“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”
I read those words yesterday as I was laying back in a dentist’s chair. They were mixed in with a wall display of other cutesy, motivational, life-coach style thoughts. But for some reason, as soon as I read them I immediately thought about my jack plane.
It’s nothing special really. A type ? Stanley Bailey no.5. I found it in a junk store for $12. It’s not particularly collectible, but it’s flat and true and when it’s sharp it absolutely sings. It was also the first vintage plane I ever bought, and the genesis of my descent into the madness of hand-tool woodworking.
When I bought it, it needed a cleaning and some work to get it up to speed. I remember standing out in the garage over a marble slab lapping the sole to what was really a superfluous degree of flatness. I cleaned every speck of rust off of that plane and painstakingly brought it back to glory. And then I took it to every scrap of pine in my workshop making pile after pile of shavings.
Sharpen, rinse, repeat.
As my only plane at the time, I set out to explore its limits. Of course it could bring an edge down to a line, and all of the normal rough work that Jacks get drawn into, but when finely set, that no.5 is the equal of nearly any smoothing plane I have ever used. A gentle soul and yet it can traverse an oak board and hog off waste with the best of them. Really, it was a wonder to me how much I could accomplish with just one plane.
I set it aside for a little while in favor of my no.6 fore plane, but I’ve recently rediscovered it’s utility while working on my workbench. It’s lighter than my no.6 and now that I have a no.7 jointer do do the flattening and jointing, it feels like every ounce counts. I now understand why the average kit is a 3/5/7 or 4/5/7 and I’ve begun to appreciate that wisdom.
I also understand why people keep certain planes set for certain activities. My no.6 has become my shooting plane. My 7 is sharp and set to flatten, my 4 1/2 is my precious and the 5 covers all of the ground in between. The no.3 and no.4 are invited to the party from time to time too.
Could I have passably covered all of that ground with my no.5 ? Sure, maybe. But the mechanics of the bevel down plane make for more fiddling than I would want to do to accomplish all of those jobs optimally.
And now, back to the beginning:
“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can”
Starting with no real knowledge of hand-tool techniques, but with my jack plane in hand I had the opportunity to learn what it could do and what other tools could do better. I examined my needs and my limitations as someone interested in growing as a craftsperson, made a few educated purchases (and then a few more), and have done more in the last year than I could ever have imagined possible. All from a $12 find in a junk store.
I have thought very seriously about buying a premium jack plane. I covet this Lie-Nielsen no.5 almost daily. Owning other Lie-Nielsen planes tells me I would love it, and who knows, someday I might have the extra cash to spring for it, but for now I’ll use what I have.
Heck, some days I even surprise myself.