Thursday, April 30, 2009

Hand Plane Class, Part Two...

I wasn't really sure what to expect when I signed up for the Hand Plane class at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking. I knew quite a bit of it would be lecture and discussion, and I was fine with that, but I also wanted to actually use the hand planes I'd brought and get any advice or tips I could from Chris Schwarz or Tom Lie-Nielsen.

I wasn't disappointed; in fact, it was more hands-on than I thought it would be. We started off with a discussion on sharpening and then went back to our benches to sharpen our plane blades. Then we had a discussion on setting up our planes and went back to our benches to set them up. Chris pointed to two stacks of wood. He said the stack on the left was for practice but not to take any wood from the other pile as that would be used for a contest on the second day. I grabbed a piece from the first stack and started planing.

Towards the end of the first day, I'd already sharpened my blades and was tired of planing wood, so I pulled out the Record 043 Plough Plane I'd also brought along and worked on its 1/4" blade. Using our new sharpening techniques (flatten the face to 1000 grit and then use the ruler trick to take the very edge of the face to 8000 grit; honing the secondary bevel of 30 degrees on a primary bevel of 25 degrees), it didn't take me long at all to get a nice sharp edge on it. I then grabbed the board Alex and I had been practicing with and spent less than two minutes ploughing a groove.

A little later, I brought it up to Chris to see what he thought of the plane. He promptly ploughed another groove into a piece of oak and gave it a passing stamp. The only suggestion he offered was to add a wooden fence to it that would make it longer and help it glide along the edge of the board better. I have several pieces of lignum vitae set aside for just that purpose.

On the morning of the second day, we had a discussion on putting a camber on plane blades and then we once again went back to our benches to actually camber the blades of our planes. Using my Mark II, without the camber roller, I couldn't get a good one on my blade, so I had to borrow Alex's blade guide. Fortunately for both of us, Alex apparently cambered his blades the day before, so he didn't need to use the guide. Since I already have the Mark II, I'll probably contact Lee Valley within the next week or so to order the camber roller.

Before lunch on day two, Chris announced the "Flattest Board Contest of 2009" would take place after a brief discussion right after lunch. I left my bench to go to lunch, thinking I would be lucky if I could get one face flat, much less all four faces flat and square. Winning the contest never occurred to me as a possibility.

Something else that never occurred to me was to go back to the classroom early and pick through the pile of boards to find one that would be easier to plane. I think a few others might have had this idea, however, as a third of the pile of boards was relocated to various benches in the classroom by the time lunch was over.

While Chris spoke to us about using the camber when planing edges, Jeff (one of the staff members at MASW) passed out the contest wood to the people who didn't already have it. At first glance, my board didn't look too bad. I turned it over to find a fairly nasty knot and knew my chances of winning just got smaller. But I checked for cup and grabbed my #5 and started at the high spots.

After less than a minute, the high spots were pretty much gone! I checked it with a square and it was about as flat as I thought I was going to get it. I switched over to the #604 1/2 and started smoothing the first face. And that was when the magic of a cambered blade hit me! I could take off a pencil line with just a swipe of the plane! After the first face was done, I worked on the first edge. It was even easier. I checked for square and found one side just a little high. I adjusted the position of my plane to put the biggest part of the camber on the high spot. Two passes later, it was dead flat and square to the first face. I repeated those steps on the second edge and then flipped the board to the second face - the one with the knot.

It really wasn't that bad. After a few minutes, I took the board up to Chris to check. He marked one edge with a smiley face (meaning it was good), made a few minor pencil marks on the other edge and on both faces. Mostly it was just the removal of a minor ridge - really, just taking off the pencil line. He said if he was going to use the board for a project that it would have been good enough at that point, but this was a contest about perfection, so he wanted me to work on it a little more.

I took off the lines with just a few passes, squared up the second edge at one point that had a ridge and brought it back up for another check. The other edge and one of the faces got OK'd. I looked around and saw everyone else feverishly planing away, many on the first face or edge. That was when it hit me that I might actually have a good chance of winning the contest!

I quickly walked back to my bench and clamped the board back down to work on two small lines on the knotty face. I then popped the board back off the bench and ran up front. After a minute of careful scruteny, I got my fourth smiley face!

The board in the picture here might not look like much to most people, but it means a whole lot to me. So much, in fact, that I took the board home (how could I leave it?). I'd like to do something with it rather than just toss it in the trash or a burn pile. I was thinking about making a box for my Record 043 plough plane and using resawn pieces of this board for panels in the lid and bottom.

Another cool thing - if you hold the board up at the right angle, you can see a reflection in it. That is what you can do with a hand-planed surface. Try doing that with a board after 180 grit or fresh off the jointer!

Later that afternoon, Thomas Lie-Nielsen talked us through a video tour of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. He fielded questions and discussed the creation process a plane goes through. He also talked about the quality assurance they apply to each piece. Did I mention he gave everyone a free plane? It was small and made of balsa wood and flies around the room...

Key things I took from the class:
  • The flat side of a plane blade is called the face (by Chris) and the back (by Tom).
  • All the sharpening systems work. Pick a system and stick with it for a year or two until you are proficient with it. You will notice your sharpening skills improve greatly over time.
  • Don't use a fine grit diamond stone to flatten water stones! The water stone will weaken the bond of the diamonds to the plate, destroying your stone. 220 grit diamond stones use a different bonding agent and are safe to use.
  • Camber all your plane blades. The plane you use for roughing gets an 8 degree camber; the joining plane gets a camber of about .007 to .005 of an inch; the smoothing plane gets a camber of about .002 of an inch.
  • It is a good idea to even camber your block plane blades.
  • You can plane an edge square with a cambered blade!
  • You can determine grain direction by either looking at the edge or by using the face and the endgrain (looking for peaks and whether you were on the bark side or the heart side).
  • Sharpening a scraper is similar to sharpening a plane blade in that you have to polish the faces and the edges first.
  • Keep your planes clean; wipe it down after every planing session.
  • Most importantly, and kind of as a summation of the whole class, I learned how to flatten and square a board!

New vocabulary I learned from Chris:
  • Bockity - Irish for "bad"
  • Sticktion - when two surfaces stick together (as in the thin ruler sticking to the sharpening stone)
  • Sneck - the tab on the end of a plow plane blade, used to adjust the blade by tapping it.
This was a most enjoyable class and certainly worth the price of admission. If you've never used hand planes before and are tired of the ear protection and dust left behind by your planer, jointer, and sanders, you might want to consider signing up the next time it is offered. Even if you think you know a bit about planes, this class might still be able to teach you a few things.

And if things go well, and luck shines on you, maybe you, too, can get the nod of approval from one of the great active woodworkers in the business. It's a feeling that doesn't quickly fade.


The Village Carpenter said...

Sounds like you came away with some great woodworking knowledge. Glad your time spent wasn't bockity. ; )

Ethan said...

You bet your tookas!

(Chris didn't know that was Yiddish; so I guess we both learned a little something about grammar that weekend...)