Friday, 25 September 2009

Hand Plane Essentials – the Full Tour…

I got an email from Christopher Schwarz a while back offering me a signed copy of his new book, “Handplane Essentials”. I was seriously intrigued by this offer. It was not the book, as it was all ready a given that I was going to get a copy. It wasn’t even that the author, the guru of planes, had signed it. I seriously considered this offer solely because the particular copies he was hawking included a little drawing created by his daughter below his signature. Being a sucker when it comes to kids, I was just incredibly impressed by the whole concept. She is a lucky kid to have a father that would stick his neck out like that to include her in his work.

I bought the book, but not through Chris’ offer, but instead, from Lee Valley Tools, a company I support whenever possible. Now don’t start thinking I believe in “Protectionism” because the reality is, I believe that concept to be ridiculously counterproductive. I bought the book from Lee Valley solely for selfish reasons.

Canada has one-tenth the population of The United States. Lee Valley, and its tool-manufacturing arm, Veritas, sell worldwide, but also operate 13 stores across the country. Compare that to a company like Rockler, which operates, between owned and partnered, 90 stores across the United States and you get some idea about what this Canadian company is up against. Now add in exorbitant taxes, ridiculous levels of government red tape and high overhead, and you have to wonder why this company stays in Canada at all. Trust me, it ain’t easy being Canadian, despite what you read, and even harder to be a successful corporation here. I just figure if enough Canadians are like me and stay loyal to this company’s retail outlets, we will give them an incentive to stay here and not be like the many others who moved south of the border in search of greater profits. Protectionism tries to keep others out. Loyalty tries to keep ours in.

Ok, enough of that, on to the book.

A while back, after downloading the teaser and having a look, I gave credit to Al Parrish for the fabulous photography in this book. At that time I didn’t know who did the design and layout of it, but thought they deserved some recognition as well, as this is a truly well-done publication. The first thing I did when I got my hands on my copy was to look through the title pages to see who did what and discovered that the Typographer of Essential Handplanes was Linda Watts. If I went looking for the designer’s name, you know I had to be impressed with her work.

The bottom line regarding Christopher’s work in this book is that I’m glad I bought it. It is a comfortable read, forces one to think, and is packed full of information.

First and foremost is Christopher’s style of writing. While his topic is technical, his writing structure is relaxed and informal. As you read it you get the feeling that he is talking to you about planes while the two of you are having a beer together at the local pub. His ability to achieve this, “Hey, buddy” attitude throughout the book is the anecdotal information he adds to almost every article, most quite funny. After reading the book I know he has a reserved respect for some of his past shop teachers, gets a charge out of some of his own students, can easily be made to spit up his coffee, has a wife that owns cats and often shops for tools at antique shows and flea markets. Chris also has some rather strange phrases that he throws out that make you pause. Thankfully, he does not give explanations of them because, frankly, I never want to know just how wet a Louisiana’s underarm is. All of these little charmers are included by Chris to bring his human side into his technical writing, making the reading and learning experience far more enjoyable than it should be.

In fairness to Christopher, he has acknowledged in several articles published during the lead time for this book that it is a compilation of his past articles on handplanes, and he wasn’t exaggerating that point. There is a fair amount of repetition in it, more than would be necessary in a 312 page publication that focuses on one topic. The book does, however, touch on just about every aspect of handplanes that you can think of; from buying them, through using and sharpening them, to selling them on eBay. Where the information excels, though, is in his constant comparisons between vintage and new that are found throughout the book. As someone who is starting to look at adding some more planes to my collection, I found these observations helpful and informative. I also enjoyed learning more about the less common types of planes out there as Chris included articles about Miter, Moulding, Rabbet, Plow and Shoulder Planes; all covered by one article about the plane itself, and a second describing how to use it. With his descriptions of some of the processes, you will have to go back over the content two or three times because the first time around, you have no idea what the hell he is talking about. In those rare cases, though, the fault lies with the complexity of the process, rather than the inability of the writer.

While I am more than impressed with the book and found it to be well worth the forty bucks it cost me, I am not without my criticisms, although few.

The major complaint I have with the book is its lack of graphics to help explain the technical aspects of many of the processes covered. True, there are many photographs included, and while they are well done, some information requires a technical drawing to truly get the point across, and these are seriously missing in this publication. An example of this is within his article entitled, “Squaring Boards Using Handplanes & An Historic Book”. Six technical photographs accompany this article, and while they are all well done, they just do not give the viewer as much information as a well thought out graphic would. The two photographs that show planes running either across the grain, or at an extreme angle to it, freeze the planes’ travels at mid point, the least problematic point in a plane’s stroke. It is easily understood that a long soled plane will bridge the hollow in the middle of a cupped board. Where the problem lies for the inexperienced is in the start and end where the sole isn’t supported at both ends by the high points. Displaying one good graphic that could show all three points of a stroke; the start the middle and the end, would be a huge benefit in determining how to handle the entire stroke. There are a few more examples that would be better served by an accompanying illustration, but this one alone exemplifies their omission.

While overall I was extremely pleased with the book, I have to admit that a nag seemed to grow in the back of my mind as I progressed through it, a nag that keep saying, “There, see, he isn’t as lax about technicalities as he leads you to believe”. Christopher makes many comments throughout the many processes he covers which point out areas where he believes such things as blade angles and the like are not that relevant, or where perfection in grinding them is not necessary. Some of his comments also lead the reader to believe, at least this reader, that Chris isn’t too impressed with those that chase perfection in all things plane, and that planing is a technique, not a science, the way some treat it. My background with handplanes has always led me to believe that, whether that concept be right or wrong. However, throughout the book, many of his technical explanations belie this attitude, which results in that nagging in the back of my mind. On the one hand, my reason for respecting Chris for his instructional work is because, in my mind, he isn’t anal about what he is describing. On the other hand, I could actually see his butt cheeks tightening as I read some of the explanations he included in this book and believe me, that is a mind-image I would rather not see.

With all the content, descriptions and advice included in this book, there is one that stood out for me like it had neon lights around it and reading it resulted in a rather hilarious result. To explain, like most married men, the one room in the house that I feel left alone in is the can, and much to Chris’ chagrin, that is where Handplane Essentials resided until I had finished reading it. Reading along, I came across the line, “Teaching yourself to use a handplane without guidance is a challenge”, and when I read it, I let out a rather loud “No Shit!”, a profanity that is common for me, but one that is not normally stated with such vigor. After finishing that article, and – ahem - “finishing up” in general, I went off to the kitchen. When I got there I found my wife cooking something, and when I walked in she pointed to something on the kitchen table. I turned to have a look and discovered two plums sitting in a small bowl and listened to her comment, “Eat those, they may help you”. With great embarrassment, I explained that my comment was figurative, not literal, but I did thank her for her concern.

So what brought on this reaction? Let me explain.

My exposure to handplanes before switching over to hand tools is limited more to the results of planing, rather than the use of a plane. As a carpenter who specialized in kitchen cabinets, my old man always worked on a site, rather than in the shop. Because his toolbox was often his workbench, it was always full of shavings and it was my job on Saturdays, before he went off to the Legion, to clean them, as well as the sawdust, out. I remember collecting those shavings and playing with them, as the lengths of those paper thin strips of wood fascinated me, as well as how those really thin lacy ones felt when I rubbed them between my fingers.

Sadly, by the time I was old enough to help out in the shop and job site he had pretty much stopped using planes except for the occasional swipe or two. Patience was not his virtue, so when the price of power tools came down enough that he could afford them, he found himself a new altar to pray at. His most revered purchase was a radial arm saw, purchased in 1967 and produced by Skil. What that man could do with that saw would make old Norm green with envy. The result of all of this was that my instruction, and believe me, I got a ton of it whether I wanted it or not, was limited to all things with a power cord.

One time stands out, though, a time when he brought out his Stanley Block Plane. There are two reasons this occasion stands out to me; the first of which is that this was a very rare joint in his work; one that didn’t fit as tightly as his joints always did. In truth, I believe I had something to do with its slight misalignment as when the old man cut a miter joint; either on the tablesaw or the radial saw, you couldn’t slide a cigarette paper anywhere along it, they were always that tight and true. This was a consistent accomplishment that I was never been able to achieve and having seen the results of many professionals, both on and off the television and web, I can attest to the fact that not many others have achieved his deft control either. My second reason for remembering this incident is that it was one of those very rare times that I volunteered a question, asking him to explain the tool a bit to me because I was intrigued by it.

In answer to my question, my father gave me a quick run-down on planes. I remember him explaining the different angles of planes, some of what to look for when you apply them to wood, and which one to use for different applications. He didn’t, however, explain to me any of the technicalities of it, and in fact, volunteered the admission that he just didn’t know them, which, at the time, surprised the hell out of me because I thought my old man knew everything there was to know about woodworking. What he did say, though, was that if you use it, you quickly learn what works and what doesn’t, and like any tool, you soon develop a “feel” for it, knowing how to get the most out of it “instinctively”, which was a huge word for him, considering his grade 5 education.

Now I don’t know whether or not my old man was full of it when he told me about developing a “feel” and “instinct” about a plane, but I can tell you that I am not my father’s son when it comes to teaching myself about getting the most out of one, which is why I bought Chris’ book in the first place.

I will tell you one thing I know for a fact, and that is that buying this book is truly a worth-while purchase. It may not make you a better planer, but after reading it, at least you will know why.

My copy does not have a little hand-drawn picture on the title page, though. Bummer!

Peace,

Mitchell