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Hand Planes in the Modern Shop , by Kerry Pierce

by J. Norman Reid
Delaplane, VA

Before I begin, let me confess that I'm in love with handplanes. That is, no doubt, one of the reasons why Kerry Pierce's book, Hand Planes in the Modern Shop , is so attractive to me. I'll read about anything I find that's relevant to this topic. And I'm certainly glad I read this book.

The book's title somewhat understates the breadth of its contents. It certainly does cover the uses of handplanes of all sorts in the woodshop, be it a hybrid shop or one totally free of powered machinery. But the book offers far more than that. It's a feast of information about handplanes that ranges from types of planes and their uses to buying, restoring, collecting and troubleshooting.

In a comfortable, personable style, Pierce describes his own move away from machine tools to a predominantly dust-free hand tool shop, necessitated by a life-threatening illness. He relates a narrative of his own journey to obtain, restore and learn to use handplanes of all sorts, never shying away from revealing his failures as well as his successes. He compares tools of different brands and types and, refreshingly, does not hesitate to make specific criticisms and recommendations.

Though Pierce praises the quality of newly manufactured planes by such makers as Lie-Nielsen and Veritas, he gives much attention to the search for older tools—metal-bodied Stanley's and wooden-bodied planes—and restoring them to effective use. An interesting part of his presentation are analyses of then-contemporary eBay prices for selected planes. Though now dated by a few years, they nonetheless will give some guidance to buyers as to what to look out for in the used marketplace.

Pierce opens his narrative with a brief introduction to his personal journey into the realm of handplanes. This is followed by a chapter on the history of planemaking from the Roman Empire to wooden planes of the 18th and 19th centuries, English infill planes and American metal-bodied planes.

The real meat of the book begins in chapter 2, the lengthiest chapter in the book, which discusses bench planes—those planes that do most of the flattening and smoothing of a board's faces and edges. He briefly compares the sizes of bench planes, then defines the characteristics of "good" bench planes, as well as those he considers to be "superior" and "exquisite." He compares antique and modern brands, particularly American planes, steel planes, wood-bodied planes, infill planes, transitional planes and bevel-up planes. He discusses buying antique planes, as well as restoring wooden, metal and infill planes based on his own experience. He then gives a guide to grinding and honing bevels, setting up planes and using them. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the values of used bench planes.

Joinery planes are the subject of chapter 3. These include miter planes and shooting boards, grooving planes such as rabbet planes, plow planes, moving filletster and dado planes, shoulder planes and router planes. Pierce addresses the question of prices when buying used planes, setting them up and putting them to use. He offers, as a special illustration, how he restored an antique plow plane and sharpened its iron.

Molding planes are the focus of chapter 4. Pierce describes the varieties of molding planes—shaping planes like hollows and rounds, simple shapers like side bead planes, and those offering more complicated shapes. He discusses what and when to buy molding planes, which are still widely available on the used and antique tool market, as well as from a few contemporary makers. An important section demonstrates restoring a molding plane and shaping the plane iron. Pierce then addresses using molding planes, both those that are held vertically in use and those—especially those with complex designs—that must be oriented to their "spring lines." A special section discusses cornice planes, perhaps the most difficult of the molding planes to use. The chapter concludes with an assessment of molding plane values.

Shorter chapters follow on block planes, scrapers—both card scrapers and scraper planes—and router planes. Each chapter focuses on finding good users, tuning them and putting them to work.

Chapter 8 is a fascinating illustrated presentation of building two shop-made planes. The first, and longer, section illustrates the construction of a Gerd Fritsche infill jointer plane and shows all the steps—and problems—Pierce encountered in building the kit. Fritsche offers several options for his kits and Pierce chose to cut and shape his own infill from American walnut. Even if you never plan to build such a kit, it's an interesting exploration into the whats and what-nots of plane building.

The second plane is a wooden miter plane that Pierce made from a block of maple. This shorter presentation shows the basic steps for constructing the plane, though probably not in enough detail to replicate the process, unlike his description of the Fritsche infill plane build.

Chapter 9 profiles two modern planemakers. First is Jim Leamy, a retired Air Force veteran who spends his time crafting special planes of exquisite quality. An example of his work, a reproduction of the ebony and ivory Sandusky presentation plow plane, is described.

Second is Thomas Lie-Nielsen, owner of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks in Warren, Maine, who has built a thriving small business in manufacturing high quality hand tools. The profile explains the reasons behind Lie-Nielsen's success, which he partly attributes to the luck of timing before the days of the internet.

Because much of Pierce's own tool collection, as well as his presentation in this book, involves restoration of old planes, he devotes a brief but useful chapter to guidelines for when and how to restore old planes. Those with unique historical and price value, he says, should be put on display and not restored at all. Those with price value but lacking uniqueness or historical value may be lightly restored and used, while those in plentiful, cheap supply can be readily modified as needed to put to use. Pierce reviews the suggestions of several collectors regarding acceptable restoration techniques for wooden planes.

A brief chapter on plane collecting focuses on the broad tool collection—which includes over 800 planes—of Max Strebelton of Lancaster, Ohio. The collection especially focuses on planes made locally in Fairfield County, Ohio, where Strebelton resides.

A wonderful chapter provides an illustrated display of hand planes of many types and brands and offers a good—though necessarily incomplete—overview of what is available, both new and used, to the handplane user.

A final chapter offers some troubleshooting tips for bench planes and other types of planes for users who are not getting the desired results.

Well-illustrated throughout with excellent photographs and detailed drawings, this book is a feast for the eyes as well as a wealth of hard-earned experience from an accomplished handplane user and restorer. Though some of the price and tool availability information is now dated, the underlying experience shared in this volume is timeless. It is one of my favorite handplane books and one that I'll come back to again and again. Handplane users, restorers and collectors will all find something of value here.

CLICK HERE to order your copy of Hand Planes in the Modern Shop

The author is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of the forthcoming book Choosing and Using Handplanes . He can be reached by email at nreid@fcc.net .

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