Release the Pressure

plane totes

Woodworking forums can be helpful, no really they can. It’s thanks to a forum that I read a discussion between George Wilson and Zach Dillinger (really looking forward to Zach’s book towards the end of this year). They were discussing the size of plane totes from early wooden planes and why they were smaller than the typical “Bailey” style tote we are all familiar with. The reason put forward was that with planing done in such volume in pre-industrial times, it was essential to the long term health of the woodworker to push the tote with an open hand with the web area between fore finger and thumb providing the grip.

If totes were bigger or “normal” on early planes it would’ve made it more likely the person planing would exert too much gripping pressure leading to issues similar to carpal tunnel syndrome. Although very few of us will ever approach the volume of planing those early woodworkers did, being open to the reasons why they used their tools a certain way can prove useful. After all they were doing more with their planes than just removing snipe or a few mill marks.

I’m well into my workbench build now and I’m using very accessible but also very roughly finished construction grade timber. I’m dressing the surfaces and there is much to be done. Holding the budget #4 I’m using with an open hand, in a similar way to a wooden plane, has proven very comfortable. You can see my experience with this below.

If you find yourself with discomfort during planing consider taking a cue from the early masters or even consider visiting a woodworking forum.


— Graham Haydon

13 thoughts on “Release the Pressure

  1. amoscalie

    Okay, so now I have a good reason to get my coffin smooth refurbished with a new sole and give it a try.

  2. Peter McLaughlin

    Thanks, Graham…I wish I’d had your tip before I began the flattening process on my oak workbench top. (It was a former butcher block table in a public reception area. I sistered a lot of the material to double the thickness and give it some mass). Countless 5-gallon drywall mud buckets were filled with shavings, mostly using a 1940’s vintage Stanley 7C. Alas, the piece had a ~1/8″ crest in the middle…which over 6′ of length equals a surprising amount of wood. Although ostensibly a blue collar worker, my hands became a blistered and raw mess. If ever I tackle such a beast again, I promise to try changing my grip….and maybe wearing padded work gloves. It might be time to reread The Joiner and Cabinet Maker to see what was said about the thicknessing process in the 1830s. Best wishes, Peter

    1. Graham HaydonGraham Haydon Post author

      Hi Peter!

      I’ve been in that situation many times, finding out after the event a “better” way to do something. That’s part of the fun right? For the most part the volume of planing you’re doing there and I might do for “fun” is mostly part of history. It is no surprise we are having to develop the skills that most have not used for many decades and as you allude to in your comment, potentially hundreds of years! I know when I started work my hand tools were important but were used for mainly for more complicated cuts and refinement that our machines were not always well suited for.
      Thanks for sharing the experience!



    2. Scott Wynn

      I think it becomes obvious when you have to do a large panel such as you were doing there that the Bailey planes are really not meant for heavy work. Besides being heavy and the iron sole generating a lot of friction (you really should lube the sole of an iron plane every 3 or 4 strokes when you’re doing this work), the totes are too small and do not engage enough of the hand; they soon blister. A well designed and made handle should not blister before the woodworker tires. And the rear handle is often angled poorly as well.

      For flattening panels and boards you should use a series of planes. I would have started with a jackplane with probably a little less than 1/16″ curve to the blade. I would even consider starting with a scrub plane. I would recommend that these planes be German-style horned planes as they are the most comfortable for heavy work with grips that fill the whole hand. Or a English pattern jack, also quite effective, before moving to your #7. The blade on that I would have sharpened to a bit less than 1/32″ sweep.

      And by the way, with the 45 degree pitch of the Bailey plane iron it’s nearly impossible avoid tearout with smoothing planes. I found you get the best results with a 55-60 degree blade angle when working oak.

      1. Graham HaydonGraham Haydon Post author

        Hi Scott

        Thanks for sharing your experience. Doubtless your experience is greater than mine. On weight and lube, I’m with you. Tote size, maybe but early dutch planes had very small totes. Hence the video showing a open handed grip, focusing on the web between finger and thumb.

        Very similar to you here, wooden jack for me please! Then wooden try plane.

        Regarding your last point I’ve had a different experience. The 45deg for me is perfect. If the grain is a touch wild I advance the cap iron. The only wood I’ve not been able to plane that way was a piece of Gidgee. I think the #4 Bailey is a candidate for best all round smoothing plane, sure it’s not perfect but at least is does not weigh too much, really easy to adjust while working and the thin irons are forgiving to maintain.



        1. Scott Wynn

          Thanks Graham for your response.
          Actually, that last paragraph of mine was supposed to read “nearly impossible to avoid tearout when planing oak”. I was basically responding to Peter McLaughlin’s experience with planing down his oak workbench (but the computer outwitted me in the placement of my comment — and I need to proof read my comments better)
          The 45 degree angle of the Bailey plane does work well for softwoods and the softer hardwoods; that’s one of the reasons the plane remains so popular. But after being repeatedly frustrated by tearout when planning oak, in desperation I tried a plane that had a a 60 degree cutting angle. Problem solved. The reliability of results is dramatically increased. Unfortunately, options for having access to a plane with a 60 degree cutting angle are limited: handmade, Chinese, or Lee Valley’s customizable planes, but if your Bailey planes are not giving you the results you want in oak, it might be an option to consider.

  3. Billy's Little Bench

    relaxation of the hands can solve so many issues in woodworking its not even funny.
    I solved many issues when I first started out by forcing myself to relax my hands. I keep a loose grip on the rear tote, saw, mallet, etc.. with my right hand. While planning I try and hold the front knob with just a few fingers and not with the palm of my hand. Many times I do change over to the coffin smoother style of grip. May also be the reason why I use more and more wooden planes these days.
    As a percussionist for years I developed issues with my hands, not carpal tunnel syn, but cramps and stiffness in the hands and wrists. Creeping tension in the hand.
    I try and focus on holding all my tools as if they were a little bird, which is how I was instructed to hold mallets and sticks when I was a percussionist in college. It helps a lot.
    I also stretch my wrists and hands before , during , and after long work days. This also gives me time to relax my eyes and brain, two other things that don’t function well under stress.

  4. Bill Lattanzio

    When I first picked up a coffin style smoothing plane I liked the different grip, sort of cupping both hands around the front and back of the plane. It is very comfortable (relatively). With the bailey style planes I still keep the pistol grip around the tote, but I’ve been cupping the knob in the same way I would with the coffin plane, and that grip seems a bit more relaxed.

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