Friday, May 30, 2014

Don't Bother Learning to Plane Boards...

"Just enough broad surface planing should be done in practice to learn the correct method. More planing than that is a waste of time and should be done at the mill." 

Before you get the pitch forks and head down to South Louisiana let me explain! That was written by - Louis Roehl, in 1881, in his instructional manual of carpentry titled Problems in Carpentry, a course in practical carpentry for manual training classes. The qouted statement jumped out at me. How dare he make such a statement? How dare he attack my beloved planes and their gossamer shavings! Blasphemy! Stone him, stone him to death!

My reaction was a bit less dramatic, but you get the point. Roehl wrote this as a guide for instructors of carpentry teaching at a high school level - why would he downplay planing? Granted Carpenters build structures and structures rarely see much need for surfaced timbers but there is much interior finish work to be done with planes and it still bothered me. Roehl's very next statement is as follows:

Edge planing is an operation that a carpenter meets with in nearly every job. 
One should learn to plane an edge at right angles to the side of the board, 
removing the least amount of stock possible.

Ok, well that's a lot better - he got that part right. He at least thinks carpentry students should be proficient in edge jointing stock... but it's still ludicrous to write-off surfacing fundamentals, right? It wasn't to him. He, rather matter of factly, states it is a waste of time and should be done at a mill... Should be done at a mill... SHOULD BE DONE AT A MILL - and therein lies the answer. It was 1881, the mechanizing of industry and division of labor was already in full swing. 

The first planing machine patented was designed by Sir Samuel Bentham in 1791. Though a crude design employing a large mechanized hand plane pushed to and fro - not unlike a sash mill turned horizontally - it still relieved it's operator of the toil of manual timber jointing. Bentham described the essence of the invention as a "method of planing divesting the operation of skill previously necessary, and a reduction of brute force employed" ( Bentham's design may have been a failure but it did pave the way for other's and it was not many years before rotary planers would find their way into production facilities.

Bentham's patent was the beginning of industrialized lumber production and the death knoll for hand tooling. Exactly 100 after the first patented power planer Louis Roehl would write that it is unimportant for students to have a profound grasp of surfacing lumber with a hand plane because it was better left to mills to perform this work with power tools. The demise of traditional craftsmanship had begun.

Add an additional 100 years and we are in 1991, a time when the likelihood of finding a hobby woodworker using hand planes were slim to none. Strangely this coincides with the early rebirth, of sorts, of traditional woodworking. Granted there were a handful of people still clinging to the old ways and God bless them for keeping it alive but it has only been in the last 20 or so years that it has become fashionable to use hand tool and where you can once again find a large selection of tools being produced today that emulate the tools that Sir Bentham hoped we would leave behind us in a wake of progress. 

History tends to repeat itself and unfortunately much can be lost with each cycle. I do not say this of woodworking only but of Art the Natural Sciences and rural living as a whole. The internet is a tremendous resource for the preservation of history - you reading this is proof in the hide glue pudding! As we continue our craft and prepare for this cycle to possibly end let's be sure to document what we've learned by study and research and make sure the next generation of traditional woodworkers and students of history have more to work with than we did. 


Google Patent - Woodworth Planer

© Jean Becnel, 2014. 
The material found herein is the sole intellectual property of it's author(s). 
Reproduction of this information is strictly forbidden without the written permission of it's author(s)

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