Chris Schwarz's Blog

Lessons from Tools on High (the High Shelf, That is)

My collection of edge-trimming planes.

My collection of edge-trimming planes.

For the last three years I have been paring down my working tool set to the bare minimum by selling off or giving away many of the tools that I amassed while working at Popular Woodworking Magazine.

It was so cathartic I wrote a book about it called “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” which is available in ShopWoodworking here.

But there are some tools I couldn’t bear to let go, and here’s why.

John Economaki, the founder of Bridge City Tool Works, is fond of saying that one of the jobs of our tools is to remind us to do our best, even when they are just sitting there on the shelf or in the tool chest, unused. I agree with him, but I also think that some tools have other lessons to teach us.

AMT_IMG_4701

My non-functioning AMT edge-trimming thing.

Edge Trimming Planes
The only tools I collect are edge-trimming planes, which are all based on the Stanley No. 95. I don’t use these planes in the shop because I don’t find them all that useful. I have a block plane with a million miles on its odometer, so trimming an edge at 90° isn’t a struggle.

But these planes remind me that other people – lots of other people – see utility where I do not. They also show me the full range of quality in the tool-making world. I have two edge planes that were made by users – one in aluminum and the other in brass that is way over-sized than the original 95. So some woodworkers out there were so desperate for a No. 95 that they decided to cast their own.

I also have one made by AMT, which represents the other end of the quality spectrum. It won’t plane a square edge and its iron won’t hold an edge worth a dang. But it comes with a red velvet bag! And it looks like a tool!

One of my Ken Wisner planes.

One of my Ken Wisner planes.

I also have two 95s that were made by Ken Wisner. Click here to find out why I own these.

My Jim Leamy Plow plane. Beautifully ridiculous.

My Jim Leamy Plow plane. Beautifully ridiculous.

Jim Leamy Plow Plane
This infill plow plane made by Jim Leamy is one of the most beautiful things I own. All the parts move with watch-like precision. The fit and finish of every single part is astonishing.

But the plane doesn’t work worth a dang.

That’s not Leamy’s fault. He makes very functional planes. But this particular one is a copy of a very rare plow plane that is simply too heavy to really be of any use at the bench. You will break your wrist trying to lift it. So beauty is not always functional – even if all the parts move exactly as they are supposed to.

Plus, the work is inspiring. I never get tired of messing with this piece of sculpture.

A smoothing plane made by James Krenov.

A smoothing plane made by James Krenov.

James Krenov Plane
At the other end of the spectrum is this small smoothing plane made by James Krenov in the last years of his life. As his eyesight failed and he was unable to make cabinets for customers, he turned to planemaking and turned out these planes for woodworkers, which he sold for far too little money.

This tool looks like it was sawn out quickly on the band saw, dressed with a knife and then put to work – because that’s exactly what happened. I find the rough edges appealing. And the tool works as well as any smoothing plane I’ve used, no matter what the price. That’s because Krenov put all the effort into making sure the iron was bedded firmly and the tool was pleasant to hold. Everything else is window dressing.

I feel bad that this tool doesn’t see use. I need to remedy that.

A jack plane owned by Jennie Alexander.

A jack plane owned by Jennie Alexander.

Jennie Alexander’s Jack Plane
One of the most important woodworking books published during the last century was “Make a Chair from a Tree” (Taunton Press) by John (now Jennie) Alexander. This book, which launched Taunton’s book publishing department also launched the woodworking careers of thousands of talented people.

The book is a journey of discovery. Why do these chairs work? How were they made? And the ultimate answer comes from the tree itself.

This jack plane has a perfectly cambered iron; Alexander’s shop mark is on the toe. The tool has seen so much use in the last 140 years that the sidewalls are worn away where the owners gripped it.

This tool speaks to the writer and researcher in me. Again, I need to put this tool to use. It still has another 140 years of life left in it.

Iron oilstone boxes.

Iron oilstone boxes.

Norton Cast Iron Oilstone Boxes
These cast iron oilstone boxes have a peculiar allure for me. The castings are fantastic and aren’t machined as near as I can tell. Their lids fit smartly together and cradle the stones. The bottom of the cases are fitted with cork.

They are perfect and forgotten objects of the past. It took great skill just to make the box. These boxes remind me that progress is not always an improvement.

— Christopher Schwarz

15 thoughts on “Lessons from Tools on High (the High Shelf, That is)

  1. markholderman

    Chris, I too have an almost identical Krenov smoother. My most coveted (and little used too) plane in my collection of mostly L-N and Stanley planes. My wife surprised me a few Christmases ago with it, before Krenov passed on. I opened the package and said ” Oh, this is a really nice Krenov-style plane!” Where’d you get it? Just as I noticed the JK initials on the toe of the plane, she said it IS a Krenov plane! I cried. Her parents were there and looked at me like I was crazy. After regaining my composure, I explained it was like finding the holy grail, or receiving Jesus’s robe (they’re very religious). My wife said she almost sent it back because it looked so rough and unfinished. I said it was the best gift I ever received. Makes me mistly-eyed just typing this. So much for my manliness.

  2. Matejek

    Just love buying tools, old & new ! Chris I live in Rogers , Arkansas and
    I was wondering if any tool and or woodworking events are in the works
    for this area? With the new art museum in Bentonville and Old Street &
    Doug Stowe in Eureka Springs , Northwest Arkansas would be a great place
    to hold an event .

  3. BLZeebub

    You can tell a lot about a person by their book collection. I stayed at a B&B a few months back and took note of what the innkeeper kept in their bookcases. Noticing that they had another life before becoming innkeepers and commenting on some of their titles lead to an edifying exchange about the state of corporate America. You can also tell a little more about a person by the “way” they keep their books. Back in college, I visited a professor in her office because I had some concerns about a particular upcoming assignment. I noticed that she measured the distance from the front edge of her shelves to the spine of the books. After a quiet chat, I thanked her for her insight and immediately dropped the class after she revealed that her rate of A’s for her class was .0235%. Whew!

  4. degennarod

    Thanks for sharing some very interesting tools. Last month I started a new class at our local adult school focused on the restoration of vintage and antique tools. Nineteen people showed up, and the energy was amazing. I showed parts of Ron Herman’s saw sharpening videos, then demonstrated how to restore and sharpen an old rust bucket hand saw. Next class is about the restoration of hand planes. We’ll start out by watching part of Chris Schwarz’s Super Tuning a Hand Plane ( Hopefully increasing his sales!), then I’ll demonstrate several nondestructive ways to clean and set up old planes. I love using my Type 71 Stanley router plane, my tongue-and-groover, my rabbet plane; well, the list goes on. The point is that people get super excited seeing their old tools restored and made useful again. The experience creates a direct link with the true spiritual joy of woodworking for myself and many others.

    1. Megan Fitzpatrick

      Robert, are you wanting that because of the book titles or the case itself? You can see the case on the cover of our June 2011 issue (and plans to build it are inside)…but the book collection was pared down for the shot, so you could actually see some of the wood! June 2011 issue (however, in the same issue is an article about our 130 favorite woodworking books).

      1. robert

        Megan:

        Book titles. I have the June 2011 issue and really enjoyed the listing of books. But I am interested not from the acquisitive point of view of the books. It is more interesting to see books that someone has (and has presumably read) and try to relate the ideas and forms found in those books to the work they are presenting. When I go to visit a friend, I often examine and comment upon the books in their collection. As a way to start a conversation and as a way to deepen my own knowledge through their comments and recommendations.

        I prefaced my request by stating it was on odd request – hope it didn’t come across as creepy.

        Robert

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