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At the Easter Instrument Making Course at West Dean this year, I had the pleasure of meeting Wouter Hilhorst, who was making a viola. Apart from admiring the precision and delicacy of his work, I was also interested to see that he had made his own planes, 2 of which were in the Japanese style. He let me take a quick photograph – see below.

We’ve recently had an email correspondence and he’s sent me some better photographs, and some details of how he made them. He gets the blades from the German company, Dick, and recommends their Japanese blades writing:

They are laminated and can be honed to a very sharp edge. As you probably know, blades for larger Japanese planes taper in thickness and wedge themselves in the more or less resilient oak plane bodies, which works surprisingly well. The small blades from Dick aren’t tapered in thickness, but only slightly in width. When I made them I thought I would wedge them widthwise, but the little recesses which grip the blade on both sides are enough, just by friction (although I had to glue two little strips of paper in the recesses of the smaller plane). The blade needs some space widthwise to be adjusted laterally.

He makes the planes from European oak or boxwood and chisels them out of a solid block. This is a technique that I intend to re-visit. All the planes that I’ve made recently followed the Krenov method in which you start by sawing two slices off the block to make the sides of the plane, shape the bed and throat from the middle section, and then glue it back together. There are some photographs of this method of construction here and here.



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Another useful aid to cutting dovetails is a dovetail marker. Several different designs are available to buy but I like this shop-made one best. Once again, it comes from Robert Wearing’s book, The Resourceful Woodworker (ISBN 0 7134 8006 8), and is fairly easily made from a sheet of brass 1 to 2 mm thick. Its advantage over the type that Lie-Nielsen and Veritas make is that you only have to set out the centre position of the pins on the edge of the board. The triangular ‘window’ of the marker then lets you see exactly where you’re marking out the joint. It works equally well whether you prefer to cut the pins or the tails first – an argument that I don’t intend to get into.

I suppose purists who like to use a steeper slope for dovetails in softwood would need two markers, one at a 1 in 6 slope and one at 1 in 8. I confess that I never bother about this, cutting all dovetails at 1 in 8, regardless of what sort of wood I’m working with.




I’ve been making a few small wooden boxes to give as Christmas presents. They don’t really have much practical function, except as a place to keep pencils or stamps or other odds and ends, but they’re fun to make and people seem to like them. Part of the pleasure of constructing them comes from the small scale of the project. It’s a day’s work rather than a month for a guitar or a violin. And they allow you use up scraps of wood that were too nice to burn but that are too small to make much else out of. They also provide an opportunity to show off a bit, which brings me to the reason for writing this post.

Even people who know nothing about woodwork and cabinetry have heard about dovetails and recognise them as an emblem of craftsmanship in wood. So that’s the method of construction you should use if you want your skill to be noticed.

If you’re going to cut dovetails, it’s much easier if you’ve got a proper vice. Because of the position of the screw and slide bars in most bench vices, it’s only possible to grip the edge of the board that you’re dovetailing. A dovetailing vice, on the other hand, grips the whole work piece, preventing it vibrating and aiding accurate sawing. They are especially valuable for wide boards but they’re good for smaller pieces too. The idea came from Robert Wearing’s book, The Resourceful Woodworker, (ISBN 0 7134 8006 8). He uses threaded metal bars to provide the clamping force but I cannibalised the wooden handscrews from an old clamp that I picked up in a second hand tool shop. The vice is simply cramped to the top of the bench when needed.

I left the screws much longer than necessary for any dovetailing so that the vice would open wide enough to accommodate the body of a guitar when working on the tail stripe.

And, should you be wondering how the boxes turned out, here are a few photographs:


Last week I made a bridge for the guitar that I’m building at the moment. Here’s a photograph taken while it was being French polished. It’s in Rio rosewood and the tie block is inlaid with a strip of spalted beech to echo the rosette that I wrote about a little while ago.

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To cut the channel for the saddle and for the recess behind the tie block, I used this very simple router table. The idea came from an article in Fine Woodworking (No 182, February 2006) where Doug Stowe described how he made something rather similar for a full size router. There’s a brief description of his table here where there’s also a link to a full explanation and downloadable free plans.

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In my table, the Dremmel is mounted overhead on a cantilever. The table itself is a board of mdf. The adjustable fence is simply a straight strip of wood that pivots at one end and that is clamped at the other – an arrangement that allows a remarkable degree of precision. Depth of cut is controlled by the position of the router bit in the collet. The Dremmel isn’t powerful enough to cut slots to their full depth in one pass so, to avoid the fiddly business of repeatedly having to change the position of the router bit in its collet, I place a shim of 1.5mm thick plywood under the workpiece for each subsequent pass.

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The only bit about making the table that’s not straightforward is how to mount the Dremmel firmly and vertically in the cantilever in a way that allows removal. I solved the problem by buying a 3/4 inch diameter 12tpi tap, which matches the thread on the nose of the Dremel when the collar above the collet is removed. Then it was only a matter of drilling an undersized hole and tapping it out.

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The table is quick and easy to set up and it doesn’t take up much room in the cupboard when it’s not being used. It isn’t big enough to deal with anything very large, of course, but for making guitar bridges it works fine.

A while ago, I wrote about using a Millers Falls scraper plane to cope with some highly figured cocobolo that I was using for the back of a guitar. It’s an excellent tool for finalising the thickness and it leaves a clean finish even on the most awkward wood. The disadvantage however, is that it takes only the thinnest of shavings so if you’re starting with wood that’s way too thick, you’re in for a lot of time and effort to get to the right final dimensions.

Of course, the usual way to get around the problem is to run the wood through a drum sander. But I haven’t got one, partly because there isn’t room for it in my small workshop and partly because I’m allergic to sandpaper. I don’t mean it literally – I don’t come out in a rash if I touch the stuff – but I do think that there are nicer and quieter ways of shaping wood than grinding it into dust.

Another solution is to use a plane with a toothed blade. This won’t eliminate tear out completely but, should it happen, it’s limited and shallow and can easily be dealt with by a scraper later. Toothed blades work because the individual teeth are too small to grab enough fibres running in the wrong direction to rip out a large lump.

I use a No 4 Record bench plane fitted with a standard blade that I modified to look like this. Put the blade in the vice, cutting edge upward. Take a cold chisel and, against all your instincts, hammer a small gap into the cutting edge every 3 or 4 mm. Then sharpen the blade in the usual way.

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Another way of cutting the teeth is to use a thin grinding wheel in a Dremmel.

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Here are a couple of pictures of a guitar back in zebrano being thicknessed with the toothed blade. If you’ve ever used this wood, you’ll know that the interlocked grain structure makes it very hard to work. With a toothed blade and a wipe of wax on the bottom of the plane, the task becomes a pleasure.

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The marks left by the toothed blade are just visible running diagonally from bottom right to top left. And you can see the linguine-like shavings that are produced.

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Switching over to the scraper plane for final adjustment of the thickness and to remove the corrugations left by the toothed blade.

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Browsing through the surprisingly detailed statistics that WordPress provides for bloggers, I was intrigued to see that some of my most popular posts were about the workshop construction of small finger planes with curved soles for violin and cello making. If you’re interested and want to find them, go to the bottom of the page and type plane into the seach box. Or click here, here and here. There’s also a short entry about them on the tools and jigs page.

For a slightly different approach, it’s worth taking a look at Alan Dunwell’s website. You’ll need to go to the Luthier pages and select Making finger planes. He shows how to make several of these planes in a single batch, shaping different profiles for the soles on a belt sander. Dunwell recommends nothing fancier than a penny nail for the crossbar that holds the wedge and blade in position.

This is the second half of the story, started in my last post, about making a rosette from spalted beech.

The next step was to cut the channels around the edge of the rosette to receive the border strips. Again, I used my jig mounted Dremel for this.

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Here the channels have been cut and the decorative strips bent more or less to the right curvature on the bending iron ready for glueing in.

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And here is the finished rosette, planed flush with the soundboard and given a wipe of shellac. I shan’t cut the soundhole until I’ve planed the soundboard down to it final thickness.

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A few weeks ago, I bought a block of spalted beech from Mark Bennett and mentioned, in a previous post, that I hoped it would make some striking guitar rosettes. I’ve been trying out some ideas. Here’s the piece of wood that provided the starting point.

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Having decided which face looked most attractive, I set up the bandsaw for a fine cut and sawed two veneers at about 4mm thickness. Then I book-matched them to create a more or less symmetrical pattern, by gluing them onto thin (1/64 inch) plywood for stability. Actually, there’s a bit more to it than that. First, using weak hot hide glue, I stuck a sheet of paper to a 6 by 6 inch square of 6mm MDF. Then I stuck a similar sized square of 1/64 inch thick plywood over that, again using thin hide glue, and weighted it down until the glue was dry. This provided the base onto which the veneers were glued.

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Using a Dremel mounted in a jig (details of jig available here) I cut out the rosette making the depth of cut just through the layer of thin plywood. It was then possible to remove the rosette using a thin blade – an ordinary knife from the dinner table works well – sliding it between the plywood and MDF layers in the plane of cleavage provided by the paper. Any paper or glue remaining on the underside of the rosette can easily be cleaned off with a hot damp cloth, which of course was the reason for using hide glue in the first place.

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I missed the opportunity to photograph either the detached rosette or the routed channel in the soundboard but below you can see the rosette being glued into position on the soundboard, weighted down so that it dries flat.

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Pictures are better than words when it comes to describing how to make something. So yesterday, I made a curved sole finger plane, keeping a camera within reach to record each step. I hope these photographs will be a useful supplement to the written instructions in my last post. Read across the rows to stay in sequence and click on any of the thumbnails for a larger view and (sometimes) more detailed comments.

At the beginning of the year, in their Tools and Shops issue, Fine Woodworking included a short piece about some violin-making planes that I had made. Since then, several people have asked about them, and how they are constructed. A recent request prompted me into writing down some instructions and, in the hope that they might be useful to others, I’m going to post them here.

A few of these planes are shown below with a Record No 4 in the background to give a sense of scale.

Side view

Three quarters view

Close up view of wedge

I’ve used a variety of hardwoods: box, cherry, elder, hornbeam and beech and made a variety of shapes and sizes for different tasks. The longer plane lying on its side in the foreground is for shaping violin cornerblocks, for example, while most of the others are for the final stages of arching the top and bottom. Some of these have flat soles for planing flat or convex surfaces; others are gently rounded both across and along the sole and are used for refining concave areas of the arching.

The design is extremely simple as from the photographs of this little plane, made of elder, show: just a body, a wedge and a blade. It’s quite possible to make a plane like this from a solid block of wood simply by chiseling out the required shape. But I’ve found that it’s easier and quicker to adapt the method James Krenov describes in his book ‘The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking’ for making much larger planes. Essentially, the idea is that you saw two slices off the block to make the sides of the plane, shape the bed and throat from the middle section, and then glue it back together.

Here’s an attempt at step by step instructions.

1. Find a suitable blade, around 0.5 inch inches in width and 2 to 2.5 inches long. It’s possible to make one out of an old chisel blade. Another idea is to use a blade that once was part of the set that accompanied a combination or plough plane (these sometimes turn up in second hand tool shops having parted company from the original tool). Or you can buy a new blade from a supplier of Ibex or Herdim violin planes.

2. Now you need a small block of wood, preferably sawn on the quarter. Box, holly, elder, hornbeam, fruit woods and beech are all good. Plane all sides accurately square, though you need not worry about the endgrain faces (diagram, step 1). Then saw it into a sandwich (diagram, step 2) making sure that the layer in the middle (the filling of the sandwich, as it were) is a little wider than the blade you have chosen. Plane the sawn surfaces, keeping them square so that you will later be able to glue the sandwich back together without visible glue lines. The final width of the filling of the sandwich needs to be just a whisker greater than the blade.

Diagram of steps in making a finger plane

3. Saw the central section (the sandwich filling) across at 45° and 85° to make the mouth and throat of the plane (diagram, step 3). Keep the wedge-shaped waste piece because it will be useful later. File the 45° surface smooth, flat and square.

4. Glue the sandwich back together, adjusting the distance between the two filling pieces to give a tight mouth (diagram, step 4). Clamp up and allow plenty of time for the glue to cure.

5. Clean up.

6. Try the blade in position. You will probably need to plane something off the sole so that the mouth is just wide enough for the blade to peep out. Bear in mind that if the sole of the plane is going to be curved, the width of the mouth will initially be wider at the sides of the blade and you’ll eventually need to adjust the mouth to an even width by enlarging it centrally. So keep it on the tight side for now.

7. Plane or file the sole to the desired profile. This is most easily done by holding a block plane upside down in the vice and moving the workpiece (ie the plane you’re making) over it in the same way that a cooper’s plane is used, though on a much smaller scale – see photograph.

Using a block plane in a vice

Jig for holding wedge

Jig for holding wedge while planing

8. Rough out a wedge. A simple jig like the one in the photograph makes it easier. I like to use a wood of contrasting colour and, if possible, to include a streak of sapwood. But that, of course, is just a whim and of no functional importance. Make the wedge overlength to give leeway for later fitting and leave any fancy carving of the thick end until after the fit is perfected.

9. Put the wedge and blade into position and estimate where to drill for the crossbar that will hold them in place (diagram, step 5). The position isn’t critical but, if the bar is placed too low, it may tend to obstruct shavings as they emerge into the throat. I’ve found that placing the bar about half way up the finished plane works well. Measure the combined thickness of the blade and wedge at this point. Then use a mitre gauge to draw a line on the outside of the place corresponding to the position of the bed. Scribe a second parallel line in front of it (ie towards the toe of the plane). The distance between the two lines should correspond to the combined thickness of the blade and wedge. Draw a third parallel line 1.75 mm further forward again. This is to take account of the 3.5 mm diameter of the cross pin. Half way along this line is the point to drill. While it’s good to get this point placed as accurately as possible, don’t worry too much because you’ll be able to accommodate any inaccuracy by adjusting the wedge.

10. Drill a 3.5mm diameter hole centred on the position that you’ve just marked using a drill press. Before drilling, fit the waste piece that you’ve saved tightly into the gap between the sides of the plane. This will minimise breakout.

11. Turn a short length of hardwood to a diameter of 3.5 mm. Or make it using a dowel plate. Glue into position and trim it off when the glue is dry.

12. Using a coping saw, saw out the curve of the top of the plane. Refine the curve with a knife or file.

13. Then there’s rather a lot of fiddling about to do. Thin the sides of the plane. Adjust the length. Curve the ends. Fit the wedge. File or plane the final profile of the sole and then adjust the curve of the blade and the throat of the plane until you’ve got a tool that does exactly what you want it to do.

14. Obviously, the dimensions, bed angle and other details of the plane can be altered to suit your own requirements.

I’ve no doubt that there are many better, faster, easier and more ingenious ways of making finger planes than this. If you know of them or invent them, please let me know. In a later post, I’ll try to give a bit more detail and discuss modifications and refinements. (See here.)

Back in February, I wrote about meeting the Canadian planemaker, Konrad Sauer, and trying out a plane that he had made. It performed so well and I liked it so much that I immediately asked him to make me one. Here’s a picture of the plane that I tried. He calls it the XS No4, which I imagine is short for extra small – although there may be another more complicated explanation. What attracted me to the plane, apart (obviously) from the fact that it worked so well, was its simplicity. No handle, no adjuster, no cap iron – just a thick blade pitched at 52.5° and a tight mouth.

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I was delighted to get an email from him a couple of days ago to say that he had started making it. And just to prove it, he attached these photographs.

For anyone interested in planes, his website (Sauer and Steiner Toolworks) is a fascinating place to visit. He also writes a blog that is well worth reading – not least for its intelligent comments on making and using hand tools. I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on dovetails written when he was in the middle of cutting a stack of them for drawers for cabinets that he was making for his own kitchen.

Now that the repair that I wrote about in my last post is complete, it’s time to get back to the guitar that I’m currently making. I’ve routed the ledges for the binding and purfling to sit in – a job that I never approach without trepidation since it’s so easy to ruin weeks of work by a moment’s inattention when you’re using a tool whose cutter revolves 25,000 times a minute. Fortunately, there were no mishaps. I never much like using an electric router – nasty, noisy, top-heavy things. But the next task of preparing and bending the binding strips will be easier to enjoy.

The great photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, is said never to have re-arranged a scene or cropped a negative. It was, I suppose, his entirely admirable desire to show things as they actually were rather than how they might have been. Of course, being French, he dressed it up in fancy language. “Il n’y a rien dans ce monde qui n’ait un moment decisif” was how he put it.

Why do I bore you with this? Well, because yesterday afternoon when I was about to take a photograph of the struts being glued onto the soundboard, I caught myself on the verge of tidying the bench before the shot. Why on earth did I think that was necessary? I’m not trying to write an article for one of those wood-working magazines where, if the pictures are anything to go by, projects seem to reach completion without a tool being removed from a rack or a shaving falling to the floor.

Anyway, I stopped myself just in time. Here is where I’ve got to with the guitar that I’m working on at the moment.

The soundboard is nice piece (well, actually two pieces, of course) of close-grained spruce from Le Bois de Lutherie, which I joined and thicknessed to about 3mm – producing lots of shavings, as you can see below.

Then, using a Dremel mini-router in a shop-made device, I cut a channel for the rosette that I wrote about in a previous post, a few days ago.

Here’s the top, cut roughly to shape with the rosette inlaid.

The cocobolo guitar back that I showed in an earlier post is now jointed and I spent some time yesterday bringing it down to a thickness of just over 2 mm. The grain of the two halves runs in opposite directions after ‘book-matching’, which makes it difficult to avoid tearout along the centre join. And even without that, cocobolo is hard and difficult to deal with. The tool that solves these problems is my Millers Falls scraper plane.

I bought it several years ago in a second hand tool shop and never found it worked well enough to be useful until I replaced its thin cabinet scraper blade with a thicker one from Ron Hock. This transformed its performance and, although I suppose you could do the job with a cabinet scraper by hand, I now think of it as an indispensable tool.

Since it works with a negative cutting angle, a scraper plane doesn’t remove much material at a time. So, if you’re starting with wood that is way too thick, you need something that’s faster, even if it leaves a rougher finish, to get down to somewhere near the final thickness before switching to the scraper plane. A good tool for that is a smoothing plane fitted with a modified (toothed) blade but I’ll save that discussion for another post. Pictures of the scraper plane below.

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