Handling Your Bench Tools

I reach for the hand plane I made the handle for and it’s sized to my hand and to the task for which I use it perfectly. I reach for another that looks identical because I made the handle for that plane too. Both totes and knobs were made by hand, by me and without a lathe or power router. Both handles fit me, suit me but are different in that one handle is handled slightly larger. How much? The diameter of the tote is but 5mm (about 1/4″) in diameter different around. The two different front knobs are identical in diameter, even though they’re both carved and not lathe-turned, but one is taller than the other by 5mm.

It’s a strange thing that both handles fit my hand like a well-worn glove, but the greater significance for me is that the feel tells me exactly which plane I have in my hand as soon as my hand slides around the handle, something I never could tell with plastic or the mass-made wooden original plane handles. Does such a thing really matter? Well, to me, here at the bench, yes, it does! These two planes have two purposes though they both plane wood. I switch between the two according to task and by this, I have defined what they do. The most customised of the two is my Stanley #4 smoothing plane. By that, I mean that I spent more time on shaping the handle and fitting it both to my hands and to the tasks I expect of it. It is the most perfect fit with its finely shaped tote and knob. On this plane, the tote is refined and defined to flip and flex in use. Its slender profile is comfortable to me and I can and do work with it all day long. The second Stanley #4 is the one I use as a scrub plane and the main difference is that I have refined the whole plane by changes around the cap iron and the cutting iron which is now shaped with a radius to remove rough or heavy material from a surface more quickly. You can watch the video on woodworking masterclasses for free here and also get the downloadable pdf for the handle shape and also for on YT here.

Though really only modestly larger, the handle lends itself to more aggressive use of the plane. This plane has the taller knob too. A combination of both gives me greater power without increasing the weight by any noticeable amount at all.

Before refinement…

I reshaped and defined my relatively new Spear & Jackson handsaw two years back and what a difference it made to the saw. This too fits my hand perfectly and seems somehow to empower me more than you might think. These simple refinements are well worth an afternoon’s work.

… and then after refinement!

Changing things is best done when you are young because you have the benefit of a lifetime’s use, but you are never to old to do this, either.

52 thoughts on “Handling Your Bench Tools”

  1. Vidar Fagerjord Harboe

    This gets me thinking – as the S&J saw handle are refined so that it too “grips” the hand, thereby aiding in the precision in sawing perhaps, maybe the tote could be shaped to serve another function as well? I find that the No. 4 plane should’ve been just a tad longer in the sole. Not as much as a 5 (I do have a 5 1/2), but 20mm would’ve done it.
    The reason is that I sometimes catch my hand on the piece I’m working on, and the back of the plane pinches my palm (the hypothenar) between it and the work piece. This is incredibly painful, and each time it happens (sometimes I get a blood blister), I swear that I should just toss the No. 4 plane and get a 5. But then the agony subside and I befriend my plane yet again.

    What if I made a new tote and incorporated a horn on the lower part of it to protect my office-hardened palm?
    I have some nice buffalo horn lying about from when I made knifes; might be very fit for the job. A horn for a horn.

    Or would it perhaps be a bad idea somehow?

    1. I think that it real depends on if you’re worried about the monies value of collectable planes or it you want a functional plane that you will enjoy using…

    2. Do you keep your forefinger straight? It is not supposed to be wrapped around the tote.
      But maybe you have quite large hands.

    3. Malcolm Smith

      If the heel remains in contact but it’s the occasional pinching on the return then try either raising the heel a bit on the drawback or a small horn on a new tote (sort of smaller version of the toe) or preferably a taller tote (could get up to 10mm extra). If you’re off-shooting the wood and banging/pinching on the end when drawing back….stop that. When the blade stops cutting you stop pushing 😉

      1. Vidar Fagerjord Harboe

        Jon: It’s a tool and a dead thing. The collectability is something to worry about after my lifetime, so not my problem. 🙂 It’s the same thing with my work bench. It is banged up, dinged and nicked. But it’s a work bench, not the sacred altar of the thumb twiddlerers liga. 😀

        Sylvain: the spatula (y’all know it!) always rests on the iron, yes. 🙂

        Ajens: Sound advice. Easy to remove if it is a bust. 🙂

        Malcom: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about my technique. I’m trying to get the muscle memory to lift the heel on the backstroke or tilt the plane slightly so that I don’t drag the sharp iron backwards on the wood (it won’t matter much, but will keep the edge sharp slightly longer, and it is a good practice I’ve been told by a seasoned hand tool user). It is when I overshoot, which I seldom do. But when that happens…

        A taller tote would probably fix the issue nicely. By giving the tote an ever so slight hint of a horn (just an indentation at the lower end for the palm to register against), I’d be able to lift my hand up enough to prevent this from happening. I’m not worried about the end of the boards being dinged up by the heel of the plane. This does not happen when I smooth, only when I’m hogging off material, planing to a line.

        Thank you all for you inputs. Highly appreciated!

  2. Dear Paul,

    Why are the no 5 jack plane handles bigger and different compared to the no 4 plane handles?

    Also, why do you not make the handles out of some India rosewood? rosewood is quite possibly the best wood for handles.


    Paul Smith

    1. I am not sure where on earth you got the idea that rosewood the best wood for handles. I could give you a dozen and more species that are far superior. Rosewood may be good-looking but it is also very prone to cracking and modern growth patterns do not yield the quality of old growth virgin rosewood which I would never cut down a tree for. I think I have seen more cracked handles on US planes than ever on Beech planes and I have seen enough on beech planes too. Yew, the wood I used, on the other hand, is not, it’s as dense as any hardwood gets and finishes to the most perfect surface I know, even without applying finish. I think rosewood handles are nice though. Just not so easy or pc/environmentally correct to use any more.

        1. It is toxic, but not as you say. I’d be interested in the source. It has been used for wooden items and furniture for centuries too. I doubt that anyone is going to chew on it and I wouldn’t make things for children from it.

    2. Jean Claude Peeters

      You could use ebony if you want to emulate the look of the plastic handles ; )
      It polishes very well!

      1. That’s funny Jean Claude, as I once made a beautiful ebony walking cane, and the person I made it for commented that it looked just like plastic when she came to get it.

      2. Stephen Cooke

        Oh, the perils of perfection. 25 years ago I was taught realistic marbling and graining by a craftsman. I did a test piece to reproduce Sienna marble. It was pretty good. I gave it quite few coats of gloss varnish, and then spent a long time cutting and polishing it so that it had a lovely soft sheen, and felt like marble to the touch.

        I stood back to admire it. It looked just like a piece of formica!

  3. Thanks for the interesting post.
    Working as I do with very thin leather (0.2mm to 0.35mm) I am surprised by how easy it is to pick out the very slightly thicker leather, just by feel.
    So perhaps it is not that remarkable that a tool handle, shaped to fit an individual’s hand, would make such a big difference.

    1. I disagree. Rosewood is a better wood in all respects, especially for tool handles. A rosewood plane handle with 3 coats of poly will last a craftsman a lifetime.

      This is just coming from person who has been woodworking for a long, long time. A woodworking who has built dozens and dozens and pieces of furniture and done finish carpentry all with a corrugated sole jack plane with rosewood handles and a block plane.

        1. And just why would you assume such a thing, Johan? Just asking. None of my planes have retrofitted irons and I have spoken about this not being necessary on any plane through the years. Just wondered why you didn’t just ask me directly instead of gambling and losing!

          1. Johan Basson

            Hi Paul, my comment was made in jest and directed towards Paul Smith (who seemed to be trolling you IMO).

            I have tons of respect and gratitude for you and your freely shared wisdom on woodworking. You can certainly take credit for starting me down my path of hand tool woodworking (those outdoor workbench building videos where you used a tree as a planing stop!) and probably 90% of my woodworking knowledge comes directly from watching your videos and reading your blog posts.

          2. Ah, I think there may be some digging at my arrogance in stating how much I dislike corrugated soles because they seem always to grab shavings and damage the surface of the wood they’re supposed to smooth, that block planes are non-essentials and less practical than most woodworkers declare and my opposition to using rosewood as a handle wood because they seem always to ultimately split. Fact is though, I can make any of them work but my answer is to those who want to make the right choices. All in all, my experience helps me to help others.

        2. Mr Basson I was really stating that the plane that I have used for my working life has been a no 5 corrugated sole plane. I have no disrespect towards Mr Sellers and I most certainly do not want to troll him. We may disagree on some matters but I think we can both agree that hand tools are a great way to woodwork.

          I hope I haven’t offended anyone.



          1. Paul, I am still wondering if you use a thick aftermarket iron- the suspense is killing me.

          2. I have tested them to see how much (if any) difference I could feel of benefit here at the workbench in the day today. I personally find them more negative than positive because thick irons take so much more effort in sharpening yet the cutting edge and effectiveness are identical with no additional longevity. The theory behind cutting chatter only applies if indeed chatter exists and in 99.9% of cases deemed caused by chatter it is not chatter and nott=hing to do with thinner irons. I have never kept even one of them in a plane for long-term use to date, such is the refined view of a man working daily with bench planes for 56 years so far.
            Additionally, most of those who so strongly advocate and extol the benefits of thicker irons to cut chatter, should (but never do) admit that they are not in fact doing that because they have a vested interest in persuading those new to planing experiencing skidding, skipping and jumping that thicker plane irons stop chatter. In reality it is as rare for it to be chatter as it is for you to find hen’s teeth because it is not at all likely to be chatter that you are dealing with. Very disingenuous, all of them!

      1. Roger L. Anderson

        Your opinion is ‘your opinion’. What is right for you just may not be right for everyone else in the world. I offer that bit of ‘whatever it is’ to you knowing that my own opinions have never made a bit of difference in this world. Cook on that for a bit, it might help you…it has sure helped me.
        -Veteran ’66-68

  4. The original tote on my Stanley number 6 recently gave up the ghost. I don’t have any hard words that’s thick enough. Can I laminate to get the required thickness? And if that’s an option should I alternate the grain or glue up the matching the directions of grain on the boards?

      1. Thank you. Now for this operation should I use a hide glue or do you think a regular pva will do the job?

        1. Changing grain direction would make it more resistant to fall (like plywood).

          One will notice that Paul has chosen pieces of wood with complicated grain pattern, I guess, for added solidity.

          1. This very true, Sylvain, and thanks for the nudge. Wild and swirling grain, even with knots, makes for a good plane handle and so too figured maple for a neck of a violin and cello where the strain from the strings requires the strengths and resistance afforded by the interlocking configuration of the wood.

          2. I suppose then, that is a good idea to use left over pieces of my wild grained hickory to make this tote! Thank you both so much for your help. I hope this project turns out half all well as anything Mr Sellers has made.

  5. Malcolm Smith

    Better? Best? I better not mention I made a tote and knob for my 5 1/2 from spalted silver birch. It could last me a lifetime….but only if I shuffle off this mortal coil in time/soon. 😉 Looks mighty purty.

    I found tote making a breeze with Paul at my shoulder, and immensely satisfying, but the knob always looks just a bit “not right”.

    I bought a used s&j handsaw (c. early 60s) with an incredibly dark handle – when scraped the shavings are dark reddish brown but the handle returns almost black to the eye soon after and feels quite waxy/oily. Alas I have limited scope for shaping as the ‘unbreakable handle’ was achieved by a pin through it. Couple of old sorbys and a disston waiting too.

    However, I promised my family I’d stop customising and make a new laundry box this weekend (based around Paul’s Eco Bin) and Tuffnels just delivered my wood this a.m.. 🙂

  6. Thanks Paul. I am just finishing up a little box to put my gift in for my father’s day gift to my dad (in actuality, the box is the “real” gift thought there is something nice inside it as well).

    I wanted to do one more smaller project before I jump into making a Shaker chimney cupboard (wood is here and ready to go) but I couldn’t think of what to do. Seeing the S&J saw is the perfect project. Not only will I shape the handle, I will file it to rip cut.

    The prior project was a wooden spoke shave kit. Having only used my Stanley 151, I was very pleased at the different feel the wooden spoke shave provides. I am going to need to make more of my own tools. It’s fun to do and there is an added sense of fulfillment using a tool I made myself.

    1. Hi Paul,
      Just wanted to confirm that I indeed shaped the handle of the S&J saw similar to what you picture in the post showed over this weekend. It was really easy to do with a coping saw and a rasp. I was very pleased with how it turned out.

      Using the well written instructions in your book on Essential Handtools, I made the saw holder as well as the jigs to reliably file mild rake on the first two inches then aggressive rake on the rest of the saw. I don’t know why I felt so intimidated about filing saw teeth but after doing the one saw, I did three others. By the third saw, I could definitely feel the rhythm to it. Thanks for your book and videos on the topic.

  7. I have the S&J 22″ saw (probably as so many others have on Paul’s recommendation) and I was actually looking for his next Q&A to ask him specifically about the handle on this.

    I had to reshape mine last week as it was giving me horrible discomfort in my hand. Being new to the hobby, it wasn’t until I picked up a really old Disston saw on Ebay that I could feel what a difference the smoother contours make. Also, being a noob, I wasn’t even aware of just how easy it was to do this.

    I have the S&J tenon saw as well, which has an almost identical handle and is almost identically horrible to grip. That one will get refined too. Again, only when picking up a rusty old vintage one for a few quid could I appreciate the comfort factor.

    Interesting read, thanks.

    1. Paul Frederick

      There’s a website on the net that has saw handle patterns. My only gripe is they have so many to choose from. So it does make deciding which one to make hard. They’re all printable PDF files that you can glue on wood and cut them out. You put saw handle pattern into any search engine and they come up first. It is called Blackburn Tools. Last time I went there they were all free to download too. And yeah you have to radius handles. That’s the main difference between cheap and nice handles. How much shape they have. The best handles are just about all radius all around.

    2. I just ended up having the computer open and used a pencil and free hand drew the lines similar to what Paul had done. Then a coping saw and a rasp made it fairly easy to do.

      As for the comfort part, that really was just more rasp work on the handle part to put a bit more curve on where the hand touches. It wasn’t a significant amount of wood removal to accomplish this but felt a lot better.

      Also, I left the handle on the saw when doing this.

  8. Charles Blascsok

    I have two Record NO. 4’s one made in the early 50’s and the other in the early 60’s. The earlier ones sole is 1/4 inch shorter than the later one. This puts the original tote too close to the frog for comfortable handling (the tip of the handle almost hits the back of the blade). Have you run across this Paul?

    1. Paul Frederick

      The worst plane tote I ever made was for a No. 2. 2s are really weird. The tote doesn’t actually fit on the plane body. It hangs off the back. I need to redo the one I did. Because I tried to make mine fit. I didn’t get the horn angle right anyways. I said it was the worst. Besides the flaws I still like how it came out. So I never redid it. In some respects it’s the nicest tote I ever made though. It’s so smooth and has a great grain pattern. The shape is nice. It’s just screwed up and doesn’t fit right. But besides that it’s great. I’m very conflicted with it. There’s no shame in doing stuff over. Sometimes it takes more than one shot to get it right. Success is falling down seven times and getting up eight.

  9. Kevin Spacher

    Mr. Sellers,

    How does one find the optimal shape of a tote or knob? Is it all experiment? I know my totes could be more comfortable, but I’m not sure how to find the perfect size. Thanks for all your interesting posts.

    1. Paul Frederick

      When I am making handles I am constantly holding them and thinking of how they feel. I can’t imagine there’s anyone that doesn’t do that. The old feel and trim to fit.

    2. Vidar Fagerjord Harboe

      Back when I made knives as a hobby, I sometimes started out with a piece of plastelina / kids playing clay. Not the very firm kind. I made a sausage roll out of it, roughly as tick as my wood blank or rough shaped handle. I then gave the clay a good squeeze until it felt nice in my hand. I then made the handle according to the shape and thickness of the clay.
      This was for knives where I wanted the handle shape to aid in the “gripability” of the knife. Typically, this was knives meant for fishing, hunting and such.
      You can tailor the tote to your hand, and I bet it’ll be a great plane to use.

      As for the plane knob, rough one out in clay and test the feel. No need to be overly fancy here; concentrate on height, thickness and shape – what feels right in your hand. Other than that, shoot for the “classic” form.
      Any excess height in regards to the screw can easily be solved by recessing the screw head. Round and smooth the edges of the recess, and it should not matter.

  10. I have an old salvaged mukwa / kiaat bedpost in my cellar. Where I come from, in Zimbabwe, 50-70 year old railway sleepers where recycled to make furniture. It’s incredibly hard and dense…for anyone who has experience with this wood: do you think it could serve for a tote, or should I save this for another project?

    1. Actually, it’s Zambezi Teak (Baikiaea plurijuga) and not Mukwa (Pterocarpus angolensis)…but my question still stands!

      1. Johan Basson

        Hi Alisdair. In my somewhat limited experience Rhodensian Teak (another one of its aliases) is fine-grained, extremely hard and stunningly beautiful IMO. It’s certainly strong enough, but it’s quite prone to cracking in thinner sections. It would make a beautiful tote, but I shudder to think of the heart-ache if it were dropped accidentally. You mentioned Kiaat – if you have a piece of that knocking around it would make for an excellent choice – it’s quite a bit more shock-resistant than the Rhodensian Teak.

  11. When I was doing very fine work (under a microscope) I had a pair of tweezers I loved. They were dull and some of the spring had gone out of them. One day my boss sat at my bench and demanded I purchase a new pair. I never did because those tweezers were a part of me I just plain knew how they worked and between us they were fit for exactly the purpose I needed.

    One of Paul’s great teachings is to always pay attention to how your tools are working and how they feel and correct when needed. In other words tools can adapt to you and vice versa.

    My question is when do I need to tweak/replace and when do I just need to change my behavior and how I act with the tool.

  12. Your advice, please, Paul. I have my great uncle’s rip saw. He was born in 1877. It’s in tough shape. I’m very comfortable and able to clean it up and sharpen it for good use. My challenge is the handle. It appears to either be a hand carved (by him) replacement or modified for its original form. There are carving marks and the wood is very dry and cracked. My dilemma is that the opening for my grip is too small; his hands were much smaller. Should I attempt to carve a larger opening – it will be pushing the margins of outer top and bottom edges? Or should I use it as a template and shape and carve a new handle out of walnut, maple, or hickory? Thanks!

    1. I am assuming that you have only three fingers inside the handle with the index finger running alongside the handle and pointing forward? If that is correct then the handle opening is indeed too small. Personally, the saw carries the impression of your grandfather in its handle and I would not change it. I might remove the handle and replace it but keep the vintage one in a case or a display. I am not sure of your woods of choice; I think walnut is to brittle and prone to cracking if dropped or snagged, maple is not a particularly distinctive wood unless you choose some figured maple and that would be fine, hickory, likewise is a non-wood for me too, though very durable. A fruitwood is always nice choice though, traditional too, figured cherry for instance.

      1. Thanks, Paul, for your quick and very helpful response. Indeed, I made a rookie observation. When I handle the saw with just three fingers inside the handle, it fits perfectly! In fact, the shape of my great uncle’s hand-carved handle gives me a perfect resting place for my index finger as the collar has a carved, slightly upward groove. The handle beautifully bears his rough-shaping of the fit. Thanks for your advice to keep the handle intact and to enjoy it! Thanks, too, for the advice of using figured cherry or a fruitwood for future handles and knobs on my hand tools.

  13. I love the advice to retain the handle as it carries the evidence of the maker with it… sentimentality and remembering my forebears are big influences in my quiet tunes in the shop. I’ve re-handled a set of Narex chisels with some black cherry that my dad harvested from the land where I grew up, think of Dad and home whenever I use them… I also have a hunk of apple wood from an old damaged apple tree from my grandfather’s apple orchard. I intend to use that to re-handle several planes… a bit scared to get in with it though! I don’t want to mess it up as this wood and the memories it carries are very dear to me

  14. Paul Frederick

    Tool handles are surprisingly easy to make. So I encourage everyone to give it a try. I’ve made both plane totes and saw handles too. If you’re into tools it’s a fun project. Really connects you to it. One trick I use is to model the handle using never hardening clay. Then you can use the model as a template. And just having the model helps with spacial relationships. You can look at something like what you are trying to make. Take measurements or whatever. Helps me. So pick up some never hardening clay for your workshop. It’s neat stuff.

  15. These look super nice Paul. Any details on what finish you apply to these would be greatly appreciated. I’m considering putting on amber shellac on my maple tote

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