All my relationships usually start out rocky. On my first date with my future wife, I almost blew it by presuming to order for her at the IHOP. (I thought it Southern courtesy; she thought it sexist piggery.) But after a few bumps I usually get along with almost anyone.
The same goes with tools and machines. When I switch to a new tool for testing, I usually have a few weeks where I don’t trust the tool on real workpieces. So I futz with it on scrap until I’m confident the tool (and its user) are ready.
This week I’m building an Arts & Crafts-style frame for a painting from a Charleston, S.C., gallery and decided to disregard my always-cautious gut. After flushing the joints of the frame with my jointer plane, I picked up my Sauer & Steiner No. 4 smoothing plane and dove into the work.
At first, I thought this was a mistake. The tool’s iron was sharp but it needed adjustment to center its gently curved cutting edge in the mouth of the tool. This plane has no mechanical adjuster, and so you adjust the iron with a series of taps with a hammer or mallet. With my other infill planes I use a small Warrington hammer. I tap the sides of the iron to wiggle the iron left and right, and then I tap the back of the iron to increase the depth of cut. If I advance the iron too much I tap the steel or brass back of the tool to retract the iron.
So yesterday it was tap, tap, tap and then expletive deleted. I had advanced the iron too far and needed to rap the back of the plane to retract the iron. (My other time-consuming option was to loosen the iron and start the set-up all over.) The single curse word (sorry mom) was because the back of this beautiful, beautiful plane shouldn’t be struck with a steel hammer. It’s all gorgeous kingwood. I needed a wooden mallet to retract the iron so I didn’t damage the infill too much. But here’s the problem: I hate tapping plane irons with a wooden mallet. It just feels mushy to me.
I wasn’t pleased about using two hammers to adjust this plane, but then I remembered a tool I had purchased from toolmaker Dave Anderson, the man behind Chester Toolworks. It’s a plane-adjusting hammer with one brass face and one wooden face. (Lee Valley also sells a version, by the way.) And the Chester plane hammer was hanging in the rack above my bench.
Three taps later and the shavings spilled from the center of the mouth of the plane as the tear-out left by the jointer plane receded like ugly floodwaters.
Some details: The Sauer & Steiner No. 4 smooth plane is 4 pounds, 5 ounces of perfectly fitted steel, bronze and kingwood. The overall length is 7-1/2″. The coffin-shaped body is 2-1/2″ wide at its most girthsome. The iron is 2″ wide and is high-carbon steel , that’s old school. The price is $2,100 Canadian. That about $1,778 U.S. at today’s rate.
The Chester Toolworks plane hammer has a brass head with lignum vitae head at one end. The handle is ash and finished with linseed oil. It weighs 8 ounces and is 12″ long. The price is $49.
The money I spent on the Sauer & Steiner plane is, hands down, the most money I’ve ever paid for anything in my shop. The tool was an indulgence after a busy year with a couple extra teaching jobs on the side. When I ordered it, I also felt like I was reaching for something I wasn’t meant to own , the same way I felt when I was dating Lucy, who was by far more talented and popular in college.
But I know that this plane will earn its keep. I have a lot of years ahead of me in the shop. And I’m loyal , I’m still married as well.
– Christopher Schwarz