Over the years, I’ve turned to my brother Steve for practical advice on a range of subjects. Older brothers are good that way. Several gems of brotherly advice have included the phrase “nah, you don’t need that…¦..”. Though this is rarely the answer I was seeking, it’s been helpful none-the-less this. One that stands out in my mind was when Steve advised me against piercing my ear. It was the 80′s. I have nothing against men who pierce their ears. But I certainly don’t need one. If you have one, don’t let me convince you it’s stupid. If you are following me (and my brother), I’m just saying it’s “skippable”.
When magazine editors review tools, they generally look for the good in the tools. They analyze whether the tools serve their intended purpose and if so, how well. What I don’t often hear them say is “it works, but nah, you don’t need that…¦”. So I’ve put together a list of tools I think you can skip. These tools may be very good performers. They may be of very high quality. People may love them. All this can be true and they can still make my “skip list”. Just like the earring. Ok? Here we go:
1) Block plane- I’ve had several of these over the years. The only new plane I ever bought was a jewel-like LV LA block plane. It’s a lovely tool I never use. I bought it for planing end grain, but never use it for that. I use my humble wood bodied smoother, typically the sharpest plane in my shop. The high angle of the smoother seems to matter not at all. More about that later. I even prefer the cambered iron for this operation as it works just like a try plane. Center the plane on the high spot, holding the tool flat against the end grain. The cambered iron takes a heavier shaving there and less or none on the low side. Works like a charm.
2) Shoulder plane- People who have these planes love them. In a recent ww forum thread, advocates of these tools agreed they aren’t always needed for planing tenon shoulders, but they ARE useful for a host of other operations such as rabbets. Well I have rabbet planes for rabbets and they work just fine. When cutting a rabbet with a rabbet plane, I need a plane that removes wood quickly. I generally don’t care if there’s tear out in the rabbet. I need a rabbet that performs like a jack plane, not a smoother. What I think is guys don’t use rabbets to cut rabbets. They use table saws to cut rabbets and fix the error from the table saw with a shoulder plane. That seems like that’s the long way. I say skip both tools and buy yourself a rabbet plane to cut rabbets. Novel!
3) Low angle planes- I’m not a huge fan of low angle planes in general. I don’t like what happens to the back of the iron (wear bevel) and many of these planes aren’t significantly lower angle than normal planes. I think the chief advantage of a low angle plane is that it has a stiffer load path between the wood and the plane’s sole. The iron doesn’t see as much bending and therefore doesn’t have to be as thick as a normal plane. I wonder if manufacturers wouldn’t be better off using thinner irons in their low angle planes. That would make them easier to grind, certainly. Maybe I’d like them more then. As it is devotees tell me these planes out perform normal planes. Well I’m happy with the performance of my normal (as well as some of my abnormal) planes. So I say skip these. But let me add the caveat that I work with woods that are notoriously easy to plane.
4) Sharpening gadgets- I’ve tried several sharpening gadgets. I’m convinced all of these are on the market solely to help woodworkers put off the inevitable mastery of free hand sharpening. As such, I really can’t quibble with them too much. The basic honing jigs are not so bad. I bought a worksharp a few years ago thinking it would help me flatten backs on new chisels. It works, but it doesn’t do what I needed. I say skip it. I also bought this delta thing years ago with a horizontal water wheel and a small grinding wheel. These things don’t really replace hand work and elbow grease. Like adulthood, old age or similar inevitabilities it may well be best to put it off as long as possible. But for those of you on the quest to find the best sharpening machine, I think it’s time to turn your horse around and head back to Camelot. Every thing you need is already there. Skip the gadgets.
5) Swan neck chisels- I’m sorry but these tools are just plain goofy. What are they for again? Levering the waste out of the bottom of a mortise? Why do I need to do that again? Skip it.
7) Marking gauges with measurements on them- The point of a gauge is to transfer a measurement from one item to another. In industrial applications, guys have “master gauges” or “gauge blocks”. If you are looking for precision, use master gauges (your chisels are a convenient and consistent source of repeatable dimensions). Otherwise, just use a pencil and a ruler and skip the gauge with the micrometer adjustment.
8) Jointer fences- Some manufacturers make these machined fences that attach to your planes to help you hold the plane square to the face. I say if you want to use a power jointer just go use it and don’t feel bad about it. If you want to use a hand plane, learn how. To square an edge, get a try plane with a cambered iron and learn the trick.
9) Combination planes (Stanley #45, #55, #46 is iffy)- If there was ever a tool you can skip its the combination plane. The quintessential Swiss army knife of woodworking tools, these planes do a hundred and one jobs and none of them well. The way the cutters are held is goofy, and the lack of a sole is a significant disadvantage. The fact that you find pristine planes in their original packaging should be the tip off.
10) Snipe bill planes- These are traditional wooden molding planes I have never found useful. I always thought their chief purpose was to refine quirks, features found on some sorts of moldings. I have planes that produce quirks and I’ve never felt the need to refine one. I now wonder if they weren’t used to blend certain features when 2 lengths of molding are spliced together. I’ve had this problem in the past. I just don’t know how many people are doing architectural moldings by hand besides me. The only reason I did it was because I needed molding I was too cheap to pay for and I don’t have a molder/shaper/router thingamabob.
Recently Don McConnell of Clark and Williams showed snipe bills as “entry planes” used to start features in complex moldings. Don cited documentary evidence for this, so he wasn’t guessing. Don’s use is impressive and convincing so you may choose to take this tool off the “skip list”. With all due respect to Don, there are 100 ways to cut moldings. I’ve learned most of them from stuff Don wrote (Thanks Don!). I currently use a square rabbet for this job or I use my finger tip fence and I’m happy with my results.
11) Side Rabbets- These too are traditional planes. Mine don’t work well. The throats are uneven and the cutters move sideways in use. Otherwise, they are pristine. People say these are used to adjust the inner walls of dadoes. Really? If you used a decent dado plane to cut the feature, you’d be making a mistake adjusting it’s walls. I’ve heard guys love the Stanley version of these tools. If you are setting up shop, or looking to buy tools you don’t have, I’d move this tool pretty far down on the list.
12) “Dovetail” Chisels- Some manufacturers make chisels with a triangular cross section and market them as dovetail chisels. The idea is to help you chop out the waste between tails. Problem number one is that there isn’t in fact wood that needs to be removed in the acute corner of a tail. The saw removed that. So a sharp cornered chisel isn’t absolutely necessary. Now it could be that if you used a saw that had a .010″ thick blade, there is material very close to the corner. One possible solution is to buy a proper western dt saw which leaves a massive .020-.026″ path in it’s wake. This should allow you to use just about any old chisel to clean out the waste. I think it’s worth noting that 18th c Anglo-American cabinetmakers didn’t have dovetails chisels or indeed bevel sided chisels. They had thin square sided chisels which brings me to problem number two: When chopping out waste, you must chop a hole for the chisel to penetrate. The goal is penetration/removal of the waste. So thicker chisels are simply more work. The same logic that tells us Japanese saws are faster cutting because they are thinner and remove less wood, tells us Japanese chisels chop slower because they are thicker and remove more wood.
13) Fish tail chisels- I’d like to make some fish tail chisels. It’s on my to do list. I think they would be fun. So let’s pretend its sometime in the future and I am making and selling fishtail chisels. I have to look you in the eye and tell you these tools are skippable. You don’t really need a fishtail chisel to clean out the waste between half blind pins. I just use a narrow chisel for that. The case for these tools is a bit better than the dovetail chisels above however. Typically you can’t get your saw all the way into the corners at the bottom of a half blind pin. I think it’s even harder when the drawer is lipped. I certainly try, though! If you’ve got money in your tool budget, these aren’t a crazy purchase (though I’m not sure you need a set of them).
14) Japanese flush cutting saws- These tools are made from thin flexible steel and have their teeth set on only one side. I find them very…¦helpful! Surprise! Just breaking up the monotony. I only have one and I wish I had the other They are available with either the left or right sides’ teeth unset. These are not traditional tools. Scratch marks on the backs of cases where craftsmen sawed moldings flush with cases attest to that. I like these WAY better than the western backed versions (which probably aren’t traditional either). The advantage over a western saw is how they can reach areas western saws can’t and how you can flex them to conform to non-flat surfaces. I use my left hand’s finger tips to hold the saw down and slip the saw back and forth under them. The teeth are sharp and I’ve cut myself doing this at least once (and it hurts). I find these to be helpful, often overlooked tools.
15) Scraper plane- I’m really not looking to be difficult. These are great tools and they work well. But in my opinion, cabinet scrapers do essentially the same job and are a bit easier to use. They can work into depressions etc. Scraper planes might be helpful for leveling super difficult wood or veneers. Maybe this one doesn’t belong in the same category as a swan neck chisel. But I would certainly start with a cabinet scraper and only buy a scraper plane when nothing else works.
I’m sure I’ve missed a few. That’s where you come in. Be sure to add those tools that you’ve bought and really didn’t find all that effective. Also, as always, feel free to argue if any of your favorites made my skip list. This is just my opinion at this point in time. If you’ve got a different opinion, share it. But I’m warning you- if anybody says anything nice about the swan neck chisel they may be forced to wear high heeled buckle shoes until they recant.