When I began making infill planes, the work was done entirely with hand tools -- hacksaw and files for the shells; planes, rasps, and scrapers for the infills; abrasive sheets on a large granite surface plate for lapping and surface finishing. While there are certain aspects of this work that are tedious and quite time-consuming (hacksaw work especially), I very consciously avoided incorporating metalworking machinery into the work for several years until I felt I'd mastered the techniques of construction. I did not do this out of some commitment to 'the old ways', or any romantic love for handwork per-se, though there is something to be said for such notions. The rationale for this much more pragmatic.
Handwork, in general, is much more welcoming of free-form design than machinery-based techniques - hand tools are as at home with curves as they are with straight lines, equally adaptable to compound angles and square ones. If you can lay out the profiles and angles on stock, handtools can execute the design. Machinery, however, is much more conducive to regularity in design; to straight lines instead of curves; to right angles instead of compound ones. Any woodworker who has moved from relatively machine-friendly styles like Arts and Crafts furniture into older period work like Chippendale chairs has run into this phenomenon.
The reasoning, then, for my eschewing machines for so long is entirely about design freedom. I have always been, and remain, committed to the notion that design should dictate the tools, and not the other way around. And when one focuses primarily on machine work, the tools tend to strongly influence the design - often limiting the work one takes on. Given the designs I most like, and wanted to take on, this would have been a particularly limiting factor for me
I can sum it up like this: the coffin smoother is an utter nightmare to produce with machine processes. And as I've mentioned elsewhere, my obsession with infill planes is firmly grounded in the coffin smoother.
Now it may sound as though I have an 'issue' with machinery, or that I think hand tools are somehow 'better'. Nothing could be further from the truth. Machines have a number of clear advantages over handwork, many of which are critical to planemaking. Machinery excels, for instance, at working to extreme levels of precision, and at repeatably executing tasks exactly the same way, every time. There are several planemakers I know of who do magnificent work with machines, producing stunningly functional and beautiful tools to the highest levels of precision. Personally, though, I prefer to 'think' like a hand maker first and foremost, designing from that standpoint. Then I employ machines where they will aid in the process, and stick to handwork for the rest of the construction.
Over time, I have incorporated several pieces of metalworking machinery into my shop - most notably a small metalworking lathe and a mill. In the near future, a surface grinder will likely move in as well. These tools have improved the consistency, speed, and precision of my work; I would no sooner be without them again than I would give up my workbench. But there is no tendency, conscious or otherwise, to avoid any aspect of a design simply because it would be difficult to carry out. In the end, I think this allows me to come much closer to producing the planes I most want to make; I am free to select the best design, regardless of what it takes to execute it.
Steel components in the planes are nearly always made from O1 grade tool steel; in the case of blades, the steel is hardened, but in most other cases it is not. I use O1 for a number of reasons, both structural and aesthetic. It is an extremely stable metal, and does not tend to distort from the stresses of construction to the degree that mild steel does. In addition, tool steel is quite easy to lap and smooth with abrasives, and can be taken to a wide range of surface finishes, from matte to mirror-polished. In some cases, I have also worked with several grades of stainless steel, which do have some advantages - most notably in their rust resistance, and this is available as an option for those who desire it.
For all planes, Bronze is also available - generally as a sidewall material. I have worked with brass many times, but I prefer bronze for aesthetic reasons, especially as it patinates over time.
Infill materials are by far the most difficult, and the most expensive, parts of the plane to acquire. Over the past several years I have developed relationships with a number of sources for very high quality woods that are suitably dry and stable for planemaking. Claro Walnut is always an option, and I generally have exhibition grade stock available. I also generally stock boxwood as well as several species of rosewood, including African Blackwood and Honduran rosewood, and a small stash of Brazilian rosewood which is suitable for small miter planes. Please inquire as to specific stock as it varies with time.
The first, and greatest, performance advantage of a custom-made infill is the individual attention that each plane is given with respect to optimization and fettling. I spend several hours at the final stages of work tuning each plane for the specific application and situations it's intended for. The type of work the customer does, the woods they work with, their experience level, and their own requests as to performance are all taken into account in this process, and the result is a tool that has been tuned to the highest degree possible for its intended uses.
Another important factor in performance of infill planes is that they have almost no moving parts, and each of the components in the assembly are mechanically linked with incredible strength. As a result, the entire plane benefits from a degree of rididity that is generally difficult or impossible to achieve in mass-produced tools, which employ blade adjustments and removable and/or adjustable frogs and mouth assemblies. This ridigity reduces vibration and chatter, and also gives the sensitive woodworker a degree of feedback from the work that is hard to match with any other tool -- and the more you can 'feel' the wood as it's being worked, the more you can adjust the cut to improve the results.
Finally, the traditional lever cap and wedge/bridge blade holding mechanisms used in traidtional infills are remarkably strong, helping to dampen blade vibrations and improving the overall rigidity of the tool. Additionally, these factors also benefit from the increased contact area between blade and bed, and from the high mass of a lever cap. The overall effect is a plane that is remarkably 'dead', exhibiting nearly no tendency to vibration or resonance.
At the end of the day, it is my hope that I can provide tools to woodworkers that will last out their lifetime, and that will exceed all their expectations everytime they use it. A tool that is still capable of evoking a smile even after many years of ownership.
© 2010 Daed Toolworks