Recently I've been thinking about working by hand more. Though I owned three Record hand planes (a #4 Smoothing, a Block, and a Low-Angle Block) and a set of Record chisels for many years, I hadn't used them much, partly because I found the blade sharpening to be so challenging. Now I want to get better planes and chisels, and a wider variety, so I can begin introducing these tools into my work, so I've been reading a lot of information and reviews about planes and chisels, as well as about sharpening tools and techniques.
From what I've read I think these are the best planes available in the U.S. today:
- E.C. Emmerich of Germany⩘ makes what some reviewers have said is the best line of planes. Their Primus planes are wooden bodied with lignum vitae soles. However, as much as I love wood, I don't think wooden-bodied planes will be my choice.
- Lie-Nielsen Toolworks of Maine⩘ makes very high quality, beautifully finished traditional Stanley Bedrock-style planes using ductile iron. Some models are also available in Manganese bronze. They have a full line of planes. Ductile iron offers the advantage of being much tougher than older types of cast iron.
- Veritas of Ottawa⩘ makes a more modern line of very high quality, stress-relieved ductile cast iron planes. They generally receive very positive reviews, are a bit less expensive than the comparable Lie-Nielsen planes, and feature innovations that reviewers say make them easier to use.
- Clifton of Sheffield⩘ makes good quality traditional Stanley Bedrock-style planes, but I've read reviews that suggest the delivery quality isn't consistent, and that they don't use the newer ductile iron.
A decision about planes
Several factors swayed my decision:
- The possibility that these planes might be easier for me to get comfortable with than more traditional Stanley Bedrock-style planes, due to the simplicity of the bevel-up design, as well as the innovation of the set screws that keep the blade from shifting.
- The versatility that I gain by being able to swap in different blades with different angles (25°, 38°, and 50°) that combine with the 12° bed to provide the capability to work with a range of woods, including more difficult woods such as those with reversing grain patterns like birds-eye maple. There's even a 38° toothed blade that makes it easier to work on wood that has knots or that needs a significant amount of stock removal, such as wood that has suffered from significant planer tear out.
- The optional Bevel-Up Jointer Fence, which I suspect will enable me to get results with jointing work (something I'm really excited about) in much the same way as training wheels enabled me to learn to ride a bicycle. The pros make edge planing look easy, but this is a heavy tool (7½ pounds) and I think trying to keep it true on a narrow edge has to be challenging for someone learning to use it.
- My satisfaction with other excellent Veritas tools that I've purchased and used, including their router table system I talked about earlier. The toolmakers at Veritas have earned my respect: they are clever, innovative, focused on quality, and put a lot of thought into making their tools easier to use.
I've read some reviews that have complained about the comfort of the Veritas tote (rear handle), which is straighter than a traditional Stanley. One article I read said that traditional totes were designed for lower tables that called for a more downward angle of push; whereas, newer tables tend to be higher, so a more horizontal angle of push is called for.
My Record #4 has a more traditional tote, and though I've been able to work with it, I don't find it comfortable (I find it too curved and a bit cramped), so I'm actually looking forward to trying the Veritas tote, which promises to be more to my liking. In addition, I think Veritas listened to customer feedback, as they now ship totes with a revised design. Finally, if I really don't like it, I'll probably just pull it off and do some work on it, as I've done with some of my saw handles. Basically, I'm not too concerned about the tote issue.
I'm sure it will be a few years before I get familiar enough with these tools to be able to say much more about them, except perhaps for some first handling impressions. In the meantime I'm headed out to my shop to create some additional shelving to hold these planes (I still have a little free space over the windows). The excuse to putter around in my shop already has me happy about this purchase, even though the planes haven't arrived yet!
Here are some of the reviews I read while pondering this decision:
- Derek Cohen's very comprehensive reviews:
- Alice Frampton, who has a shop in Cornwall and a very nice site called Cornish Workshop⩘ , has written some insightful reviews⩘ that are posted on the UKWorkshop forums under the name Alf:
- Chris Gochnour's brief editor's review for Fine Woodworking: Veritas - Bevel-Up Jointer Plane⩘
- Phil Bumbalough's BenchMark review: Veritas Low-Angle Smoothing Plane⩘
The first impression I had was that they are bigger and more massive than I had expected. The Jointer is a huge tool! And the Bevel-Up Smoother is wide and densely heavy, as well. The Jack was the only one that didn't surprise me. The quality and finish of all three is impressive, much better than the Records.
As I mentioned earlier, I had hoped I would find the Veritas totes more comfortable than the one on my Record Smoother. In fact, they far exceed my hope; for my hands, they are very comfortable.
The shelves turned out nicely. I made them out of clear pine, 40″ wide, with a bit of a lip at the front, more to make me feel secure than for necessity (we don't have earthquake tremors here). My shop smells wonderful; I love the fragrance of wood!
I found a couple DVDs by David Charlesworth, who provides a great introduction to the techniques of plane sharpening and hand planing. (Though watching someone as skilled as him at work sure makes me feel like a bumbling rookie!)
In the book Designing Web Navigation by James Kalbach, I came across this: Abraham Lincoln is reported to have once said, "Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." Well, give me a year to begin to learn hand planing, and I guess I'm probably going to need to spend the first 10 months learning how to sharpen blades!
I also found a beautiful book about planes and planing: The Handplane book by Garrett Hack⩘ , Taunton Press, Newton, 1997. Hack covers the history of planes, tuning and planing techniques, and a detailed exploration of the planes for truing and sizing, joinery, surfacing, scraping, and other specialties.
I took a few days off to work on my workbench (see the A deeper look at my workbench project⩘ page). Today I was ready to start preparing the first pieces of maple for resurfacing the top of the table, which involved sharpening and honing the first plane blade (for the Jointer) and planing the edges. I spent the better part of five hours in my shop and all I got done was one edge! It's more challenging than I had thought it would be, but the results are beautiful.
Sharpening took most of my time. I used David Charlesworth's method, though he makes it look so much easier than what I experienced! I actually typed up the instructions, printed them out and hung them right in front of my face, and still I fumbled. And once I was finished, I set the blade in the plane, took a first pass, and discovered I had somehow introduce a small chip in the blade's edge that was leaving a ridge in the board's edge. Argh! So I started over. The second time I was more confident and managed to do it right, even sharpening a slight curve into the blade edge.
The Veritas Jointer handles beautifully, and I learned that my table is at a good height. I was able to produce continuous shavings that were 8' long and between .002″ and .007″ thick. This is the first time I've ever planed an edge, and I ended up with an edge that is perpendicular to the sides, flat along the length, silken to the touch, and gorgeous to the eye. Wow!
So what have I learned?
I'm going to be able to do nicer work, but it's going to take me much longer.
After more than a year of thinking about chisels, and after ordering and returning two different sets of well-known and fairly expensive chisels that simply disappointed me for how carelessly they were finished, I finally came across Blue Spruce Toolworks, where David Jenske makes hand tools of unparalleled quality and beauty. I had ordered a Blue Spruce marking awl through a woodworking store, and was simply astonished at how beautifully made it is. That led me to search for the Blue Spruce Toolworks⩘ website, where I discovered a treasure trove of magnificent hand tools.
My first plunge was a set of bench chisels with figured maple handles and one of his figured maple mallets with an African Blackwood handle. Once again, and even though I now had high expectations, I was just amazed by the quality of the tools I received. Jenske, an experienced mechanical engineer and machine designer, infuses the wood with acrylic. While this makes them look beautiful, the real purpose is to make them tough enough to take a hard beating without damage.
The blades are Rc60 A2 steel, impeccably finished, set in an equally tough socket. He makes everything himself in his garage-based shop and the demand is high so there can be quite a wait, but it's certainly worth the patience.
I haven't yet used these tools enough to say much more about them, except that they feel very good in my hands, and are well balanced and superbly finished. I'll share more later.