I started to take woodworking more seriously as a hobby when we moved into our first house. I bought a collection of cheap power tools at an auction, some of which I still have, and setup a small workshop on our back stoep. This being a townhouse complex, I was limited as to how much noise I could make, and greatly restricted by how often I could get my wife to come and hold a piece of wood while I cut it. Despite the restrictions I made a couple of pieces of furniture including a bed-set complete with bed base and side tables. I also made a cot for my brother’s first born girl. Looking back, I don’t think either were very elegant, but they were fit for purpose and matched my skill level. I also learnt a great deal building those; mostly that if I was going to get anymore serious about this hobby, I was going to have to invest in more tools and gain some serious skills. Over the years I have been fortunate to accumulate a lot more of both.
Until recently, most of the tools I have acquired have been power tools. Power tools are simple way to get the job done in as short a time as possible. There is a short learning curve to figure out how to use them. With the wide range of tools and prices to suit almost any pocket, anyone can get started as a maker. YouTube and other websites are a great source of learning materials, and other social media sites like Pintrest and Instagram are amazing sources of inspiration.
However, I have recently started to experiment more and more with hand tools. This has partly been driven because of a desire to make better quality pieces, but also out of necessity. Two recent factors contributed to me learning how to use a hand plane. The first was when one of my workhorse tools, my Ryobi planer/thicknesser died. It had served me well for over ten years and, like all my Ryobi tools had performed above and beyond what it was made for. It would no longer feed wood through the thicknesser and when I stripped it to find out why, I discovered that the shafts on the gears had worn out. I guess I could probably have replaced them, but decided it was time for it to be retired.
My wife found a Makita thicknesser online and purchased it for me as a “late Christmas, early birthday, now stop bothering me and go to your workshop”, present. That solved one half of the problem. I still needed to be able to flatten and joint boards. I was about to start working on a project making a toy chest from Kiaat, at the time that my Ryobi planer/thicknesser died.
I own two hand planes: a German made No. 3 plane I inherited from my wife’s grandfather and a Stanley Bailey No. 4 that belonged to my dad. Besides shaving doors to fit into door jams, I had never had any success with planes in the past, mostly from ignorance and lack of skill. (In fact it was for fitting new doors in our old house that I originally borrowed the No. 4 from my dad, and had failed to return it. I guess after 15 years, he is not going to miss it and I can consider it mine. Sorry Dad.) The second factor was Eskom. No power means no power tools, and load shedding was having a devastating affect on my woodworking efforts.
That weekend, I hauled out the No. 4 and after a couple of YouTube tutorials, figured out where I was going wrong. I sharpened the blade, set it, tested it and suddenly, was jointing boards by hand. I also figured out that this was the wrong plane and started hunting for a No. 7. It took about 2 minutes online to find what I needed. It seems that there are a large number of people selling old tools on online platforms, and high quality and vintage tools are easy to come by. I found a seller, and made a deal. That Monday, after work, I passed by his place and collected my new plane.
It was not in working order, and needed a little TLC to bring it back to life. Like my vice, it was rusted and a little rough around the edges but a solid vintage tool. I stripped it back to bare metal and cleaned up the rust. A couple of coats of hammered enamel later and a few hours of work flattening the sole and it looked like new. The only problem was I couldn’t get a decent edge on the blade. The blade was too large to fit into my honing guide and wider than my sharpening stone.
A trip to the local hardware store turned up a really neat sharpening wheel that attached to the drill. It was water-cooled so did not overheat the metal. I tried it on my chisels first, figuring I could always fix those easily if I messed it up. It gave them a neat, clean edge that I could hone using water-paper and a sheet of glass. My No. 3 and No. 4 blades were next and I soon had a collection of silky smooth wood curls collecting at my feet. But the No. 7 was just too large to fit into the rig. I had to improvise, and built my own sharpening jig using some carefully angled wood. Once I had that sorted was able to bring the plane to full use.
And so I learnt how to joint and flatten boards by hand. It is a lot of hard work, and not something I intend doing very often. I have a great deal of respect for craftsman who earned their living this way in the pre-power tool era. Power tools are great at getting a board to 90% ready for a good finish, adding hand tools gives me that extra 5% for a great finish. Skill will eventually get me that last 5%.
I managed to finish my project on time. It was for a couple that were expecting their first baby. They asked for a toy chest. The Kiaat was reasonably flat to start with but not flat enough for the thicknesser. A couple of passes with the No. 7 got it flat enough to go through the thicknesser to get it to size. I jointed the sides using the No. 7 and ran them through the table saw to get them perfectly square. A few passes with the No. 4 and the saw marks were cleared creating a tight fitting joint. These were joined into panels using biscuits and PVA wood glue. More biscuits and some pocket-holes got the chest assembled. A few passes over the joins with the No. 3 to clean the edges and it was perfect. A live edge lip completed the lid and 4 coats of polyurethane for a long lasting satin finish completed the piece.
For the long haul, I purchased a second hand industrial quality 8 inch jointer. It has been refurbished and I am still tweaking it, but can flatten and joint relatively quickly now. The No. 7 and No.4 are in regular use to create clean sharp sides and finish joined boards.
As for my other hand tools: I dug out the Stanley sureform that accompanied the inherited No. 3, and replaced the rasp blade. Its now regularly used to cut and rough shape pieces. I also sourced a Stanley No 80 Scraper for adding a silky smooth finish. I have started using chisels more often. My planes are now in constant use and mounted in easy reach of my vice. I am still some way away from hand cut dovetail joints, but that is starting to look less and less intimidating.