Archive for ◊ April, 2011 ◊

• Friday, April 29th, 2011

Myth: a well-tuned handplane is the best choice for final wood surfacing prior to applying the finish

Reality: Sometimes yes, but it depends.

Disclaimer: Because I am the writer, “reality” is through my eyes. Yours may differ. I recognize an element of subjectivity in issues such as this. Nonetheless, the “myth – reality” approach has a nice jolt to it, and this blog is about woodworking, not metaphysics. (I work wood. Therefore, I am?)

The method to produce the most desirable surface on the wood prior to finishing depends on the wood, the finish that will be applied, and the physical circumstances of the piece.

This is best demonstrated by a set of examples.

A dense, hard, small-pore wood such as bubinga, with either an oil or a film finish such as varnish, will look every bit as good with fine hand sanding as with the most careful planing. A flat surface could be completed with planing or finished off with sanding, while rasps, scrapers and sandpaper could be used for a curvy leg. All will look equally good when finished.

On the other hand, Port Orford cedar looks resplendent directly from a sharp smoothing plane, with a clarity that sanding cannot match. I like this beautifully fragrant wood without any finish.

What about curly big-leaf maple, one of my favorites? A well-tuned smoothing plane with a high cutting angle can handle it but I feel that sanding, finishing by hand with 320 or 400 grit, produces an equally beautiful appearance when the piece is finished with gel varnish, my preference for big-leaf. I use whichever method is easier for the circumstances.

Curly cherry is a difficult one. After experimenting with various samples, I am convinced that sanding muddies the figure, which looks inferior to the clarity produced by planing, and this effect persists even with a thin film finish such as padded shellac or wipe-on varnish. The same is generally true, though less so, for curly pearwood with a thin water-base acrylic finish.

Mahogany? I find that hand sanding and planing yield surfaces that look the same under shellac or varnish. This wood is so often rowey that I usually find it easier to complete the surface preparation with sandpaper. Oaks? Both methods seem to work equally well in most cases. Claro walnut? It depends on the figure and the choice of finish but I plane when I can since it does seem to preserve clarity when an oil finish is used.

There are other considerations, such as the peaceful, dust-free experience of planing. Planing is usually faster than sanding, maintains the trueness of a surface more reliably, and usually produces crisper edges. On the other hand, edge tools are often impractical for contoured work, yet we can use rasps, scrapers, and sandpaper to sensitively produce the desired shapes.

The point is that it depends! In making choices for surfacing, the woodworker has to consider the wood, the intended finish, and the circumstances of the piece, and may need to do some experimenting. You must be observant and make choices based on your concept of the piece, not on purist generalizations. Trust your perceptiveness and judgement, more than what anyone, including me, tells you.

Category: Ideas  | Comments off
• Monday, April 11th, 2011

Veritas Tools, the manufacturing arm of Lee Valley, makes excellent tools, delivers outstanding customer service, and has added numerous innovative products to the woodworking world. However, the totes (rear handles) on their planes are another matter. Maybe some woodworkers like them, but I, like many others, can only wonder, “What were they thinking?” I feel that the Veritas tote is graceless and unfriendly to the hand, especially for a long session of planing.

After experimenting with options to accommodate Veritas’ two-bolt mounting system, which I wrote about here, I decided it was better to stick to furniture and leave this job to an expert, especially after getting in touch with Bill Rittner, who already was producing handles for vintage Stanley planes. I came to realize that making excellent plane handles is harder than it first seems.

Bill and I corresponded for months as I tested his prototypes and gave feedback while Bill sweated every nuance of a comfortable and functional tote and knob for these planes. His handles have subtle shaping that really matters to a craftsman. Furthermore, he came up with a simple, effective solution for the Veritas mounting system that permits a more curvy, friendly handle than the OEM.

Bill’s toolmaking skill and insight was evident throughout the development process, just as it is in the final product. Wow! The handles feel great right away and just as superb after a long session of planing. They install with zero fuss and lock down as snug and solid as you could want. And don’t they look great?! I’ve got them on my Veritas bevel-up smoother, low-angle jack, and large scraping plane. Even the finish is just right – silky smooth but not slippery or glossy.

Ahh, relief at last. Now I enjoy my Veritas planes without misgivings. What else can I say? Dump those OEM clunkers but don’t go it alone. Contact Bill at and have him make a set for you. I think you will be very pleased.

[As usual, this review is unsolicited and unpaid.]

Addendum 2/3/2012: Bill’s great plane handles are available from his Hardware City Tools website