Plane Away!

I did an experiment today. I took pieces of cherry and set myself a goal. I had eight pieces of rough-sawn cherry on my bench for a project I am building. I did not look at the wood in any sort of depth first but simply found myself tracing my fingers over the bandsawn surfaces, ever so very slightly and lightly. I then loaded the pieces into the vise in a direction I thought, no, sensed, would be the best orientation for me to plane ‘with‘ the grain but `i denied myself from looking to confirm my choices each time. I did this on all four faces to each piece so 32 times.

The pieces were all short, under two feet (63.5cm) long. On every piece, I placed the wood to plane with the grain. On two of the pieces, the grain changed ever so slightly so I was both with and against the grain, but the sharp plane planed them just fine; I could simply feel the grain change but could not see any difference and after the plane stroke I could feel the slight difference in the surface texture with my fingertips.

Now my hands are well worn and might I say even aging, but they are far from past their sell-by date – the very slightest of tracing on the surfaces, rough, super-smooth and any place in between, is still my best guide for picking optimal directional planing, even more-so than sight I might say. My recommendation for learning this? Do as I have done for 56 years of 8-10 hour-a-day of daily woodworking. Trace your fingers on every surface and trust yourself for what you might not be able to discern any other way. It’s quick and effective. And guess what!!! Even wood machinists can use this technique. And how would you know that, Paul? I have been one of those too!


  1. I still remember the first time i used my smoothing plane and felt the wood after i’d taken a couple of passes..i was so excited that i could get wood that smooth, that quickly and so quietly!! Never looked back since 🙂 i will continue to train my hands to recognise the perfections and imperfections of the wood i am working. Thank you again for what you do.

  2. I am still setting up my first real shop and have acquired the basic hand planes .I hope to go into woodworking fulltime at the end of the year .Any guidance offered would be greatly appreciated.

  3. I’ve never understood what planing against the grain actually means. Is it where the grain rises up from the middle towards the centre?

    1. If you’ve ever run your hand along a cat’s back, smoothing it from neck to tail, you’ve stroked it “with the grain.”
      Doing so in the opposite direction would lift the hairs, and ruffle, rather than smooth them.
      It’s the same with wood grain. In one direction you cleanly cut (smooth) the wood; in the opposite direction you raise and tear it.

    2. A tree grows as a cone. Wide at the bottom, narrow at the top. Because of this, a tree sawn parallel to the center of the tree has the grain more or less diagonal to the sawn face on all 4 sides.

      For sawn wood this is best case. A tree with a twisted trunk, knots, interlocking grain, burls, or bends complicates this. Riven wood (split along the grain) minimizes the challenge.

      As with the cat fur analogy and Paul’s sensing of the fibers the diagonal direction is detectable through touch. The rougher feeling direction is against the grain.

  4. It is always a pleasure reading your blogs. I am not surprised at your ability to sense grain direction and plane the wood. Happy Easter to you Paul.

    God Bless

  5. I am 69 and I have never really planed a board until last year. I built a small folding table and planed all the parts by hand with a #5 Stanley from 1910. I still am learning but things are getting better.

    Now imagine that the woodworker who originally bought that plane, if he knew that in 2019 most people who spent a lifetime working with and around wood would not even know how to use the precision tool he had just purchased. Perhaps it would be like a riddle to him that could not be solved.

  6. I often check when two pieces of wood are aligned with their surfaces flush, by touch alone. I reckon an accuracy of a thou is possible. It’s a good method in indifferent lighting, or when it would be difficult to view from the best angle. I wonder if other craftsmen do this often.

    1. Your fingertips can detect a difference of two-thousandths of an inch difference in height or thickness side by side. I would put this over eyesight any day.

      1. Excellent point, eyes cannot detect (see) dimensional differences as small as those that the fingertips’ sensory apparatus can feel by touch.

    2. I’ve certainly been able to detect a step of one or two thousandths of an inch by touch as a locksmith. I’m not sure I tried when Setting lead type, but I should have.

  7. The smoothing Plane…I remember my first woodwork lesson at school many many moons ago, even before the ‘magic roundabout’ on telly…that long ago! The smoothing plane was ‘something to behold and treasured’ the teach said, treat it carefully he said. when you put it down, lay it on its side to protect the blade he said. He made you remember this cos if you didn’t, a highly accurate launched piece of 2×1 would come your way by air mail. Golly, we learnt fast then, and something I’ve remembered since. I still tell people off for doing the same. Am I right or wrong or is it something kids were told in respect of how you treat tools in the first place? Never seen it on the interweb either.

    1. My woodwork teachers were much the same except no 2×1, just a dressing down if the plane was put blade down on the bench. It probably did not matter too much on a wooden bench but there were often other tools in the ‘well’ on the bench and the plane iron and metal parts of tools did not make good friends.

      I often wondered how much force it takes to bend or break the edge of a very sharp plane iron. Sounds like a job for finite element analysis but that would not work on an infinitely sharp edge as the analysis squares would get infinity small.

      Incidentally why did wells on benches go out of fashion ? All the benches at school had wells but I have not seen one for ages other than in a museum.

  8. I’ve just sharpened all my planes and chisels using my Tormek sharpening system and I have to say the cost of the equipment is truly justified. PS. I have no connection to the company, I bought the smaller system as a treat to myself and think it a worth while investment.

    1. But there are then those of us that like the speed of skilled sharpening that puts us back to the work in a heartbeat without invasive machines hanging around and we cannot all justify the 400 whatever price tag too. Just saying. I would not want my audience to be influenced to buy into something they just do not need.

      1. I built a copy of the Tormek sharpening jig to use on my hand-cranked grinder. Wasn’t that hard to build, hardest part was to get it accurate/parallel/square enough, but doable with hand-methods. Don’t think I’ve used it more than a handful of times, and only for re-grinding very out-of-shape chisels that were bought used. In hindsight it was a waste of effort.

        Recently, as I was going through some old directories on the harddrive, I came across dozens of knife-sharpening jigs I had seen on the internet and saved as inspiration to build my own. Actually, I did build one of them. I just can’t help but chuckle nowadays when I look at those complicated contraptions. Just like the Tormek, it now sits unused. A minute with the oil stone and leather strop and we’re back in business again. Can’t beat that. I consider those contraption crutches, but there was a time I needed those crutches myself. Back then sharpening involved getting the grinder out, the jig, set up the jig, install tool, then grind. Nowadays, all I have to get out are the oil-stone, the can of petroleum and the leather strop.

    2. “I’ve just sharpened all my planes and chisels using my Tormek sharpening system and I have to say the cost of the equipment is truly justified.”

      Duncan, I don’t doubt it’s an excellent system and that for you it is justified, but that’s a very personalised comment! It’d be interesting for you to put some figures on it to give us an idea. I can’t imagine many people needing to use a Tormek system to sharpen any plane or chisel on a general re-sharpening. If guys like Paul, Rob Cosman, Tom Fidgen etc use varying human-powered stone setups as well as at the poorer end of the hoobyist scale like me, then it’s clear that is the most efficient route to getting a sharp blade on a regular sharpen. Beyond that, you’re looking at initial blade preparation (back flattening a chisel) and subsequent re-grinds (depending on your method of sharpening of course). The question is, how many new blades (plane/chisel) do you buy in a year. I’ve just (at the weekend) spent 30 minutes flattening the back of a 1/2 inch new chisel, polished until I could see my face grinning back at me like a deranged idiot. The bevel took a few minutes. A re-grind of a plane bevel would be in the region of 10-20 minutes depending on the damage. Those two tasks, I’d probably be performing at most once a month between them, in total about 4-5 hours per year. I’d expect to get that down to 30-45 minutes maybe with a Tormek, saving me about 4 hours per year. I’d be interested to hear others’ thought on what time they’d save and whether my estimates as a hobbyist are wildly out compared to others. I’m a sucker for an expensive machine tool, so I’m definitely not being critical. Looking back, I could have done (and now do) without most of my woodworking machines for hobby work, with mst of my projects done by hand these days. I think the woodworking industry has done a fantastic job selling us things that as hobbyists we don’t really need, but want, with the benefits of time saving not really being recognised at our levels of production.

    3. I almost got one, but passed because it wouldn’t really save me any time and the cost in money and space wasn’t worth it for me. After all, I only sharpen what I’m using and I don’t use every tool every time. If I spent an hour or more sharpening a day I may rethink that.

      I do use a sharpening guide for 90% of my stuff though. Doesn’t really add much time since I can load a blade in the jig in less than a minute (rest of my sharpening is still slow enough that a minute isn’t much extra), but I do do some freehand on a few tools to build practice with the goal of being freehand on everything. Not a big deal since 3 minutes vs. 2 minutes for sharpening doesn’t bother me and right now I’m actually a tad slower freehand (it’s a confidence thing I’m sure).

      Best trick I learned however, and this applies to any system, is to quit worrying about how sharp it is when done. Doesn’t matter. What matters is how sharp it is after using it for 5 minutes, and in my highly unscientific tests there is a wide range of sharpness inputs when just finished sharpening that all result in the same level of sharpness after just a few minutes of use. If it is sharp enough to cut me if I handle it wrong after it comes off the stone it is just fine even if it doesn’t cut paper or hair quite as well as a freshly honed strait razor.

      1. Hear, hear! The 5 minute test is what counts. It might even be a shorter time frame than that. It does not matter if you can circumcise mosquitoes with the chisel, if it takes you 20 minutes to reach that level of sharpness. After a couple of good wellys in oak, you are back to a level of sharpness I spend 30 seconds to achieve. I have the same setup as Paul.
        As for Tormek or any other machine for sharpening: they have their use, and might be a huge help in some cases. But for us hobbyists, the main reason to use machine over muscle is the fear of a damp forehead. My planer / thicknesser and band saw are witnesses to my fear of just that. 🙂

        PS: I might put a too fine point on the subject here, but I think you’re picking up what I’m puttin’ down… 😀

  9. Several years ago, I was making a dining table for some friends. It was two pieces of band sawn pine two inch thick slabs glued together about 36 inches wide. I had to smooth the surface and sanding would have been way too long. I used a jointers plane with a freshly sharpened iron and the job went quickly and it was indeed a pleasure to do. The plane just sang over the surface and produced a beautifully smooth surface. Hand planes are a wonderful tool. Every shop should have several in the different sizes. The plane can just float in your hands. Just keep them sharp.

  10. One way to dodge the flake issue might be to plane before cutting to final length, right? (I’m not yet to the point where I’m that careful. “Make it work, make it good, make it great” (in that order), to quote Steve Bodies.

  11. What is a machine but a tool to increase our capacity for work while reducing skill? The power hammer vs. a blacksmith’s hammer vs a heavy rock. The power planer vs the wooden plane vs a beaver’s tooth on a handle. Each step away from the hand is a step toward deskilling on a continuum. Should we then use our teeth to make our woodwork? No, that’s silly. We’d have chipped and broken teeth, but then we’d have an intimacy with woodworking that maybe can’t be had any other way. Ask a beaver about woodworking! I bet if they could talk they’d chatter on about dimensions of wooden things we’ve never experienced, being removed from the work by tools.

    Whereas there is always some level of trade-off, safety v. skill v. convenience v. speed and so on?

    I watched a Chilean indigenous man carve a half round of local firewood into a seated Buddha with a crooked knife. That was damn fine skill. Time to take my crazy meds.

  12. Apparently human fingertips are the most sensitive skin areas in the animal world; they can feel the difference between a smooth surface and one with a pattern embedded just 13 nm deep. So as Paul says all we have to do is train them.

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