James Krenov called hand planes “the violins of the woodworker’s orchestra”. I never got what he meant by that exactly other than to express his own reverence for this group of hand tools. I have never played a violin, but I have learned, over four decades of using hand planes, that the nuances of the tools and the skills needed to master them take rigorous attention to detail and years of practice to truly master.
The tools themselves are really quite simple, as are the techniques needed to control them. But that’s exactly what makes their mastery so elusive. Like the subtle and invisible movements that make a violin’s tones resonate with our soul, what sets a master’s touch apart from the journeyman’s is felt rather than seen. What is happening in the actual cut that makes the wood glisten from masterful planing is microscopic and as such can be talked about and demonstrated, but not witnessed through the eyes.
In the late 80’s, after making chairs for several years and attempting to master spokeshaves, I hit a wall of frustration in my inability to get the results Krenov spoke about so poetically in his books. In response, I vowed not to make another chair until I learned how to get the results I thought I should be able to get from the tools I used every day.
The challenge I set up for myself was to be able to get a perfectly tear-free and glistening cut from each of my edge tools. I chose quilted maple, the most difficult wood I knew at the time, as the test wood. With the shop cleaned and my chair orders set aside, I turned my little shop into a classroom and my focus toward learning and practice.
And learn I did. One of the biggest lessons I took from what turned out to be just a week of focus (I already had years of experience) was how much more quickly one can learn with focused practice than in the course of making.
In making any furniture, the goal is to build excellent pieces. Even if mastery is part of one’s vision, when focused on making, the experience and attention toward learning is usually subordinated to the task list.
In this week of focused practice and study, my understanding of my tools accelerated and my understanding of what I could not see evolved significantly. By the end of the week, I was able to get my drawknife, spokeshave, handplane, and scraper to cut a beautiful finish on this ornery sample of tormented wood grain. While I am still learning 35 years later, I lean on those lessons for answers to current challenges and, if I need to, I will stop to practice and focus again in the spirit of learning. In this mindset, I am almost always able to figure out what needs to be adjusted or tuned up.
I have shared these lessons with hundreds of students since then, but haven’t taught in person in years other than to our employees. As a way of returning to teaching again, we have just finished editing the first of a series of videos on hand tools where I share the lessons that I hope continue to elevate and help your own understanding of these instruments. The extent to which your hand tool skills develop or don’t greatly defines and confines the pleasure of a day’s work in the shop.
I hope you enjoy the videos and, in turn, increase your enjoyment of your hand work.