Chris Schwarz's Blog

Real Work: Handplaned Surfaces

A couple years ago I finally got to go to Winterthur, the DuPont’s estate in Delaware that is a shrine to early American furniture. Right as our tour of the collection was about to begin, the docents segregated me from the gaggle of chattering blue-haired old ladies.

In retrospect, the docents were probably afraid I was going to mug them in the Marlboro Room.

In any case, it was a lucky turn of events. I and the two guys with me with were paired with our own personal docent for a tour. When she found out that two of us were furniture makers, she gave us little flashlights.

“I know your type,” she said. “You’re gonna crawl under the highboys.”

And crawl like slugs we did. I learned a lot about casework that day, but the most lasting memory was getting to examine the sides of some of the grandest bonnet-top highboys I’ve ever seen. These were masterpieces of design. And yet, on almost all of them the side panels were split. Plus the panels would never pass muster in Ethan Allen. You could feel and see the regular scallops of the smoothing planes. Heck , the undulations were so regular and obvious that you could tell what width the craftsman’s smoothing plane was.

And that was the most beautiful thing I saw all day.

Handplaned surfaces are not perfect. And thank goodness. They have a slight irregularity to them that I embrace. While it is entirely possible to tune a smoothing plane to produce a surface that looks like a machine dressed it (I’ll do it at shows to impress the power-tool guys), that’s not my goal. I aim to remove tear-out but to leave my mark.

So what does this look like?

Close up, it looks like crap. The photos above show every little detail of my work on a tabletop of the server I’m trying to complete this week. You can see how I angled my plane to begin my stroke, which reduces chatter at the beginning of a pass. You can see evidence of toolmarks everywhere when you get close enough.

When this top gets a finish on it (oil followed by lacquer), these hallmarks will become less obvious, but they will still be there for someone who knows how to look. For me, they are as telling about my work as my name that I’m going to stamp on the leg.

– Christopher Schwarz

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22 thoughts on “Real Work: Handplaned Surfaces

  1. J.C. Collier

    Beautymous!!! I love hand planed surfaces. Always have. I studied Krenov’s aesthetic and have a decent library of "old ways" and I strive to achieve the handmade [though accomplished] look in all my woodworking endeavors. I’m not a Luddite and will use a RO sander when appropriate for the project at hand. I don’t have a power jointer BUT I do have 15" planer. Therefore, I flatten boards manually on one side using a #40, #3, #5 then a #7, winding sticks and a milled steel straight edge. Then it’s to the planer for near final thickness. After that, I will work over the show face of a board with another #7 with a cambered iron that I keep tuned for just such occasions. I love the way the wood looks when it’s fibers are shorn as opposed to being ground into submission. Good stuff.

    always,
    J.C.

  2. Chuck Bender

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! For decades I’ve made a living trying to capture the essence of period pieces. Now that I’m teaching as well, the hardest thing to get amateur woodworkers to understand is the individuality that hand-planing, or scraping, brings to each piece. Most spend far too many hours attempting to sand out all the character they’ve put into a board. Our society is driven by our pursuit of perfection. From perfectly spaced and executed dovetails to woodworkers expressing dimensions in thousandths of an inch we tend to over analyze each and every surface of a piece. If you really want to see the piece for what it is, try measuring the diameters of each leg or, better yet, look at the planed surfaces inside, underneath or on the back.
    As to Winterthur, the museum is second to none and the folks who work there (both paid and volunteer) are the best. They love to share their knowledge and passion for all things period. Most are kind, considerate and accommodating. So Kari, give me a call sometime and we’ll set up a good tour of the museum…with or without your burkha. If we time it right, maybe we can catch Chris on his next east coast visit? I hear he may be in the area later this year.

  3. Doug Berch

    I appreciate this article very much. I prefer the look and feel acquired when I leave evidence that my work was thoughtfully handcrafted.

    At times I have to remind myself that I have not failed when I leave surfaces that don’t look like those made by CNC and laser machinery. This is especially important since I am both uninterested and incapable of doing anything else!

    All the best,

    Doug

  4. Peter Follansbee

    http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/WebZ/initialize?sessionid=0&next=html/search.html&bad=html/search.html&dbchoice=1&active=1&entityCurrentPage=Search1&javascript=true&dbname=DLDecArts&style=DLDecArts

    Chris

    Thinking about people’s experiences at Winterthur – maybe you would like to remind your readers about the Chipstone journal American Furniture. For some reason, many woodworkers don’t know the journal or don’t read it. The photos alone are often worth it…Gavin Ashworth is the usual photographer and he is excellent.

    The above link is to a section from Chipstone’s website, wherein much of their furniture collection is shown online…some in good detail. Nothing beats being able to crawl around under the stuff, but the journal and the website are the next best thing…

    (if the link above doesn’t work, go to http://www.chipstone.org and follow the drop-down menus to "about chipstone" and then find the link to the "decorative arts digital library" link

    PF

  5. chris c

    Two things that are interesting about Winterthur:

    1. When you go there, the place is not in an utter state of lock down. There
    are no armed guards(at least that I saw in my many times there) and you can
    get extremely close to literally hundreds of priceless pieces. I always love
    to see the mirror that was owned by Martha Washington…it is only a
    couple of feet away.

    2. Believe it or not the collection is not insured. That’s because nobody
    will insure it; there are individual pieces there that are worth a king’s
    ransom. And they have literally thousands of them.

    Thus, they have their own full time security, fire department, care takers,
    the works.

    Chris

  6. Peter Follansbee

    Chris

    One time someone was looking at some carving I did & she said, it’s so perfect it looks like a machine made it. I told her that was the worst thing she could say to me…
    Thanks for the nudge about hand-tool work versus machine work.

    As for the Winterthur stories. Most museums are strapped for time & staffing; but I find that if you are focused about what you would like to see in detail, with some advance notice, many will make an effort to accomodate you. It’s just hard to limit yourself, sort of a kid in a candy store scenario.
    Peter

  7. Gary Roberts

    When I look over the Newport highboys at the MFA Boston, there is an incredible play of light over the surfaces. Unlike anything made post-surface planer or post-sheet goods, this furniture grabs the eye… and I think most people don’t even realize why. My guess is that on a perfectly flat surface, there is so little chance for light to reflect and give depth. On a hand planed surface, light bounces off the grain, pores, hand-plane facets and tricks the eye into thinking there is something going on there.

    Maybe that’s why I tend to like restoring an old piece of furniture. All the nicks, cracks, dents and dings wipe out the Flat Earth Look.

    As for sanding… after shellac (my preferred finish) I just rub down with pumice and then rottenstone applied with a clean cloth. Burnish with a dry cloth and wax. Ok, so it’s not french polish or anything fancy, but it sure does look good.

    Keep on hand planing. My next enterprise start-up will be Luddites-R-Us.

  8. Christopher Schwarz

    Stephen,

    That must have been a very interesting tour. Mr. Hummel’s "With Hammer in Hand" is a fascinating book.

    I need to go back next time I’m on the East Coast.

    Chris

  9. Stephen Shepherd

    Chris,

    I have had good experiences at Winterthur, first in 1976 where I met Mervin Martin a furniture conservator and got the cooks tour. Stepped beyond the ropes in the Dominey workshop and got a good look around.

    Then in 1977, I interviewed for a position as Associate Furniture Conservator there and met Charles Hummel and others on the staff. Got another tour of the Dominey shop and paid more attention the second visit.

    Many museums will extend professional courtesy, from free admission to a tour of the vaults.

    Stephen

  10. Kevin Brown

    Thanks for those close-up photos – as a new smooth-planer, I’m still working on my technique, but it’s very liberating to see that your planed table tops look not so different from mine (okay, mine do have more tear-out!).

    I’ve been frustrated when looking at my panels in raking light, ’cause I see imperfections that I can’t seem to get out… the only way was to go back to the orbital sander to make everything evenly rough, which defeats most of the purpose of smooth-planing. Now I know, maybe I don’t to!

    – Thanks, Kevin

  11. Dave Anderson NH

    Hi Chris,

    My luck at Winterthur has also been good over the years. On a special SAPFM tour about 3 years ago I asked the docent we were with if they had any John Dunlop NH furniture. She said they did, right down the hall on the right, but that no one could leave the tour. She then pointedly stomped her feet, turned her back to me, and said, " You have 5 minutes."

    Another time I wanted to see the Windsor chair collection in the interior"courtyard". I was closed because they were doing relighting and other construction there. Our disappointment must have touched a soft spot because she unlocked the door, let us in, and only asked that we not take any flash pictures since someone might notice we were in there.

    You guys with bad experiences must have looked like vandals, huns, or terrorists. ;-))

    Best regards,

    Dave Anderson NH

  12. Christopher Schwarz

    I think they were relieved that I wasn’t there to loot and/or pillage.

    It’s the menacing beard.

    Chris

  13. Rick Yochim

    Ha! See, it’s not just me. Kari got the "Teutonic Treatment" too!

    Puzzled in Purcellville.

  14. The Village Carpenter

    You were more fortunate on your tour of Winterthur than I was. We had Helga, the prison matron, for our docent. Any time one of us (all woodworkers) got within a foot of a piece, she wheeled around and snapped "What is it? Can I help you with that?" Alas, slug crawling was clearly out of the question.

  15. Rick Yochim

    Chris,

    So a kindly docent gave you a flashlight, huh?

    Everytime I go there I seem to get Erika the Uber Docent who, when I try to "assume the position" to get close to an interesting piece, shoots me a look that says, "Don’t even think about it furniture boy".

    So what am I doing wrong?

    Rick Yochim
    Purcellville VA

    Who even tried winking at them once and got into real trouble.

  16. Doug Fulkerson

    I’ve been debating this issue with myself lately. I finished a small Shaker style chest the other day using only hand tools. Because I like the look of a planed surface, the plan was not to sand the wood at all. It looks fine, but when I run my hand over the top I can feel a little bit of scalloping from my smoothing plane. At first it bothered me. But I realized two things after a while. It looked ok and lots of period pieces weren’t "perfect". This is a rustic, utilitarian piece so I figured function should trump form anyway. Maybe I’ll be a little less fussy in the future.

  17. Hank Knight

    Chris,

    Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit Winterthur. I signed up for the "furniture focus" tour. As it turned out, my wife and I were the only ones on the tour that day, so we had the docent all to ourselves. She took lots of time with us, our one hour tour turned into almost three. She let me pull out drawers, open doors, turn pieces around so I could see the backs and all that good stuff. Ordinarily they don’t let you touch the pieces, but our docent was very generous and we got do handle all of it. What an experience! Like you, I came away with a very different understanding of and appreciation for hand made furniture. It’s like hearing a live symphony for the first time: there’s no way to capture the reality through a recording or a photograph. It taught me to quit obsessing over perfection and to enjoy the imperfections that are the hallmark of truly handmade furniture.

    Hank

  18. Christopher Schwarz

    I read William Zinsser’s "On Writing Well" every couple years. There is no better education out there on the mechanics of good writing.

    I’m afraid I’m not very literary. My favorite writers are Kurt Vonnegut, Susanna Clarke and Mark Helprin.

    My guiltiest pleasure is Christopher Moore.

    Rats. All four of my secrets are now out.

    Chris

  19. Christopher Schwarz

    Adrian,

    I use #320-grit sanding sponges between coats and have never cut through the film finish. Perhaps if I used a cork block it would be a problem.

    Chris

  20. Adrian

    What do you think of Charlesworth’s claim that if you’re going to apply a finish that involves any sanding then you have to sand out the scallops, otherwise you’ll sand through the finish on the high spots.

  21. mdhills

    Who were influences on your writing?
    Am reading Zinsser’s book right now, so paying more attention. "And crawl like slugs we did" — nice.

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