforts go to the sharpening and setting of my planes.

I rest the newly cut wood in a pile on my benchtop, lift my 4 1/2 jack from its shelf and stroke the surfaces of sole and sides with my hands and fingers. My fingers feel for the length of the cutting and there I trace the very tips along cutting edge. As I lower the plane to the workbench top, the handle moves ever so slightly in my grip. I reach then for the screwdriver, as I always do, because a loose handle results only in a loose attitude towards the accuracy of planework. It’s only a second’s delay but, had I left it, even just the thought of it being undone would have dogged me. My sharpening too is never delayed. Some say I sharpen too often, but I don’t listen at all. Who are they that tell me such a thing without their knowing my standards of sharpening and my expectation of the plane? If they have never used my plane, and they never did because I wouldn’t let them, then how are they to know? Besides, you can never sharpen too much.

George watched me as I lowered my plane to the benchtop, 50 odd years ago. He said to me, “Rust is a sign of a man’s neglect.” I looked at my plane, oblivious to a small cluster group of rust spots on the corner of the cutting iron, at least until that moment.

“Try something out for me, Paul. Will you?” I nodded my assent.

He continued, “Take your plane apart and deal with all the rust. You’ve got ten minutes to do it. Then put your plane back together and try it again and tell me what you feel!”

I did as he asked, sanded of the rust, coated the surfaces with a thin film of oil and reassembled the parts and set the plane thoroughly.

“Off you go, then!” George said.

The plane felt different, more solid, somehow. How was that possible?

As the plane swiped the wood the shavings rose from the throat and the plane suddenly felt, well, refined.

“It’s because now it’s cared for.” George said. “The whole of life is like that.”

In the theory of things, such a thing should make little difference to the performance, but in the reality of it, it is as important as the sharpening itself. Of course, my planes are used so much they never rust, but not everybody has the luxury of being a manual labourer working with hand tools as I do every day.


  1. Many years ago (more than I will admit), when I had my first car, I observed just how much better it seemed to run after a thorough cleaning and a fresh coat of wax!

  2. Anything made of steel/iron (Tools, rulers, squares etc) I keep in food container (Tuppaware) box’s with tight clip on lids that effectively seals the contents from the outside atmosphere. I wipe down all the exposed metalwork with my P Seller’s rag in a can oiler and before putting the box lid on I stick an anti corrosion VCI (volatile corrosion inhibited) pad to the inside of the box lid as well. In this way I reduce the chances of rust forming. Living on the Atlantic sea-board the air is moist and salt laden so rust is always a problem. I’m afraid that I don’t use my tools etc as often as I would like (perhaps when I retire it will be different) but in the meantime I try to keep to this regime. I spent long enough cleaning off the rust from 2nd hand, uncared for Stanley and Record planes etc that I bought to build up my woodworking kit, to know that rust is an insidious enemy.

  3. I am late to the world of woodworking, but I did spend 40 years making orthopedic shoes, and have this same approach to my tools and machines. I very much appreciate the philosophical aspects of your teaching, Paul, and have already learned much from you. Though I am still a rank amateur, I hope to keep my planes clean and sharp till the day my shavings are as smooth as yours.

  4. I was in Japan on business, and my friend and colleague invited me for dinner at his home. I had just acquired a couple of good quality Japanese kitchen knives, and our conversation turned to them and how to care for them. My friend’s wife is a chef. They told me that the Japanese believe that every object has a soul, and that tools such as knives will die if not properly cared for, or used for the purpose for which they were made. I was even shown a cleaver that had “died”: no amount of effort would put an edge on it, or so I was told. It certainly looked dead.

    As a westerner, I consider statements like this to be figurative, not literal. Yet I also firmly believe that in some way objects like tools do respond to being used properly and cared for. It is probably all in our heads, but is nonetheless very real.

    1. I’ve had a chisel or two that had to be “revived.” For some reason it took an immense amount of work to get them to hold a bevel. The edge would dull in minutes. But after re-beveling them each about four times, they suddenly seemed to recover. That’s the best I can describe it. They are used chisels, theoretically good makes, that should have had good steel. All I could think was that they had lost temper through machine grinding. Since I use a granite slab and really coarse paper to set new bevels, I thought perhaps I ground away the steel that had lost temper. They work fine now.

  5. As I was using the #4 scrub plane yesterday I tried an experiment. It still cut just fine (or so it appeared to me), but I decided to stop anyway, take out the iron, sharpen it and continue. The difference was huge. Simply amazing. So I believe you when you say you can’t sharpen too much.

    When it was time to switch to the #4 smoothing plane I sharpened that one as well without even trying it out first. It was a no-brainer.

    BTW, I thought I was the only one getting annoyed by loose plane handles (or saw handles, file handles, etc.). Those tiny annoyances get under your skin and accumulate until they become big annoyances.

    I’ve always held that the outside of someone’s body, clothing, weird hair colours, etc. are a reflection of the inside, their mental state. The same goes for the condition of one’s house, garden, tools, etc.

    Mens sana in corpore sano, I suppose. Not sure which one comes first, the chicken or the egg.

  6. My son and I went to a woodworking show where a antique dealer was selling hand tools. In a box of saws was a tenon saw that just felt right in the hands. The handle was tight and well shaped. The teeth were well formed but needed to be touched up a bit. It was well cared for by someone who knew how to use and take care of tools. So I handed it to him and he bought it, when we got home I sharpened it for him. You can tell when a tool is well taken care of, you can feel it in your hands and how it works for you when you use it.

  7. I love this post. But then, I admire the Japanese craftsmen who won’t go home until everything is as it should be in the scheme of things. Thanks

  8. Never truer words spoken. My shop teacher Ernie Noel, My Dad, and Uncle Loyd both Shop teachers taught me to respect and take care of my tools. I have my fathers hand tools, a #55 Stanley and a Joregenson Vise from my Uncle Loyd. (the work bench that the vise was attached to finally fell apart. the wood in the legs being a straight grained fir that succumbed to to many years of shop use in the school before I got it. I did save the top) So I built my replacement bench with the tools provided by my ancestors and cherished each moment.

  9. Not woodworking but in same vein.

    When I was a child my grandfather told me , “if you weed before you need to you will never need to weed”.

    I cannot believe that I have found a new word today and I even once did a geology course.

  10. “… the luxury of being a manual labourer working with hand tools…”
    I suspect many would not consider this a luxury but I know too from experience what you refer to. It is a privilege and I feeled blessed when putting the well cared for hand tools of yesteryear to use for crafting and in the making.

  11. I am of the firm opinion that something seemingly “dead” like a tool can be made “lively” by proper care, use and cleaning. The tool will also give you much better and more satisfying performance. If you do you part by doing the job with a “good hart” the job will result in a success .

  12. I enjoy watching Paul make things look so simple. I know that confidence, experience, lots of skill and love for what he does is his recipe. Oh i forgot patience! I don’t have any certificates but i have done woodworking and enough of the trades to make me a jack of all trades but master of none. I built my first house from the ground up mainly because i didn’t have the money to buy one. I did it with a cheap black and decker circular saw, a craftsman table saw, a craftsman router, a craftsman jig saw, and a hammer. I made most of my furniture but mostly with power tools. But now i just want to do it the way Paul does it. Just received a Veritas Low Angle Jack plane yesterday and it is a beaut to say the least. I have some Japanese pull saws and a small Japanese plane which i like a lot. I got the plane kit from Lee Valley and made a plane a while back and it works nice. I have some chisels and squares already and of course many of the tools a power tool user would have. I don’t subscribe to magazines anymore because of all the reasons you people have expressed. Anyhow, good to read all of you comments.

  13. Paul, why are you prejudiced against Tetanus bacteria colonies? Ha ha, just had to throw in a token harassment comment since everyone else said what I would have said 🙂

  14. I would go further than just individual tools.
    I think a workshop which remains unused ‘dies’ after a period of time. Like a human being, it needs human contact on a regular basis.
    If not, it just becomes a place with a lot of old tools and somebody else’s junk.

    1. So very true, Peter. I have visited so many very dead meuseum workshops in a so-called ‘preserved‘ condition. They all look like a pickled frog kept in alcohol in a glass jar.

  15. Several years ago, we had to evacuate our home due to potential flooding (actually mismanagement of our flood control system). We were only gone for three days but, I took some of my tools with me. They stayed in a wooden chest in the back of a little hatch back car. One tool, a 1″ Veritas shoulder plane, rusted because it was not protected enough and it has bothered me ever since. Just the body, not the blade. Now I have to restore an almost new tool. We care about our tools and caring for them shows respect for our selves, the tool makers and our fellow woodworkers. Where can the VCI pads be obtained?

    1. Apart from simply oiling surfaces with my rag-in-a-can oiler on an ongoing basis, more for lubrication than anything, I also recommend a surface inhibitor called Boshield. It’s probably the best and it lasts a long time.

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