If you think that a .001″-thick shaving from a hand plane counts as a fine shaving, then please read on.
For the next four weeks, Japanese tool expert and merchant Harrelson Stanley is trekking through the West and the South in his motor home to teach his hand sharpening techniques and hold planing contests for the students.
Planing contests are practically an organized sport in Japan, but they are small scale and rare here in the United States. Harrelson is trying to change that. He recently returned from Japan where he attended a planing contest and yesterday shared a few details about the contests that American woodworkers might find interesting.
These Japanese contests typically involve 250 to 400 contestants, virtually all of them are professional carpenters, doormakers or carvers, Harrelson says. The typical contestant will take the day off work before the fall or spring contest to spend the entire day sharpening the iron (or irons) they plan to use for the contest. Then they pack their planes in a Styrofoam cooler to protect them from changes in humidity, and head to the contest.
The contests are attended by thousands of spectators, Harrelson says.
Yup. Thousands. The contestants then unpack their planes from their coolers, tune them up and try to take the thinnest, longest full-length shaving they can. Resulting shavings are typically 1-3/4″ wide, 7′ long and quite thin. The thinnest shaving on record, Harrelson says, is 3 microns thick. By way of comparison, a single strand of a spiderweb is a hefty 7 microns thick. The contest is invariably affected by the weather, Harrelson says. High humidity will vex the contestants, causing a 3-micron shaving to swell up to 5 microns.
Harrelson has been impressed by many of the results from his stateside planing contests. At the Nov. 8 class at the Woodcraft show in Dublin, Calif., the contest was won by a woman who had never sharpened before taking Harrelson’s class.
So how thin are the shavings from the American students? Harrelson says he’s not measuring them with a micrometer. He’s simply comparing the results side-by-side. “It’s usually pretty obvious which is the thinnest,” he says.
For the contest, the students are planing boards of 500-year-old Alaskan yellow cedar that Harrelson has been carting around. He bought it at a lumberyard that was selling it as decking material. “They didn’t know what they had,” he says. “I bought it all.”
If you’re interested in attending one of Harrelson’s workshops and getting in on the contest, check out our previous entry on his sharpening tour and his schedule of stops, which wrap up Dec. 6 in Norwalk, Conn.