In Chris Schwarz Blog, Handplane Techniques, Handplanes, Schwarz on Workbenches, Woodworking Blogs

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After a couple of weeks of working with the legs for this new workbench, I am certain the material is not pine.

Yes, I know. Shocker. The good people at Home Depot were mistaken.

What is it? Heck if I know. My best guess is that it’s Douglas fir or hemlock, based on my experiences working with the stuff out in California one year. However, while the stuff is stringy and sassy like Doug fir, my boss (who lived in California) thinks it might be aspen.

Why? Because some of the curly figure in these legs looks aspen-ish.

What I do know is that this stuff is no fun to plane. I trued up the legs with a sharp 50�° jointer plane. That tool might as well have been a lawnmower because the wood ripped up like I was planing Silly String no matter which direction I stroked.

In cases like this I always do stupid things. No, I didn’t sand the legs. I decided to use a plane with a really low pitch and see what happened. So I fetched my Wayne Anderson ebony miter plane, a tool that I have a long history with. It’s a bevel-up plane with the bed somewhere sweetly south of 20Ã?°. I reground the iron at 25Ã?° and put a small micro-bevel on the edge.

As I have written before, this tool is like a long-time girlfriend. No matter how long I’ve been away from this plane, when I wrap my fingers around the brass body we pick things up like my fingers have never left the sidewalls.

You can, in fact, read the whorls of my fingerprints on this tool, which are pasted all over Wayne’s name on the port sidewall.

The miter plane trued up all four legs in short order. It planed out the tearing around four nasty knots. It restored order to some reversing grain. It sliced out a wack-nasty patch of tearing that all the high-angle tools couldn’t touch.

All this gives proof to a maxim that I’ve always thought was true: When conventional wisdom fails (high angles reduce tearing), slam the gearbox into reverse and see what happens. Sure, the transmission might appear in your rear-view mirror. Or you might just end up with glimmering surfaces that are smooth as glass and as deep as a Caribbean lagoon.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 17 comments
  • James Watriss

    My experiences with Aspen were that it was very stringy and kind of obnoxious.

    And Japanese planes, traditionally set up to work with softer woods, are (from what I remember being told) bedded at 45 or below… so maybe there’s something to this theory.

  • Chris F

    It looks too light and the differences between early and late wood are not pronounced enough for it to be douglas fir.

  • Matt Cianci

    Hey Chris….if, as you say in your book, we should be less concerned with the shavings and more concerned with the resulting surface….why are you always showing us shavings?!?!?

    Lets see that surface as "…smooth as glass and as deep as a Caribbean lagoon."!!!!!!!

  • Eric R

    That shaving in the picture is a beautiful thing.

    When a tool works that nice you almost want to have a cigarette afterward…..

  • Swanz

    With softwood/pine I would have reached for the Low Angle first.

  • Brian Hekwood

    Wow, cool woodworking tips out here. I like it. Thanks.

  • gdblake


    I’m not surprised that the bevel up plane with a combined angle of attack of around 45 degrees could handle what sounds like some species of softwood better than a bevel down smoother. I have experienced this multiple times myself.

  • Roy Harding

    In Canada (western Canada, anyway) all construction material is sold as S/P/F (spruce/pine/fir). Your 2 Xs or other dimensioned stock could be any sub-species of these three general species.

    I found it interesting that others have noted that hemlock is lumped into this general construction material category in some regions.

  • Al Neff

    Sure looks like the stuff we use here (Ontario) labeled SPF. And since the trade guys have settled or called a truce on the softwood lumber wars, it is probably being shipped to the U.S. SPF really means "We have no idea what it is, but we do have the rights to clear cut this here chunk of forest and make lumber out of whatever it is"
    I gave up trying to plane it years ago and now Chris says it can be done!
    If you want real excitement try to rip a wide piece on a tablesaw.

  • Not seeing the big difference between a 50-degree bevel down and a 20+25+micro bevel up. Or is the point that sometimes the beautiful, handmade plane just does things better? I’d certainly buy that (the point, that is – not the plane, which I certainly can’t afford 😉


  • TSJones99

    Now that right there is one for the X files.

    And a real nice looking plane, too!

  • Dave Beauchesne

    Looks hemlockish to me – but I agree – get out the Hoadley reference and be sure.

    Growth rings look too tight for aspen, and hemlock can be very nasty at times.


    Dave Beauchesne

  • Steve

    You have a copy of Bruce Hoadley’s _Identifying Wood_, right? Get your hand lens and a razor blade and identify the wood yourself!

    Aspen is semi-diffuse porous, so a clean cross-section of the end grain will show numerous small pores more or less evenly distributed across the surface. The rays will be all but invisible. No softwood has that many pores, and the rays are always visible.

    The "generic" construction softwood sold in the west is called hem-fir (hemlock/fir), and is always distinct from douglas-fir, which is worth more and therefore sold separately (and isn’t a true fir). The true firs are white fir, balsam fir, etc.

    In the east, the generic construction softwood is called SPF (spruce/pine/fir).

  • Justin Tyson

    Looks to me like spruce or fir rather than hemlock or Douglas-fir (not to be confused with true fir).

  • Alan

    That is much lighter in color than the doug fir we see out west. It is also lacking on grain that we see with the doug fir. Doesn’t look like Hemlock to me either. Does look like some Aspen I’ve seen pics of. The wood looks unusually light in color, almost like maple. Maybe it’s soft maple?

  • Kip

    I’m not sure that going lower wold be counter intuitive. I seem to have better luck when I use higher angles on harder woods and lower angles on softer woods. I imagine the spectrum of angles as going from paring at one end to scraping at the other. In my experience harder woods scrape better than softer ones so if I’m having a problem with something soft I’ll go lower, something harder, I’ll go steeper.

    Does your experience follow this?

    However, when skewing solves the problem, I can never tell if it’s because of the "lowered" pitch this provides or because I’m just hitting the figure at an angle that is a compromise between the directions that would be required for all the crazy grain directions packed into a small space…

  • Bud

    That stuff is marked as "hem/fir" at the Home Depot in this area. No idea what that’s supposed to mean.


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