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Scraping Away The Dust: Rebuilding the Hand Planes of Our Fathers

Unfinished Planes

Stanley 4 plane

I have not written or photographed with any urgency in the past six months. I decided to stop my blog [If Not Now, When?] and regroup. I wanted time to enjoy moving into a new house, travel to see family at home, and to prepare what promised to be a challenging work year ahead. The time away from writing proved one thing: I write because I need to write. Writing provides a moment to reflect on what has happened in my life. My life is full of changes and a struggle to become a better man with each and every day’s passing. Sharing the images and minutiae from my days in a written text gives them form; my small life becomes bigger as others read and view my words from across the world. So it begins again…

For the first post of this new blog, The Remains, I wanted to write about a personal project that will hold my focus until Christmas time. I have decided to rebuild and refinish two hand planes; the first was owned by M.’s father and the other was owned by mine. Both of these men passed away in 2013, and in many ways their tools are all that remains of what they touched with their own hands. I felt that an attempt to take back these two hand tools from the rust that has swallowed their usefulness is a unique tribute to both men. I am taking back what remains and reclaiming it for our family and the future.

Gunk from Frog

Sanding Stanley Hand Plane

I should mention that I have absolutely no experience in woodworking, hand tools or repairing hand planes. I simply have a desire to reclaim these two Stanley planes, a No. 4 and a No.5, so that they might be used once again to build and repair the parts of our living spaces. Fortunately, the internet is filled with a myriad of do-it-yourself videos, and I am known to be a pretty smart cookie when obsessed with a specific action. Over the next few blog entries I expect to document the cleaning of the sole, the building of a tote handle for M.’s No. 5 plane, and whatever else is required to make this thing work.

Original Handle

The Broken Handle

I will start with the tote handle. Clearly, as shown above, this is not in working order. I believe that John must have broken it somewhere along the path, glued it with carpenter’s glue and taped it with black electrical tape. I might be able to reglue it using an epoxy and then bolster the weak points, but that seems like an inelegant fix. If I am going to do this, then it has to be done properly. Stupid decision #1: build a handle out of the block of purple heartwood I bought at Lee Valley Hardware to make a candle holder.

Sizing Lines for Heartwod

The First Cut: Purple Heartwood

I suppose that I should have looked into the density of purple heartwood before deciding to turn a piece of it into a plane handle. Nonetheless, I measured out what might work for dimensions based on a Lee Valley Hardware template for No.5 tote handles. I thought that I could simply use the beautiful Bad Axe Hybrid Saw that arrived from Mark Harrell in Wisconsin a few days back, but both the density and depth of what I had to cut made it clear that I needed a bigger saw. I turned to my Stanley Fat Max saw. I think I had bought it to level the base of my Christmas tree a few years ago. Elegant, handmade and ideal for the job? Nope. It worked though, and after twenty minutes I had made a rip cut and a cross cut with a tool that might be best left to Christmas trees. The Bad Axe Saw, however, is a tool that deserves serious respect and has been wrapped up to be put under the tree this Christmas [more to follow on this item later].

Sawn HeartwoodSchema for Handle Tote Affixed

With the chunk of heartwood cut loose from the block, I affixed the Lee Valley template to the waxed side of the wood. Next step, would be to use a myriad of tools [a drill with hole bits, a coping saw that snapped from rust, and the Fat Max saw] to cut the handle free from the chunk. I felt a little like Michelangelo striving to free The Atlas from a solid block of marble. About another hour in and the strange shape had finally come to the point where I could begin to take a couple of rasps that I had rescued from M.’s father’s tool bins. They had been rusted and unused for about twenty years; a bucket of rust-remover and we were good to go. Both of the rasps were for rough carpentry and I had used they with some success on my cedar deck rebuild in the summer. Still, this was not cedar I was working with, and I had never learned how to use a rasp. Stop, search online, find an instructional video on using a rasp and files. Lie-Nielsen had a great video that explained that rasps and files are push only. Hmmm, that piece of information explained more than I care to share about the deck-building experience. Press play and two hours later I have roughed out a decent facsimile of a Stanley tote handle. It was time to stop for the night before I made a mess of the whole thing.

Handle Tote Rough Hewn

The Rough Draft

My first experience with working wood left me feeling exhilarated and indescribably proud of what I had done. I made something with hand tools. I made a piece with my own hands. The handle was far from being good or even complete, but I was left with a satisfaction that I have not felt for…well, ever. As a boy my own father had never taken he time to explain the purpose of tools. A great many curse words were exclaimed whenever I attempted to make anything. I was ruining valuable scrap wood and paint. I suppose that is why I turned to using my head in lieu of my hands, and maybe why at the age of forty one I am revisiting the idea of taking back what I left by the roadside in my childhood.

Next phase: an Auriou modeller’s rasp, a few plane knobs, new Veritas blades with cap irons and a simple bench vise are on their way from Lee Valley Hardware. I decided that while I could make a few dramatic improvements by having a finer tool to rasp out a rounder shape, nothing would help me create a knob.  Sanding down the plane blades seemed like a waste of time that would never result in a clean cut, so I took the advice I gleaned from Tom Fidgen’s Made by Hand video [it came as part of the same-titled book] and bought modern blades to be inserted when the project is complete.

I expect that there will be two more entries relating to my progress on this rebuild, and then who knows what will happen. If the next year is anything like the last few of my life, then I fully expect it to be worth the reading.

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