I sometimes shudder to think about all of the chisels and plane irons I’ve set up in the last 10 years. Every review has involved hours and hours of setup time, most of that flattening the back, unbeveled side of the tools. I’ve worn out a half-dozen diamond stones, several coarse waterstones and even a fine polishing stone (it was a very thin King stone, by the way).
But this weekend marked a new milestone. I brought home three Veritas bevel-up planes to set up for a forthcoming review , the jack and the new smoother and jointer. Normally, this would be five hours of work to flatten the backs, polish the backs and hone the cutting edge. But I was planning on using David Charlesworth’s “ruler trick” to slash that time considerably. The trick, in a nutshell, is to position a steel ruler on your polishing stone that elevates the iron. This polishes a small back bevel right at the cutting edge, saving time.
So I got out an old steel ruler. But before I began in earnest, I took a couple swipes with the iron on my 1,000-grit stone. The unbeveled side of the iron was dead flat. Most of the machining marks on that unbeveled side were gone with that little bit of effort. I took a few more swipes for good measure and then went to the 4,000-grit stone, anticipating trouble. No trouble found. Ten swipes and I was done there. Same with the 8,000-grit stone.
I thought I had gotten lucky with the first iron. So I did the other two irons. They were all perfect. I set up all three irons (and the planes, too) in less than an hour. This is a far cry from the effort involved in setting up an iron from Vertias or Lie-Nielsen in earlier days , and don’t even get me started on Stanley, Record or other imported tools (A test of jack planes a few years ago required more than 50 hours of setup time on my part). Both of these premium plane-making companies have made steady progress on improving their irons, and both are now making tools that are virtually ready to go when you open the box, which is how it should be.
Some fans of vintage tools often chide me as an apologist for the modern plane makers. But you know what? I’ve served my time (and it was hard time) setting up a lot of messed-up old tools. It taught me a lot about plane mechanics, but it also took me away from my true love, woodworking. If you enjoy the metal filings, the drudgery of hours of lapping soles and the Lazarus-like satisfaction of resurrecting an old tool, I won’t stand in your way when we reach for the same tool at the flea market. But if you like the smell of freshly cut wood, luminous planed surfaces and building furniture, there are new tools out there just for you. They work perfectly, precisely and predictably from the get-go. They are worth every cent.
As of Saturday, my friends, we are officially in a new golden age of hand tools.