start where you are

“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”

-Arthur Ashe

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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10 thoughts on “start where you are

  1. I really appreciate your feelings for your $12 plane. I started out with only a Stanley No.4, bought new in the mid 1970’s. That was the only plane I ever had for the next 40 years, and it did everything I ever asked of it. Now, I have vintage 2, 4, 4-1/2, 6 and assorted other specialist planes including some woodies and a very old infill jack, but I still reach first for the No.4.

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  2. I think the 5, or jack, is the most versatile of planes. Some say it’s too big, but remember, Alan Peters did all of his spectacular work with only a No. 6. As any of us who have spent time behind the tote of a good plane know, it’s not the number, but rather the particular plane that feels right in your hand and has the right mechanics to make it sing. I suspect each of us has our favourites…mine is a Preston wooden jack. I could give up most of my other planes as long as I had that one.

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    1. This is exactly why I never get those people who have a hundred different planes and say they use them all. I’m excluding collectors here of course, but I mean those people who say they have a whole herd of planes in working rotation. Even blindfolded I could probably tell you which one of my planes you handed me just by grabbing the tote. They’re all different and I connect with each one in unique ways. I don’t want to own them all, just the ones that feel like home.

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  3. My first hand plane was a No. 5 Fulton. My father passed it on to me when he decided hand tools weren’t for him. Mine looked very similar to your $12 find. Something was always a little off about that plane but I stuck with it. Later I found a No. 5 Stanley that was in much better shape and it changed my view of the Jack plane – a new found respect.

    Like you, I purchased the wider and heavier No. 6 to tackle most of my planing needs, but it now serves as a shooting plane. Jack is now back in the mix.

    I’m considering an upgrade of my smooth plane. I currently have a No. 4 Stanley, but I’m hearing about a lot of folks using a No. 3 (of which I’ve never used). What did you settle on? Going with Lie-Nielsen either way.

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    1. I have a no.3 and no.4 (both by Stanley) that I stacked up next to each other some time back on the blog. Long story short, I prefer the no.3 (even with my giant hands) but at the end of the day, I use a 4 1/2 for nearly all of my smoothing.

      If you’re doing mostly drawer sides, and that sort of thing, the no.3 lets you be very precise and agile. (more so than the 4 IMO). It’s also great to target small trouble spots. On the other hand, it seems a little outmatched if you’re smoothing a lot of panels and case sides.

      FWIW I was in your exact predicament when I bought my no 4 1/2 (Lie-Nielsen) I knew I already had a 4 and I wanted to go either up or down in size. I ended up going up and I’ve been very happy with the purchase.

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  4. I appreciate the insight. I think my problem with my No. 4 is weight, I don’t feel like it’s really grabbing the work. Not really chatter per se. I will hold off on a purchase until the LN evening in March and weigh (haha) out my options. Are you coming up to Covington? (LN, LAP) be a bit of a drive, I suppose.

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    1. Sadly no, that’s a serious hike from here although I do recommend waiting (as hard as it is) until you can try the tools first hand. I was surprised and enlightened in some ways when I went to a L-N event a few months ago.

      Before the event I was absolutely sold on the idea of bevel-up planes until I tried them for myself and learned I much prefer their traditional bevel down designs.

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  5. I’m catching up on my blog reading after a ridiculously busy week, hence the sudden barrage of comments this morning.

    The No.5 is certainly a versatile beast, and I think the message of “using what you have” is a valuable one. One if the reasons I avoid woodwork forums is the constant reinforcement of “you can’t build anything until you have XYZ”. Which is not only misleading but acts as a barrier to new comers who consequently have an unrealistic expectation that you need a huge tool kit to do anything. It’s also why I recommend “Joiner & Cabinetmaker” (Lost Art Press) as a great introduction to hand tool work as the tool kit set out in that is both minimalist and historically accurate.

    Now I’m fortunate to have quite a full tool chest at this point, but I’m still careful to make sure that each tool has a function and a purpose. And I whenever I want to buy a new tool, I remind myself that I built my favourite guitar relying almost exclusively on a No.5 and a block plane. So yes, more tools are nice but they aren’t a necessity.

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    1. I think the same is true of every forum. They always seem to breakdown into the “you can’t be good without the very best gear” group and the “watch me prove you wrong with this hypertuned budget gear”

      I know that good tools in skilled hands are capable of great things and I always seek out the best tools I reasonably can, but there’s also a lot learned in the process of earning those tools. “The Joiner and Cabinetmaker” is an excellent reminder of that concept.

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