At the cutting edge ...

I have a jack plane from Great-grandpa's toolchest. It is marked "Metallic Plane Co" with two patent dates--1867 and 1869. This tool was designed by Nelson Palmer and was the design that started the Metallic Plane Company in Auburn, NY in 1867. I know this tool was manufactured sometime in the 1870's because the company went out of business in 1880.  With little more than a casual glance it quickly becomes apparent that this is not a Stanley.

  Metallic Plane Co Jack Plane--15" long, 2-1/8" wide iron. From the 1870's.

Metallic Plane Co Jack Plane--15" long, 2-1/8" wide iron. From the 1870's.

There is no lever cap, lateral adjuster, or depth wheel. There are three confusing toggle levers under the iron and some odd pegs that wedge the chipbreaker down. As I learned more about the features and functions of planes I saw that this 140-year old tool had it all. There is an adjustable throat; a tapered laminated iron almost 1/4" thick at the cutting edge; it has a corrugated sole (subject of the 1869 patent); adjustable depth of cut and lateral adjustment (subjects of the 1867 patent). This was the leading edge of hand tool innovation incorporating the newest concepts to address all the functional needs of planes. Ultimately however Leonard Bailey's approach proved simpler, easier to manufacture, and more robust. So today we have Stanley.

There are many lessons to draw from this tool--but the one I am focused on today is innovation. This plane reminds me that there are many ways to accomplish things, creative people are always trying to find a better way to solve a problem. Nelson Palmer identified a need, came up with some interesting solutions, and had the energy to push it to the market. His spirit is alive and well today. Just look at all the interesting gizmos and gadgets at the woodworking shows. Here's to you Nelson Palmer!

  Nelson Palmer's three-lever adjustment system--a different way to operate a hand plane.

Nelson Palmer's three-lever adjustment system--a different way to operate a hand plane.

One Thing Leads to Another ...

It all started when I bought a warming cabinet at an auction. When I picked it up they tossed in two used 2x2's to block it up off the bed of the truck. At home I realized these were pretty nice poplar 2x2's, 8' long, and I just couldn't toss them in the firewood pile. What to do with 16' of 2x2? That sat in the back of my mind until one day I was taking down last year's calendar--aha! Puzzle blocks.


Of course you need a box to keep the puzzle in so that led to using some hickory pieces in the lumber pile (that came from another auction), and a sliding lid that came from an old piano soundboard sitting back in the corner (that I have been carting around since high school).

Our adopted Grandpa, Mr. Francis, had something he called his "seven-year pile"--things he didn't throw away because they might come in handy sometime in the next seven years. It was a large pile (and in the end a lot of it did turn into scrap) but it was also the source of parts for garden structures, kids toys, and shop fixtures. It was also a constant nudge to imagination--"What can I do with those old 2x2's?" I think we all need to have a 7-year pile of potential projects somewhere.

It's a Boring Job ...

Today I was joining some boards together into large panels with dowels. Although I had about 40 holes to drill, my 3/8" electric drill made the job easy--just squeeze the trigger and hang on. Mark, line up the jig, drill the hole, clear the hole, move on to the next one. A repetitive task that made me think about ... covered bridges.

  The Salem Shotwell covered bridge in Opelika, AL. A Town Lattice design. Notice the trunnels.

The Salem Shotwell covered bridge in Opelika, AL. A Town Lattice design. Notice the trunnels.

Ithiel Town patented the lattice truss design for bridges back in 1820. The great innovation of his design was that a strong bridge could be constructed from planks (instead of timbers) using only a drill and a saw. This was a dramatic contrast to previous bridge designs that required skilled timber framers, mortise and tenon joints, and heavy timbers. While Town's design simplified construction it came with a price--one estimate is that a 100-ft bridge required about 2500, 2" holes.  Wow. I pulled out a barn auger today and tried my hand at one hole and that was enough.

I am always in awe of the physical effort that craftspeople put into building things. I can't imagine being on hole 100 and thinking, "Only 2400 to go." It also makes me appreciate their patience and fortitude. How many times do I get hurried and antsy because the task is going to take another 30 minutes? "Hey Bob, why don't you go drill another 50 holes by hand?" Do I have what it takes to be a craftsman? Is there some character trait that we lose when we plug in the tool?

What's the Point?

Fundamentally, woodworking is about creating something for others. Sure sometimes we make things for ourselves, but by and large, woodworking is focused on somebody else. We make furniture for someone else to enjoy, we build picture frames to highlight somebody else's special memories, we make cabinets and bookcases to fit that particular space in someone else's hallway. A lot of woodworkers find that this element of woodworking--meeting other's needs--is a primary motivating factor.

I just had the great opportunity to work on a special project for a local family. Their uncle, the family woodworker, had been in the process of making walnut jewelry boxes for nieces and relations when he passed away last summer at age 76. I took on the job of completing his project for the family. It was a bit tricky to pick up in the middle of parts and pieces but today I finished off the set of six.

The build was challenging and there were woodworking details to attend to and problems to solve, but there was always the overwhelming sense of the underlying motivation of the project. Woodworking was intended to provide beautiful objects for his family and now those objects will embody a precious memory of a beloved uncle. It was an honor to be able to contribute to finishing the project.