New Grips for My Veritas #5-1/4 Bench Plane

Of all the bench planes (bevel-down) I have acquired, the Veritas ones have been by far the easiest to adjust and for that, I love them.  Blade adjustments have always been responsive and predictable; I could set the mouth to let through only a sliver of light quicker than you can read the upcoming quote, all without using any tools.

However, I never found their bubinga totes very comfortable.  To me, they felt too flat, too upright, too narrow, and the sharp horn made it uncomfortable to brace against my stomach (as I do when drawing small pieces of wood across the plane’s sole).  Rob Lee, president of Lee Valley Tools Ltd. (Veritas is the manufacturing arm of Lee Valley Tools Ltd.), once made this comment:

“You all should be modifying all of your tool handles to suit your own handle preferences in the first place.  Any single design will only suit a part or the population in the first place.”

(Find this quote, among many others, on my page titled Quotables.)

I have made custom totes and matching knobs for most of my tools but a few have only seen minor modifications such as a touch with a rasp or the removal of the shiny plastic finish with a spokeshave or coarse sandpaper.  Shiny handles suck!

Suck:No Suck

Three years ago, I made a new tote and knob for my Veritas #4 which is my favourite bench plane.  I used some really unique dogwood and the result was not only comfortable and non-fatiguing, but also beautiful.

#4 Bench Plane

Last Sunday, I had some free time in the afternoon so I decided to make a better tote and knob for my newest Veritas bench plane, the #5-1/4.  For Veritas bench plane totes, the recesses and bores were a little more complicated to make than with others, but all it took was some careful layout and a little creative jigging.

Drilling Veritas Tote

Making the knob was simple in comparison.

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I tried to find cherry with some character but was disappointed, especially so for the tote.  Once I was done, I noticed that the light-coloured grips reminded me of Lie-Nielsen planes.  Does anybody else agree with me?

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I documented my progress live on Twitter using hashtag #FlairWW (follow me @FlairWoodworks) which was useful because each update had a time stamp so followers could see the rate at which I progressed.  I compiled the photos and Tweets into a video (duration – 5:50).

Hardware Inspires Me

Experienced woodworkers know that one of the keys to a successful project is to have the hardware that will be used on-hand before the planning stage is complete and building begins. While having a thorough (and accurate) understanding of the hardware is one reason to explore what is available, I also study hardware for inspiration.  The wide variety of hardware available today exhibits so many textures, lines and shapes.  Here are some of the pieces of hardware from the Lee Valley Tools Ltd. catalog that inspire me.

Sometimes I think about what the piece of furniture I might build would look like to go with a particular piece of hardware.

Cast Steel Hands from Lee Valley Tools Ltd.

Other times, I visualize a certain element of the hardware incorporated into a design.

Hollywood open handle from Lee Valley Tools Ltd.

Or I may imagine the pull or knob scaled up as a piece of furniture.

Playful Nature handle

The Eastside Culture Crawl is an annual event where artists of various mediums open their studios to the public.  This pair of antique nickel pulls with a decidedly organic design are from exhibitor Big Bang Boom.  Both are the same size and shape, but not quite identical.

These pulls are the type of hardware around which I could design something.  This page of my sketchbook shows some of the possible orientations for the pulls.

A page from my sketchbook

While sketching I focus on drawing as many possibilities as I can, regardless of whether I think they are good ideas or not.  I feel that the two pulls should be located close together to visually tie them together.  That suggests they would be used as door pulls rather than drawer pulls which are typically mounted in the middle of the drawer to prevent binding when opening.

Or is there a way to have them as drawer pulls close together and not have the drawer bind?

Shiny Handles Suck

Many wooden-handled tools that you can buy come covered in a tough, shiny finish.  These tools look so perfect and pretty and would look right at home in a glass display case under a spotlight in the Museum of Modern Art.  While the shiny handles are pretty and easy to wipe clean, they are slippery and not very comfortable to hold.

One day, I got fed up with the lacquered handles on my chisel handles.  I took a piece of coarse sandpaper (80-grit, I think) and removed the shiny finish.  I palmed the handle and knew immediately that I had done the right thing.  I was able to grip the chisel with more control than ever before, and with less effort.

Lacquered and Stripped Handles

Later, when I decided to strip the finish off the remaining chisel handles, I decided to try something different.  Instead of using sandpaper, I used a spokeshave.  The result was a faceted handle that felt better in my hand.

Working on a Chisel Handle

Although I could have left the naturally-oily rosewood handles bare, I chose to add a coat of oil finish.

Refinished, Faceted Handles

I also removed the finish from the handles of my spokeshave and finished them in a similar fashion.

Refinished Spokeshave Handle

With the slick, glossy finishes removed, the tools were much more comfortable to use and looked even better, in my opinion.

Slicks and Handles for Socket Chisels

A slick is essentially a large chisel that can be used to pare or trim projections in the middle of a large surface.  Many slicks have cranked handles (angled upwards) to provide the necessary clearance.  They are often used in timber framing but their size makes the overkill in the shop.  Useful or not, it’s a neat curiosity.

A few weeks ago, I arranged a trade with Tom Iovino of Tom’s Workbench.  I sent four assembly squares his way in exchange for a slick he didn’t need.  It arrived with the short, squarish handle shown in the middle.  (The full-size carving gouge is for scale.)

In use, I wanted to be able to brace the butt end of the handle against my shoulder and the old handle wasn’t long enough to be comfortable so I decided to turn a longer one.  I started by removing the old handle so that I could take measurements off it as I shaped the taper.  Since this is a socket chisel (meaning that there is a socket in the metal that the wooden handle fits into), removal was easy with the right technique.  I gripped the blade, with the edge safely away from myself, and whacked the handle against my bench a couple of times and the handle popped out.

I found a suitable piece of wood for the handle (Western maple) and installed it between centers on my lathe.  I first turned the blank round, then used a parting tool to define the size and shape of the taper using the old handle as a guide.  A tight fit is important, so I intentionally left the taper slightly oversized.  I went ahead and shaped and sanded the rest of the handle.

The handle-to-blade connection is purely mechanical (a friction-fit) so I wanted to make sure I got a good, solid fit.  Back at the bench, I test-fitted the handle in the socket.  It didn’t fit that well, but I twisted it around a few times before removing the handle.  A discoloration was left where the wood rubbed against the metal and I used a rasp to remove the marks, then tried again.  When I got an even wear pattern, I fully seated the chisel by driving the butt end of the handle down on my bench top and inertia secured the blade.

I would have left the handle unfinished, but the curly maple I pulled from my firewood box was begging for a finish so I applied a light coat of an oil/varnish blend to showcase the figure.

If you look closely at the joint between the handle and blade, you will see a slight gap between the blade and shoulder of the handle.  This is important as without that gap, the blade could bottom out on the should and not fully engage with the socket.  That means the handle could separate from the blade.  Not good.  Fortunately, if care is taken to ensure a good fit, the handle should lock on very securely.

Before starting work for the day, it’s good practice to rap the butt end of the handle on the bench to ensure that it is indeed fully seated.  If this seems like too much bother, you could apply some shellac to the taper just before you install the handle.  When the shellac hardens, it will lock the handle in place but it can still be removed by applying heat to soften the shellac.  (Thanks to Jeremy Tomlinson of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks Inc. for this tip.)

Custom Knife Scales

I like folding knives.  I am always on the lookout for folding knives from which I can easily strip the aluminum scales and replace them with pretty wooden ones.

I particularly like the type with a frame lock where one side of the metal frame is bent inwards and upon opening the blade, it engages against a flat spot on the blade, thus locking it in the open position.  To release the blade, simply push the lock to the side and close the blade.  If the knife also has a thumb stud, the knife is easily opened and closed with only one hand.  Knives with frame locks are not difficult to find, but it is a little tougher to find a small knife with a frame lock and a thumb stud.  This one is 6-1/2″ long when open.

I epoxied the scales in place and shaped them with rasps and sandpaper.  I decided to leave the scales bare and polished the wood using tripoli and white diamond abrasive compounds.

New Duds for #4

Handles (or totes, as they are called regarding hand planes) are often very personal things. Yet, I don’t think that any hand plane makers offer any options as to whether you would like a small, medium, or large tote for your plane. Perhaps that’s because the makers figure that the end user will either just adapt or modify the grips to fit.

For years, I’ve adapted. I’ve just gone on using the totes as they came. The totes were fine. Then I got acquired a Stanley #6. I tuned up the plane and really enjoyed using it… only my hand would cramp up after using it for even a short period of time. I did, however, like the angle of the tote more than the upright one on my Veritas #4 smoother. As the #4 is one of my most used planes, I decided to start there.

Wanting something nice, I dug through my stash of Pacific dogwood shorts and found a thick enough piece to make the tote from. I chose to orient the grain vertically, as opposed to horizontally as is done on most planes. The horizontal grain direction provides greater strength in long grain for the “horns” at the top and bottom of S-shaped totes used on Stanley planes, among others. Running the grain vertically would leave only short grain between the mass of the tote and the horns, so there would be a greater chance of them breaking off. The particular piece of dogwood I had actually had grain that ran in an S-shape, so I was able to make the tote’s grain run vertical without an issue.

I started by removing the existing tote and using it as a guide to determine where the holes needed to be drilled and what diameter they should be. After laying out the holes to be bored, I then sketched a rough outline of the shape I wanted to make the tote to be sure that it wouldn’t conflict with any of the holes.

I then headed over to the drill press and bored the required holes with the help of a tall fence quickly put together with 3D Squares and scrap plywood. I then used the bandsaw to cut out the tote.

The Veritas bench planes have a unique frog design which presents an additional challenge in making a tote – in order for it to fit, I needed to cut two mortises at either end of the tote to accept the cast frog. I simply used my chisels to cut the recesses and tested frequently until it fit.

Then came the fun part – shaping. I started using a broad carving gouge to remove the bulk of the waste, going cross-grain. Then I progressed to refine the shape with rasps. You know you have the right shape when it feels good in your hand. While I do not have large hands, I do appreciate larger handles. With a comfortable shape established, I further smoothed the surface with sandpaper.

Now, you know there is no way that I could put a fancy new dogwood tote on the plane and leave the bubinga knob on the front. So I turned a matching dogwood knob. I even surprised myself at how closely I was able to duplicate the original.

I finished the dogwood with a couple coats of polymerized tung oil. The oil really enhances the colour in the dogwood induced by spalting. The plane is definitely unique now, customized to fit my hand. It looks, works, and feels great. Next up will be the Stanley #6. I have some Pacific yew picked out for that.