Dynamic Duo (Essential Planes Part I)

During the set-up for Handworks 2013 the weather was lovely (the bitter cold front moved in overnight as we were preparing for the Studley presentation), and my booth was tucked into a corner adjacent to the Lee Valley/Veritas mega-booth.  Mrs. Barn wandered about the Festhalle before returning to cross paths with Robin Lee as his crew finished installing their scrumptious displays.

At one point she noted the walls of hand planes, and asked Robin, “How many planes do you really need?”

His answer?   “How many planes are there?”

It could have not been more perfect had I scripted the exchange myself.  She does not know exactly how many planes I own, but it is a lot, probaby a couple hundred by the time you count all the specialty planes

As I am simultaneously building my own tool cabinet and reviewing/winnowing my own shop contents, the question of “How many planes do you really need?” has been running through my mind a lot.  I have come to the following conclusion, which I can state without fear since she does not read the blog — a lot fewer than I own.  In fact, I believe I could engage in 95% of my own work with just two planes, a jack and a block.

I have a great many planes that would fit these descriptions and nearly every variation therein.  But these two are my favorites, the ones I reach for more than any others.  The jack plane is an ancient, high-mileage lignum vitae “shipwright’s” plane (I am an absolute sucker for vintage  rosewood and lignum planes and own several), unmarked, simple in design, and outfitted with a slightly cambered iron I keep at a razor’s edge effortlessly.  I find myself using this plane for hours at a time, especially when preparing stock for making Gragg chairs but truth be told it is my tool of choice for almost any stock-planing exercise.  Yes, I have many longer, fancier and more noteworthy stock prep planes but given the nature of my work over the past and coming decades, this is the one for me.

My other favorite is this low-angled Excelsior sleigh bodied block plane that like the lignum jack was probably in a box lot of tools from an auction or flea market, the details of which are lost in the mists of time long past.  I do recall it was a filthy mess when I finally retrieved it from the pile, but once I got it cleaned and tuned it is an absolute treasure.  With a tap or two from the iron-setting hammer it can be hogging off material to make a softwood door fit its frame or remove gossamer hardwood shavings as it performs exquisitely as a smoother.  Again, I have many smoother planes from renown makers and none surpass this little gem.  It might in fact be one of the three favorite tools I own along with the ball peen hammer with the curly maple handle, a gift from my long-time consigliere MikeM, and the tiny brass spokeshave I made when working in the pattern shop 45 years ago.  (Obviously, I am not including my Victorinox Spirit multitool; that is no mere shop tool, it is an essential component of daily life.)

I recall with amusement an exchange I had on a panel discussion with a famed furniture maker who snorted at the thought of incorporating a block plane into fine woodworking.

“A block plane has no place in a furniture makers tool kit, it is a carpenter’s tool,” he said.

I responded sotto voce with, “Well, if you need for me to help set one up for you, I will.”  Normally a jovial sort he was none too happy with my comment.  But then, he never met my sweet little Excelsior.

Up next, the three planes that round out my “Essential Planes” pantheon.  With those five planes I am up to 99% of what I do.