Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 185, February 2021 Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
An Afternoon with Roubo
By Andrew Miller

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From "the old hag's tooth" to a Holtey masterpiece, the hand plane is arguably the most captivating tool in woodworking. It has been around for thousands of years, and during that time it has transfigured trees into fine furniture a few thousandths at a time. My love of woodworking has been a gradual seduction over the past decade, and though I use power tools to speed certain processes (special shout out to whoever invented the thickness planer), the feel and connection I achieve with hand tools is unparalleled.

No one in my family is a woodworker so trade knowledge doesn't come freely. Recently in an attempt to deepen my proficiency with traditional woodworking, I came across L' Art Du Menuisier: The Book of Plates by Andre-Jacob Roubo. Since I can't read French, I settled on a recent translation published by Lost Art Press. (As a brief unpaid and unsolicited aside, I highly recommend their books, as well as the periodical Mortise and Tenon Magazine, which provide exceptional woodworking information in an aesthetically pleasing form). L' Art Du Menuisier is a treatise on 1800s woodworking skills, tools, joinery, etc., from which the modern craftsman has much to learn. As I perused the pages I stumbled upon Roubo's descriptions of various molding planes.

They were remarkably simple in appearance and if they were good enough for him I was darn sure they would be good enough for me. I have recently begun to greatly desire a set of hollows and rounds, and though I would claim the reasoning is that they would allow me to make custom moldings for my various projects, the real reason is likely that I think a half set would look inspiring on the shelf in my shop. It is with these dubious motives that I set forth to start construction.

Thankfully, I came across an article by Caleb James in Popular Woodworking entitled "Roubo Hollows and Rounds." Should you choose to embark on a similar plane making expedition it is a very helpful read.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art,
Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection,
The New York Public Library. (1769 - 1774).
Outils propres a faire les gorges et les ravallements.
Retrieved from NYPL

I decided to make a #6 (3/8 wide blade) round, and my first issue I came across was stock selection. Quarter sawn anything, let alone beech, may as well be vibranium in my area, so I settled on walnut. I selected a piece which I had been drying for a while after my neighbor cut the tree down and left it on the curb. (Yes, sadly you did read that last sentence correctly). The problem with walnut is that while it has great dimensional stability, it is a semi ring porous hardwood that's only kind of hard. I was worried that the limited contact area of the smaller H&R's would unduly and unevenly wear. To combat this wear, I laminated a strip of dogwood, another log I found on the side of the road, to the bottom. Dogwood is an exceptionally hard diffuse grain wood which is painful to dry properly but performs beautifully for high wear areas on tools. Using local lumber which I had dried myself was another enjoyable element of this project, and I recommend it to anyone, especially if you have a neighbor who gets chainsaw happy on valuable trees.

After stock preparation, the next step was to cut the bed and breast angles, a relatively easy task with a good template followed by careful removal of the material in betwixt. Initially, chunks can be removed with a chisel, but you will really need a router plane to get a nice consistent floor depth. The issue I encountered was that I did not have a chisel or router blade narrow enough to pass through the plane's narrow mouth. I first attempted to use an eyeglasses repair screwdriver as a chisel. To be honest this worked remarkably well but I struggled to get a perfectly consistent depth. Necessity being the mother of all invention, I ended up creating a small router blade from an old 1/8 allen key to finish out the job. The chips escape though an almond shaped excavation on the breast side just above the mouth. I don't have any carving gouges so I used a spoon carving hook knife which worked well. One of the great advantages of the Roubo-style molding plane is that the mortice is open. This not only makes its creation much easier but also means you don't need to have or acquire special tools such as plane floats. The downside is that the offset mortice requires a thicker body to compensate for the unbalanced wedge pressure. For me time, not wood, was my limiting factor.

Next on deck was the wedge. I chose to make this out of dogwood as well both for the matching aesthetic and functional durability. I cut this out on my scroll saw and then fine-tuned the fit with a block plane held in a leg vise as a jointer. I was once told a story that certain craftsman of old used to intentionally introduce small mistakes into their work to pay homage to their imperfection as compared to god. Turns out the story isn't true, but the principle has stuck with me. As it stands I can be quite a klutz sometimes and I accidentally banged the delicate end of the wedge on the bench which broke it. A little glue had it back together, and so let's just say it was "intentional."

With the wedge fitted, the final functional work was to plane the bottom to the correct shape. This is as good a time as ever to practice the old adage "measure twice, cut once." Mark your profile carefully and just sneak up on it, otherwise you might end up with a very frustrating piece of firewood. Assuming it all goes well, the remaining work is to shape the body for style and comfort. You can mix styles and keep a boxy British shape, but I actually prefer the flowing French lines both for style and comfort. Chamfer the edges and you're all done! Almost. Unless you magically have a set of 18th century French molding plane irons you'll likely need to make your own, but don't let this dissuade you from the project. Making your own irons is easy and there's plenty of information on the internet to get you started.

A few hours and a couple of dollars later, my project was complete. I'm rather pleased with the final product. The dark walnut body with the contrasting light dogwood as well as the French styling help to set the plane apart from the typical molding plane. I'm only just beginning my half set that I hope to see on the wall but it's a start none the less. I hope through this article I've inspired you to take the plunge into making your own hand planes. I can assure you that you'll be glad you did. Who knows, maybe in a few thousand years your work could be in a museum somewhere too.

You can find a variety of Roubo related tools, books and workbench plans at Highland Woodworking

Andrew Miller is a bit of a latecomer to the woodworking world. In medical school friends would ask him to fix their furniture and next thing he knew, he had a full shop! As a pediatrician he has noticed that wood is a lot like children; shaped by the environment in which it grows, strong willed, often a little rough around the edges, and with the proper application of training and influence it yields a beautiful result. Traditional hand tool craftsmanship helps him understand his patients better and provides a cathartic relief after an often stressful day. He especially enjoys shaker furniture designs and creating heirloom quality tools. He can be reached by email at akmille2@gmail.com.

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