Even today the cabinetmaker’s trademark is the bench plane. While handplanes are still in use in many woodworking shops, much of the work they traditionally performed has been replaced by jointers, planers, sanders and routers.
For the woodworkers of Grandpa’s generation the wooden plane was the king of the tool kit. After a long day of planning and sawing, the shop floor would be inches deep in long, splendid, almost transparent wood shavings. These meticulous craftsmen, having been trained through rigorous apprenticeships, relied heavily on their senses of hearing, smell and touch to work wood. As they planed a board they could hear a feathery ‘swish’ and smell the essence of the board as the wood fibres were sheared with razor sharp plane irons.
Every species of wood had a different smell; apart from the more obvious pine, maple smelled like malted milk, elm like leather, cherry had a beautifully fragrant, almost floral smell, basswood’s smell a bit sour, butternut was like tobacco, and oak the smell of red wine (in reality, it is the other way round, as wine takes on the essence of the oak barrel). After planing, Grandpa would instinctively touch the surface of the board, to feel the smooth, silky surface that resulted from his highly sharpened, finely tuned wooden planes.
There was a long established sequence that Grandpa followed to prepare a board for use, a process unchanged since Roman times. It began by ensuring that the stock was square and true (dead flat). The joiner’s bench that Grandpa used was equipped with a tail vice and bench dogs. These allowed him to hold the board for surface planing. Once the board was fixed rigidly, Grandpa would place winding sticks at opposite ends. With charcoal he would then mark out high spots, twists and cups on the board. Then he would proceed to plane the board to produce a flat face. From his extensive collection of wooden planes, Grandpa would select one of his scrub planes, depending on the density of the wood. Usually he reached for his converted jack plane, which had a slightly rounded iron, and a larger mouth opening to vent the bounty of wooden shavings. As with all of his wooden planes, he would set the blade with a special wooden mallet, which had been drilled out to receive a metal pipe. With this mallet, he would impart a solid blow to the wedge and iron.
The process was simple: strike the nose of the plane for the cutting iron to protrude, strike the heel on the end grain to retract the blade. Incredibly fine micro-adjustments could be achieved with this very ‘low tech’ method. Grandpa was fastidious about his planes, so he fitted wooden striking knobs to protect the wood from bruising.
Many of Grandpa’s planes were shop-made. However, his converted jack plane was a highly prized, Canadian made Roxton Pond beauty, with a cap iron (a 19th century innovation). Grandpa had never traveled further west than the Gaspé town of Ste. Anne des Monts on the south shore of the St. Lawrence. In fact, the teeming metropolis of Montreal, Quebec’s principal city, was in another solar system as far as Grandpa was concerned. Still, his ultimate dream was to make the long train journey to Roxton Pond in Quebec’s eastern townships, to visit the mecca of Canadian bench planes.
All of his wooden planes were in perfect operating condition. Occasionally when there would be excessive wear to the wooden sole, Grandpa would place the plane in a vice and essentially hand plane the plane. More correctly he would re-joint the sole, to create a perfectly true surface. He would then re-mouth the opening with a fillet of hard maple inlay. This provided an exact clearance relative to the blade. He also always made sure he had a box of replacement wedges in case of breakage.
With the board firmly trapped between end vice and one or two bench dogs, Grandpa would proceed to scrub or ‘hogout’ the board with his converted jack. The objective was to remove material rapidly, and produce a rough, flat surface. The scrub plane, with its rounded iron, would aggressively remove huge amounts of wood shavings, much like a sculptor’s gouge, and produce a rippled sea of tool marks. After constant checking with a try square, Grandpa was ready for the next step: smoothing the surface of the board, both to remove the tool marks, and to produce a flawlessly smooth surface.
Grandpa’s favourite plane was his coffin plane. Beautiful, curly wood shavings would flow out of the top of this plane, garnishing the floor like fallen leaves in a majestic forest. After extensive planing and checking, the board would be deemed to be true, and Grandpa would mark the face with the long cherished Greek alpha symbol.
Having achieved one flat face, Grandpa then needed to joint an edge. The board was placed sideways in the leg vice, and clamped to the bench. Grandpa then reached for his third plane: a very long, heavy jointer plane, 28″ in length. This plane would produce a jointed edge, at a perfect right angle to the board’s face.
Smaller planes were not used because they would follow the rises and hollows of a rough edge. The long jointer plane would glide resplendently like a clipper ship, and produce a consistently straight edge. When that was done, Grandpa would mark an upside down ‘v’ symbol. With one flat face and a square edge he could now plane the board to its required thickness. At the end of the 19th century, this was a full 1″ thick, and not the insipid ¾” we accept today. Grandpa would set his marking gauge to 1″ and mark from the flat face. The board would be flipped over and fixed in the end vice as before. With his jack plane he would then proceed to reduce the board in thickness, down to the marking gauge line. Again, all would be cleaned up with the coffin plane to produce a perfectly squared-up, dimensioned board. Allow me to skip a step here. The next part of the process: ripping to width and cross cutting to length will be covered in more detail in Part VI.
Grandpa was building a dough box, but even though he had planed all of his stock, he was not yet finished with the wooden planes. He had dozens of smaller specialty moulding planes for making a variety of joints and decorative mouldings. To understand these planes it may be useful to briefly review their desired objective. Grandpa primarily used a few basic joints: a rebate or rabbet (an open sided groove at the edge of the board). A rabbet is usually wider than it is deep. A dado however, is a groove cut across the grain (also known as a housing joint). A groove usually refers to an open-ended groove running with the grain, (i.e. tongue and groove), and is usually deeper than it is wide.
Finally a slot is a closed-ended groove. Although today a router performs many of these processes, in Grandpa’s day there were dozens of wooden planes to achieve the same end. Grandpa had many rebate planes equipped with a side exit hole for the shavings and categorized by the width of the cutter. These rabbet planes would usually have built-in fences and depth stops to control the amount of stock that would be removed. His dado planes looked similar, but were equipped with cutting spurs to sever the wood fibres as it moved across the grain. Also, the iron was usually skewed much like a snow plough.
Grandpa also had many ‘matched pairs’, including: tongue and groove planes; hollow and round planes for coves and round-overs; and sash planes for window glazing bars. Grandpa also had an extensive collection of moulding planes to produce decorative profiles on raised panels, table tops and crown mouldings.
All of these smaller planes were based on the classic ‘fivesome’: beads, ovolos (round over with a step or ‘quirk’, astragals (surface beads with rises and quirks), coves or hollows and the ever-popular ogee (both Greek and Roman). With these planes Grandpa could reproduce virtually any moulding profile.
All of these planes were set in a similar fashion to their larger cousins. Sharpening however was a bit more complex. Many rounded cutters required delicate filing with needle files. Sometimes he used a special type of sharpening stone, a slip stone.
After all this planing Grandpa was exhausted and ready for bed. Down the lane the good people of Barachois were already under their blankets and quilt covers preparing body and soul for the next day of survival and hard work.
In the final part of the series we will look at bench saws, hammers, nails and other fastening and unfastening tools.