Monday, October 9, 2017

New Article in Popular Woodworking

In this month's issue of Popular Woodworking, I have an article (my first!) on making a double iron coffin smoothing plane. Here's a link to a description of the article, and here's a link to purchase, should you be so inclined.

I didn't choose the title--Popular Woodworking likes puns more than the NY Post does!--but I'm very happy with how it all turned out. Megan Fitzpatrick originally asked me to write a seven-page article. A few months later, I emailed her to say "I have a problem. I've written 15 pages and I'm not done yet." But somehow, she managed to condense it down to 10 pages, without omitting any essential content.

I tried to put everything I could think of into this article, but after it was done, I realized there was one thing I didn't mention: no matter how complete an article is, it can never substitute for learning at the School of Hard Knocks. I tried to include everything I've learned over the past five years about avoiding all the pitfalls in planemaking, but you know what? The only way to really learn about those pitfalls is to experience them. You'll probably make some mistakes on your first plane. You might even have to start over. But if you want to make a plane, persevere, and you'll get there. I won't pretend it's easy, but it's not rocket science, either.

If anyone out there has comments or questions, feel free to post below.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Five Random Observations from Handworks 2017

A packed crowd watching Roy Underhill speaking in the Festhalle barn.

After 2300 miles and a couple herniated discs, I am back from my first Handworks. It is still kind of a blur, and I will need a few more days to process the enormity of the event, but here are a few observations.

1. Wow, there are a lot of hand tool aficionados out there. For two solid days, I had a constant stream of visitors stopping by my bench to say hi, try my planes, and chat about planing, sharpening, hand tools, whatever. I bet a couple hundred people took at least one of my planes for a drive. It was an invigorating experience. Anyone who says hand tools are dying out would have their mind changed by this event.

2. The Abraham clan is amazing. In most walks of life, an event with a couple thousand attendees and a couple hundred participants would need a small army of full-time, paid workers. The Abrahams--Jameel, his brother and father, along with some extended family and friends--somehow put on this whole massive event, and pulled it off without a hitch. I'm in awe. Jameel and family, thank you so much!

3. Social media sucks. Platforms like Instagram are great places to post work and connect with other craftspeople, but it doesn't take much for them to seem like a cross between The Stepford Wives and Lord of the Flies. For the last week, I've been bombarded by posts about the "community" at Handworks and how awesome it was, and if I see another I might lobotomize myself with an auger bit and a Yankee brace. The funny thing is, this "community" doesn't seem to include most of the talented toolmakers at Handworks--it's a club for the people with the most "followers," or those who have the most photogenic smiles. In that respect, it's more like high school than a community. Remind me to seriously curtail my use of social media this year--I think we've all got better things to do.

4. Wow, there are a lot of amazing toolmakers out there. The toolmakers at Handworks were an amazing group. I had some wonderful, in-depth conversations with  Larry Williams and Don McConnell of Old Street, Matt Bickford, Ron Brese, Nick Dombrowski (Lake Erie), Aaron and Alan from Walke-Moore, Don Williams, Jeremiah Wilding, Tico Vogt, and many others. And I got to catch up with a lot of great folks like Chris Schwarz, Megan Fitzpatrick, Dan Schwank (Red Rose Reproductions), Chris Kuehn (Sterling toolworks), and Konrad Sauer (apologies to anyone I'm forgetting). My only frustration is that I was so busy that it was hard to get away from the bench, so there were a lot of folks I didn't get to meet (particularly all the folks in the Greenwood barn), and I really regret that. Hopefully I will get to meet them the next time around.

5. Roy Underhill has mad skillz. OK, no surprise. But Roy came by my bench and put the jack, try, and smoother through their paces, and it was an incredible thing to watch. I have done a bunch of shows before Handworks, and have probably seen at least a thousand people try my planes. No joke, I have never seen someone as fluid with a plane as Roy. At shows, I keep the jack set for a pretty aggressive cut, and a lot of people really struggle with it. Roy just ripped off huge shavings, effortlessly, not because he's got incredible hulk strength, but because he's got terrific form. In fact, I need to write a whole blog post on that, but in the mean time, enjoy this clip of Roy with one of my smoothers, and (hopefully) see you at Handworks next time.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Handworks Here We Come

This weekend, I'll be exhibiting at Handworks in Amana, Iowa. If you are attending, please stop by to see me in the Millwright's shop, where I'll be holed up with Bad Axe, Mortise and Tenon Magazine, Walke-Moore Tools, J. Wilding, and Fine Tool Journal. It should be a lot of fun!

Also, just a quick programming note. Yes, it has been forever since I blogged last. Remember that you can see what Voigt Planes is up to on a regular basis by clicking on the the Instagram badge on the right. Follow me, if that's your thing, or just have a look once in a while--I post work in progress and various musings on a pretty regular basis.

Hope to see many of you in Iowa this weekend!

Friday, October 14, 2016

Guest post on Brian Holcombe's Blog

A nice shot of two of my smoothers, that didn't make it into Brian's blog because of my Stone Age understanding of technology.

Brian Holcombe is one of the most interesting hand tool-based woodworkers I know. He makes fantastic furniture influenced by Japanese furniture, mid-century modernism, and various strands of contemporary studio furniture. What really stands out, apart from his excellent design sensibility, is his meticulous joinery and super-clean hand planed surfaces.

Brian asked me to write a guest post for his blog, and I was very happy to do so. The post is here, and Brian's homepage is here. I highly recommend taking some time to read through the blog--there's a wealth of great information and wonderful photographs. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

At Hearne Hardwoods This Weekend

This Friday, 9/30, and Saturday, 10/1, I'll be demonstrating at the Hearne Hardwoods open house in Oxford, PA. There will be a a number of great demonstrators in attendance; In particular, I'm looking forward to seeing Isaac Smith of Blackburn tools. If you are in the area, please come by, say hi, and try some planes. I'll have my usual assortment of smoothers, jacks, and try planes. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Double Iron, Part III

Clockwise from top: Butcher cap iron, early 19th century; Mathieson cap iron, late 19th century; Stanley cap iron, early 20th century, Hock cap iron, late 20th century; Voigt cap iron, 2016.

In parts I and II of this series, I focused on how woodworkers and writers viewed the double iron from the mid-18th century to the mid-20th. Here in Return of the Jedi part III,  I'll look at how this understanding evolved--twice--in more recent times. Let's start with an interesting passage from The Joiner and Cabinetmaker, a fantastic book originally published in 1839, then republished in 2009 by Lost Art Press, with commentary by Joel Moskowitz and considerable new material by Christopher Schwarz. Here is the original text:

In Mahogany…the workman often finds the grain running one way in one part of the board, and the other way in another part, so that he cannot plane both smooth. To remedy this inconvenience, the cabinet-maker's planes are furnished with a double iron; that is, an iron with a flat dull edge is screwed on the face of the cutting iron, so as to prevent the shavings chipping up against the grain. And the more cross-grained the wood is, the closer does the cabinet-maker bring down the dull iron towards the edge of the sharp one, and the finer are his shavings in consequence. The joiner's trying-plane and smoothing-plane, if not his jack also, are likewise furnished with these double irons, to be ready to use with hard and cross-grained woods. But when he is planing straight-grained deal [pine], he keeps the dull iron at a good distance, perhaps an eighth of an inch from the cutting edge…

If you've read parts I and II of this series, you will find the above passage completely unremarkable. Like virtually every other 19th century writer on the subject, our author describes the double iron as the normal remedy against tearout in difficult or reversing grain. The only unusual part of the text is the use of the term "dull iron"; however, recall from part II that Holtzapffel described the cap iron as "moderately sharp," so perhaps it was common to refer to the cap iron as less sharp than the cutting iron.

No, the interesting part is not the original text, but rather the commentary that Joel Moskowitz adds:

 Clark and Williams, the planemakers, have pretty much conclusively shown that the best of the smoothing planes from the late 18th century, a golden age of hand cabinetry, were single irons with a high pitch. Their point is that a fine mouth and a high angle are more important for planing difficult wood than is a double iron. Larry Williams also said that during the 19th century, plane quality deteriorated, and that the double iron at a lower bed angle was adequate for most of the market (joiners), and this squeezed out the dedicated cabinetmaker's tools. Here we see a contemporary reference that suggests otherwise, but the reference cannot be taken at face value (emphases mine). 

The comment that the reference "cannot be taken at face value" is extraordinary, considering that virtually every other period reference makes the exact same claims. But Joel is one of the most knowledgeable experts in hand tool woodworking, and I quote him not to poke fun, but rather to illustrate what had become the common wisdom about the double iron in the late 20th/ early 21st century. At that time, a narrative had emerged, and that narrative was spread and reinforced by teachers, writers, boutique planemakers, and large planemaking companies. In a nutshell, it went like this: Cap irons don't control tearout. They serve only to stiffen the blade, and they were more a convenience to manufacturers than an aid to woodworkers. If you want to plane tearout-free surfaces, you need either a high (above 45°) cutting angle, a tight mouth, or both.

This narrative was extremely influential. In addition to Clark and Williams (now Old Street tool), nearly every other boutique planemaker produced high-angle, tight-mouthed single iron planes. The big planemaking companies began to emphasize bevel-up planes (which can use high cutting angles and don't have cap irons) and high-angle frogs (which allowed users of bevel-down planes to have 50° or 55° degree cutting angles). Woodworking writers extolled the virtues of these newer options, and so common-pitch bevel-down planes like the venerable Stanley/Bailey pattern, or the common double-iron woodie, came to be seen as inferior: suitable for rough work and carpentry, but not fine woodworking. Which is quite ironic: you may remember that back in part II of this series, I quoted David Denning, who wrote in 1891 that while planes "are made with both double and single irons, it should be said that the latter, though cheaper, are not suitable for cabinet working."

At this point, I need to issue a couple of disclaimers. First, I believed this narrative as much as anyone else. I was completely convinced. Hindsight is 20-20 and Monday morning quarterbacks always win, so I can't criticize folks who doubted the double iron without criticizing myself. Second, the proponents of high angles and tight mouths weren't wrong about the effectiveness of those methods: they definitely work. The only error was the claim that double irons don't work.

Today, the narrative I've been describing still has plenty of proponents. But starting around 2012, a counter-narrative began to emerge and gather critical mass. And the counter-narrative was simple: The old guys were right. All those writers from the 18th and 19th centuries were telling the truth: cap irons really do control tearout more effectively than any other method. Cap irons fell out of favor because it's hard to explain in words, or even in photographs, how to set the cap iron close enough to control tearout. It's hard to teach yourself how to use the cap iron. And so there was a collective forgetting of how to use the cap iron.

What changed? The catalyst was in 2012, when Bill Tindall obtained permission to use an English-subtitled version of the Kato/Kawai video, with Mia Iwasaki providing the translation and Wilbur Pan hosted the video on his blog. The video shows, in crystal clear, slow motion, magnified images, the tremendous effect a cap iron can have. The video had actually been available for some time, but having the subtitles made it accessible to a wider audience. Bill publicized the video on the Wood Central hand tool forum, where an older gentleman, Warren Mickley, had insisted for years that double irons were the best remedy against tearout. Two younger woodworkers, David Weaver and Kees van der Heiden, took up Warren's challenge and taught themselves to use the double iron, much as it had been described in all the old references. Kees published two videos, and David published an article, describing the technique in a way that was accessible to modern readers. You can find the videos and article in the links of interest page on my website; they remain some of the best, clearest demonstrations of how to use the cap iron. Later, Kees and Wilbur would publish an article in Popular Woodworking magazine, and better-known woodworkers like Chris Schwarz and Richard Maguire would help knowledge of the cap iron reach a wider audience. Today many woodworkers, probably thousands, have discovered how the double iron can be an incredibly effective remedy against tearout.

And that, in a nutshell, is the story (so far) of the double iron. I'll close by referring back to Holtzapffel, whom I quoted in part II. In 1843, Holtzapffel described the use of the double iron in great detail, but he also discussed how high angles, tight mouths, and even bevel-up mitre planes can all help to mitigate tearout. All these approaches work. I happen to believe that the double iron is, as Peter Nicholson wrote, the "most complete remedy" for dealing with difficult grain, but that, dear reader, is for you to decide.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Double Iron, Part II

Diagram of a double iron from Turning and Mechanical Manipulation by Charles Holtzapffel (1843)

In Part 1 of this series, I presented evidence that 18th century woodworkers viewed the double iron as a revolutionary technology that was more effective in combating tearout than any other method. An interesting feature of the 18th century writings I quoted is that they give no specifics: No measurements, no angles, nothing. They just describe how the cap iron works in very general terms.

In the 19th century, writers start attempting to describe the operation of the cap iron in more precise terms. The most important of these is surely Turning and Mechanical Manipulation by Charles Holtzapffel (1843). After describing how a narrow mouth opening can reduce tearout, Holtzapffel writes:

The same effects are obtained in a much superior manner in the planes with double irons … the top iron is not intended to cut, but to present a more nearly perpendicular wall for the ascent of the shavings, the top iron more effectually breaks the shavings, and is thence sometimes called the break iron … the top iron has a true edge, which is also moderately sharp … the top iron is placed from one-sixteenth to one-fiftieth of an inch from the edge of the cutter.

Holtzapffel adds two critical facts that were missing in earlier descriptions. First, the cap iron should actually be sharp. Second, the cap iron should present a more nearly perpendicular wall for the ascent of the shavings, so it should make a roughly 45° angle to the blade at the tip; when this is added to the 45° bed angle, we get the 90 degree "perpendicular wall."

So far, so good. But on the crucial question of distance from the cutting edge, Holtzapffel misses the mark. One-fiftieth of an inch, or .020", is off by a factor of two or three. The big payoff with a cap iron, in terms of tearout reduction, happens when it's set .010" or a less from the cutting edge. Anyone following Holtzapffel's instructions to the letter would have to conclude that cap irons weren't very effective. I'll come back to this, but let's continue on…

Many other 19th century writers discuss the double iron, but the range of measurements given is wide. James Lukin, in Our Workshop: Being a Practical Guide to the Amateur in the Art of Carpentry and Joinery (1879), writes:

The break iron of the jack planes is generally fixed, so that its edge…is one-sixteenth behind the edge of the cutter. If the break iron be set back, say one-eighth of an inch, it will not bend the shavings sufficiently, and the planing will very probably be rough. The nearer the edges of the irons are to each other…the smoother will be the work produced, but the labour of driving the plane will be much increased.

As an aside, Lukin also writes that

Planes having single irons are much less laborious to handle, but the work executed by them is neither so smooth nor so truthful as that of the double-ironed description. The shavings escape in long curls or ribands from a single iron, and the surface of the work is left somewhat rough. It is a good plan to remove the first exterior and dirt from a plank with a single-ironed plane, after which the jack and smoothing planes will work pleasantly, and retain their edges for a longer time.

Francis Young, author of Every Man his Own Mechanic (1882) writes:

… when the jack plane is required for heavy work… the edge of the break iron should be about 1/8" from the edge of the cutter, but for finer work it should not be more than 1/20" from the latter; and in the smoothing plane the distance between the edges of the two irons should be less than this, indeed so slight as to be perceptible, but nothing more.

One other 19th century source worth mentioning is The Art and Craft of Cabinetmaking by David Denning (1891). Not so much for his description of the double iron, which is familiar and rather cursory, but rather for his comparison of double vs. single irons:

For coarse, rough work… the mouth may be set comparatively wide, and the edge of the back iron be set one-eighth of an inch from that of the other; while for fine work… the mouth is narrow and the cutting edge only very slightly in advance of the other. In any double iron plane, the nearer the two edges are together the finer will be the shaving, but the labour of planing will be increased. From this it will be seen that the relative positions of the two irons is of considerable importance, and that within certain limits, the planes can be regulated to suit the work on hand. As jack, trying and smoothing planes are made with both double and single irons, it should be said that the latter, though cheaper, are not suitable for cabinet working.

Writers from the first half of the 20th century continue in a similar vein; two excerpts will suffice to illustrate. The prolific author Charles Hayward wrote about the double iron repeatedly throughout his long career; a search of the recently released The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years turns up more than a dozen explanations of how to set the cap iron. Here's a representative example:

Its [the cap iron's] purpose is to break the shaving as it is raised, and so minimize any tendency of the grain to tear out. The closer to the edge it is set the more effective it becomes, but the greater the resistance it offers. For the jack plane it can be set about 1/16" from the edge; the trying plane (when set fine) about 1/32", the smoothing plane 1/32" or less.

Elsewhere, Hayward gives a diagram showing incorrect (Figure 10) and correct (Figure 11) shapes for the cap iron:

Finally, the book Planecraft, originally published in 1934 by C.W. Hampton, gives the following recommendation:

For rough work, [set the] cap iron 1/32" to 1/16" from edge. For finishing work… 1/64" to 1/16". For hardwoods with irregular grain… as close as you can get it to the cutting edge.

This last excerpt is quite interesting, because it's the only one that accurately conveys how the cap iron should be set: up to 1/64" from the edge for normal circumstances, and (implicitly) closer than 1/64" for hardwoods with difficult grain.


So far in this series, I've presented excerpts spanning nearly 200 years. I think we can conclude three things about the authors of these writings: one, they believed that double irons were superior to single irons or any other method of controlling tearout; two, they agreed that the cap iron must be set close to the cutting edge; and three, they were (excluding the author of Planecraft) terrible at conveying just how close the cap iron needed to be set. So why did these guys fail so badly at this task?

I think there are two reasons. First, the earliest writers were not writing the kind of how-to manual for amateurs that modern readers are used to. In the 18th century, nobody learned woodworking from reading a book--the only way to learn the craft was as an apprentice. Nicholson and Salivet were describing, not instructing. it would not have occurred to a craftsman like Peter Nicholson to give a precise description, with exact measurements, of how to set a cap iron. If he had wanted to show someone how, he would have simply demonstrated it.

Later writers like Lukin, Young, and Denning were writing for amateurs, but I think they fell short for a different reason. A clue may be found in the book The Tool Chest of Benjamin Seaton. As Jay Gaynor and Peter Ross explain:

The workmen who made these tools as well as those who used them often shaped or fitted their work by sight or touch … rather than by inches and fractions. Rules were divided only to 1/8". Micrometers were in their earliest stages of development. On a workaday basis, most metal- and woodworkers didn't think in terms of smaller mathematical dimensions. They were unimportant as long as the result looked right and worked well.

In the 19th century, smaller fractional divisions gradually became more common, but divisions above 1/32" or at most 1/64" were rare. Today, we take it for granted that we can buy cheap dial calipers that accurately read in thousandths of an inch; we can roll down to the auto parts store and buy feeler gauges that give us fixed references for any distance between .001" and up, or we can used mass produced goods like paper (.003") or playing cards (.012") to create a frame of reference. But in the 19th century they didn't have cheap calipers, or mass-produced and standardized goods. In short, the authors I've quoted weren't bad at measuring, or describing; they simply lacked the language and frames of reference to accurately convey tiny dimensions in writing.

This point turns out to have very important implications for the use of the double iron. In the apprenticeship culture of the 18th century, where everything was learned by direct demonstration, it was easy to transmit the workings of the double iron from master to apprentice, or father to son. But from the 1880s until today, an ever-increasing number of hand-tool woodworkers have been amateurs learning from books and magazines. And let's face it, it would be extremely difficult to teach yourself the use of the double iron from any of the books I've quoted in this post. As a result, there was a gradual forgetting of the original purpose and function of the double iron, a forgetting that culminated in the misguided notion that the double iron was not only incapable of controlling tearout, but had never been intended to do so. But that is a subject for Part 3.