Ron Brese: From Sheet Metal to Sweet Metal
You can tell if they are more of an artist than an engineer. If they prefer utility to beauty. If they respect tradition or want to break new ground.
During the last few months I’ve been using a smoothing plane that was handmade by Ron Brese, and before I ever picked up the phone to chat with him, I knew he was a heck of an engineer and a die-hard traditional furniture maker.
How could I tell? Brese’s planes are put together in an unusual and innovative way (more on that later) that belies a deep knowledge of metal, the tiniest details of his tool are well sorted, and the statistics and configuration of the tool suggests someone who has been using planes for a long time to build custom furniture.
But what you cannot tell about the tool from working with it is that it is quite a bargain for a piece of custom work: His 8”-long 800-255 smoothing plane is $1,285. It’s a darn remarkable price for a tool of this quality.
The 800-255 plane is designed especially for taking fine cuts and for tricky woods. It’s far more of a thoroughbred than a draft horse, as you can tell from its numbers. Weighing in at about 6 lbs., the tool has the mass necessary to keep it in the cut in tough timbers, yet the tote and distribution of the tool’s weight allow you to use it for long periods without excessive fatigue.
The weight comes from the heavy 3/8”-thick brass sole (though Brese says he is moving more to steel these days) plus the ¼”-thick brass sidewalls and ¼” thick iron. (The thick sole allows him to avoid using an accessory steel chatter block in the plane’s bed, which saves labor and material.)
The iron is pitched at 55°, and the mouth aperture is tiny – less than .006” by my reading. And there is no chipbreaker. These details reserve the tool for fairly fine cuts, though you can easily pass a thickish .002” shaving through the mouth without difficulty. In others words, this could be your only smoothing plane if you wanted a Spartan tool kit.
The wood in the tester version was walnut, though Brese uses ebony, rosewood and other species upon request. And the wood is where you can see that Brese has a love for furniture. The wood is finished to as high a degree as the metal, and it fits and flows like a cabinetmaker’s finest work. It’s really quite stunning and impressive.
And how does the tool work? I was completely impressed with the tool as a working example. It took fine shavings with no complaint and was predictable to set up and use. It outperformed all my vintage tools and stood shoulder to shoulder with my highly tuned premium tools that I’ve fussed over for years. My only quibble was I wish the iron were snecked so you could easily reduce the iron’s projection without completely releasing the iron. But that’s a small complaint for such a complex and well-thought out piece of engineering.
Building to Relieve Stress
The story of how Brese became a toolmaker begins a couple careers ago when he was an engineer working for a sheet metal fabricator in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“Woodworking was a stress outlet from a day of work,” he says. “Having an engineering background I migrated toward woodworking; I was raising a family and we had a need for furniture.”
His wife, Julie, is an X-ray technician, and so word got out around the medical community in their Georgia town that Brese built furniture. And though Brese preferred simple Shaker lines, his clientele migrated toward the 18th-century high style.
“I decided it (building furniture) was what I wanted to do,” he says. “And I decided I should do it while I was young enough and had a backlog of commissions.”
So he became a full-time furniture maker. And with the added work came the added dust, and the health concerns that go with it. He added air scrubbers and other measures, but adding more hand tools to go with his heavy woodworking machinery seemed a wise step.
He started using a lot of handplanes in his work, and found they were efficient, even in a modern professional shop. His work also evolved into a higher level as a result, particularly with his surfaces. There was a downside to the hand work: He was planing all day at times, and the tools tended to wear him out.
“I started looking at infill planes, but I saw the price as an obstacle,” he said. “I had made a number of wooden planes, but they required an awful amount of effort to use them. So I started designing and using a few infill planes and putting them to use in my work.”
After building 20 or 25 tools, his style of migrated to modern forms and then went back to a traditional look. He also found that the tools were less tiring to use in his day job.
“With an infill plane you seem to be able to do the same amount of work and not be tired at the end of the day,” Brese says. “The plane gives you most of your leverage.”
After experimenting with those planes, he thought that he could make them for sale and he started exploring other tool forms and processes to make them. And around the beginning of 2007, he was ready to go to market.
One of Brese’s signatures with his work is how he joins the sidewalls to the sole of the tool. Historically, the shells of infill planes were either cast in one piece or were three pieces joined with dovetails. Brese says he was once browsing Karl Holtey’s web site and was struck by how Holtey riveted his shells together using rivets that were integrated into the sole piece.
Brese then came up with a way to make the sole and sidewalls one piece using rivets that screwed into the sole plate and locked into the sidewalls thanks to a small chamfer on the rim of the rivet’s hole.
“I was intrigued with the dovetail but I also saw the drawbacks,” Brese says. “Accuracy can be difficult. You almost have to estimate how much the body is going to draw when you peen it together.”
Thanks to his engineering background, Brese was able to also streamline the operation so it was fast and inexpensive, with few tooling changes on his milling machine.
The results are remarkable. When the plane first showed up in our shop, it was impossible to see the joinery. Except for the fact that the shell was too perfect to be a casting, there were no clues about the joinery. After a few months of use, the patination of the shell revealed slight shadows of the rivets.
Other Tools in the Line
But this tool isn’t going to be his sole offering. In addition to this smoothing plane, Brese also makes a small unhandled smoothing plane, the 650-55 ($495), and he has a Norris A13-style plane and a panel plane in the works. He also has a kit he’s developed, but he’s not sure about the market for that.
And what’s the next frontier in planemaking for Brese? Right now, it’s securing one of the most essential raw ingredients: dense, dry and exotic wood for the infill material.
Recently he traded his way at an Athens, Ga., tool meet into a monster rosewood log that had its history intertwined with an international art student of Pablo Picasso’s who fell behind in his rent, a mobile-home fire and an Atlanta exotic wood business.
And by the time the entire wild tale ran its course, Brese ended up with two rosewood logs in his shop that were so dense his hand-held power tools were almost worthless in the initial attack. His Sawzall almost came to a stop. His carbide-tipped sawblade on a circular saw didn’t do much better.
But thanks to a handsaw and some gumption, Brese was able to break into the log so he could start processing it on his large power equipment.
“I’d cut some, take a rest, then cut some more. Then rest some more,” Brese says. “After a long while, I had a nice prize.”
The same could be said of Brese’s new business. It’s taken him two starts in other careers – and a lot of hard work and inspiration – to find just the right combination of skills to make something as beautiful as his extraordinary handplanes. PW
Note: This article originally appeared in the Fine Tool Journal.
18 Eastside Drive
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Christopher Schwarz is the editor of Popular Woodworking and Woodworking Magazine. You can visit his personal web site at LostArtPress.com to read more about traditional hand tools and techniques.