They were smarter than us; or at least faster.

There are many secrets to be uncovered in the practice of hand tool woodworking, but it’s no secret that pre-industrial workers were capable of using the same tools we do (or much worse in some cases) and producing fine work at a rate that boggles the modern mind. Were they smarter than us? Maybe. A more likely answer is that they were just more efficient than us. They were capable of seeing mechanical advantages in the way they worked and exploiting them for speed and accuracy.

Rough secondary surfaces are one of the obvious ways that pre-industrial craftsmen shaved time off of the clock, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. It’s also something that we can know because we can see it, but what about the things we can only know by experiencing them?

There’s a lot to be learned by trial and error at the bench and I think that’s how our forbears learned most of this stuff as well. Imagine a board slipping away from the plane, but getting wedged a certain way on the bench top that suddenly put physics in the favor of the early cabinetmaker and saved a great deal of time in clamps. It would certainly be worthwhile to set up your work space to reproduce that mechanical advantage on the next panel you had to flatten.

I don’t like to clamp things any more than I have to. It’s helpful, but it slows certain processes down and it takes you out of the “groove” of whatever you’re doing. Flattening a panel is a great example. When I’m traversing the board I get in a certain rhythm where my body position, the angle of the plane and even my stroke are working efficiently together. If I have to stop a lot and loosen clamps and re-clamp just to get to a different part of the board it not only slows me down but throws me out of that hard won zen state of understanding the meeting of body, tool and wood.

I’d much rather be able to move the board freely and keep going.

It turns out that’s not so hard to do if you just use a couple of hold-fasts and your planing stop as a three point wedge.



When you’re in the middle of the board, just use the holdfasts and keep shifting the board.


And when you get down to that tricky bit at the end, swing the board out and wedge it thus:


Voila. From rough glued panel to flat in less than 10 minutes with a jack plane. Follow that up with a quick pass of the jointer and a once-over with the smoothing plane and it’s practically ready for joinery.

It’s also important to share tips like this. It’s how we (re)discover things. I picked up the idea of using two holdfasts while I was editing Joshua Klein’s article about the Jonathan Fisher’s card table in issue one of Mortise & Tenon and I worked out the diagonal bit for the ends on my own. This one simple tip has saved me plenty of time with this bookcase / desk commission I’m currently working on, and maybe it’ll do you some good as well.




8 Comments Add yours

  1. I do this all the time, but instead of holdfasts (which get in the way, as you noted) I simply use some bench dogs (short 3/4″ dowels, really) that fit snugly in their holes and can be quickly adjusted to any height by friction alone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great tip. I need a couple of bench dogs and this might be just the excuse 🙂


  2. Phil Schempf says:

    Mike Siemsen shows similar work holding ideas and others in his video here –


    1. Mike is probably the main reason I finally decided on the English bench design. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched his videos.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I took the viseless plunge a year ago and am happy. I rely on the doe’s foot (notched batten) when working cross grain. Aside from efficiency, another benefit for me is feedback. It’s easier to identify when I am getting sloppy or doing something less than ideal if the board is only captive when the correct force is applied.
    Did you make that planing stop?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did, and you know what, now I need to make a doe’s foot. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. +1 on the doe’s foot. I was going to suggest one if you haven’t tried it. I like it better than the double holdfast method since you don’t have to worry about banging your plane into the holdfast.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m with you on using hand tools efficiently – I think we try and use them like machine tools expecting exact precision, but I they don’t work efficiently like that. I’ve given up using rulers/calipers and such to get a board _perfectly_ flat (not a crack of light showing) and instead rely on simple things like the edge of my plane and a pair of winding sticks to help my eye judge when it’s good enough. The majority of time in flattening stock was spent trying to take of that final shaving….oh, but going too far, and then taking it off the other side…and playing tennis back and forth with shavings. Took me a while to realize that my eye is 98% as good at determining when something flat and square as a ruler/square – just need to trust it. Also, when you think about it, the beholder’s eye will be the judge of the final product, so using your eye to test something means you are working to the same level of precision, anything more is wasted time and effort, and is inefficient.

    Liked by 1 person

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