Springtime Innovation

Three days ago!

Though we still have cold starts to the day, my eager anticipation of working never fails to motivate me and indeed keep me warm. Today is no different. I open up the workshop and smell the roses, in this case it’s more the cherry blossom in the wood I’m working with. I recently abandoned a bookcase because it was more complicated than I really wanted. I will rework the idea and settle on it this week. I just pulled together a new coffee table design that has some unusual design features I like, one that has a little challenge but with it a clean, clear-cut uncomplicated design. A few years ago I pretty much-abandoned mouldings altogether, mostly because they tend to date and tie my work to a past era of retention and unnecessary adornment. Days now gone! In many ways I think that the main reason that they even exist these days is, well, if you bought a powered router machine, you’ve got to have something to do with the thing. And there are a hundred different classical bits to interchange in many different sizes and, if no one sees you use the power router, it looks like you did something clever. Take away the molding capability and you have little much you can do with a power router because most other tasks that you can do will always need multiple jigs that must be made to create a pathway guide to control the twin-handled beast. Most people could readily cut their dadoes by hand if they were trained for it, housings and recesses come from a hand router plane faster too. It is much safer for the user and the wood, it’s also acceptable to the neighbors, even into the evenings.


It’s not that long ago that the hand router was virtually abandoned. Prior to ten years ago, over a previous period of thirty years, I never met anyone that used one. I decided ten years ago that I would try to resurrect it. Today we have a generation that seems to think that everyone everywhere always used a hand router plane, but that is not the case at all. Show me a woodworker from prior to 15 years ago that used a hand router. I doubt you’ll find one. Okay, that was a red rag to a bull! Well, perhaps it was, but there is a large truth in it. Even now, few woodworkers outside of hand toolists have any use for a hand router. I recall 10 years ago buying hand router planes for a tenner (£10) and I could have bought a dozen for that price. I even bought a new-to-me one that was barely used and in a new-looking box. How much? £12.67 on eBay bidding. Today you will be hard-pressed to buy even a rugged-looking one for under £120 and many buy-it-nows are over £200. I am glad that this happened and so are Lie Nielsen and Veritas who make fine new ones that sell for less.

My instructions on how the router can be used to refine tenons to perfectly fine tolerances changed the game for hand tool enthusiasts serious about their work. Adding in my mortise guides was a game-changer too. This partnership gradually became the hand tool users standard practice even though nothing anywhere was ever written about the practice before I introduced it to my students. My work these days is to pass on what was never written down but might well have been passed on from man to boy but most of what I teach now is not what was passed on from man to boy. Inventiveness accompanies every maker. It has to!

What about the shoulder plane?

This is my favourite shoulder plane. I like the innovative features and the refined quality Veritas put into their planes.

The shoulder plane is a narrower plane with a blade the width of the outside cheeks of the plane width. We use it to perfect the end grain of shoulders to tenons and then also to true up the faces of tenons too. Here is another plane that you seldom see but no one really questions why. In my world and with my audience it is simple in that they very rarely see me use one, if ever. Quite frankly, I generally don’t need to use one, and with good reason, if you think about it. In teaching my classes I emphasized something that seemed not to exist in any teaching circles I came across. Even textbooks on woodworking more glanced over it rather than emphasized it. If you say, “Use the marking knife (also could be ‘striking knife’ and could be ‘layout knife’) to layout the shoulder lines to the tenon or the dovetail, etc. Well, this literally means to make a mark. In my classes, I wanted something so emphatic and definitive that no one would ever misunderstand what I meant. I instead called it ‘knifewall’ for every single cross-grain cut line I made and never used ‘mark‘ as a term for the same thing again. By then naming it ‘knifewall’ I meant that we were severing fibres deep enough to create a deep and perpendicular wall and at the same time intending to sever the outdated term ‘marking‘ but not claiming anything more than the term alone. The practice of creating knifewalls is evident throughout the world in fine woodworking of every type ranging from fine instrument making to furniture making and more. Why, until then, the term was never used I don’t know, but now, at last, my students got it. We went for thin knife blades that flexed a little too. No thick and chunky, oversized and clunky. We wanted surgical sharpness with fineness. No more dull-edged and bruising as in the dull and ever-dulled marking knives used in schools and colleges. The knife wall would go on to delineate the future with a precise term and action of the finest tolerances. Knifewall said it all.

Because the knifewall created the dead squareness we needed, and the chisel could rest perfectly on its knife-cut, slice-cut edge for perfecting the shoulder to the tenon, that part of tenon making was thoroughly completed, nothing a shoulder plane could do could improve the meeting length of the shoulder line. Prior to this time, the shoulder plane would have completed the work, now it became more a luxury tool rather than an essential one. It would be a seldom-needed plane used only occasionally. The knifewall and chisel method for shoulder lines saved new woodworkers more than £200 on a single plane.

The router plane

Of course, though named the shoulder plane, the shoulder plane could and is also used for the faces of tenons too. My introducing the router plane for face trimming the cheeks of tenons was highly innovative. I had never seen it done by anyone nor had I ever seen such a task referenced in any book nor in the handbook given with the plane by the maker. The first-ever reference then is in my Essential Woodworking Hand Tools book. This system of refinement was yet another game-changer for all. Combining this with my inventing the mortise guide system for chopping perfectly aligned mortise holes dead parallel to the outside faces of rails and stiles, chair and table legs, etc meant that everyone succeeded in joint accuracies matching that of any machine set up. In fact, it would replace two or three machines that would be generally used by machinists.

By roughing down the tenons in the usual hand tool manner using a tenon saw, or split cutting and paring, the final surface leveling could be trimmed off with the router plane to tolerances of a thousandth of an inch. Even though the blade of the router plane might only be 1/2″, parallel shaving would level the tenon cheeks to a pristine hand planed finish. Test and try into the mortise meant that the tenon could be sized perfectly.

The mortise guide I introduced to the woodworking world enabled the guide to further refine even the insides of the mortise holes. When clamped to the workpiece in the vise, the face of the guide could be used to align the chisel face of a wider chisel so that paring down the inside faces of the mortise holes established a planed finish with perfect parallelity.

Am I saying that you should not buy a shoulder plane? No. I own a couple and I enjoy them. Whereas they might be rendered obsolete by my M&T systems, they are handy to take off a thou from the face and shoulders of the tenons should that ever be needed. And also, on long shoulders such as the bottom rails of massive doors, they can custom fit to accommodate for discrepancies. You can also rebate with them both across and along the grain by clamping a fence to the workpiece. No tool is ever truly dismissed. The knifewall system is perfect for creating perfect cut lines. You can use the shoulder plane to trim down any fuzzy fibres left by the saw cut too, instead of the chisel.

20 thoughts on “Springtime Innovation”

  1. Vidar Fagerjord Harboe

    The knife wall, using the router plane as a marking gauge and using it to level a tenon is absolutely among the most important techniques to learn in woodworking. I use the knife wall all the time, even on non-important cuts (always use any opportunity to train). The result is that I now have very good skills with a hand saw, and I can saw straight and true. In some cases, no cleanup is really needed. The knife wall guides me. Last week I cut some bridle joints with my S&J 9500 panel saw. They were perfect straight off the saw. A very good saw indeed!

    All the tools I’ve acquired based on your recommendations, has proven to be everything you said they would be. The times I’ve been lured into buying something close to, but not exact what you’ve recommended – I’ve found myself concluding “nah, Paul was right. This does not work well.”
    In fact, today I took delivery of a S&J 9550B saw, and I tossed in a Thorex 712 hammer with wooden handle. I had a 712 with nylon handle from before, but there’s something about wooden handles…

    1. Like Vidar above, I’ve always found your tool recommendations to be spot on, and the instructions you provided to be the best. I have strayed a few times, but they when things go wrong, it’s harder to know if this is a tool or user issue.

  2. Knife walls, oops I mean knifewalls have definitely changed how I do and enjoy woodworking.
    As for shoulder planes – I’m off to eBay before those prices climb too.

  3. Back in the 1980s someone tried to give me a router. I refused it not knowing what it was for or how to use it. Now I own a couple of them and bought them before the price got too high. I haven’t used my power routers in years and should really give them away.

  4. Robert Flowers

    Mr. Sellers;
    What size shoulder plane do you recommend? Medium 11/16″ or Large
    1 1/4″?

  5. Aye,you’re right about the prices of old router planes now. I’ve been looking for one of those fellas for a little while. I’m no carpenter and never will be, but it’s time to try moving up a level.
    I bought a power router years ago and only ever used it once. It frightened the carp out of me and I thought it was only a matter of time until it took a bite out of me. So I gave it away to my friend Angus. Sure enough he lost a fingertip to it!

    By the way, easily the most valuable thing you’ve taught me is how to set and sharpen chisels and plane irons. That alone has transformed what I do, and the knifewall runs it a close second. Thanks again Paul.

  6. Mike Towndrow

    Until I found your online teaching Paul, I didn’t know the hand router even existed. I certainly never used or saw one in 5 years of woodwork at school back in the 1960s/70s, but how useful they really are. The price on eBay now, even for one that’s incomplete, has rocketed. I was fortunate enough to have bought one a few years ago, before they became so expensive, but not as cheap as when you first started re-demonstrating their usefulness.

    I particularly like the way you use two of them; one to mark the depth and take the final shaving, the other to get you down to just above that level. However, I couldn’t justify paying current prices for a second router that wasn’t exactly essential to have, so made my own. Rather than a granny tooth version, I wanted it to have the screw depth adjustment that comes with the Stanley and Record routers. We often fit a wooden face to those routers, so a wooden base plate obviously works well. Then, add a way of mounting a vertical screw thread and knurled thumbscrew; a way to retain the Veritas blade that I bought for it in place; and a couple of knobs. After a couple of attempts, what I ended up with works really well and I’ll often choose to use it over my Stanley router. It cost a lot less than a second hand Stanley router, but more importantly it was very satisfying to have made my own and for it to work so well!
    Until I started following your online teaching, I’m not sure I’d have thought it possible to make such a tool. But as with all the things you talk about in your blog, knife walls, mortice guides, shoulder planes, we know that what you teach works. It gives us confidence to go and make (and design) things we wouldn’t otherwise have done.
    So, thank you.

  7. I’m practicing dovetails at the moment, and the knifewall has definitely helped me keep my sockets aligned. They’re not perfect yet, but we’re getting there!

  8. Knifewall got a mention on the TV Paul.
    On an antiques restoration programme on Quest a pond yacht was being restored and updated.
    A round hole was needed in the deck for the servo. This was achieved with a knifewall and chisel slices. A circular template was cut around with a knife. Then slithers removed, new cut, more slithers removed, etc until the circular cutout broke through. It was an interesting way of cutting it out with the only access being from the top of the deck.

    I have this annoying memory of seeing a cheap router for sale in the past -£10- thinking I must stop buying tools I have little use for and leaving it. You made me regret that decision, I ended up making my own using a ground Allen Key.

  9. In my experience the more skill/knowledge you have, the fewer tools you need. To many things leads to less making and more maintaining!

    I wonder if single purpose tools developed in large for profit shops where a custom tool or single use tool paid for itself in time savings?

  10. I’ve tried and failed a couple of times at making my own hand router plane. I’m not sure i quite have the nak for making tools. But I do enjoy my time in the shop and making, anything really gives me peace some how. When I first desired to learn to make a mortise and tenon joint, I Googled it. And your name was the first that popped up. So I watched the you tube video and so became love for traditional woodworking and hand tools. Mr. Settlers, you are an inspiration.

  11. Thought for your 500,000 SUBSCRIBER GIVEAWAY:
    Give users who subscribe to your Master Classes within a date range you specify and extra entry. Would get some lazy butts off their butts and subscribing.

    Major Lazy Butt

  12. I had to laugh there is a ‘rare’ Preston Router Plane 2500P EP for sale on ebay at £700 at present !!

    1. Very few of them sell now for under £1000 and they will continue to become rarer and scarcer. Whereas I have and do enjoy my four or five, they do no more than the Stanley and the Record versions nor of course the North American makers making new ones.

  13. Paul, some 15 years ago, two of my Cabin Creek Timber Frames employees cut their finger tips using scribing knives too agressively. As a former US Navy safety officer, I felt it necessary to solve/ prevent the problem. I told all our employees I would do something worse if they ever scribed a line with a knife without a preventer I made for them. It was an old carpenter’s square cut and welded to look on end like an upside down T. The long leg of the T kept the opposite hand fingers out of harm’s way while the knife hand scribed the line. No more problems in our beamery. I sent the plans to the Timber Framer’s Guild.

  14. Robert Wearing shows using router plane trimming tenons in his book “The Essential Woodworker”

  15. I taught myself hand-tool woodworking in the 1970s, from a book called “The Craft of Furniture Making” by David Johnston, an amateur woodworker whose day job was, I believe, with the Forestry Commission. His technique for truing up the cheeks of tenons uses a router plane much like Paul does, and is the reason I bought my Stanley in 1978 or thereabouts, from Sarjents in Reading.

    Indeed it was the similarity in technique that first drew me to Paul’s Youtube channel.

  16. Keenan Reesor

    Mr. Sellers, are you against all trim or only moulded trim, and if the former, then what is your opinion of trim in its functional applications in domestic carpentry and joinery, for example? Just curious.

    1. There are many areas where trim is necessary and I have no problem with it. I am not against moulding so much as the
      obsessive way it is used on almost everything. It’s as if buyers of routers have to justify the router which is so very limited in what it can actually achieve.

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