Hi guys, while I'm taking a few minutes of downtime this evening I thought I would answer some questions submitted by Don, a great customer of mine who has purchased a lot of kits for himself and his woodworking club. I want to concentrate on his questions because they are some of the best that I have gotten that relate to plane making......
Q. How important is grain orientation within the infill? By this I mean, do you try to orient the grain in any particular order to minimize seasonal expansion?
A. This is a really good one! And many people will disagree with me regardless of the answer, so I will put it at bluntly as I can; It's just not that important. I live in the high desert with 300 days of sunshine in the valley a year, so I have to pay attention to moisture content more than grain orientation. If I ship a plane to a more humid climate with it being less than 5%(or so) of that regions "average equilibrium" for the wood, the distortion on the wood isn't the risk, it's end grain checking. So that's where I spend most of my time worrying. As James Krenov puts it in the Forward of David Fincks Book, the grain orientation doesn't make for a stronger or weaker plane, it just tells you where maintenance on the tool will be directed. I tend to concentrate all of my time at the bandsaw roughing out blanks being concerned with how dramatic the woods looks will be, not worrying about the grain orientation. The only rule I subscribe to is that the grain will run "out" towards the front infill(meaning I will plane from back to front). So, if you have a piece of wood that you think will be attractive, make 100% SURE it's DRY and go to town. It won't move in mine or your lifetime.
Q. Why do you use the aluminum bronze versus a standard bronze for the sole?
A. I use 954 Bronze, which has a low aluminum content, but still is considered in the "Aluminum Bronze" category for a few reasons; First, it's tough. I work with all sorts of metals and this stuff works about as easy as steel(which isn't extremely easy). 932 is an "Aluminum Bronze" as well and though I use it for some things, its not my favorite for soles. It's A LOT easier to work than 954, which is about the only thing I can say to it. Other bronzes are usually too soft for soles as well. Phosphor Bronze is tough, but won't harden like 954. Other yellow brasses are all also too soft for soles. Lastly, 954 is a semi-self lubricating material. When it is flattened, smoothed, and polished there isn't anything that comes close to the way it slides over wood. I can only compare it to a an old wooden plane, but with the advantage of 4+ pounds and so much more comfortable!
Q. Is a very hard wood required for the infill or will a softer wood like walnut do?
A. I like exotic and/or dense hardwoods for the usual reasons; They are heavy and once dry, extremely stable. I have a few old Spiers Planes with Rosewood infills and the beds are still surprisingly flat. You can most certainly use softer woods such as Walnut so long as they are dry and stable. The fact is, a hand plane takes a lot of abuse in a lifetime or three. Softer woods won't hold up as well. Yes, I strive to make my planes beautiful, but more importantly I want them to function flawlessly and be able to take a beating. Cherishing a beautiful tool doesn't just mean looking at it for inspiration, it also means using it to it's fullest capabilities.
Q. Does the front infill and the rear infill need to be cut from the same board?
A. This is a very good one! The short answer is no. The long answer is that I pour so much time and energy into every tool I make and I demand that it's aesthetically balanced. If I have an issue with a roughed out blank and it means that I won't get the front and rear infills to match up, I simply put it aside to use on a smaller or different shaped plane body. I go to great lengths to make sure it looks like the escapement was "naturally" removed from my infill blanks. Sometimes this means shifting the grain over a bit(or more) to get the right match. Will it affect the way the tool works? Nope, but if you're going through the trouble to make functional art like an infill plane, my advice is to hold out for the right piece of wood.
Thanks Don for the questions, these were really great and I hope they help everyone out!