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.