Lessons from Tools on High (the High Shelf, That is)
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.
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!
I also have two 95s that were made by Ken Wisner. Click here to find out why I own these.
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.
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.
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.
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