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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

This month:

Pitch 'Til You Win

Absolutely Ready For Prime (Shop) Time

The Opposite Of Gestalt?

5S Compliant Shop Wall Cabinets, Part II

Pitch 'Til You Win

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

Buffet and family-style restaurants were very popular when and where I grew up. Sit at a table with strangers and everyone helps them selves to heaping bowls and platters of food (family style), or take your plate to the buffet table and load up on whatever your want (buffet style). Everyone called these "pitch 'til you win" eateries. I'm not sure of the etymology of that phrase, but I suspect the county fair had a part. You know how it worked… buy three balls and pitch them at the milk jugs and if you knocked them over you won a prize. Sometimes to "seed" or excite the crowd, a barker would give a kid an unlimited number of throws, extolling him to "pitch 'til you win."

It's how I sometimes feel when in the workshop… maybe making a joint I have not made before, or one I have not made for a long time (memory fades, you know) or perhaps executing a tricky set-up at table saw or router table, or maybe just trying to perfect the fit of tenon into mortise. Make a cut, test the fit, adjust; make a cut, test the fit, adjust; repeat ad infinitum… pitch 'til you win.

Figure 1 - Shoulder plane makes quick work of
adjusting rabbets, tenons, and more

All this cutting, testing, re-cutting, and the occasional "overshoot" (you know overshoot – trying to trim a board just a little and taking off too much) is why I love hand tools. There is just no way to shave a thousandth or two off a board with table saw or miter saw, but I can grab a hand plane and make quick (and accurate) work of fine-tuning a cut.

On the SawStop Outfeed Table project, the joints used to join the corners of the drawers required a pretty exacting set-up at the table saw. The fact is, however, that no matter how exact the set-up, the variations inherent in today's plywood meant that not every joint was going to be perfect. Knowing that there would be variations, I set the saw up to cut the joints on the "tight" side of right. Then, with my handy Lie-Nielsen shoulder plane, I was able to trim each rabbet to fit its corresponding dado perfectly with just a few seconds of work.

Figure 2 - Jack Plane and shooting board makes quick work
of trimming a board to achieve a perfect fit

Likewise, when trimming a slightly over-long board, I could nudge it ever-so-carefully and try to shave off a couple of thousandths of an inch on the miter saw and try… and try… and try again. But I can grab my shooting board and jack plane and trim the board without worry of overshooting (there was a pun there if you were reading carefully) and spoiling the board. And if the trusty miter saw is not yielding absolutely square cuts, you can cut boards a little long and trim them to perfection on the shooting board.

If you get tired of the old "pitch 'til you win" approach to getting the perfect cut, get a basic set of hand planes. Even if you have no intention of joining the puffy-shirt and knickers crowd and fully intend to use your power tools as much as possible, a basic set of hand planes will, in the long run, save you money, time, and frustration.

At a minimum, you will need a block plane and a jack plane. If you round out the basic hand plane set with a shoulder plane you will eventually send me an email in appreciation. Build a shooting board, too. It can be simple or elaborate… it will basically work the same. Here's a link to the one I built .

You probably can't do much better than the Lie-Nielsen planes sold by Highland Woodworking. I recommend the Low-Angle Jack Plane , the Low-Angle Block Plane and the Medium Shoulder Plane . The set will cost $605, but is worth every penny. A slightly less pricey kit would be the Stanley Sweetheart Low-Angle Block Plane , their Low-Angle Jack Plane and the Rabbet Plane at $380 for the trio. Learn to sharpen, tune, and use either set of these planes and you will never need to "pitch 'til you win" again… except perhaps at the buffet.

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