Sunday, March 1, 2009

I'd Have Gotten Away With It, Too, If It Weren't for You Fettling Kids

"Fettle?" you ask. Yes, fettle. Fettle the metal. A fetish for fettling. Fettle -- what is this you mean? As best I can tell it is a slightly more pretentious and arcane way of saying "tune;" tune in the sense of making something work better, optimizing its performance. "It" is of course a plane, a hand plane. Yes, I'm still stuck on that and this might very well grow into one of those annoying posts. And fettle is a real word, if you're British. Or a woodworking geek. Or both.

This is Part II of my plane post. You might remember the first back in early November. Well, I wrapped it up in December around Xmas. Indulge me, for this is the rest of the story, so to speak.

Now tuning planes isn't all about cloistering myself in the garage (but at times that's not an entirely bad benefit). Even though it was 5-10 degrees I was able, courtesy of a propane heater, to warm up the spot at my bench enough to spend a few hours at a time in the garage. Add a properly layered system of dress and a stock of canned goods (no ice needed) and you have a recipe for some seriously contemplative decompression and down time.

I'd saved the largest of my planes for last -- a Stanley #5 jack plane that's about 10 years old. Not a huge plane, but the sole is 14" long and about 2.5" wide. From the factory it looked as if it had been ground with a 50-grit wheel wielded by a preschooler. I had no idea what I'd find, I just knew I was in for a lot of work if one thing wasn't readily apparent after initial sanding -- at the least the front of the sole (toe), front edge of the mouth (blade opening) and rear of the sole (heel) ought to be coplanar. The rest, my research had told me, was negligable and mainly cosmetic depending upon how ugly I didn't mind the plane looking. I'd spent 8-10 hours sanding planes up to this point and I was perfectly happy to take the minimalist approach to getting this big beast tuned just well enough to do passable work.

A piece of long, heavy gray metal can look relatively flat until you start sanding it on a sheet of sandpaper backed by flat glass. With polished high spots revealed you can really see incongruities in the surface. After 30 minutes on 80 grit paper, I had the majority of the rough grooves sanded away and could see clearly, to my dismay, that there were three pronounced low spots -- front and back of the mouth and midway back in the sole. The middle of the sole doesn't really matter, but the area in front of the mouth is where the wood meets the iron (blade) and a flat contact patch is essential for smooth strokes and clean results.

Is this making sense yet? Are you still awake out there?

I really couldn't believe it -- I'd have to sand the entire sole until I removed enough material to get the mouth in line with the heel and toe of the plane. The only way this could have happened at the factory is if the machine, or person guiding the grinder, had paused at the mouth of the plane and allowed the curved wheel to dig a furrow around the slot. Only three possible things to do: 1) Ditch the plane; 2) Relegate it to occasional use for less critical tasks; 3) Keep sanding. Options 1 and 2 meant I'd be in for a replacement plane. Option 3 represented the noble path. I had plenty of time and a pardon from April for not being indoors with the rest of the family, so I picked option 3. (No, I won't get into the particulars of why I had a pardon and did not want to be indoors with the rest of the family.)

I sanded. I wore out all my 80 grit paper. Fresh from Home Depot and armed with the contractor's pack of 80 grit, I sanded some more. I envisioned myself transformed into the Sisyphus of sanding. Those grooves sometimes looked like they were getting shallower. Then sometimes I could swear they weren't changing at all. Keep in mind the goal is to keep the entire sole flat, so it's not like I could hand sand the spots with a piece of paper, or grab the belt sander for quick material removal. I simply had to patiently hold the massive hunk of metal perfectly flat while removing microscopic amounts of iron at a time, all the while trying to work down to a point that looked like a millimeter or more, but in reality was no more than a hundredth of an inch or so. But 1/100th spread over approximately 35 sq inches is a lot of material -- especially if it's cast iron.

I eventually completed my sanding odyssey, but not in one sitting or even two. I had to let it go. Beer, patience and time eventually run out. Sometimes they ran out at the same time. The sole of that plane is not perfectly polished, but it is better than "good enough." I went ahead and completely disassembled it to sand and fit the frog. I have a bit more to do, but I am pleased to say I am almost completely finished with the project of fettling my planes. That's okay, you can say tune. But don't dare drop your pinky when you sip your tea.

Are you finished yet? Why does this matter, Fleck? Well, other than satisfying my anal-retentive desire for order and sating a certain yearning for solitary rote tedium, it means a lot. First, I'm prepared. When the weather does warm up enough to begin the growing list of projects I want to tackle I'll be able to launch into work with tools that have been tuned. My Dad was not always the best in practice, but he taught me well the theorem. And it goes something like this -- if you own a tool you should: A) Know how to use it and B) Know how to maintain it, i.e. make sure it is properly prepared to engage in the task(s) it was designed to do. To accomplish that you really have to get to know a tool.

During this process I learned tons of new information that I can use to truly bore party guests. (It's working already.) When I started this project last fall I didn't know much about planes and I didn't like that. I don't like knowing that I don't know. I knew that many folks rave about what can be done with planes, but I hadn't a clue how to make a plane perform at that level. If I own something I want to know how it works, as well as be able to maintain it and keep it in top form. (Okay, maybe that doesn't apply to DVD players or electronics, but you get the picture.) Perhaps that's one key reason I dig bikes so much -- they're easy to get, simple to work on and build with a little practice.

Another important thing I learned -- buying new hand planes is a crap shoot. These are remnants of a bygone era when hand building things was the only way. Even though power tools do lots of cool stuff, there is still much to be said for owning and being able to use planes and other manual edge tools. They're faster in some cases since they don't require set-up and they remove deliberate, gradual amounts of material -- meaning one slip up rarely means you wrecked your whole project. But companies like Stanley, whose planes were king for decades, only make the most popular sizes of the myriad they used to produce. They've also progressively skimped on production standards -- eschewed tight tolerances, replaced wood with plastic, cheapened the whole product -- until now you're left with an assembly that requires hours of adjustment to work properly.

Perhaps I also confronted a lesson in economics. The #5 plane I just finished tuning cost me about $60. I have put at least 6 hours of work into it. Granted, it is work that I enjoy in some bizarrely twisted way, but what is my time worth? It makes the seemingly exorbitant $250-$300 price tag of a precision-built, modern American or Canadian made version of that plane seem much less outrageous. You can drop your jaw at that price. I once dated a hairdresser who bought a $300 pair of scissors. I didn't get it but it made so much sense to her.

Another option exists -- antique planes. I found and purchased a couple on Ebay this winter. They were cheaper than their modern versions but despite their age the machining and fittings are much tighter. The #3 bench plane I bought was probably produced shortly after our house was built (in the early part of the last century); the #7 perhaps around WWII. How cool is that -- tools that would have been antiques when my Dad started his career as a carpenter still fully functional and capable of producing quality results?

Due to some user-induced errors involving my waterstones and sharpening I was unable to try out these two old planes until last night. Yep, it was freezing in the garage. No matter, I clamped my test board to the bench -- a 1" thick plank of slightly figured cherry -- and set out to true and square the rough edge. With some dialing of the cut depth I zeroed in on the payoff -- thin, web-like shavings billowing out of the sole.

I don't know what else to say. Perhaps some will get it when I say the feeling was like that of driving my Bug after I'd just rebuilt the engine, or landing my first trout on a fly I'd tied, or noticing I just rolled 4K miles on a bike I assembled and maintain myself. I guess I get a little hung up on connections and I lament how technology has erased the perceived need for direct connection with many parts of our lives.

Make something yourself. Perhaps something useful. Craft it well. Don't worry, honesty provides its own embellishment. Be well.

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