I can hear it now, “What the hell is that boy on about now?”
I can tell you that a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing;
sometimes it proves that nut-jobs like me can often be correct.
A while ago I was thinking about having a plane built, even
though the five grand cost was giving me heart palpitations. The problem I had was that I don’t like
the ergonomics of a regular plane. I think the tote is set too high and isn’t
cocked forward enough. I wrote about this a while ago and got the usual
responses – yawns.
I took this further and emailed two well-known plane makers
asking if they would consider tilting the tote forward and making it lower. The
first wrote back explaining to me why planes are built like they are, like I
didn’t know this. I wrote back and explained the theory behind my thoughts; the
higher totes give a higher centre of gravity and result in more difficulty
keeping it square to the board edge and the considerably upright tote causes
the wrist to be cocked at an unnatural angle when the plane is held at the
correct height, again adding to the difficulty in keeping the plane properly
square, especially when planning a lot of board feet. He never replied a second
The other plane maker I wrote to didn’t even bother to reply
the first time. Go figure.
So I decided maybe all of you were right, I was a nut-job,
so I forgot about it and went back to my books on wooden planes.
Lucy, you got some ‘splainin to do.
Did you know that totes are a relatively new addition to
planes? They weren’t very popular until metal planes came around. As far back
as the 16th century, woodworkers were holding their planes pretty
much by their bodies, as no tote existed. Son-of-a-gun if holding a wooden
bench plane by its body suddenly brings your hands down much lower than when
you are holding a contemporary Stanley. Even a 22 to 28” wooden jointer came
toteless, but if the wuss pushing it was worried about breaking a nail, the
maker would add to horizontal handholds to the sides of the body, again way
lower than the totes on contemporary planes.
So why did the plane evolve in this way?
Personally, I think they ended up with a high tote simply
for ease of manufacturing. Show me an item that has been produced for years and
I’ll show you an item that was redesigned simply to reduce costs. This is what
“New and Improved” is all about you know. Change something that will trim a
quarter of a cent off of the cost of making each widget and it truly is “new
and improved”. The manufacturer has “improved” profits and a “new” cash cow.
Some may say, “if it wasn’t right, no one would buy it”. Oh
The truth is, many items are not accepted right away.
Plastic is the main one that I can think of right now. It was first invented in 1862 and was
called Parkesine. It then evolved into Bakelite around 1897. Tell me, how many
100 year old items have you seen on the Antiques Roadshow that are made from
plastic, and costume jewelry doesn’t count, as that was about the only commercial
application for this stuff for years?
PVC was introduced in 1926, but how many pre 1950 homes have
you been in that have plastic pipes?
Plastic has been used in auto production pretty much since
their inception, but not where the buying public could see it. Up to the late
1940’s most car heaters were seen under their dashboards so the manufacturers
had their outer cases made from steel. As soon as the design of the dash was
large enough to hide them, poof, they became plastic components.
So why would making the tote more upright help reduce
If the tote tilted forward more, it would have to be mounted
further back as the frog has priority for position. Add an inch or two to every
plane Stanley made over the years and you just spent the equivalent of
Rockefeller’s wealth. Now add the cost of increased material for the tote
because tilting it forward slightly means it has to be longer. If you think
about this idea from this angle, you can quickly understand why they would push
for a more perpendicular tote.
It also boils down to the purpose of the tool as well. A
cabinetmaker that never left the shop bought the same planes as the house
carpenter who moved from job site to job site. That meant that the limited
number of plane styles had to be as versatile as possible.
Don’t get your knickers in a knot as I’m not knocking the
contemporary plane. I can understand why it exists in the form that we know
today. I just think we should be allowed to question their design without
feeling the need to head to the confessional afterwards and the need to make
amends by saying a few hundred “Hail Marys”.
So while I’m being sacrilegious, let me discuss my new
thought about Shooting Boards.
When the machine took over from the hand tools, the biggest difference
was the way the stock was worked. With hand tools, the stock remained
stationary and the tool was passed over it. With machines, the tool remained
stationary and the stock was passed over it. A novel idea? Not really.
Everyone knows about the Cooper’s jointer. A behemoth plane
that came in different sizes up to 6’ in length with up to 4” wide blades. Some
of these monsters tipped the scales at 125 pounds or more. Some were equipped
with clamps to clamp one end to the bench and others were fitted with legs on
one end. Whichever style, the blade’s edge always pointing towards the high
end. The cooper would pass the stock over the plane to get an even fit,
although not necessarily a tight fit.
To explain my comment, “not necessarily a tight fit”, there
was a fellow who was rebuilding his wood boat at the same time I was rebuilding
mine. As the boats were very similar, we used to compare notes. One day I
noticed how tight he was setting his bottom planks together and mentioned that
he should leave a small space, about a 1/16th of an inch between
them. It was the last time he really talked to me as he thought I didn’t have a
clue what I was talking about.
When it was time for him to float, I quietly mentioned to my
wife that we should keep an eye on it over the next 48 hours as I felt it was
going to sink. Sure enough, the next day, the alarms were sounded and there was
a big rush to get the boat lifted out of the water, not a task that can be done
quickly with a 40-foot boat. They managed, and I give the guy credit because he
came around the next day and apologized to me for thinking I was an idiot.
The bottoms of these boats are planked with 1-inch thick by
6 to 8-inch wide mahogany. When mahogany gets wet, it expands, as does all
wood, but mahogany expands much more than others. It is the reason they use it
to make boats. The mahogany expands, forcing the edges of the planks together tightly
to make a watertight hull. Because this guy didn’t leave any allowance for that
expansion, the planks expanded and with nowhere to go, they sprung their
fasteners and opened huge gaps in the hull.
The cooper’s jointer wasn’t the only tool made that remained
stationary. The lowly Spill plane was another. Often fixed to a bench or
hearth, stock is pushed across its blade to produce tightly coiled shavings
that were used to light the fires for cooking and heat.
One feature of old wooden planes that isn’t acknowledged
much these days are the jigs and soles of some of the specialty planes. When using
a Slat plane, the rough sized stock was placed in a trough that was attached to
a bench. A special plane that had its blade and sole profiled to the final
lines of the venetian blind slat was then used to bring the stock into shape.
When the plane bottomed out on the edges of the jig, the first side was
completed. The stock was then flipped, but before it was placed back into the
jig, an insert was added first to keep the stock level and to raise it
slightly. The plane was employed again, and once it bottomed out the second time,
the slat was finished and ready to be cut into lengths.
Another plane similar to the blind slat plane was the
Tambour plane, another specialty plane that again worked within a jig and held
a profile to make tambour slats for roll top desks.
You don’t read much about jigs and specialty planes these
days, do you?
So finally realizing that I wasn’t the first one to come up
with these crazy ideas, I went back to the drawing board regarding my shooting
One of the problems I have had with all the boards I have
played with is keeping the side of the plane against the runner. Because the
resistance varies as the plane moves across the end grain, keeping the plane
square to the stock is sometimes a chore. So what if things were reversed?
Would it be any easier to move the stock across the plane, rather than the
plane across the stock?
I think so.
I base this idea on the panel sleds I used to build for my table
saw. Laying a large piece of stock
on a sled allowed for far better control for the cut. I think that same concept
would work well for a shooting board as well.
By fixing the stock to a sled that is controlled by guides
that allow it to neither move laterally or vertically, the end of the stock
remains at right angles to the bed. If the plane is also fixed so its blade is
square with the bed, you can’t help but produce a perfect cut. Tilt the entire
table and you now have no need for a bird’s nest as the stock will be presented
to the plane’s blade at whatever angle you choose. You could shoot short boards
for joining with something like this, as well as true up cuts. I think you
could even add moulding blades to a setup like this to make mouldings.
At issue right now is that this setup would require a
feeding mechanism, and that I haven’t figured out yet. A machinists’ feed is
far too heavy for this application, and would make the feature of a tilting
table difficult, if not impossible, just by their sheer size alone.
I’m working on it, though, and if I get one that works, I’m
going to call it a Boarding Shoot.