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A couple of years ago, Wouter Hilhorst, an architect and luthier from Rotterdam, showed me some violin-making planes that he had carved from oak and boxwood. There are a few photographs of them here. Some of these planes were in the Japanese tradition, others miniature versions of western planes, but all had been made from a single block of wood.

I had made several small planes for instrument-making too, but I’d always used the Krenov sandwich technique, which I’ve written about at length before. (See here and here. A few days ago, I tried Wouter’s method using a small block of lignum vitae, which I reckoned would have the right properties of hardness and self-lubrication.

This is what I managed to come up with. The coin, £1 sterling, 22.5mm (≈7/8 inches) in diameter, is there to give an idea of scale; the long shavings prove that plane actually works.

The blade is a Japanese blade from Dictum, a generous gift from Wouter, and the wedge was fashioned out of a scrap of Rio rosewood.

This photograph of it with a No 4 smoother gives a sense of its diminutive size.


Click on a thumbnail to see larger images


Richard Nice, who among many other things makes guitars, recently showed me this attractive plane that he had designed for shaping soundboard braces and harmonic bars. He made it from an off-cut of beech and a discarded cutter from a plough plane and, so that there could be no doubt about its provenance, he signed it too.

The screw adjustment is simple but ingenious, depending only on a carefully sited screw tapped into the back of the plane and a slot cut into to the upper end of the iron.

The plane is comfortable to hold and works well. Its narrow cheeks enable it to take shavings from the lowest part of the brace and produce either a triangular or gothic arch section according to your preference.

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.

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.


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


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.


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.


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


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.

Last autumn, I met Konrad Sauer at an exhibition of woodworking and woodworking tools held at Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire. He’s a plane maker and let me try out the small smoother (shown in the photograph below) on a piece of American walnut. It wasn’t a highly figured piece of wood but the grain was far from obliging. The plane worked perfectly, taking a full width, tissue paper thin shaving and leaving a surface that required neither scraping nor sanding before applying a finish. Even more impressive however, was the plane’s performance when I turned the board of walnut around. The finish this time wasn’t quite as polished – how could it have been? – but the fact that here was a tool that could take a shaving against the grain without leaving areas of roughness and tear out was a revelation. For a guitar maker constantly needing to work highly figured tropical hardwoods to a perfect finish, it was almost too good to be true. Of course, I asked him to make me one and though I try to be patient, I check his website from time to time hoping to read about progress.

The website is full of interesting things but it’s especially worth reading the ‘Nuts and Bolts’ section for his discussion of why he makes his planes almost entirely with basic hand tools. Some of the reasons are obvious: such tools cost less and take up less space in the workshop. Others are more subtle: working by hand, although apparently slower than working with machines, means that an error can be caught before it turns into a costly mistake. Taking an extra shaving with a handplane is much more controlled than using a machine with a cutter head revolving at 3,000 rpm – not to mention safer and quieter. And working by hand allows him to adjust the plane that he is making by, say, making its handle a bit smaller or its blade angle a bit steeper, so that it’s exactly as his customer want it. These are just the same reasons why I build musical instruments by hand.


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