Nicholson's Short Bit on Hand Planing

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24 Aug 2015
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Probably as good as I've seen, and perhaps unlike those who have worked entirely by hand reading nicholson and others first, I learned by hand trialing (experimenting) and then a couple of years ago, someone who works mostly by hand referred me to nicholson and said "everything looks OK, except you're taking long strokes with the jack plane".

Notice in everything nicholson talks about, there's a lack of discussion of constant checking of work mid process (you can do it as part of the process while you're working), there's no prescription for X's or high angles or any of that stuff. The language is a little funny.

What I learned from the text when referenced to it was experimenting with what Nicholson says (working sectionally with a jack) is a little less effort. So just learning by trial and error, everything otherwise matches.

For anyone new to planing, this kind of simplicity is important, because it's really all there is to planing (not cross grain, then X's then this or that).

Jack plane in sections, long plane (equivalent in metal planes maybe to a #6) with through shavings until there are continuous shavings end to end and left to right, and then do the same thing smoothing.

(Jack planing in sections means you step to an area plane it, and then no moving of feet until that area is done, then move back or forward and get what's in arm's reach:
The text is here -start on page 94.

There's a brief other part where nicholson mentions setting the cap iron based on the needs of the wood (so it's more or less set the plane properly, sharpen it and then do the same thing as above every time only varying whether or not the jointer is used based on a need for very straight or long work).

As much as everyone loves a big long wooden jointer plane in theory, the second double iron plane that I built was a 28" jointer. I don't think I've used it in at least four years as the need for anything very straight is usually match planing a long edge (the try plane will match plane almost anything fine without getting a metal or wooden jointer out). The 28" planes are nose heavy and they make your forearm tired.

The fact that someone can work in a garage, resolve to work mostly by hand and end up on almost the same process is a good indicator that varying much from what nicholson says is likely to put you through pointless work.

Notice also when you read the text on the prior page, nicholson talks about honing the iron with two stones and using a grind stone occasionally when it's needed. A grind stone back then wouldn't have been a bench stone- it would've been a very large and very coarse sandstone (like the size of a microwave but not as thick as a microwave is tall). I didn't track down the rub stone, but a turkey stone at the time would probably have been the turkish oilstone (which is essentially nonexistent at a reasonable price now). A good quality turkish stone is about as fine as an 8k grit waterstone, or similar to a trans/black arkansas, but more friable. In 15 years of being a stone pig, I've only found one at a reasonable price (and still have it).

I've never read this section before about sharpening (I'll figure that out on my own) but it's literally identical (two stones and a grinder - not grinding every time, not a bunch of diamond stones) except that the grinder used occasionally is a huge sandstone or a sandstone wheel instead of a modern grinder.

This is all there is to planing anything that I've ever found and when a non-jacob person (like a professional guitar maker here in the states or anyone else starting to work by hand) has ever asked why they're having trouble, the reference to what they're doing is no more complicated than above (no weird tricks, toothed irons, rounding bevels, special stones). The only thing that seems to get objection is the idea that a sole has to actually be flat if you want to use the plane sole to plane something flat without having to check it. That's an immediate indication that someone isn't doing much work by hand (to object to that).

I don't think many people actually work entirely by hand on much. The lack of a scrub plane is a good example here - why no scrub plane? It's such a pleasurable plane for a beginner to chunk off wood. The reason is simple -the jack plane removes a volume of wood just as quickly, but it does so without leaving nearly as uneven of a surface, and when you're not feeding a board to a power jointer or power thicknesser, you notice how much effort is required to follow up the rough work with the try plane (as in, you start to become very accurate with a jack plane so that the next steps are less and you do as much work as you can with the jack). Splitting the jack plane up into scrub and jack plane also makes no sense. If there's a want to really take huge chunks of wood out of a board, then just set two jack planes - one more coarse than the other.
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(I don't want to just copy the language right out of nicholson, as it's free and publicly available, but if google takes down the ebook, then maybe that's not the case - I don't know enough about text rights to know if you can just do that).
(there is otherwise no need for re-enactment of the above in exact materials - wooden planes don't need to be a certain age, and the proportions of planes to work softwoods and medium hardwoods haven't changed much. When I make a 2 1/2" try plane, it's still 3 1/4" wide.

I think stanley smoothing planes are an improvement over all wooden planes once the soles are trued and the cap front edge is prepared, though - there's little enough work done with them that the extra friction from the metal doesn't matter. If you're working mostly with machines, you may do a lot of smoothing and little of other stuff. If you're working mostly by hand, the use of the smoother is very brief (what's left behind from the try plane is nearly finished work).

A nice combination of stones is a fine india or very fine stone of the same type (but still strong cutting enough to easily raise a burr) and autosol along with a power grinder.
(I don't want to just copy the language right out of nicholson, as it's free and publicly available, but if google takes down the ebook, then maybe that's not the case - I don't know enough about text rights to know if you can just do that).

Freely available to read online and to download and to copy at:
The author died in 1844!
The section on planes starts on page 89 in the book, "page" 25 of 142 on the scans.
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Thanks! - the paragraphs about planing will follow. For anyone new to woodworking, notice the lack of cross grain work. It's less efficient in the end unless you have the odd item that's as wide as it is long (and mind blowing out fibers along the back side).

$ 8. To Use the Jack Plane .
In using the jack plane , lay the stuff before you parallel to the sides of the bench , the farther end against the bench hook : then beginning at the hind end of the stuff , by laying the forepart of the plane upon it , lay hold of the tote with the right hand , and pressing with the left upon the fore end , thrust the plane forward in the direction of the fibres of the wood and length of the plane , until you have extended the stroke the whole stretch of your arms ; the shaving will be discharged at the orifice : draw back the plane , and repeat the operation in the next adjacent rough part : proceed in this manner until you have taken off the rough parts throughout the whole breadth , then step forward so much as you have planed , and plane off the rough of another length in the same manner : proceed in this way by steps , until the whole length is gone over and rough planed ; you may then return and take all the protu berant parts or sudden risings , by similar operations
The trying plane:

$ 10. The Use of the Trying Plane .
The sharpening of the iron , and the operation of planing is much the same as that of the jack plane ; when the side of a piece of stuff has been planed first by the jack plane , and afterwards by the trying plane , that side of the stuff is said to be tried up , and the operation is called trying .
When the stuff is required to be very straight , particularly if the broad and narrow side of another piece is to join it , instead of stopping the plane at every arm's length , as with the jack plane , the shaving is taken the whole length , by stepping forwards , then returning , and repeating the operation throughout the breadth , as often as may be found necessary .
The Jointer (Nicholson mentions a "long plane" between the try and jointer, probably because the jointer would be seldom used. The Long plane is referred to as 26 inches, the try plane about 22. the jointer is listed as "longer yet" (and then as about 30 inches). I doubt every shop had a jointer as a newbie will think they're a treat to use, but the average person doing much work will find them nose heavy and tiring - think planing for 2 hours in a given shop session between sawing and arranging things - you don't need something that's a repetitious forearm exercise - try planes are still reasonably well balanced, as are the shorter long planes).

the average person making cabinet size stuff or furniture will never need a wooden plane longer than 26 inches. In terms of flatness, a precisely flattened metal plane will hold its sole profile better so you can multiply lengths for the longer planes by about 0.8.

$ 12. The Jointer Is still longer than the long plane , and is used principally for planing straight edges , and the edges of boards , so as to make them join together ; this operation is called shooting , and the edge itself is said to be shot . The length of this plane is about two feet six inches , the depth three inches and a half , and the breadth three inches and three fourths . The shaving is taken the whole length in finishing the joint , or narrow surface .
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Smoothing - after the try plane or long plane (on bigger stuff), smoothing is over in a sniff. It's not like using a machine planer where the wood is full of artifacts to remove (ripples, tearout, etc). The try plane leaves wood in near finished condition.

§ 13. The Smoothing Plane , Pl . 12. Fig . 3 .
Is the last plane used in giving the utmost degree of smoothness to the surface of the wood : it is chiefly used in cleaning off finished work . The construction of this plane is the same with regard to the iron wedge and opening for discharging the shaving , but is much smaller in size , being in length seven inches and a half , in breadth three , and in depth two and three quarters , and differs in form , on account of its having convex sides , and no tote .
There is also this difference in giving the iron a finer set , that you may strike the hind end instead of the fore part .
If anyone is wanting to work by hand, this is the method they will follow. It's so convincingly better that I almost did exactly the same thing without ever reading text (just by experimenting with what works more easily - I missed that the jack technique here is more efficient, but when I read this, experimenting showed that it's a little bit more efficient than walking with the jack like you walk with the later planes).

Anything that differs from this will be less efficient, and some of this won't make sense in context with power tools because you're not following a hand tool or setting up the next step for a hand tool.

This simple process doesn't work very well with single iron planes (actually, it works terribly)

If you don't have any interest in working mostly by hand, then I don't know why efficiency with hand tools matters too much.
Aside from the simplicity of this thanks to the cap iron making planing predictable, the section a little earlier (you can follow the link) about sharpening more or less says a honing stone and a finish stone and then occasionally grind when the honing and finish stone take too long to get through.

Ghee, this sounds remarkably similar to using a grinder and then two sharpening stones or a stone and a compound on MDF/etc. Not quite matching the claim that you just rub the irons on stones and there's no grinder (in this case, the grinder is either an enormous coarse sandstone, or probably a standstone wheel - but you can make note that they don't consider it efficient to try to cover the grinding in regular honing).

What's the difference between this and texts 100 years later? I don't know about UK, but in the US, early 1800s brought machine planing and by the civil war era, it was pretty much widespread - at that point, metal planes started to show up made in novel ways and then after industrialization got a foothold around 1900, the number of metal planes sold and the number available exploded.

The 1895 m-ward catalogue had relatively little in terms of metal planes. By 1916, there were several stanley options, and at least one other brand and a whole lot more metal joinery planes, etc (presumably because those are used for site work and tolerate site storage and temp/humidity changes pretty well).
Phew I didn't mean to set off an avalanche! I just pointed D_W at page 92 in Nicholson's "The Mechanic's Companion"
where there is a brief paragraph about cap irons. He's obviously never read it and I thought it could be helpful!
28 books to go D_W :ROFLMAO:
Have a look at Moxon too and tell us what you think. :unsure:
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Phew I didn't mean to set off an avalanche! I just pointed D_W at page 92 in Nicholson where there is a brief paragraph about cap irons. He's obviously never read it and I thought it could be helpful!
28 books to go D_W :ROFLMAO:

If anyone wants to get good with planes, this is a good way to go. Still waiting for pictures of any fine work, Jacob.
Phew I didn't mean to set off an avalanche! I just pointed D_W at page 92 in Nicholson's "The Mechanic's Companion"
where there is a brief paragraph about cap irons. He's obviously never read it and I thought it could be helpful!
28 books to go D_W :ROFLMAO:
Have a look at Moxon too and tell us what you think. :unsure:
Jacob - DW has started his own thread for those that are interested. Why keep baiting and being antagonistic? It’s gone way past the point of being amusing.
I see that this kind of stuff doesn't generate much interest, but I get that - if you don't want to do the work by hand, it's a bit of a burden. The language about doing everything by hand is misleading, though "that's what tailed apprentices are for" or "it's not important work" with the flip side of the interpretation being making stuff with gobs of exposed joints.

it would likely make everyone a better maker and provide a better understanding of how tools work (it becomes a matter of efficiency and the time commitment allows for experimenting 10 percent of the time and literally doubling productivity, and then that time spent on rough work -which has to be done relatively neatly - making the close work far easier).

The short passages in nicholson are easy for me to make deep sense of because I didn't read them first - they are still dead accurate as far as efficiency goes working entirely by hand. Had I read them two years on when still figuring out which tools should get a wixey, they would've seemed like just another set of rules. And maybe they really are just for hobbyists (I think I'd have assumed that, anyway). Brian Holcombe took a shot at working totally by hand making only higher end very crisp stuff (he lives in an affluent NYC suburb where you can actually find people who will pay for that) and found that he couldn't keep up with orders even just for very high end high value work.

Sort of a shame, but that's the way it is. I don't think the hobby is going toward more skill at this point, either, but there's no natural law that it will.
I see that this kind of stuff doesn't generate much interest, but I get that - if you don't want to do the work by hand, it's a bit of a burden.
You can be assured I find it of interest. When I started working wood pretty much all the things I made were done by hand. That's everything from dimensioning the wood, executing the joinery, all the way to prepping for polishing. I've extremely rarely polished straight off the plane; I can probably count the times I've done so on the fingers of one hand. There's almost always been an element of scraping and sanding prior to finishing. I've not read either Nicholson or Moxon, but I find it interesting that the extracts from one or the other you've put in this thread pretty much match what I had to do with planes when I did have to do all hand work.

Nowadays I try to avoid what I think of as unnecessary planing. To me that's essentially prepping rough sawn boards to dimension. It also covers such things as creating mouldings. There are machines for that kind of thing, for the most part, i.e., planers, thicknessers, spindle moulders, routers, and so on. In truth there are machines for many of the processes that can be done by hand, e.g., cutting joints (M&Ts, dovetails, housings, and so on). There are machines for prepping wood ready for polish; power sanders ranging through large oscillating belt sanders, stroke sanders and so on all the way down to random orbital sanders. In my career I've been faced from time to time with having to work large volumes of wood for one job to make artefacts along with preparing dozens of square metres of panels ready for polishing. It just makes no financial sense to tackle such work with noting but hand tools. The machines are king in that situation, and that includes use of CAD and CNC kit.

But there are times when hand planes are just the ticket for elements of, for instance, one-off high pieces of furniture. That's when I get chance to get those planes out along with all the other hand tools for executing the joinery, e.g., dovetails. So, for me, what you discuss is interesting, but it's somewhat peripheral to my needs for the most part. That may change as I edge closer and closer to retirement, ha, ha. Slainte.
Richard, I think you're in the rare group of people who have done it in any volume without being able to flee and use something else (or without it being site work - and there's nothing wrong with site work, but it's not the same as cabinetmaking to a cabinetmaking standard).

What makes the text relatable is almost rather than learning it first and duplicating it is doing it first until you can work well and efficiently and then checking against it.

I don't agree with everything that nicholson says about planes (not which planes to use where, but the bit about clogs - but I don't know the context as the earliest double iron plane that I have is more likely to be a couple of decades after his text - the wedge finger/clog problem hasn't existed in any good English well-fitted plane that I bought, but when planes are poorly made or wedges no longer fit right, you can find problems. So, who knows.

What makes the group rare, I think, is that - how is someone going to end up wanting to do as much hand work as described without being a professional, and if the latter, if you get an order list from tidy work, you'll soon not be able to keep up with it. All of the little skills you build up then are not instantly transferable to someone else as quickly as teaching someone a sanding routine or setting up and feeding a machine and "let me know when you're done with that".

So, I get it - there's a lot of people who want to use hand tools. Few who want to use them for everything because it feels good to them (it would if they got past the point where it doesn't feel good).

There is one thing that sticks out in my mind - I can match plane a board set with a coarse shaving more accurately than almost anyone can do it with any method - I do vaguely recall struggling with those things early on, but now they are reflex. Since I don't read texts generally, I can't confirm that someone in Nicholson's time would've set up their planes just so so that they could match plane edges in a couple of through shavings, but I'd bet it wasn't uncommon. Using hand tools as a complement to machines was so much harder and nobody likes to hear that it's hard to get really good with them without a "concentration" at some point being forced. But I think that's the case.

But that leads to the only reasonable conclusion -there's not enough actual interest to keep talking about it outside of youtube once in a while. Not suggesting that in a "i'm folding up my tent and huffing off", either - just that it seems to be a reasonable conclusion. I didn't learn any of it from someone else giving me lots of instruction, and anyone who really wants to do it will figure things out on their own, too.
These are books written for gentlemen architects and gentlemen hobbyists and should be read as such. Chippendale and Sheraton were early publishers of such works and they were not intended to be used by apprentices who were trained in the secrets of a trade by a master under the guild system.
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Good point. One can't help but wonder how these books were received during the era of the strict guild system. Presumably they were perceived as not much of a threat, which if true says a lot about what's not in them and also their overall breezy nature.

Were Nicholson, Moxon, et al. burned at the stake, so to speak, over their respective books?
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I haven't read the nicholson volumes - only the bits about planing when referred to them. The information is more accurate in terms of efficiency than anything else I've seen. About 9 years ago, I bought 15 or so double iron planes and then copied the best working of the group, all the way down to which had less cut resistance (which is usually a function of the cap iron design). The only error in commentary in the Nicholson book about planes is the statement that the corners should be nipped to avoid clogging, but perhaps earlier cap irons weren't as crisp as the ones in early-mid 1800, which made the internal fit pretty easy.

Charlie - why would something like planing be that big of a secret?

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