Counter Culture

Working on the four rocking chairs I’ve just been making made me conscious of exavctly how often I reach for not one plane but four, not one saw but seven, not one spokeshave but four, maybe five, and I could go on.

Of course, I could manage with one or two or possibly one of each but here at my bench and with wood supported in the vise or on my benchtop, I am led by peculiarities. Each of the aforementioned tools has its own peculiar ability in wood, a uniq. Their refining abilities give me exactly what I want in the split second by second shifts I make as I work. Limited as I am in the art and craft of writing and the selection of that precise word, I cannot tell you why this spokeshave tackles that scallop or crown better than the other or whether this saw will actually engage the wood over that one. Intuitively I reach for one saw size over another without thought. I snatch up a plane for three seconds and three swipes and then another and then another in split-second successions and the work is done before the swiftness of the camera’s eye can catch any reasoning yet I know exactly and without any explanation needed why I did so and so.

When one guru or sales expert pushing his bench plane or saw says you only need this or that I find myself laughing to myself, not him, because what tells a different story is what happens here at the real bench of my working. “All you need is a number four Stanley bench plane!” I hear myself saying in my head. This is what I have said for many years to thousands of students surrounding my workbench. For this, I make no apology. I’ve proved it time and time again so it is in fact a proven reality. Over a period of 30 years, I taught classes of up to 20 students woodworking. Over the expanse of that time, I offered only one bench plane type to the students, a number four Bailey-pattern bench plane. They made everything from basic boxes like my Shaker candle box to my Brazos rocking chair with a dozen or two more diversely different project pieces in between using that one smoothing plane type.

In taking my rough stock down from sawn, cupped and twisted to smooth straight and square, I have a strategy. It’s not uncommon to me these days and it came about because of course, most wood machinists would never reach for a bench plane or a spokeshave. In their world, they reach for a belt sander or a buzz sander. In their world, they remove the arris with a random orbit (buzz) sander. To remove the surface textures left by the planing machine, they rely solely on the belt sander and the RO sander. It’s fast and efficient and it leaves the surface feeling nice and even to the touch. In skilled hands, it increases productivity and spells out maximising profitability, often the only reason for doing anything. In my world, it means sanity not to so much rely on such things but to have them there at some point. In my world, all of my wood surfaces come first from a plane stroke, a chisel cut and when shaping is needed a spokeshave of one type or another.

In my world of hand making my strokes minimise the need for abrasive and the resultant dust by about 95%. This compensates by time in equal parallel to rely on abrasives to perfect the imperfections of machining. But then it’s not just that is it? Oh, no! For me, it’s the sheer joy of high-demand handwork where every muscle and sinew gets deployed and my hand switches out the plane for a spokeshave and a handsaw for a tenon saw then a gent’s saw according to what I feel in the resistance of the wood to the specific cutting edge or the angle at which I present the blade to the wood, the awkward grain and knotted region beneath the steel.

Mastering woodworking begins with the purchase of a few hand tools. In my first classes in the early days of my teaching students would bring their own tools in a bag and I allowed it for a few times. Then it became too complicated. Bringing in a bench plane that then needed restoring or remedial work meant time away from making the projects to a lesson on how to repair a broken or badly made plane. Multiply this ten times and by a dozen different tools and you start to understand the complexity. In the end I suggested people could bring their personal tools for critique but that the class would be slowed down to a quarter pace if everyone brought their own tools. Imagine how it was for me if spokeshaves differed between sole bladed bevel-up versions made in Japan or China or England or then again 5 types of the 151’s with a slight twist to each one. So it was with the dozen or so hand tools I provided the students with in the end that I gained success.

So I say all of this to say at my bench in the day to day of my woodworking there is no one size fits all nor suits all tasks and applications. If someone says this plane or this spokeshave or this saw is all you will ever need, take it with a pinch of salt. By that I mean that when you are in the zone and you have accumulated a few more options to choose from you will find your hand passing over one to reach for a less convenient one inches further away.

Truing up rough-sawn wood for me can take five planes yet my need is for one only. Yes, I can do just about everything with a plain #4 Stanley, but I have a converted #78 that serves as a rough scrub to scrub down the deep kerf from the saw mills. My converted #4 has a less aggressive curve to the cutting iron and serves still as a scrub plane but with a more refining cut. A #5 and 5 1/2, for a variety of reasons, come into play often during any given hour. I switch between these two throughout my day. And then, of course, my refined and much-loved standard #4 (with no refined retrofitted parts such as thicker cutting irons or cap irons) smoothing plane takes over from them all to perfect my working.

29 thoughts on “Counter Culture”

  1. I don’t know of words in English to describe what you mean, so I sometimes borrow from French or German. In French there is a phrase: “Je ne sais quoi”, which describes what you mean in the first part.

    1. That’s funny! I just closed a tab I had opened with “Je ne sais quoi” as it reminded me of how often my mother, first language French, used the phrase in her work when dressmaking!

    1. European redwood. It’s hard enough and resilient. It will need protection by painting but will last for decades if maintained properly. It’s been the mainstay of windows and doors here in Britain for centuries.

    2. If you can get it, sweet chestnut is light, lovely to work and much more naturally durable – you can leave it unpainted but it does have a lot of tannin which will stain when it first gets wet. It would probably outlast any but the most diligently preserved softwood.
      I suspect limited supply is the reason it’s not used commercially, but from a pure “best wood for a windowframe” perspective I’d say it would be a contender. I wonder what Mr. Sellers will say…

      The house I grew up in was built in 1904, and I was told had oak windowframes and 1/4″ plate glass – the heaviest sashes imaginable, and must have been extremely expensive when new. Later on, I restored some much older sashes in a Georgian house. I don’t know how old they were, but could have been from c 1840 at the outside, if never replaced from new. They were softwood as Paul says, but they had suffered badly and needed quite a bit of new wood splicing in for both meeting rails and glazing bars (incredibly thin). I was only 17 when my father gave me this as a summer holiday job – and you can imagine it was quite a challenge. I managed, although it took ages, and they looked quite good once reglazed, painted and refitted. Good enough for him to allow me to go off travelling with my girlfriend, anyway! My biggest mistake was not leaving the putty to go off for a few weeks before painting, but the old man should have provided at least that bit of advice… along with ensuring that I was using proper redwood for my splicing. I’ll know for the next one, although I believe my youthful repair is still in place more than 30 years later.

  2. Can you do a blog on this “converted 78” that you use as a scrub plane? I am trying to imagine this and why. I have one that i use for cleaning up rabbets but I can’t see it being used as a scrub plane(or anything besides rabbets to be honest)

    1. Hi Steve,
      if you happen to be a member of Paul’s Woodworking Masterclasses you can see him use the plane on episode 1 of the “Paul Sellers Home Rocking Chair”.

    2. Vidar Fagerjord Harboe

      Here you go:

      It is often a good idea to google the term and add “paul sellers” at the end of the search. The man has written a lot of blog posts! 🙂

      I love the surface that 78 scrub leaves. It could very well be left as-is as a design item in, say, a head board for a bed. Just a light sanding to smooth everything, and done. For other applications, the sanding could be omitted.

      Better not be Brutus about that headboard, really…

    3. see the blog dated 14 May 2018 titled “THE STANLEY #78 SCRUB PLANE? WHAT?”
      It ends with a video.

      Use the search function: click on the magnifying glass icon in the top right corner of this web page.

  3. Vidar Fagerjord Harboe

    Thanks for this blog post, Paul. I too find myself reaching for different tools for different tasks.
    You only NEED one 04 smoother – perhaps with a second iron with a camber for heavy work – to do “everything”, but it sure is nice to have options.

    I have grown found of my 5 1/2 and 7 for larger work, as the increased weight and length makes my job easier somehow. I also find that I tend to bang the side of my palm hard against the edge if I’m going at it in the prep phase, so the longer sole on the 5 1/2 helps.
    But that last smooting – nothing but my No. 4 Stanley.

    Need vs. want vs nice to have. The trifecta of hard choices. 🙂

  4. Your wooden spokeshave looks identical to one I inherited from my Grandfather. I mist admit though I never use it preferring my metal spokeshaves. Perhaps I had better try the wooden one again ?

  5. I’ve been following Paul since I was 22, back in 2017. First tool was a 1/2 Stanley construction chisel that I brought back to life. Fast forward 4 years later, I have a Stanley #4 type 19, which is my only plane. A 6 pc set of harbor freight wooden handled chisels (if you are in the US, pick them up) they hold a great edge. A few hand saws, dovetail, and tenon saw. I just got my eze lap diamonds in the same day I got my 9” QR vice from Yost. These skills will last me my whole life, and so to will they be passed on to my 5 children.

    I chose to use my skillsaw today for a quick rip and crosscut of some 3/4” Baltic birch plywood today for closet shelves. By the time I got my safety gear, straight line clamp, and ventilation going I could have ripped the board by then, and not had a giant mess to clean up. Aahhh… the freedom and inclusiveness of my panel saw.

  6. Finally, it becomes clear. Daily the thought has come to me, “Why is my bench so strewn with tools when Sellers only uses one?” Scrubber, #5, #7, #4 and #4 1/2 is the order it takes for me to get timber to my liking. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone. Thanks, Paul.

  7. Thanks Paul! Now I have an excuse for all the planes I’ve acquired over the years. I have 6 spoke shaves two were my grandfathers made from beech, others just fell into my hands as people discarded them. I have tuned them to make them functional and reach for them rather than the metal ones at times. I have a number of Stanley planes, each one tuned differently for different applications. I put a lot of time in fettling my tools to make them perform for me, I stop when they “feel right”, it’s part of the joy I get from using the tools. No I really don’t need them all but they are old friends. My only hope is to one day give them to someone else who will use them when I no longer able to.

  8. Along these last three four years I’ve made a small “collection” of different good hand tools, found mainly in flea markets. Good and veteran tools forgotten and abandoned that I’ve bought thinking “oh, what a pity; it’s a shame that this boy be in this place in that condition”. Sometimes I’ve bought a tool in really bad condition only for the challenge of restoring it. So I’ve found myself with more saws and planes and chisels than I really need, but they are now good tools in working order, doing their work, not tools becoming junk in a dirty box. I use one or another depending upon the work, but for joy of use them too. Good tools for very little money, old war veterans fighting on the bench again.

  9. And, in my particular case, following Paul’s wwmc has made my rusted english come back to life a little, so benefit is double for me. With all my limitations and errors, I have an useful tool recovered and in use, doing its work with spanish and italian.

  10. Thanks for reminding me (again!) of the wonderful feeling of being “in the zone” where you the tool and the wood just flow together as one.

    Sure having a dedicated tool would make things easier sometimes, but for me there’s usually a workaround which achieves the same goal with the same feeling of harmony. A plough plane would be nice, but a saw and chisel work too and so do the poor mans tools (nothing beats using a tool you made).

    I used to buy tools because I thought that the tool alone would allow me to complete a specific task. Nope, it’s skill, creativity and attention to detail. Now I make myself learn (hone?) the basic skills before I get a new tool. Right now no new tools for me until I can produce each of the 3 joints to my satisfaction. Doesn’t that inhibit what I can make? Maybe, but there is always something to build on WWMC that helps me learn and returns something useful and doesn’t need lots of tools.

    The clock project is just totally awesome on so many levels, thx.
    Thanks Paul and the community

  11. It would be fascinating to see Paul use the Poorman’s Tools exclusively in the Houseful of Furniture. Why? The PMTs are awesome and the world will be able to see them in action. We can learn how the PMTs interact with the wood, how the woodworker adapts the PMTs to the process, and the whole world can see how tools made of recycled scraps can rival the best of the commercial tools. I love my wooden scrub plane & smoothing plane. Wood working on woodworking. There’s a symmetry to that and a democracy. Even if you lived on a remote island, you probably can get your hands on the materials for the PMTs. Instead of cutting with the bandsaw, splitting straight grained billets down the length and broadaxing the flats or scrub planing & smoothing. Hand tooling makes the work handcrafted. I get for efficiency you can’t go splitting logs and so on, but it would be incredible to see your Joseph go and do that haha!

  12. I like seeing chairs in emerging stages of being made.
    If u made a furniture list in the same vein as an essential tool list, chairs and table are cornerstones of a functional life.
    Running water, a bed and a fridge are also pretty good..

  13. I find I tend to size the plane to the work being done…..where a smaller #3 sized plane might work better than a #4….and so on up the line…..nor am I Brand Specific…..More of an Equal Opportunity Employer…..Might be a Stanley one time, a Millers Falls the next….maybe a Sargent, or even a Wood River… depends more on the job they do, rather than who made the tools

    Size? Why use a plane that is way longer than the board I am working over, just wears my arms out. I size the length of a plane according to how long a board is. Having several planes in each size, means I can set each up a bit differently than the next, and select accordingly.

  14. dear paul (or other readers),
    when sawing dovetails, occasionally I saw 1-5mm past the baseline by mistake. is there a sensible way to remediate these dovetail saw cuts that go too deep?
    i am working on not making the mistake in the first place.

    i could not find anything specifically on this on your site, and presume others will have the same problem from time to time?
    thank you, paul

    1. Yes, you can simply clamp a piece of wood one mm above the one front and back so that hitting the wood light stops you from going to the extra depth. This need only be for a short while. You will then better gauge with depth of field exactly where the lines are.

    2. Too much enthousiasm when sawing [or an exceptionnaly sharp saw 😉 ].
      5 mm is a lot.
      – have good lighting;
      – spectacles if needed;
      – if the knifewall is hard to see, pass a sharp pencil in it or, for dark wood, use sticking tape.

      – slow down when approaching the mark;
      – blow any sawdust masking the mark;
      – the depth is reached when the points of the tooth reach the mark, when the gullet reach the mark it is already too deep; (unfortunately the gullet line is easier to see)

      If the depth is not completely attained one can always clean the inner corner with a chisel or with the knife after chopping the waste. Better to stop a hair shorter than too far.

      Train as suggested by Paul.

  15. all good suggestions above, thank you. i have been clamping a bit of wood front and back as paul said. this improved my ‘feel’ a lot for where i should stop sawing.
    sylvain – ummm, i think i have progressed through making ALL the errors you have mentioned as part of my learning curve 🙂 . i have addressed the ones i can, although still need better lighting.
    i think i wasn’t quite specific enough with the question however.
    my question is – AFTER i have made a cut, supposing it is too deep by say 2mm – is there an acceptable way that looks reasonable to fill/repair the few mm where i have sawed too deep? or is one forever stuck with the this overly deep saw cut (and that is the art and skill of doing good dovetails)?
    kind regards,

    1. I definitely think no putty in the overcuts. What’s wrong with either accepting it as it is and being, well, just honest about where you are? Or just starting over? I recall one of my sons making a violin and bringing it to me to see if I could see a failed spot he knew was there. I couldn’t. He showed it to me and I said, it’s your decision. The only possible repair was to redo that particular difficult spot. It was 10pm. He left the violin standing upright against an armchair back. In the morning I picked the violin up to look at the flaw again just as Joseph walked in. I said I couldn’t see the flaw so perhaps we should just leave well alone. He smiled and said, “I stayed up until 3am replacing the part!”

  16. no putty it is.
    first project is a shed bench drawer, and you can certainly see the improvements as you go round the different corners.
    i have been doing this with my 6yo son, and paul – i hope you will perhaps get some quiet pleasure from the fact that a small boy on the other side of the world wrote in his school book 2 days ago that his hobby was wood working!

  17. I firmly believe that tools are similar to musical instruments. I use both. They tend to have their own personality and its often hard to clearly describe the difference. They can be made by the same maker and as close as possible to the same but they will feel a little bit different. Wood is what they are made from and its all a little bit different. Some may be a little more dense or less dense, a different grain pattern and thus a different feel and sound. New users most likely wont be able to tell the difference but the experienced person feel the difference even if it cant be fully explained or evaluated.

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