I once worked in a shop with Dennis Waring, a Winnipeg luthier who specialized in making Appalachian dulcimers. I was young and disdainful of Denny’s use of hand tools at a time when most wood-butchers, myself included, were using power machines to accelerate our production.
I realize now, some 35 years later, that Denny’s quiet, contemplative approach to building dulcimers was what infused his daily routine with the satisfaction and joy inherent in the creative process. While the rest of us purchased bigger, noisier and more expensive machines, Denny bought a beautiful set of brass finger planes to remove micro-thin shavings from his instruments, or spent a few dollars on a hand-held fret saw to cut out the f-holes in the soundboards.
And while the rest of us stomped about the shop sweating over unforgiving machines to cut, plane and bore holes in wood, Denny sat at his small, tidy work bench listening with earphones to classical music while he worked deftly and contentedly on his dulcimers. I recall he played the melody to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on the first instrument he completed.
I mention this anecdote, because today, as an older man no longer concerned with making a living as a one-of-a-kind furniture maker, I have discovered the spiritual pleasure of working wood with hand tools. As it is shaped, wood seems to respond with delight to the delicate touch of a finely-honed blade by transferring a little piece of the maker’s soul into its cellular structure. Perhaps, this explains why stringed instruments made by old masters such as the Stradivarius family are believed to have unique sound qualities difficult to duplicate in an age of robotic mass production.
All of the above is a rather lengthy lead into a discussion of the virtues of hand tools, generally, and the assets of the Stanley No. 55 plane specifically. While cleaning my shop recently, my wife discovered a well-crafted wooden box in the bottom cupboard of my work bench with the Stanley Tool Company logo on its top and sides. Inside was a complete No. 55 plane with most of the original cutters still in their slots.
When she showed me the treasure, I recalled a time well over a score of years ago when a friend had given the plane to me. It had been owned by her father-in-law, a gifted cabinetmaker who had passed away. At the time, I was still too enamoured of power tools to appreciate the profundity of the present. Recently, however, I have had time to work with the ingenious device and successfully completed a Roman ogee profile on a piece of pine. I can see that learning to use the 55 to its full potential will be similar to learning to play a musical instrument.
First produced in 1897 and continuing through 1962, the 55 was marketed by Stanley as, “A planing Mill Within Itself.” The company boasted that: “This universal tool is a plow, dado, rabbet, fillester and match plane ... It is also a superior moulding plane ... Combining as it does all the so called ‘Fancy Planes’, its scope of work is practically unlimited ....”
The 55 came with 55 cutters, hence the name; a further 41 cutters could be ordered from the factory, as well as blanks to work special mouldings that could be made by the owner or ordered from the factory pre-cut to a sketch.
Though the 55 looks a bit like a Rube Goldberg machine when fully assembled, I’m sure it will give me much pleasure as I learn to correctly adjust the various wing nuts, screws and rosewood fences that hold the cutters in place and serve as guides to keep the plane straight as it is pushed through wood.
Another hand tool that has afforded me much satisfaction of late is a Stanley jointing plane that is 18-inches long with a flat sole for squaring the edges of a board for the purpose of joining it to another piece of wood. I have also used the jointer or trying plane to level the surface of a cedar table top, a job that I formerly accomplished with a screaming four-inch belt sander that produced large amounts of cedar sawdust that I am allergic to, as, I understand, are many woodworkers.
The delight I felt while running the plane over the surface of the table top, while producing long ribbons of wood, cannot be adequately expressed in words — it must be experienced. I suspect my raucous, dust-producing belt sander will be used much less frequently in future.
Yet another plane that has proved useful recently is a 12-inch jack plane, apparently named because it is “a jack-of-all-trades,” or a general-purpose bench plane.
The worthiness of this tool became apparent when I was helping a friend clad his house with cedar siding. We accomplished some of the mitre cuts on his screeching chop saw, however, as we moved onto the rake edge and encountered angles beyond 45-degrees, we were forced to cut them with a jigsaw. Anyone who has tried to cut a straight line with a jigsaw will know that it is almost impossible, unless you waste a lot of time setting up a fence to guide the saw’s capricious blade.
In this case, we smoothed the jagged edges with a few passes of the well-honed jack plane. Though we were flattening end grain, the plane cut cleanly through the wood with little or no tear out, leaving a smooth, square edge that fit snuggly against the soffit.
As a matter of interest, I renewed contact with Dennis Waring a few days ago through his website. During the intervening years, he graduated with a PhD in ethnomusicology and has authored numerous how-to books for DIYers interested in building their own musical instruments, as well as introducing and educating children to the realm of music. His interest in folk music and folk instruments has expanded to include harps, zithers, banjos, psalteries and much more. Google www.waringmusic.com to view his work, books and CDs.