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Getting schooled

Posted by joeabbott on March 23, 2014

As a self-taught woodworker, my progress toward competence is a slow path but I found a shortcut the other day and happily ran down that trail: I attended a class at the Puget Sound Woodworking shop last weekend!

Puget Sound WoodworkingOn one of my company’s internal social mail groups, I came across a note from someone who’d attended a class at Puget Sound Woodworking and found it to be a great value: the topic he attended for was covered in full, the material composed properly, and it was well-taught by the shop owner, Derrick Burke. The review was short and positive so I took a look into the classes to see if there was something that might appeal to me. And there it was, just a week or two out: Hand Plane Workshop.

I have a small love affair with my hand planes and in my last project had to use a hand plane for a big leveling job; but I always suspected that I wasn’t doing it right. My shavings weren’t paper thin, they weren’t consistent, and typically I’d end up with lots of chips and debris rather than cascading curls of properly planed wood. I thought I had a good starter set of planes, a reasonably solid handle on sharpening, and understood the basics, but also thought I’d benefit appreciably for having this solid baseline and spending time with a pro. I quibbled over the price, chatted with Suzy, and then signed up.

One of my better decisions.

Prep

imagePreparing for the class was easy: show up with a few of your hand planes and wear appropriate clothing.

I chose to bring four planes … the four planes I use most often: my No. 5 jack plane, a low angle block plane, my shoulder plane, and an “apron plane”. All are pretty standard and “nothing special”, although I have often crowed my shoulder plane is the best tool in my kit.

In spite of liking the shoulder plane best, I use my low angle block plane and apron planes nearly every project I work on. Of the lot, my jack plane has been used least, but it’s a workhorse of a tool and the go-to plane for more serious woodworkers when it comes to planing. It’s the plane I used to level out a bunch of wood on my last project.

As for the clothing, just the stuff I’d wear anytime I head to the shop: durable clothing, nothing loose that could catch on something, and closed-toed shoes: check, check and check.

School

The Puget Sound Woodworking shop is about 40 miles from my front door, which is my way of introducing the fact that I arrived about 30 minutes early; being unable to judge the time I’d need for the commute. But, upon entering the shop I was greeted by Derrick and in the first few minutes of small talk, he asked if he could see any work I’d done. Delighted to be able to show another person my opus cabinet, we dialed up my website and I gave him the brief overview. I was a touch disheartened that he didn’t pile on the accolades for the work, in fact, he said very little; assessing the lines and design choices readily, he moved on to other business.

imageI got a quick tour of the shop, picked up a leather apron to be worn while at class, and was allowed to wander about snapping a few pics of some of his cabinets, shelving and jigs. In fact, he encouraged it.

image image

He has a great setup: a spacious shop with 3 or four solid workbenches and great light. While the school was outfitted with the standard quality table saw, chop saw, band saw, and dust collection, I doubted we’d use any of that today: we were there for a hand tool class and expected a bit of conversation and a lot of hand tool work!

Classmates

To my delight, I would only have two other classmates in attendance … and this is by-design. In order to have the time for each student and keep the high quality of the class, Derrick limits the number of students to three; he’ll take two or four when necessity dictates, but he’s found three to work best. And it worked pretty good for me!

Of the three of us, I was the most advanced … meaning, Derrick had three newbies on his hands. One of the other students, John, like me, had brought four planes, but I don’t think he’d ever used them on a project. John had collected a few planes and appeared to have spent a serious lot of time renovating them and watching youtube videos on hand plane tuning. He’d also taken a class previously with Derrick and was eager to share what he’d learned and knew. The other student was Jason (I think! … I may be misremembering the name) and he was a complete newbie: he didn’t have tools, he benefitted from discussion on the most basic details, would probably have benefitted most for an introduction to shop class.

It was early in the class when we tried our hand at using a plane that it was clear neither of my two classmates had spent much if any time using one. The exercise called for planing the edge of a board locked in a vise; both Jason and John attempted to run the plane along the board and were stumped. It appeared they were trying to push the plane along as if it were an implement they were sliding away from them. Having just finished a bunch of time in the shop … and, honestly, after seeing both of them founder a bit … I set my legs, squared my shoulders, and a sweet, uniform, delightfully thin gossamer of wood peeled away from the edge of the board and spilled out of the plane. I did that. Me. I was mesmerized by what a truly sharp, well-tuned plane could do.

With that, all of us were eager to learn more. I liked both of my shop mates for the day and while we didn’t socialize much, I ended up joining John for lunch and generally liked Jason. I just wish I had more confidence in remembering their names!

*ring* Class is in session

imageWe started by going through safety information and signing waivers. Standard stuff in this litigious world in which we live. But, Derrick took it seriously and walked us through all the safety materials and information. While I thought he could have shortened it up a bit and get right to helping me tune my hand planes and technique, it was an intro to Derrick: a guy with a lot of passion for woodworking and someone interested in taking us through any and all details of the craft that might interest us.

After the safety talk and waivers, we went through a handout on planes that Derrick had put together (regrettably, I forgot to take mine). It went through the history of planes, some basic definitions, when to use the different types of planes, and then (most interesting to me) what sort of edge to create for each application.

And it was Plane Heaven for the next few hours after that.

Derrick had one of just about any plane you could think of and knew the use; we worked on different woods, on surface and end grain, and pretty much had time to go through any aspect we wanted to. The ultimate exercise of the class was to go through flattening a board four-square using only hand tools. A skill that seemed out of my league before the class but something I can now (with effort) manage in my own shop.

A large portion of the class was spent on sharpening and this was an eye-opener. While I thought I could do a reasonable job putting an edge on a tool, I believe I took my skills to a whole new level after that class. We spent a lot of time at the grinding wheel and sharpening stones, the whole time going over specifics on the angle of the edge you were putting on the blades, to chamber, and use of various jigs and sharpening devices. While he doesn’t have a sharpening class, it felt like I took a mini-class on this topic alone. I was a sponge and ready for improving my game in this arena.

By lunch time my head was full. We’d spent the majority of time under structured tutelage and had been to many stations: the course material he’d prepped, the various planes and their uses, the sharpening, and then the use on various woods and orientations. It was a lot of material and so I welcomed a small break, heading to a restaurant adjacent to the shop for some fish and chips before we headed back in for the final 4 hours.

Where did the time go?

While I was looking forward to the second half of the class, I was wondering what more we could possibly learn; I had a lot of information in my head and wanted to start using it. And that’s just what we did.

imageAt this point Derrick proclaimed “open shop time” and let us spend time doing what we wanted to do. For me, that was sharpening up the blades on my four planes, trying them on some of the wood, and tuning them to work well; John wanted to work on wood with the planes he’d brought, and Jason was looking for just some basic shop time and a chance to get his hands on some tools. And so we broke up … with the constant pull of Derrick’s enthusiasm as he called out, “hey, come over here, I’ve gotta show you this.”

imageThe “this” could be just about anything. I saw some neat shooting board jigs; talked at length about a crosscut table saw jig he’d built and the details around ensuring you had a square jig; went over the various vises and benches he owned; and then looked at some of his projects.

And all of it intersected with planes and the course material in some way: you use shooting boards with planes, he’d used a plane to tune the runners on the crosscut jig, the vise topic came up when I asked about keeping the face plate from racking (know that it will rack and plane the face to remain parallel!), and on the table legs of his project, we got a chance to try our hand at a spokeshave.

He was almost giddy about it all and how it came together. “I can’t teach you about planes in isolation of the rest of woodworking, guys”, is a phrase I heard several times. And it was true.

While I’d looked at the clock after lunch and thought, “how can we manage another four hours”, I was also shocked when I saw the others starting to pack up and realized it was past 5:30PM! Where did the time go? Truly shocking … I felt like I could putter about that shop another few hours before I was ready to wind down.

The only low point of the day was right at the end: Derrick was in another part of the shop, I was waxing up a freshly honed plane blade, and I heard the sound of sawing coming from across the room. After a day of silence aside from conversation, the sound of a handsaw blade biting through wood was surprisingly out of place. I looked quickly to see what was going on and … zipped the plane blade in my hand right through the pad of my thumb. I think my body was as shocked as I was, as it didn’t start bleeding for a bit. The sawing was from Jason, who was just trying out another tool, and a quick adhesive bandage took care of my thumb. Yes, that was the “low point” … a pretty good day when that amounts to the worst of it.

And now what

So with that, I packed up my planes, grabbed my coat, and forgot my hand plane packet before heading back home. I haven’t used my planes since then but I’m making progress at cleaning out my garage and tidying up my storage space. I also dug into some sharpening equipment I had squirreled away and found that I have a complete set of water stones and a flattening plate! Items I’d already looked out on Ebay for some right after the class! I had forgotten I owned them … I didn’t have a good place for sharpening in my shop and so “out of sight, out of mind”; good thing I didn’t find any sales on Ebay! Now that I have the right equipment and I’m straightening out my shop, I’ll certainly designate a place to setup a water stone sharpening station.

But, that’s it. I owe it to myself to spend a bit of time sharpening, tuning, and using my planes in my shop. To make full use of the class, I need to get used to taking care of my planes and having the confidence that I can repeat whatever needs to be done to them time and again.

I’ve tolerated poor teachers and enjoyed the good ones; my time with Derrick was certainly enjoyable: he’s approachable, enthusiastic, and eager to talk about what he’s done and how he does it. I’ll definitely be back and I’m starting to eye a “dovetail joint” class that he’s offering.

As you can see, I took very few pictures while attending the class … my rapt attention was on Derrick’s execution and I can’t recall once wondering “now where is my camera?” … it was that good. If you’re local, try a class yourself and if you’re not, well, I hope you find a little time in the woodshop for yourself. Thanks for dropping in.

Editor’s update (3/25/2014): I sent Derrick an email asking him whether I could get a copy of the class material: he sent me a PDF, offered to give me a copy if I came by, and would mail me something if I preferred that. Take a class from this guy, folks … yeah, he’s all-around that good.

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