Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Forget About Shooting Boards...Get A Boarding Shoot...

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 time.

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 boy.

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 production costs?

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 board.

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.




  1. Have you considered putting together some Krenov style planes? Like you mentioned, he put them together without totes, and sculpted the front and rear of the planes to fit his hands. They get the hands quite close to the work as well, because they aren't as tall as traditional wood bodied planes.

  2. Interesting idea.

    Japanese super surfacers work on the same principle, but are generally used on the face of the board. The wood is fed through at high speed with a conveyor belt, and many machines have auto return and are programmable for multiple passes. Thinking it might be profitable for you to look there for design ideas for a feeding mechanism...

  3. I have seen the Krenov planes, Simon, and they are pretty cool. While Krenov is getting the credit for this type of build, he actually wasn't the first to build planes this way. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, when a special plane was needed for a one-off job, the craftsmen often would build it in the Krenov fashion, although they wouldn't spend the time working the shape like Krenov does.

    Chris, those supersurfacers are pretty amazing pieces of machinery, aren't they. I'm not sure they will work for this boarding shoot application, though, as what I'm looking for is a manual type of feed; turn the handle a bit and the stock moves towards the plane a fraction. I still want to do the "hand work" by pushing the stock sled myself.

    I appreciate the comments you guys made, though. It shows that there are some woodworkers out there that are open to discussion about things. When you ask how to work a traditional tool, many trip over themselves to help you out. When you ask a question about the traditional design of that tool, however, most scoff and shake their heads. It is pretty sad, actually. If no-one asked questions, we would still be scrapping wood with rocks.


  4. Mitchell

    This rumination was among the most intriguing and thought provoking as I have run across in some time. I will have to digest it for a while bit I suspect you may be on to something profound here. I note that I have incrementally gravitated back to older tool forms, For example, I notice that I reach for my wooden coffin smoother and wooden horned foreplane much more than I used to. As a practical matter I could reach for almost anything, but these un-toted tools are the ones that seem the most comfortable. To that end I am making a set of wooden bodied planes from some exquisite, uber-dense vintage cherry, to reflect these same ideas you articulate here. I can hardly wait for the test drives later this spring or early summer.

    Don Williams

  5. I'm pleased it had the effect on you I was hoping for, Don. It isn't easy discussing designs of traditional tools with woodworkers. We can sometimes be an ornery and protective breed.

    Designing for manufacturing has defined so much in our lives, from the homes we live in to the pens we write with. If any manufactured product can be reworked to bring down the costs of production, why would mass-produced woodworking tools be exempt?

    I'm not saying I'm right. I'm just questioning whether the design for the planes we covet evolved from function or production costs?