Les Rabots – a brief review of a French book on planes.

I recently had the chance to browse through an excellent book on planes – although browse is the operative word here – I can’t read French, and that’s the caveat with this particular book, it’s all in French. But if you can look beyond that, there is some exceptional information in this book. The book Les Rabots is written by Pierre Bouillot and Xavier Chatellard – rabot being the French word for plane.

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The cover of the book “Les Rabots”

It is a seminal work, partially because of the breadth of information about European planes. There are some catalogs on European plane manufacturers floating around the place – but they are hard to come by. I blame two world wars for helping to decimate the amount of historical ephemera (and tools) that is left in Europe. The book starts with a discussion of classical planes with an emphasis on Roman planes, and goes on to discuss the plane-making industry, from a French perspective. We sometimes forget that Europeans were making wooden planes, and infill planes, by way of the Romans, way before Stanley introduced the metal planes in the 19th century. There is a breadth of information on the developments in French plane making in the 18th and 19th century, and an insight into some unusual plane designs.

There are four main sections in this 300+ page book:

  1. L’historie – the history and manufacture of planes, with a large section on French planes.
  2. La technique – ways of using the planes.
  3. La typologie – the topology of planes, e.g. metal planes.
  4. La collection – trademarks of plane makers.
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Sample pages from L’historie and La typologie

Les Rabots also contains a large compendium of manufacturers trademarks, which concentrates on French plane makers, but also plane makers from all over Europe, and North America. The concentration is French plane-makers – but the major work done in planes, was likely concentrated on France and Germany.

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Examples of the manufacturers trademarks.

The book contains in-depth information likely available no where else. There are sections on auxiliary planing devices such as shooting boards, and cut-away diagrams of various plane types, showing their typology.

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Examples of plane cut-aways.

At $200 on Abebooks, it’s not going to be for everyone (it is available amazon.fr for €85), but the sort of information in this book, is likely unavailable anywhere else. It would be great to see an English translation sometime in the future.

A pineapple coring type gadget

Like I said before, occasionally tools from the kitchen make their way onto the blog. I’ll say it straight – I don’t particularly like “gadgets”, and I certainly don’t like kitchen gadgets. Do we really need a world full of strawberry hullers and banana slicers? But when someone buys you a gadget, I guess you just have to try it. The gadget in question is a pineapple corer. Coring a pineapple is not exactly hard with a serrated knife, but it is tedious – cutting out the eyelets, and removing the core. how does it work? After the top of the pineapple is cut off, the corer spirals down into the pineapple – made possible by an auger-like blade.

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This achieves three things: (i) it separates the pineapple flesh from the skin; (ii) it cores the centre of the pineapple, and (iii) it spiral cuts the pineapple. The tool and pineapple can then be extracted, the handle removed, and the pineapple removed from the tool. How does it work? The result looks just like it came out of a can. You are left with a pineapple with the core and outer shell. There is likely some wastage on the outer shell, but this is offset by less wastage at the core.

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Crazy prices for a coping saw

Sometimes when you browse eBay you can find some incredibly over-priced items. Recently there have been a rash of ads for Millers Falls No.42 coping saws. These ads just show how over-inflated the market is for some items. This Millers Falls No.42 coping saw is worth no-where near the first asking price of US299.98, let alone US399.99 or US$485.00. That and the item is hardly “rare” if three of them show up on an auction site. I bought three myself last year, and the most I paid was $25. *Maybe* if it were in pristine condition, still in its original box it would be scarce enough to warrant a price of $100-200. If you are a collector, you likely know better than to spend that much money on saws in “used” condition. If you’re buying it as a user – spend the money on a Knew Concepts coping saw instead. Rare does not always really mean rare, and just because a tool is stamped as patented in 1908 does *not* mean that’s when it was manufactured.

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A list of contemporary planemakers

Here is a nice list of current and defunct planemakers. I included the defunct planemakers because sometimes there is a reference to them somewhere but little in the way of what they made.

Modern planemakers

Here is a list of current planemakers (not including Lee Valley or Lie-Nielsen).

Up-and-coming planemakers

For those interested in a prices, I put together a basic table of information. The information is directly from the websites, and the prices reflect the fact that these are hand-made items. Naturally there are also differences between wooden planes, and more complicated infill planes with dovetailed soles. This is by no means a definitive guide – and planemakers not on the list generally provide pricing per individual order.

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Defunct planemakers

Over the years, some interesting planemakers have come into the market. What is surprising is how quickly they seemed to have disappeared into the ether. The tell-tale sign is always the website becoming in-accessible.

  • Shepherd Tool (2000-2006) – well known for its infill plane kits.
  • Gabardi & Sons (?-2011) – handmade infill planes.
  • Sturnella Tools (2013-2014) – infill smoothing plane castings.
  • Nice Ash Planes (2012-2014?) – nice wooden planes.
  • Knight Toolworks (? – 2012) – Krenov-style wooden plane kits.

Note the trend amongst infill plane makers to end up closing up shop. It is probably due to the high cost in manufacturing these planes – or being overwhelmed with orders (which is also not so uncommon).

NB: If the website for a toolmaker no longer functions, I consider the company to be defunct – if it functions again at some later date, I will move the link.

The DowelMax jig (with musings on the Miller dowel system)

At the moment I have very little time for the actual woodworking I would like to do – partially due to the cabinetry I’m building for the basement, and renovations that have taken too many years to finish. Years ago when I drywalled the basement I left cavities in some of the walls in which to insert bookshelves. These are utilitarian bookshelves made of maple (5.5″ deep) – sturdy enough to hold paperbacks, DVD’s and probably all the planes in my workshop – they are somewhat overbuilt. Due to the fact that they are in the walls, making aesthetically pleasing joinery is not a problem – it won’t be seen. Like the walnut shelves I’m making in the bathroom – in inconspicuous places where joints are hidden, I don’t need dovetails, and I loath 45º mitres. So  five years ago when I was building the myriad of doors in my 6′ high basement I bought a DowelMax.

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Fig 1: Shelves made using DowelMax

Miller Dowel System

Prior to the DowelMax, I bought the Miller Dowel System – which is a clever system which works well in certain applications. This system relies on stepped dowels and a hole drilled from the outside, i.e. the end of the dowel is exposed – and herein lies the caveat: as the dowels are shaped lengthwise with the grain (to increase their strength), when the dowel is inserted into the hole and trimmed flush (after allowing the glue to dry of course), the resulting “plug” is end-grain. This doesn’t present a problem in situations where the wood will be painted, or stained (or less noticeable in walnut), but in maple the dowel ends become quite prominent. I still use them, but in situations where showing the dowel end can be used aesthetically, or is hidden (e.g. by books). At C$8-14 for 40 small dowels (2 5/8″), they aren’t exactly cheap either.

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Fig 2: The Miller dowel system

DowelMax – what’s in the box

The DowelMax kit I bought is pretty comprehensive (they don’t sell this particular kit anymore). The standard jig set-up shown in the left of Fig.3, works for 3/4″ boards – the spacers allow for boards of different thickness, e.g. add the 3/4″ spacer for a 1-1/2″ thick board (nominal 2″). The index pin allows for multiple holes along a boards length by moving the jig and setting the pin in the end collar. Similarly, the distance gauge can be used to maker larger spaces between holes. By modifying the position of the components on the jig, holes can be placed on the surface, or end of a board. The L-bracket allows for making dowel holes along the surface of a board in a T-type configuration, e.g. for shelves. All the parts are precision engineered, and after five years of use show little in the way of wear.

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Fig 3: DowelMax bits and pieces

DowelMax - how well does it work?

I use my DowelMax to do butt-joints. In utilitarian cabinet making, not much else is needed. Yeah I love dovetails too – but they take time, and in instances where the joint is not visible, does it really matter? So number one use – joints where I won’t see the joint, or where the joint is nice enough that it doesn’t matter – corners, shelves, and attaching frame trim to cabinets. If you have 45º mitre joints on boards that are wide enough, they work well there too. I also use it to make wider boards by joining them on the long side.

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Fig 4: The DowelMax in use.

The jig can be reconfigured to multiple arrangements to deal with boards ends/edges or faces (Fig.5).

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Fig 5: Setups for end/edge and face dowelling

It is also possible to use the L-bracket to create T-type joints (Fig.6), for example for bookshelves.

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Fig 6: L-bracket and index pin

So how well does it work? Incredibly well – as long as, likely any other type of joinery, the joints are well aligned. My one quibble? – It would be nice to have some sort of removable “stop” or tab on the end of the main jig block to make registration of the face of the jig block with the wood face easier (similar to the one on the Viel jig or Joint Genie maybe?). Amazingly, earlier prototypes actually had end stops, but they were removed because they were deemed unnecessary.

Fig 7: The Viel jig

When using the L-bracket to make holes for T-type joint such as a shelf, it can be somewhat challenging to align the jig accurately – and it requires a line 1/8″ below the actual position of the shelf to position the jig (see Fig.8). Also nice would be an improved L-bracket that would register the jig at 90º perpendicular to the edge, *and* clamp it would make this a much easier task.

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Fig 8: Using the L-bracket

I have used the jig to build shelves, doors for my basement, window sill/box for the windows in the basement (they are 12″ deep), and book doors (i.e. bookshelves that function as doors to closets). I’ve never had issues with it apart from the odd misalignment, which isn’t the end of the world.

The dowels and drill bits

I tend to use the expansible dowel pins sold by Lee Valley and manufactured by JustJoinery, known as “The Pin With a Memory”. The drill bit that comes with the 3/8″ system works extremely well, allowing the pins to be test-fitted (the drill is actually 9.7mm). Recently I decided to augment the system by having one drill bit for the 1½” dowels and another for the 1″ dowels – this is way easier than changing the stop-collar. In cases where a butt joint is made of a ¾” stock, then I tend to use 1½” dowels, with ½” set in the side of the board, and 1″ set in the end of the board.

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Fig 9: Dowels and drills

I bought a 3/8″ HSS brad point drill from Lee valley and a set of stop-collars. This drill is marginally smaller than the one supplied with the DowelMax, and so makes it more challenging to remove dowels after test-fitting. This drill is actually the equivalent of 9.525mm, hence the tighter fit. Dowel holes should also be slightly longer than is needed. However on the up-side, the brad-point makes it easier to drill in end-grain. Fig.10 shows four dowel-pins in a 6″ board, and a cross-section through a dowel-pin used to edge-join two boards.

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Fig 10: The dowel pins

Don’t use too much glue – it will squeeze out of the spirals.

How strong are the dowels?

A number of studies have looked at the strength of the DowelMax joints in comparison to other joints – and the strength of the joints made using DowelMax are better than many systems. Here is a link to the testing on the DowelMax website. Issue 219 of the British magazine Furniture and Cabinet Maker also has an analysis of six joint types. Here are the results with respect to the PSI value where the joint failed.

Biscuit 180
Domino 400
Mortise and tenon 420
Pocket hole 280
Zeta P2 system 180
Dowelmax dowel system 680

Final thoughts

Overall it’s a great jig, however there are now competitors in the market place that offer more in the way of functionality – they require the use of external clamps, but offer more in the way of alignment. The DowelMax is expensive – but consider the time involved in doing it any other way. You could pay more for a Festool Domino, but unless you have a cabinet shop, it may not be worth the investment. Sadly, the DowelMax is no longer made in Canada (and there is a long thread discussing this on the Canadian Woodworking forums if you are interested). The standard kit is now US$249 – I paid C$325, which included the L-bracket (now US$15), and a ¼” spacer (now replaced by 1/8″ spacers at US$8.50 a piece).

What about the JessEm? Well, I have been thinking about a ¼” / ½” dowelling assembly, so I might just get one of these to try out as well sometime in the future. They also have a cool looking Mortise Mill.

Availability:

Split-depth collars for drills (imperial) – Lee Valley
Expansible dowels – Lee Valley (3/8″ x 1-1/2″ – C$6.90 for 100). These are the ones for the 9.7mm drills. You can also buy them direct from JustJoinery. They sell the same set for C$5.80, but also sell them in sets of 1000 for C$53.90 (they sell the standard 3/8″ dowels as well). There is somewhat more selection at the JustJoinery site, as they also sell 3/8″ dowels 1-1/4″ and 3″ in length. Also if you are looking for beefier dowels, they have them in 1/2″ and 5/8″ diameters. (The JessEm handles 1/2″ dowels).

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

The useful and the beautiful are never far apart. -Periander

The ancient Greeks had a saying that the useful and the beautiful were always allied. – Tuckerman

It is rare to think of a tool being designed solely on an aesthetic basis. Consider this handmade Holtey plane made in the UK by Karl Holtey. It is a thing of beauty, a work of art. Yet it, like any tool has to function, so the beauty of a tool may matter less than how well it performs. This leads us to a number of questions. Do the aesthetics of an object make it more amenable to use? Some tools, be it for the workshop or the kitchen are aesthetically pleasing, even beautiful, but what does this really mean? Do we as humans gravitate more towards things that are aesthetically pleasing?

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A Holtey plane from the U.K.

Prehistoric humans were concerned with survival. That is not to say that aesthetics did not play a role in the things they made. But let’s face it, catching food took precedence over making a stone look pretty. However in their own way many stone tools were aesthetically designed, whether their makers realized it or not. Aesthetic beauty can be traced to the handiwork of their flint implements, a growing appreciation of form, and an unceasing pursuit of symmetry in the tools being built. “Such desires, such “useless” work having strictly no survival value for the race, can only have been due to the development of that aesthetic sense in man which perhaps more than anything else has helped to lift him above the brute.” (Norman Ault, Life in Ancient Britain, p.28).

So what is aesthetic? Aesthetic is concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty. The modern use of the term “aesthetics” was introduced in 1750 when German philosopher  Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten wrote a book titled “AESTHETICA”, written in Latin using many Greek words. The word had existed before and meant sensation, to mean taste, or sense of beauty. Baumgarten defined taste, in its wider meaning, as the ability to judge according to the senses, instead of according to the intellect. In the first paragraph Baumgarten defined “aesthetica”:

Aeasthetica (theoria liberalium artium, gnoseologia inferior, ars pulchre cogitandi, ars analogi rationis,) est scientia cognitionis sensitivae”, which roughly translated means: “Aeasthetica (theory of the liberal arts, the lower gnoseologia, the art of thinking beautifully, the art analogy of reason,) is the science of sense perception”.

Aesthetics in the simplest sense has to do with the beauty of an object. Beauty is objective and universal; thus certain things are beautiful to everyone. When you pick a raspberry from a bush, you tend to choose the bright red, firm raspberries, with no apparent visual defects. How do we describe aesthetic beauty? In 1753 English painter William Hogarth described his theory of visual beauty. Central to this was the “line of beauty”, an S-shaped (serpentine) line that excites the attention of the viewer. The handle of the Holtey plane may be what draws our attention to its beauty. Its clean lines, reflective surfaces, and fine detail.

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A HSB “OVB” Gage style smoothing plane

Do tools with high aesthetic value work better? There is a condition known as the aesthetic-usability effect, whereby people perceive objects with more aesthetically pleasing designs to be easier to use than less aesthetically pleasing designs. Humans tend to be drawn towards nicer looking things, and use aesthetics to judge appeal and perceived usability. Does a plane work any less better because it is made of wood, and has patina? The beauty in the Gage transitional plane lies both in the two-tone body-handles combination, and clean curves. Which of the planes in the image below do you find more aesthetically pleasing? The new bronze Lie-Nielsen, or the vintage steel Record? Both work nicely, yet many people are intrinsically drawn towards the shiny bronze plane… and yet we are also drawn towards the more amplified curves of the Records lever cap.

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Which is more aesthetically pleasing?

Dieter Rams felt that a product is “aesthetic if it is honest, balanced, simple, careful and unobtrusively neutral“. Basically the aesthetic appearance of an object should not be its primary focus. Dieter felt that for an object to be beautiful, it must also do its job properly. A tool must be usefully designed, such that its beauty is bound to its utility. Is a metal tool more aesthetically pleasing than wood? We may be attracted to shiny tools because they have the effect of enticing physical contact. This may be for different reasons – touch is the strongest sense from the perspective of demonstrating reality. We are drawn to reach out and touch shiny tools to connect with them. The problem with aesthetics is that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. Beauty involves visual interpretation – colour, form, streamlining, symmetry – qualities that are different for everyone.

The Gage self-setting plane

The Gage self-setting planes may be one of the more beautiful planes. These transitional planes were manufactured for roughly five decades (circa 1885 to 1935). The self-setting mechanism allows the blade and cap-iron assembly to be removed, the blade sharpened, and re-installed without readjustment. (still allowing for depth adjustment). The self-setting mechanism on the Gage planes is one of the more interesting, and most of the core innovations in the mechanism occurred in the first ten years.

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Fig 1:  OVB No.35 – a Stanley made Gage-type plane

When it debuted in early 1880′s  it was touted as being the “Only Self-Setting Plane Made”. Stanley did not have any planes with a self-setting mechanism until they bought Gage Tool Co. in 1919, and Sargent’s “Auto-set” planes did not appear until circa 1915 (at least that’s when the patent was issued). That it was attached to a transitional plane was likely coincidental, although of all the transitional blade adjustment mechanisms this was unique.

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Fig 2: A Gage ad from circa 1914

The patents

The concept for the self-setting mechanism was realized in a patent from D.A. Bridges in 1883 (Patent No. 271,569). It described an invention to “provide an efficient bench plane which can be adjusted with perfect ease to its work“. In the two patents that followed (No.323,804 in 1885, and No.339,872 in 1886), the mechanism evolved, to its apex in a patent by Stanley in 1920 (No.1,331,280), which saw the mechanism transferred to a line of metal planes. With respect to the plane bodies, not much changed in the intervening years – they all maintained a razee-type shape.

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Fig 3: The three main Gage patents

The mechanism

The self-setting mechanism is composed of two parts: the carriage, held within the plane body, and the cap-iron/blade assembly, held within the carriage. The construction of the carriage and corresponding cap-iron/blade assembly means there should be no need for setting the cutting edge of the tool parallel with the sole of the plane every time the cap-iron or blade is removed. If the cap-iron is removed, the blade can be taken out of the carriage, and replaced without altering its position. The blade can still be adjusted for depth of cut.

The metal carriage

The first patent, that of Bridges (No.271,569), describes a metal substructure that holds the blade adjusting mechanism in the oblique mortise of the plane body – what he terms an “inclined parallel sided throat iron“. It is somewhat better termed a carriage, and incorporates both the frog and throat assembly. Two screws hold this carriage to the plane body, and allow for it to be adjusted up and down in the mortise. This allows the frog and throat assembly to be moved up to permit the bottom of the plane to be trued up when it becomes worn. The bottom plate of the frog/throat assembly is shown in Fig.4.

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Fig 4: View of the adjustable iron throat.

The fundamental structure of the carriage changed very little over the intervening years from the original patent to the manufacturer of “clones” by Stanley for other companies in the 1920s. Fig. 5 shows the main components of the carriage from an OVB version of the Gage No.835 (after 1920).

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Fig 5: Parts of the metal carriage

 

The cap-iron/blade assembly

The original patent called for a very thin cap-iron and blade assembly with no chip-breaker present. The cap-iron has a set-screw which passes through the cap-iron and bears down on a structure known (in the original patent) as the “bit-plate” – this is essentially a clamp attached to the blade which helps position it in the carriage, and allows for depth adjustment. When the cap-iron is in place in the carriage, the screw is brought to bear forcibly on the bit-plate – raising the cap-iron, and forcing the blade down and locking it into position. The original patent also used lugs on the side of the metal carriage, and associated edge recesses on the cap-iron in order to engage and position it in the metal carriage.

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Fig 6: Parts of the blade assembly

Substantial changes were made to the cap-iron and blade assemblies in the patent of 1885. The cap-iron assembly is transformed into a combination of a chip-breaker attached to a heavy cap-iron (Fig.7). The method of holding the assembly in the carriage also evolved – the lugs/edge-recesses of the previous patent have been replaced by a transverse rod (Fig.5). The cap-iron has a concave round bearing with which to engage the rod. The only change in the patent of 1886 is the modification of the clamping mechanism attached to the blade. There is now a rectangular clamping plate on the upper surface (the “bit-plate”), and a guide block on the lower surface. The guide-block has a semi-circular recess in which the disk of the depth adjustment screw fits. Lateral adjustment is achieved by adjusting the clamps.

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Fig 7: Cap-iron and blade assembly

Comments

The patent of 1885 moved the plane to it’s modern form. Gone is the handle overhanging the heel of the plane, and a front knob has been added. It also included a fulcrum-bearing lever on the top of the clamping plate assembly to allow for lateral adjustment in the plane. It is likely very few if any planes based on the Bridges patent were ever made, with the planes likely based on the 1885 patent – yet I have not seen any with a lateral adjustment lever.