First Smoothing Plane

My first smoothing plane arrived today, a Millers Falls #9. This plane’s condition is not bad at all:

According to Randy Roeder’s type study, this is a so-called type 3 plane. It has the wartime fittings, including the non-tropical tote and knob, steel depth adjusting knob, and steel handle fasteners. There is no paint in the lever cap lettering recess. However, even though the tote is made of a domestic hardwood, its shape is the same as that of a type 2 plane. Weird, I guess, but it doesn’t really matter.

Dates aside, to put this plane to work, it seems that all I need to do to this plane is lap the sole, hone the iron, tune the chipbreaker, and add a washer to the tote’s fastening screw. I’ll probably do a few other things to clean it up, but it does seem that this tool was definitely worth the thirteen dollars.

Cleaning Brass

Being decidedly against the “patina” look on the tools that I actually want to use, I decided to clean up the brass adjuster and knob hardware on the #6 plane that I bought last Saturday.

Brass is a soft metal that doesn’t really rust; it tarnishes instead, sort of like silver. In any case, I had never cleaned it; all I knew is that people seem to be able to do it. So I used the amazing power of the intarweb to discover that most people use Brasso to clean brass.

Like many cleaners for restoration work, Brasso is one of those really awful poisionous cocktails that you’d rather not touch, smell, or lick. It has silica microabrasives in ammonia to scrape off the crap caked on the metal. I donned latex gloves, turned on all the ventilators, ripped up an old piece of clothing to dab some on, and followed the instructions to rub around a bit.

It works. Here’s a before and after of the hardware:

The tops of the screws really cleaned up. Notice how the Brasso also ripped off all of the rust on the steel rods and otherwise cleaned them up nicely. The cleaning also revealed a lot of dings in the knob’s screw head; this corresponds to all of the dings on the knob that are probably due to a wedding band or something.

Here is a close-up of the depth adjuster:

Notice how well it gets into the more detailed parts like the ribbing and cleans them up. One thing I did discover is that you have to dab a little more Brasso on your cloth if you find that it’s becoming less effective, probably due to some really grotesque chemical reaction.

Encouraged by this result (and having everything set up), I decided to try it out on the brass nuts from my “Warranted Superior” ripsaw:

I used a (newly sacrificed) toothbrush to get into the detail on the medallion. Not too bad there. This was also the first time I took the handle off the saw; I was very pleasantly surprised to find that there was very little rust in there.

Stanley #6 Acquisition

Last Sunday I went to the San Jose flea market to see if it was a place I could pick up any old tools. Also, I hadn’t been to a flea market in years. As a tool source, it was pretty lame. Way too many new (crappy) tools, oodles of old power tools, and a few vendors thinking that you’re a gullible collector and that you’ll pay a million dollars for a beechwood knob on a transitional plane.

However, one guy had a Stanley #6 selling for less than a million dollars. Most of the parts seemed in decent shape (the tote being intact rosewood and the knob in okay shape, a small chip in the nose, but very little rust). Patrick Leach (one of dem dar intarweb experts) says that this isn’t a particulary useful size of plane, but I decided that it seemed like a good enough place to start on learning how to disassemble, reassemble, and use bench planes.

(My general plan is to get Millers Falls smoothing and jack planes from eBay, because these seem less collectible and just as well-made. I have a MF #9 smoother on the way, in fact. But I’d rather first mess up a questionable Stanley from a flea market, especially because I mess up almost everything I do on the first try.)

Turns out that the plane is a fairly humdrum Type 16 made between 1933 and 1941. The lever cap is definitely Type 16; the rest of the features seem to match those for the Type 15, but who knows (and who cares). It’s important to date your plane in order to figure out what you might need to do to tune and restore it. For example, because I know the vintage of the lever cap, I know what it’s made of, and I can look up how to clean up the nickel plating on top of it.

As you might expect, it was pretty grimy. Some bug was living inside of it at one point. When I removed the frog, there were quite a lot of softwood shavings jammed up there in the bed. So it seemed like I’ve got a task ahead of me here, but I’m in pretty good shape because nothing is really broken and there’s very little rust. Keep in mind that I have never ever seen, much less used, a bench plane that’s tuned and sharp. I’ve read about them (I’ve read an awful lot about them, in fact).

One thing that worries me is that the tote is intact and therefore something that I really ought not to mess up (cracked totes are very common). So I’ll try to be very conservative when working with it and the knob.

Scoping a First Project

You gotta figure that four years of thinking about building something without actually building something will wear on you. So the question comes down to “what?” It’s a pretty obvious choice for me: bookshelves. There are a lot of things about bookshelves that lend themselves to a first project, and me in particular:

1. They’re easy. No fancy cuts or too-tricky joinery.
2. (In my view) They’re best when made of softwood, which works easier, doesn’t cost insane amounts of cash, and doesn’t require absurd amounts of planing to get to a certain thickness (at least to the thickness that I desire).
3. They don’t require too many tools.
4. Designs for what I want are readily available.
5. I need several bookshelves, so I’ll have some practice at repetition there.
6. The shelves are also repetitive, so even more practice abounds.
7. People like bookshelves.
8. I need bookshelves in an excessively seriously god-awful way.

The basic idea is a design like 57th Street Bookcase and Big Fish Furniture that I remember from my Chicago days. When I lived there, I even had some stuff from Big Fish, and I liked it, but certain factors made me decide to sell it before I moved. Some of it had to do with it being too tall for comfort. A lot had to do with the fact that I did not make it myself. And there was some other stuff that we won’t talk about here.

Anyway, I’d like to do stopped-dado fixed shelves, perhaps a rabbeted top, finished with oil. I haven’t made up my mind about the particular wood. The western conifers all seem pretty nice, I just have to see what’s available and what I like.

So now I need to draw out the design and dimensions. Much of this will depend on measuring my apartment.

Quest for Tools

You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that, if you want to build stuff out of wood, you’re gonna need some tools. Aside from a bunch of screwdrivers, socket wrenches, pliers, and electrical tools, I had none, and it’s not like the soldering iron and crimper are gonna help much with woodworking. When I was still living in Chicago, I got myself a toolbox and gradually started to pick up some smaller things that would probably be useful, such as clamps, a mallet, and a claw hammer.

At some point, I needed to drill something and drive some screws, so I got a cordless drill and a set of twist drill bits. I added a brad-point set later. However, the drill was more of a necessity for non-woodworking tasks. I’d decided by that point that I’d steer clear of a lot of power tools, especially when starting out. Electricity is nice and all, but it’s pretty impersonal, and some of those tools are really dangerous.

As a whole, my approach is going to be one of reading a boatload of stuff about woodworking, then gradually getting the tools as I need them. This is practical for a number of reasons; first, there’s no need to buy anything that I’ll never use; second, there’s no use in buying something that I don’t know how to use; and third, I don’t exactly have a lot of space anyway. Understand that I live in an apartment in a big city. Solving the workshop space problem is already a work-in-progress; I don’t need a bunch of stuff encroaching on my living space.

One my earlier discoveries in woodworking is that, as the beginner, the modern world has generally conspired to deprive you of good hand tools that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Yeah, there are some very high-end tools that you can buy new for hundreds of dollars. And guess what–they are about as good as the same stuff that sold for $3 back in 1930. But most of the new hand tools on the market are garbage, and that means that you have to figure out a way to stock your set with stuff that’s about 70-80 years old.

When you try to do that, you run into these people who collect rare old stuff, driving up the value of this “rare” old stuff, and the weenies who try to fob off old stuff because you might be a collector and hey, “it’s old, so it has to be worth something, right?” Wrong. They made bazillions of these things, so there’s no reason to think that it’s King Tut’s Tomb or something. Sadly, this leaves you with eBay, yard sales, and flea markets, each of which can have its own excessive (and unique) depression factor.

I got four hand saws for practically nothing at a garage sale shortly after I moved to San Francisco. These two ripsaws and two crosscut saws were in decent shape. The two crosscut saws are very unspecial “Warranted Superior” saws, one with a skewback. One ripsaw is another “Warranted Superior,” but a bit better-made; the handle is carved and the blade has a nib. The final ripsaw is a plain old Disston D-7, probably about 70 years old. One thing I immediately liked about these saws, at least in the case of the ripsaws, the previous owner obviously knew something about using them. Unlike any other handsaw that I’d ever seen while growing up, the teeth were actually sharp and not mangled in any way.

With this (and some other miscellaneous non-wood related stuff) in the toolbox, two weeks ago, I made a list of the remaining hand tools that I’d probably need to at least start doing some damage to wood. The items are as follows:

– Try square
– marking gauge
– Tenon backsaw with crosscut teeth
– Saw set and files to sharpen saws
– Mitre box
– Bailey #3/#4 smoothing plane or equivalent
– Bailey #5 jack plane or equivalent
– Bailey #7/#8 jointer plane or equivalent (not a pressing need)
– Shoulder plane (not a pressing need)
– Firmer chisels
– Mortise chisel(s) (not a pressing need)
– Some sort of sharpening paraphernalia (oilstone, waterstone, or “scary sharp” sandpaper/glass)

Keep in mind that this stuff is for the very first project that I have in mind, a bookshelf. I’ll get into more detail on that later.


Four years ago, I was looking for some bookshelves. I came to the conclusion that I was sick of store-bought furniture, and that, as a “Veritable He-Man” (chuckle), it was a moral imperative to learn woodworking and build my own stuff instead of buying one more stupid thing that I didn’t really like.

Four years later, my steadfastedness has only resulted in having huge piles of books lying all over my place because I still don’t have any bookshelves. But stuff happened in those four years, it was somewhat crazy, and I am now in a good position to actually make good on that promise I made so long ago. Therefore, I’m going to chronicle my, uh, “adventures” here.

[Edit: On reflection many years later, this next paragraph sure seems like boilerplate to me.]

My grandfather worked for a publisher, but also did a bit of woodworking. He knew a thing or two, much like many people of that generation did, but perhaps only a thing or two. Unfortunately, he became ill and passed away before he was able to teach me anything. You can call it silly, but sometimes you can’t ignore what runs in your blood, as my friend Linda tells me. Having written three books and worked on many others, I’m now involved in publishing myself. I might as try to live up to my grandfather’s name (well, even if it isn’t exactly my name).

When I decided to do this, I didn’t know where to start. Even though I’d been around many of the tools all my life, I didn’t have any instruction whatsoever on the proper way to use them for woodworking. I didn’t know a whole lot about wood. It was basically square one.

So I figured that since I’d written some books, maybe I’d go down to the bookstore and look for something that might tell me a thing or two. Well, first I checked on Amazon for reviews on books. I decided that “The Complete Manual of Woodworking” by Jackson, Day, and Jennings seemed like a pretty good bet. I found it without a problem. I also picked up “Classic Hand Tools” by Hack, because, well, it had a lot of pretty pictures in it, and there was something about hand tools that I sort of liked. Oh yeah, and it didn’t cost an arm and a leg. (Now you guys who wrote these things are now honor-bound to buy my books, right? Ha ha.)

In buying these books, I was in the early stages of discovering that the old system of apprenticeship where young’uns learned from a master is pretty much dead. Unless you know someone who does this stuff, no one is going to teach you; you have to learn it yourself. This isn’t such a bad thing, though. You have to understand that, as in disciplines like software engineering, there are about a million ways to do things in woodworking. Not all are equally good. Fortunately, due to the now rich array of literature on woodworking as well as the flood of, uh, stuff on the web, you can find out how to do quite a lot of stuff if you actually know how to read. In another turn of fortunate events, I know how to read. Well, maybe if only just a little.

The “Complete Manual” is eye-opening for someone who’s never seen any of this stuff before. It succinctly covers a lot of ground, starting from the biology of trees. I’d lump the topics in the book into four main areas: (1) trees (2) tools (3) joints (4) other stuff that you do with wood (turning, carving, etc.). Tools are grouped into three categories: hand, power, and machine.

I’ve read the book in its entirety (several times). I’ve now got more that go into more detail on certain topic areas. What I have not done is actually using any of what I’ve learned to actually make anything. And it’s high time I fixed that.