The English Method - Popular Woodworking Magazine

The English Method

 In Arts & Mysteries Blog, Woodworking Blogs

English craftsmen worked on benches with only a single planing stop to secure their stock for facing. Images of the Nicholson benches have no dog holes like my bench shown below, and no holes bored in their tops for holdfasts. Large stock is usually heavy enough that additional clamping or stops are not necessary. But when working short, wide stock, planing in any direction other than toward the stop causes the work piece to spin.

Obviously this isn’t going to work. The distance between the arrows is too great and the board will spin. But a tail vise isn’t the only solution.

A few simple techniques make working on a simple English bench a breeze. Regardless of whether you work on an English style bench or not, I think these are worth learning. Mack Headley, the master cabinetmaker at Colonial Williamsburg, has named this manner of facing, “The English Method”.

Plane into the stop. Of course, this isn’t always possible. Skewing the plane one way or the other subtlety changes the direction of the effort. I think this is one of those things you must try to understand. So just try it.

To work the far edge, either turn the board around, or just move it over. I find pushing down on the plane helps me control the work piece. Notice the way I’m holding this plane. My hands are positioned to control the plane and provide downforce. I recommend making your work bench no higher than your palm for this reason.

If a cross grain cut is needed, rotate the board. I can sometimes hold the corner hanging off the bench with my hip.

The advantage of the English Method seems to be its speed. Stock can be worked very quickly. I may only spend two minutes working this little board, so even 30 seconds fussing about with holdfasts or an end vise doesn’t seem like a reasonable investment in time. Also, English benches, lacking end vises, and bench dog holes are painfully simple to build. I started woodworking on a bench like this and used a drywall screw as a planing stop. Hey, don’t laugh! Its height adjustable! Regardless of your bench’s design, I think you should practice Master Headley’s “English Method”.

– Adam Cherubini

P.S. Sorry these pictures aren’t clearer. The blue arrow is the direction of my effort and the red arrow is the planing stop pushing back. This is Newton’s third law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Some of my arrows don’t seem to balance. That wasn’t done intentionally. But I can say that in every picture there is an important missing arrow; the force of friction between the bench and the board. You may find this technique more difficult on a bench that is highly polished or made of ebony or lignum vitae! Headley’s bench in Williamsburg is Southern Yellow Pine and it has a nice grab to it. I’m not ready to tell you to scrap your maple or beech bench for a pine one, but I can say I no longer wax my bench top.

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Showing 3 comments
  • Roderick Drumgoole


    I understand the idea of planning large boards (i.e. 6’long, 12" wide)although not completely. For example, I have a Roubo style bench with a planning stop that is used in conjunction with a holdfast on a piece of scrap for the side movement. I am not sure how this can be effectively accomplished (English method) with just the planning stop if you have a warp/twisted board to start with; perhaps you can elaborate further. Also, I am already challenged when it is time for moldings, in that I am experimenting with a few different methods such as the Veritas "bench dogs" along with their bench stops. I have also utilized a clamp to hold the piece as well. How do shape your moldings? I look forward to your response.



  • Paul Kierstead

    Heh, I thought the hip thing was just me. The hip is a remarkably useful 3rd hand sometimes when planing. It appears I have been using the "english method" all along without knowing it. the bigger PITA is when you want to plane dead across a board.

    Great illustrations, thanks for taking the time.

  • Mike Wenzloff

    Hmm. Interesting. While all my benches have had planing stops, two benches have had two about 12" apart and one had a slide-up 1′ long board.

    When I used the benches with the single stops, I typically just plopped down a thin piece of wood lathe for the board to butt against.

    Question. If Mack was cutting in a rebate…how does he–or you–secure the board with this type of setup?

    Take care, Mike

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