The Japanese Handplane Part 5: The Chipbreaker

A 60mm plane blade with its chipbreaker resting on the ura as when installed into the wooden body. Please note that there are no screws connecting these two parts making it a simple and reliable system.

There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.

Benjamin Franklin

In this fifth post in our series about the Japanese handplane, we will discuss a single component of the handplane, the chipbreaker.

Professional woodworkers that use handplanes daily usually have this simple widget thoroughly figured out, but your humble servant has been asked to clarify why the chipbreaker is necessary and how to make it work so many times recently that I can no longer gracefully avoid my duty to share a more complete, BS-free written explanation with Beloved Customers, may the hair on their toes ever grow long.

As always, this post is intended to provide a bit of insight, or at least a different viewpoint, to our Beloved Customers, many of whom are professional woodworkers and Luthiers.

This is a longish article. If your humble servant was a lazy man I would simply state stand-alone conclusions as have so many with half-baked knowledge of handplanes, and leave it up to Beloved Customer to figure out the why of things on your own, but that would be boorish behavior.

Even if you already know everything there is know about the chipbreaker, you may still find a new crunchy tidbit or two if you look.

Factors Critical to Controlling Tearout

The sole purpose of the chipbreaker is to control, and whenever possible, completely prevent the unsightly and wasteful tearout that often appears when using a handplane to surface wood. We will examine the causes of and some solutions to tearout below, but let’s begin this discussion by examining factors critical to controlling/eliminating tearout that actually take precedence over the chipbreaker. Your efforts to control tearout should always begin with these factors. But first allow me to share a story.

Back in the mists of time when dinosaurs roamed the earth and your humble servant was but a slender young man with much more hair on his head and far less dignity under his belt, I liked to think I had a sound understanding of both steel and wooden Western-style planes, but I knew little of Japanese planes. Later I was blessed with the opportunity to learn about the Japanese handplane in Japan from master craftsmen.

As is the case with excellent craftsmen of all ages, these gentlemen talked very little but assigned me what seemed at the time to be daunting work assignments.

While they would allow me to examine their tools and observe their techniques in-person, the only instruction they would provide initially were two or three-word critiques of my frequent mistakes. I understand now that they were kind gentlemen, albeit 40~50 years older than me, but at the time this apprenticeship-style of training was frustrating. Only when I showed progress would their answers stretch to 5 or 6 words because, unlike your humble servant at the time, (here is wisdom) they understood that only experience obtained through many failures and a few successes can produce true learning

The first assignments given me were to sharpen everything in the workshop that would hold still long enough to touch with a stone, from axes and adzes to chisels, handplanes and even saws. This went on for months. They weren’t being mean, just wise, because sharpening is the first and most important woodworking skill. Only when I had mastered all aspects of blade preparation and sharpening did they share further light and knowledge with me.

They then assigned me the task of making an old-fashioned Japanese handplane, one without a chipbreaker, entirely by hand. This was an educational effort, one that I magnificently failed twice before finally getting it right, but which taught me the three most important factors in reducing tearout in handplanes, whether with wooden or steel body, with chipbreaker or without. Those three factors can be summarized as follows:

Factor 1: The blade must be sharp. This factor depends on the quality of the blade and the skill of the person who sharpens it. We have a series of 30 posts about sharpening Japanese woodworking blades Beloved Customers may find beneficial. The series starts with this LINK.

Factor 2: The mouth opening (gap between the sole and the cutting edge) must be as tight as practically possible and still pass shavings. Please make an effort to truly understand what this means, because it is not always easily accomplished. Of course, the mouth opening of a super finishing plane intended to take transparent shavings will of necessity be narrower than that of a plane intended to dimension boards by taking thicker shavings;

Factor 3: The area on the sole directly in front of the mouth opening, a strip across the entire width of the sole of the plane and perhaps 3~6mm wide, must be true and flat and apply even pressure on the board being planed right up to the mouth opening.

Why are these three factors critical? To begin with, a dull blade won’t sever fibers cleanly but will tend to pull contrary fibers up and out of the board’s surface. Can’t have that, ergo, Factor 1.

Since the soles of handplanes wear and consequently mouth openings constantly vary, Factors 2 & 3 are dependent on the team of craftsmen that originally made the handplane as well as the craftsman/owner that uses and maintains the handplane over its lifetime.

Indeed, Factors 2 & 3 act in unison to control the movement of contrary fibers immediately before and after they contact the blade directing them into the cutting edge where they will be cleanly severed by the sharp blade, while at the same time serving to bend and buckle those fibers that would otherwise tend to develop a lever arm and tear out below the surface of the board. If this doesn’t make sense to you, please give it careful thought because you must figure it out if you intend to become proficient with handplanes.

These three factors are bedrock essential to controlling tearout regardless of the type of handplane in question and whether it has a chipbreaker or not. Beloved Customers are strongly encouraged to understand and gain absolute control of these three factors. It will take more than just reading, so consider it an assignment. Indeed, expect to screw it up royally at first and learn from your mistakes. That’s how we learn.

The Chipbreaker & Historical Lumber Processing Techniques

Two carpenters selecting a curved log to use a roof beam

To better understand the chipbreaker, Beloved Customer may find it useful to understand a few historical factors about the wood they are shaving.

Before the proliferation of the large rip saw, and especially the water-powered sawmill, the only practical method of producing boards and beams from logs was to “rive” (split) them out using wedges and axes.

The thing about logs is that not all of them have grain straight enough to produce useful lumber when riven. Large, straight, old-growth trees are most easily processed. As nearby old-growth primeval forests with tall, large, straight trees were cut down and premium logs became harder to come by, much construction and shipbuilding came to rely on more economical beams, posts and boards sawed from logs with wonky grain.

Riven wood has two convenient advantages. The first one is that, because the grain of the lumber is relatively straight and continuous, runout is reduced, making it somewhat stronger structurally. And second, the occurrence of tearout when surfacing riven lumber is often less than sawn lumber.

Unlike a carpenter team using axes and wedges, large rip saws in the hands of sawyers made practical through the proliferation of inexpensive, reliable steel, and especially the sawmill, could more easily and quickly cut long, straight boards and beams out of most any log regardless of grain direction. Consequently, logs that would have been rejected before the days of the sawmill can now be readily processed reducing the man-hours/cost of producing lumber significantly. On the other hand, the grain direction of lumber produced using large saws and sawmills tends to wander everywhere increasing runout and making the job of cleanly surfacing the boards more difficult for subsequent craftsmen. This is the situation we face now.

We don’t know when or where the chipbreaker was invented, or how the concept spread around the world, but it’s a safe bet to assume its ability to calm the wild grain of sawn lumber during surfacing was the reason for its popularity. At least, that’s how it went in Japan. Wood is wood no matter where you are.

Naturally-shaped logs used as roof beams in the restoration of a historically-significant building in Japan

Why Does Tearout Occur?

Let’s next examine some basic causes of tearout.

Please recall that wood is comprised of various types of cells, each with a job to do, but most of those that eventually become lumber specialize in transporting water up from the ground to the leaves, and nutrients formed in the leaves to the rest of the tree. Transporting literally tons of water from the roots far up into the sky is the job of continuous groups of cells that form what are effectively waterpipes. In a living tree these pipes have semi-flexible cell walls, and while they mostly grow parallel with roots, limbs and trunk, their shape is influenced by wind, rain, snowload, shifting soil, microbes, bugs and ever-changing exposure to the sun over the life of the tree, so they are seldom perfectly straight. Indeed, once dried, it’s the changes in direction of these tubular cells, often called fibers, that gives harvested lumber its beautiful grain patterns and shimmering chatoyance.

When planing with the grain, the blade severs fibers which are oriented either parallel with or sloping up to the board’s surface and angled in the plane’s direction of travel producing pretty shavings comprised of relatively short, flexible segments of fiber.

But when planing against the grain, the blade must sever fibers that are diving down into the board. Instead of consenting to being cleanly severed, often these longer, more rigid fibers tend to ride up the face of the blade, avoiding the cutting edge.

When this happens, instead of severing them cleanly, the blade tends to lever these longer fibers up out of the board’s surface until they suddenly break off below the surface of the board leaving a rough uneven surface. This damage is called “tear-out” in English and Sakame (sah/kah/meh 逆目) in Japanese, which translates directly to “reverse grain.”

The blade on the left is cutting with the grain and is unlikely to produce tearout, while the blade on right is cutting against the grain and is more likely to produce tearout.

How Does the Chipbreaker Work?

Whether the handplane in question be Western or Japanese in design, the chipbreaker, or Uragane 裏金 (oo/rah/gah/neh) as it is called in Japan, seems at first glance to provide little benefit in exchange for the added weight and complication. Indeed, if all the cuts you make when planing wood are in the direction of the grain (id est fibers either oriented parallel with, or rising up to, the surface of the board and angled away from the direction of the cut), the chipbreaker will be about as useful as pasties on a boar. But wood grain is seldom so cooperative, donchano.

With the addition of the chipbreaker, and in combination with the three factors listed above, those contrary fibers that try to ride up the face of the blade without being severed immediately run smack dab into the abrupt face of the chipbreaker thereby bending, buckling, and preventing them from developing the lever arm necessary to break them off below the surface of the board.

At the same time the collision with the chipbreaker redirects many of these mischievous fibers into the cutting edge to be severed, thereby preventing, or at least reducing, nasty tearout.

Bless us and splash us, preciousss! What a wonderful counterintuitive thing!

To better understand how the chipbreaker works, I highly recommend Beloved Customers devour, like starving little piggies, the video titled “Influence of the Cap-iron on Hand Plane,” Created by Professor Yasunori Kawai and Honorary Professor Chutaro Kato, Faculty of Education, Art and Science, Yamagata University (with subtitles). Much will come into focus after watching this.

Downsides to the Chipbreaker

While your humble servant has written glowing things about the chipbreaker, it would be less than honest to suggest all is blue bunnies and fairy farts because the chipbreaker has some downsides:

  1. The chipbreaker adds weight, complication and cost;
  2. The impact of wood fibers on the chipbreaker produces friction heat and consumes energy whether cutting with or against the grain. This energy loss is not insignificant;
  3. When cutting with the grain, the chipbreaker adds little benefit while tending to reduce the luster of the planed surface;
  4. To be effective, the chipbreaker must be setup, tuned, installed and maintained properly, requiring the user to have adequate knowledge and to put forth some effort periodically.

Despite these downsides, your humble servant believes, as millions of craftsmen have, that the chipbreaker is a component worth mastering.

Alternatives to the Chipbreak

In light of the gains and losses associated with the chipbreaker, it would be short-sighted, indeed amateurish, to assume it is always necessary, and just as short-sighted and amateurish to assume it is never necessary. So let’s examine some alternatives next.

Alternative 1: No Chipbreaker

Assuming performance is more important than convenience, the first alternative to the chipbreaker we must consider is, of course, no chipbreaker. Indeed, if you always plane with the grain of the wood, as mentioned above the chipbreaker adds no value. Indeed it may even reduce the quality of the finished surface’s appearance.

In the case of the Japanese plane, the chipbreaker can be easily and speedily removed. The resulting finish created by the plane may or may not be improved, but the force required to motivate the tool will absolutely decrease. Sadly, such cooperative wood can be elusive.

This is an excellent solution, one I highly recommend to Beloved Customers.

Alternative 2: High Bedding Angle Without a Chipbreaker

Another option with a long history worldwide is to install the cutting blade in the plane’s body at a higher bedding angle, perhaps 50~55˚+. Combined with a sharp blade, tight mouth and solid uniform contact/pressure between the board being planed and the area of the sole directly in front of the mouth opening, the more abrupt change in direction forced on shavings by this high-angle blade will then tend to buckle the long contrary fibers on its own without a chipbreaker. But no guarantees.

While a high bedding angle does indeed tend to reduce tearout, adding a chipbreaker is also a proven way to further reduce tearout in woods with contrary grain even more.

The one constant downside to a high bedding angle is the extra energy one must always expend to motivate the plane.

Alternative 3: Bevel-up Handplanes Without a Chipbreaker

Another alternative is the “bevel-up” planes that have become popular in recent years. This style of plane is not a new solution. I own some and have used them, but other than the block plane versions, I regret falling prey to specious marketing claims.

Amateurs like them because parts are fewer, maintenance is easier, and the necessary skills one must acquire are fewer.

One gentleman boldly informed me that he believes bevel-up planes to be superior to all others because he would rather spend the time it takes to master the chipbreaker into making wooden objects. By this logic, there is no need to attend school or even remove the training wheels from our bicycles. Imagine how much work we could accomplish if we stopped wasting time on stupid stuff like reedin, rightin and ritmatik! When I think of the time and money I’ve wasted on silly edumacation, my mind boggles like a weasel snacking on crystal meth….

Bevel-up planes work in the same way high bedding-angle planes do by presenting a steeper angle for contrary fibers to climb causing them to be severed or to buckle instead of tearing-out. This assumes, of course, that the blade is sharp, the mouth is tight and contact between the board being planed and the area of the sole directly in front of the mouth opening is uniform.

Sadly, the efficacy of this action is no more consistent than the high-angle blade without a chipbreaker.

The downside to the bevel-up plane is that the additional, more-consistent results afforded by a well-tuned chipbreaker are, like Heaven’s pearly gates to a California politician, forever unattainable.

Alternative 4: Back-bevels

Another alternative is the quick and dirty back bevel applied to the ura or face side of the cutting edge, as discussed in a previous post. This works for the same reason the high-angle blade does, but it is not an effective long-term solution, and certainly qualifies as tool abuse in the case of Japanese handplanes IMHO. Consider yourself well and truly warned.

Even if the “3 R’s” may be overrated, I highly recommend Beloved Customers use planes with chipbreakers and learn how to sharpen, properly setup, maintain, and adjust them for maximum results. It’s the way advanced professional woodworkers with real skills get the job done.

Keys to Making Chipbreakers Work Effectively

A naturally curved log shaped as a “Nijibari” rainbow beam at the main entrance to a Buddhist temple.

The following is a condensed list of tasks Beloved Customer needs to accomplish to get consistently good results from their chipbreakers. We will discuss all these items in greater detail in future articles in this series. I strongly encourage you to invest in yourself by developing the requisite skills:

  1. Fit the chipbreaker to the blade as lovey dovey as two newlyweds and so there is no gap between the cutting blade and extreme edge of the chipbreaker. This is not difficult to achieve, but the fit must be nearly perfect to prevent naughty shavings from wiggling between the blade and chipbreaker, because if they do get jammed, back-pressure will increase and the finished surface will look like poached crap on toast. We will discuss this more in the next post in this series;
  2. Fit the chipbreaker to both the plane’s body and retention rod so the chipbreaker will remain in-place;
  3. Grind a 70˚~80˚ striking bevel at the cutting edge of the chipbreaker to effectively buckle shavings. It doesn’t need to be a perfect bevel, and if it is rounded, that’s OK too. Yes, I know this seems ridiculously steep; If you don’t like it by all means experiment until your little pink heart sings, but after you’ve wasted a few months on hit-and-miss research, please remember that YMHOS toldjahso;
  4. Polish the striking bevel to reduce friction and prevent wood sap from building up on it too quickly. Re-polish it as necessary. If you pay attention to the condition of this abrupt bevel you will notice that it may actually become pitted from the heat and friction of the wood shavings, especially when planing wood containing hardish minerals. Total neglect will harm efficiency;
  5. Clean away wood sap from the striking face and oil it occasionally with your oilpot to reduce friction;
  6. If shavings tend to become stuck in the mouth, check to see that the chipbreaker is not so thick as to obstruct their smooth passage. If necessary, grind the chipbreaker thinner near the mouth and polish it to improve the flow of shavings;
  7. When you deem the chipbreaker necessary, install it as close as practical to the cutting edge. The ideal distance will depend on your plane, the wood you are cutting, and the depth of cut, but 0.5~0.8mm is usually a good place to start. I highly recommend you actively experiment to find the best distance. With practice it will become second nature. While it is not applicable to Japanese handplanes, Rhett Fulkerson of Nice Planes in Frankfort, Ky., has an intelligent technique for systematically setting chipbreakers and cap irons I find useful. LAP has an article about it here.

Conclusions

The chip breaker has been around a long time, not because it is easy to use or costs nothing, but only because it consistently works.

In Japan, where the single-blade plane was the standard for hundreds of years, with the shift from riven lumber to more economical sawn lumber, the chipbreaker was added to the handplane because it consistently works.

The chip breaker won’t solve all your tearout problems, but it will definitely help on condition that you set it up and maintain it properly. It isn’t difficult and the results of doing so set the professional apart from the amateur.

In the next post in this swashbuckling tale of bare-chested Scottish warriors riding feather-footed war horses over the highlands rescuing buxom lassies clad in flowing gowns from evil Lords, we will describe in detail how to setup and maintain the awesome chip breaker. Don’t forget your kilt and claymore!

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, thuggish Twitter or a manager of the Democrat Congressional IT team and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie, may all my chipbreakers chip and fail.

Other Posts in the Japanese Handplane Series:

Four Habits and Three Mysteries

The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass

The efficient woodworker must continue accurately cutting or shaving wood just as long as possible without stopping to sharpen his blades too frequently because time spent sharpening is time the primary job isn’t getting done. He will develop unconscious habits to help him constantly monitor the condition of his blades and the quality of the work being performed.

The Four Habits

As the saying goes, “timing is everything.”

If Beloved Customer pays attention, you will discover there is a point where a woodworking tool’s blade still cuts, but its cutting performance begins to drop off. Sensing this point in time is critical because if you continue cutting wood much past this point, three things are likely to result.

  1. The energy needed to motivate the blade will increase dramatically;
  2. The quality of the cut will quickly deteriorate;
  3. The time and stone expenditure necessary to resharpen the blade will increase.

That’s three variables that could be expressed in a pretty graph if one was so inclined, a graph that would have at least one inflection point. Which variable is most important to you?

Most woodworkers fail to consider these efficiency variables; They simply keep cutting away until the tool either becomes too difficult to motivate, or the results resemble canine cuisine, then stop work and resharpen the blade. The wise woodworker will focus on minimizing the total time and total cost required to maintain his tools even if it means he must pause work to resharpen his blade well before its performance deteriorates badly.

This sharpening inflection point will vary from blade to blade and job to job because every blade, every piece of wood and and every user are unique. Simply counting strokes is not enough. It takes attention and practice to sense when a blade has reached this point.

The following are some things you should pay attention to, and habits you should develop, to help you identify the sharpening inflection point.

Habit No.1: Sense Resistance Forces: As you use a tool such as a plane, chisel, or saw, tune your senses to detect the point at which the blade becomes more difficult to motivate. As the blade dulls, the force that you must apply to the tool to keep it cutting will gradually increase. This is especially noticeable when planing and sawing. Develop the habit of paying attention to this force so you can determine when it is time to resharpen. Your humble servant recommends you regularly use an oilpot to ensure any increased resistance is due to a dulled blade and not increased friction between the tool and the wood.

Habit No.2: Listen to the Music: Pay attention to the tool’s song. That’s right, turn off the radio and CD player and listen to the music your blades make instead. If you do, you will notice that each tool sings its own song, one that varies with the wood, the cut, and the condition of the blade. Is the blade singing, lisping, or croaking as it chews wood? Is it a saw with a basso profundo voice, or a mortise chisel with vibrant tenor tones, or perhaps a soprano finishing plane singing a woody aria? A sharp blade makes a clearer, happier sound when cutting or shaving wood than a dull one does. Learn the bright song it sings when it’s sharp and the sad noise it makes when it’s dull, and all the changing tones in between. If you have ears to hear, it will tell you what kind of job it is doing and when the time has come to resharpen it.

Habit No.3: Eyeball Cuts: Watch the tool and the wood it has cut. Is your chisel cutting cleanly, or is it crushing the wood cells? A sharp chisel blade cuts cleaner than a dull one. You can feel and hear the difference. And you can see the difference in both the shavings or chips and the surfaces the tool leaves behind. Don’t be a wood butcher: develop the habit of frequently checking the quality of your cuts. It doesn’t take extra time, and your tools will wiggle with happiness at the attention.

Habit No. 4: Feel the Surface of the Wood: Is your plane shaving the wood cleanly, or are the surfaces it leaves behind rough with tearout? Develop the habit of running your fingers along the path your plane just cut to sense surface quality. If you detect roughness or tearout, the plane may be out of adjustment, or more likely, the blade is becoming dull. Or maybe you need to skew the blade, change the direction of the cut, or moisten the wood’s surface with a rag dampened with planing fluid (I use either water, industrial-grade busthead whiskey, or unicorn wee wee when I can get it). Next, run your hand across the cut your plane just made to detect ridges that may have been created by irregularities or chips in your blade’s cutting edge. Every one of those ridges indicates a small waste of your time and energy and a flaw in the wood. Don’t forget that the tops of those ridges contain compressed cells (kigoroshi) that may swell and become even more pronounced with time. This is accomplished with a few swipes of the fingertips along and across the wood between cuts without spending any time.

These techniques are not rocket surgery. They don’t take extra time. They can be applied to any tool all the time. The key is to pay attention; To listen to one’s tools; To watch their work.

Let’s next shift our attention to three of the Mysteries of Woodworking, their potential impacts on mental health, and how to avoid unfortunate wardrobe decisions.

The Mystery of the Tilting Board

To discuss this Mystery, we will call on the services of my old buddy Richard W. (Woody) Woodward. You may remember him from a mystery story in a previous article. Yes, it was a near thing, but he has fully recovered from the effects of chugging a 5th of tequila in an emotionally-charged bout of drama over a brittle blade.

Anyway, this mystery goes something like this. Woody is planing a board about the same width as his plane’s blade down to a specific thickness, but for some unfathomable reason, the board ends up thinner on one side of its width than the other. He checks the blade’s projection from the plane’s mouth, but it is absolutely uniform. In fact to plane the board to the correct thickness he ends up having to tilt the blade to take less of a cut on one side of the board than the other.

Most everyone has experienced this curious and wasteful phenomenon, but because it is not consistent, many never solve the mystery of the tilting board, blaming it on Murphy’s ministrations or pixie perfidiousness. But never fear, because the solution is elementary, Dear Watson.

In Habit No.4 listed above, your humble servant mentioned residual “ridges.” Please be aware that these ridges are not only unsightly and may damage applied finishes later, but they can actually keep your plane from cutting shavings of uniform thickness. Think about it.

Let’s assume you are planing a board the same width as your plane blade, but the blade has a tiny chip near the right end of the blade that leaves behind a .0005″ high ridge on the board’s surface. With each subsequent cut using this same blade with the same defect the right side of the plane’s body and likewise its blade will be elevated above the board’s surface by .0005″, while the left hand side, which doesn’t have any ridges for the plane’s sole to ride on, is shaved the normal amount. The difference in the amount of wood shaved from the right and left sides with each individual cut is minute, of course, but it accumulates with each pass sure as eggses is eggses

Assuming you checked that the blade is projecting from the plane’s mouth the same distance across its entire width, with each pass the surface of the wood becomes tilted, a little high on the right side and a little low on the left, so that instead of a flat surface square to the board’s sides, you have produced a flat surface that is thinner on the left side and thicker on the right. No bueno, amigo.

If you detect ridges on a freshly-planed surface, immediately check the blade’s cutting edge by running a fingernail along it’s width. Don’t worry, it won’t dull the blade unless you are also a bricklayer. Your nail will feel the catch and grab of defects too small for your eye to see. A few small ones may make no difference, but on the other hand, they might make a big difference.

Often these ridges will show up as lines in your plane shavings. You do occasionally examine your shavings, right?

With this, the Mystery of the Tilting Board, one that has driven many a woodworker to distraction, sadly leading to fashion decisions involving stiff, canvas jackets with long sleeves connected to straps and buckles that fasten behind the barking woodworker’s back and even pass under the crotch (decidedly uncomfortable, I assure you), has been solved. Only the Beloved Customers and Gentle Readers of the C&S Tools Blog can be assured of avoiding this undignified state of dress.

The Mystery of the Missing Plan

Here is another mystery of woodworking, one that especially vexes those tender souls new to the calorie-burning fun of dimensioning boards by hand.

Let’s say Woody needs to turn a bunch of twisty, banana-shaped boards into flat, square, precisely dimensioned and cleanly-surfaced drawer fronts to make 24 piston-fit drawers. Let’s also assume the wood he uses for each drawer-front is unique in both appearance and warpage. It’s a heck of a lot of wood to cut with no time to waste, so our erstwhile wood butcher gets out his trusty handplane, sharpens it up, adjusts the blade and chipbreaker, gives it a kiss for luck, and send wood shavings fly through the air with gleeful abandon!

But wait a minute! No matter how much Woody planes, he just can’t seem to make some of the surfaces flat, free of wind and the sides square to the faces. It’s like some kinda frikin moving target! Indeed, eventually he is dismayed to discover some of the board’s edges are getting too thin. What to do, what to do!?

Drama queens typically begin interesting antics at this point, but not so our Beloved Customers who, unlike Woody, are stoic, laconic, intelligent and of course, sharply-dressed, and therefore pause their physical efforts to focus their mental powers on solving this mystery.

At this point the resident benchdog perks up his ears, tucks in his tail and beetles away in fear of the smoke and humming sound emanating from BC’s ears; Master Benchcat arches his backs, hisses like a goose, and flees the workshop as if his tail is on fire; And the resident pixies frantically hide in the lumberpile to avoid being disrupted by the power they sense radiating from BC’s mighty brain!

Of course, the culprit is operator error.

Don’t forget to clean up the cat urine because it’s toxic to tools.

Too few people really pay attention when using their tools, focusing too much on making as many chips or shavings as quickly as possible without a plan. For example, a failure common to many woodworkers is to start planing without first identifying and marking the high spots that must be cut down first, and then areas to be cut down next. In other words, they fail to plan the sequence of the work. The result is that time, steel and sweat is wasted cutting wood that didn’t need to be cut while ignoring wood that should have been cut first. And all for lack of a plan measured with a straightedge or dryline and marked on the board with a few strokes or circles of a lumber crayon or carpenter pencil

This mystery too has been known to increase profits of the mental health industry and even (heaven forfend!) fashion decisions involving poorly-tailored canvas jackets with crotch straps. Simply not to be borne!

The Mystery of the Sounding Board

Lastly, we come to perhaps the most frustrating and least-understood of the Mysteries of Woodworking. Not to say there are no other mysteries, because there is always that most ancient of riddles that baffled even the enigmatic Sphinx, one which has been repeated by men since before Pharaoh wore papyrus nappies, namely why Woody would respond honestly to his wife when she asks him if her new pair of jeans makes her bottom look “simply humongous.” Sadly, this is one mystery upon which your humble servant is unable to shed light because even I do not fully understand the heart of woman.

But I digress. This Mystery is one that torments those badly befuddled souls like friend Woody who, lacking a plan to follow, eyes that see, hands that feel and ears that hear, unwisely assume that the board they are planing is stable simply because it doesn’t walk away. Perhaps it is the malevolent influence of pernicious pixies that causes him to ignore the downward deflection the pressure of the plane unavoidably induces in a warped, unevenly supported board, or in a board being planed on a flimsy or crooked workbench.

This unintentional, indeed unnoticed deflection too often causes the board to escape the cutting blade resulting in hills being raised and valleys remaining low where flat surfaces were required. Of course, this leaves the handplane bitterly dissatisfied.

But this waste of wood, steel, sweat and goodwill can be avoided because, even if the board isn’t rocking like Zepplin and dear Woody can’t feel the board deflecting away from his plane’s cutting edge, he could detect the change in his plane’s song when it is cutting an unsupported area of a board if he only listened because the piece of wood he is shaping is also a “sounding board.”

Think of all the money saved that Woody would otherwise spend on lithium, Prozac, and small hotel rooms with padded walls to ease his mental anguish if only he had the foresight to make a plan, train his hands and eyes to confirm his tool’s performance, and his ears to listen to what his plane tries to tell him.

Here is wisdom: The experienced professional will investigate each board, make a plan for his work, mark the plan on the wood, shim the board so it is evenly supported on a flat workbench surface, and sharpen his blade if necessary before making a single cut. Then instead of cutting randomly like a paintbrush-wielding modern monkey artiste, he will make each cut intentionally, purposefully, in accordance with his plan to make the work go as efficiently as possible.

He will also pay attention to the reaction of the wood and feedback from his tools during each cut. He will use the four habits discussed above, and maybe even a drop or two of unicorn wee wee to limit tearout if his budget allows.

If Beloved Customer doesn’t have a master to give you a dirty look or to box your ears when you impatiently err, you must train yourself. Slow down. Make a plan. Execute the plan. Pay attention, use your senses, and spend the time needed to evaluate progress against the plan. Consider carefully why the work is going well or why it is not.

This process will slow the work down at first, but over time it will sharpen your instincts, tune your senses, and help you develop good habits that accelerate your work while improving the quality of the end product.

It will guide you along the path to becoming a master craftsman.

May the gods of handsaws smile upon you always.

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the see the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may my straightjacket straps dig furrows into my crotch.



Clean Wood

Redwoods

Infringe upon the rights of no one. Borrow no tool but what you will return according to promise. Take no wood, nor anything else but what belongs to you – and if you find anything that is not your own, do not hide it away, but report it, that the owner may be found.

Brigham Young

In this post your humble servant will offer some advice that, if followed, will save Gentle Readers time, money, and wear and tear on their valuable woodworking tools. These are not original techniques; I stole them long ago from professional woodworkers in Japan. Wise Gentle Readers will be as bold.

Inspection & Questions

Before we go any further, Gentle Reader, do me a favor. Check the soles of your steel planes. Unless they haven’t been used much, you will probably discover scratches, some of which may even be quite deep. Do you think whatever made these scratches might also have dulled the cutting edges of your planes at the same time?

What could have possibly created these scratches? Have iron pixies been using your planes to shave bricks?

Unless you have a serious pixie infestation, it probably wasn’t anything as large as a brick, but rather tiny particles in or on the wood you have been cutting. Could these vicious, hard particles have grown naturally inside the tree the wood you are using came from? Is there anything that grows naturally inside a tree that is harder than a plane blade’s cutting edge and big enough to cause such deep scratches? Perhaps these abrasive particles were maliciously concealed inside the growing tree by compadres of the shambling horde of 6-armed, green-skinned, Fanta-guzzling aliens that follow me everywhere?

Or could the damage have been caused by nails, screws or staples left in the wood? Perhaps. Pixie toenail clippings? Happens more often than we realize. Tiny fragments of a divorce lawyer’s heart? Maybe, but such particles are rarer than honest politicians and tougher than stellite. No, it’s more likely the culprit is something harder and more insidious than even Murphy’s pointy purple pecker, a substance all around us, one we often ignore.

Nitty Gritty

Logging Redwoods in Humbolt County California, 1905

Politics and journalism aside, we live in a dusty, dirty world, and although the steel in your tool blades is very hard, ordinary dust and dirt contain plenty of particles much harder. I guaran-frikin-tee you that collision with even a small particle of mineral grit embedded in the surface of a piece of wood can and will damage a blade’s cutting edge.

You may believe the damage is minimal and of little concern, but every time your blade becomes dull, you must resharpen it. Every sharpening session costs you time pushing the blade around on stones, time not spent cutting wood. And sharpening turns expensive blades and stones into mud. This is time and money lost forever.

And the abrasive action of dirt and grit embedded in wood is not hard on just chisel blades, plane blades and the soles of steel planes, but is even harder on sawteeth and wooden planes.

The damage is not limited to just your handtools either. Take a closer look at the steel tables of your stationary equipment such as your jointer or tablesaw. Unless they are new, you will find scratches. Has that pervert Murphy been smokin dope and humpin sumpin on your jointer’s bed when you weren’t looking?

Nay, Gentle Reader, supernatural causes aside, and unless you have been dismembering the bodies of divorce lawyers in your workshop, these scratches are clear evidence that the wood you’ve been working is neither as clean as it looks, nor as clean as it should be. You’ve gotta do something about that.

Ruba Dub Dub

So what can you do? Strange as it may seem, the simplest and surest way to get rid of dirt and grit is to follow your mother’s instructions about the cleaning the bathtub: Simply wash it with soap, water and a scrub brush, followed by a rinse.

Bet you never thought of washing wood before have you?

The idea is to wet, scrub and quickly rinse the dirt and grit off the wood, not to make the wood soaking wet, so none of that “rinse and repeat” nonsense, and don’t get carried away with the hose. A bit of dishwashing soap or borax mixed in the water bucket will help lift out dirt and grit.

Don’t forget to pat each board down immediately afterwards with clean rags to remove surface water. Then separate each board, stand it on stickers on-end, or rest it on-edge, and allow time and circulating air to dry it out of the sun.

Remember to wet both sides of each board to minimize warping. And don’t soak a lot of water into the ends.

Disclaimer: It is not well suited for thin material or laminated wood products that might easily warp, or if you are in a hurry, or if you lack adequate space to properly air-dry the wood. 

Whether you wash the wood with water or not, be sure to do at least the following two steps on every board before you process it with your valuable tools.

Scrub Scrub Scrub

If you can’t wash the boards, use a steel wire brush to dry-scrub all the board’s faces both with and across the grain. Yes, I know it makes the surface rougher. Tough pixie toenails. Scrubbing with a stiff steel brush is extremely effective at removing dust, dirt, embedded particles of grit, and even small stones from long grain. Give it a try and you will both see and smell the dirt and particles expelled. Pretty nasty stuff sometimes.

Saw Saw Saw

Second, and this is supremely important, before planing a board either by hand or using powertools, saw 2~3mm off both ends. This is why you have that circular saw with the carbide-tipped blade. If you can’t do that, at least use a steel block plane, drawknife, or other tool to chamfer all eight corners of the board’s ends to remove both surface dirt and embedded grit.

This step is critical because grit and even small stones frequently become so deeply embedded in endgrain that even a steel brush can’t dig them out. But sure as God made little green apples, Murphy will place them directly in the path of your plane blade.

If you do these things, your tools will thank you over many years with abundant chips, shiny shavings and cheerful little songs. I sincerely promise.

Yosemite Valley California, 1865

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with all Gentle Readers using the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, thuggish Twitter, nor a US Senator’s girlfriend and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. May Murphy molest me with his pointy purple pecker if I lie.