Sunday, June 30, 2013

Polite Disagreement

Today I read a blog post by Paul Sellers that I would like to offer an alternate view of.

If you haven't heard of Paul Sellers, he is one of the big names in hand tool woodworking at the moment. He has schools in both the UK and the US, and seems to be making a lot of converts to hand tool woodworking by cutting out much of the B.S. and marketing prevalent in many publications today.

I'll not argue with his results.  I'll not argue with his vast experience. I'll not argue with his success, nor the success of his students. I really don't want to argue with him at all!

Paul Sellers is good for woodworking today, as he has been able to reach a lot of people. I love his YouTube videos.

Paul Sellers is a big fan of the Stanley #4. Older ones, not the new ones. I can't argue with what he does with that tool. One of his best YouTube series is about making a workbench in the back yard with home center lumber, and the only plane he uses is a #4. Brilliant.

His blog today has a question from one of his readers on whether or not a bevel up plane is a good first plane, as many state. He argues that a woodworker's first plane should be a #4, that it is much more versatile than a bevel up plane, and argues with the fact that a 25 degrees is much too low for a plane like this.

Here is my take. I advocate a first plane being a jack plane, and a bevel up jack is a more-than-valid choice. But not the only one. You can read about why I think this in a post I did a while back about what I think should be in a beginner's tool kit. Essentially, you can fudge both smoothing and jointing with a jack plane without too much new to learn.

I think jointing with a #4 smoothing plane is something that a beginning woodworker may have a little more trouble getting the hang of.

Oftentimes for beginners, cost is also prohibitive. Here is where Paul wins big points. An old, rusty smooth plane can be purchased for the fraction of the cost of a new Lie-Nielsen. But, let's look a bit closer. He also advocates in this article getting a #5, a #4 1/2, and a #5 1/2. I'll agree that in the UK you can get these four planes in good shape for a lot less. But, in the US getting these planes in the kind of shape that you will be able to get working as a beginner might cost quite a bit more than a brand new bevel up jack. I think the big advantage here goes to the premium manufacturer.

My Veritas BU jack in action
If you get a BU jack made either by Lie Nielsen or Veritas, you can reasonably expect to go straight to work with this tool right out of the box only having honed the blade. You can't say that about a vintage tool no matter how new it looks. Don't get me wrong, it isn't hard, but it is another skill you need to acquire as a beginner, and I think you should learn woodworking first.

Also a word about the 25 degree thing. I grind my BU jack blade at 25 degrees (or so). The reason I do this is because of the way I sharpen. I think that this is probably what most BU enthusiasts also do. I sharpen and hone a microbevel at 30 degrees. This is the angle that Paul Sellers recommends. His method for sharpening is a lot different than mine, but we both get to the same angle when the blade hits the wood. I know people who use and swear by his method. If it gets to sharp, and you can do it, then you are doing it right, in my book.

The real versatility with this BU jack is the fact that it is so easy to make that microbevel any angle you want. What I do is have a few different blades sharpened at different angles depending on what the application is.  Changing the angle on a bevel down plane involves back bevels.

In conclusion, I think I will say there are many different ways a beginner can go with a plane intended for multiple uses.  The argument for a bevel up plane is valid because in my opinion there is no better way to turn off a new woodworker than for him or her to think that it is too hard.  Indeed there are skills to learn in order to build furniture (part of the fun), but adding skills needed to set up a finicky vintage tool to the mix might be one hurdle too many for the average newbie getting their only information from the internet. There isn't only one way to learn woodworking.

What are your thoughts?


  1. Paul is a great woodworker, a great teacher and a great advocate for the craft. He's also a really nice guy. Alas, he's a bit stubborn in how he thinks woodworking can be done.

    No one's perfect, though. I still think Paul is an asset to the craft.

    1. I 100% agree. I was a bit hesitant to post this, because a disagreement in written form like this can often be perceived a lot more critically than it is.

      It's hard to argue with what works. My point is that there are sometimes alternatives that also work or may perhaps be superior for certain people.

      Thanks for the feedback.

  2. Dude r u high or what? this is Paul Sellers you r talking about! Jeeez...
    just kidding...but I think you are right to bring up the subject! Not many woodworkers advocate the bu jack plane as an all around beginner plane. If you look at one of Paul's video or blog post, he does mentioned the BU smoother plane as a great plane to be used on a shooting board... hey that's a start! Anyway the guy is good! I have learned a lot from him as well as many others including you...

    1. Haha! Thanks Aymeric.

      I wasn't sure how this post would be recieved. I'm glad it is promoting a dialogue.

      I bought my BU jack solely for use on a shooting board, and was amazed at how it found so much other use in my shop. I still think if it is the first plane I bought, I would have saved a lot of money.

  3. My thoughts: The vintage Stanleys I bought in England gave no problems and were usable after some extra sharpening and setting up the cap iron. #5 have much higher postage costs, I bought none yet. So for me Paul Sellers choice is a good one, my only problem being shooting boards. A BU would mean a great plane but no cap iron and that feels a little 19th century, and more sharpening effort.

    1. Hi Damien,

      Don't get me wrong, I think that old Stanleys are great, once they are tuned well. Paul Sellers has a great YouTube video on how to fettle them. For that matter, Christopher Schwarz has a DVD about it, too. If this is the fisrt plane you bought, and you have good luck with it, then you are doing it right.

      I also know that a Stanley works great on a shooting board, too. At least for most woods.

      The lower angle of the bed means that there is much more support for the iron on a BU vs. a bevel down. This is why it works so well without a cap iron.

    2. Maybe I missed something but the vintage Stanleys I got just didn't felt like much in need of tuning.

      I was seeing the cap iron as one of the tree options to reduce tear out: high angle, tight mouth, tight cap iron. I have old (70+) wooden planes with heavy bimetal blades a good bedding and nevertheless a cap iron.

  4. Because I only have vintage bevel down planes, and being very happy with them, I would agree with Paul Sellers, if I could understand his logic. First he claims that you can do all kinds of tasks with the Stanley that are impossible with bevel up planes. But he fails to give examples.

    Then he argues that the modern bevel up plane is a direct child from the vintage infill mitre planes, and these were only used for mitering tasks, so the new ones are only valid for that task too. But he forgets that the old ones didn't have nice comfy handles, where the new ones do, whick completely changes the picture. So I'm afraid his argument is a bit troublesome.

    I often feel this way when reading his blog. Lots of opinion, not many facts. Which is a shame because I really like his atitude to woodworking.

    1. Great point, Kees.

      I think there are a lot of different things that can be done with both styles of planes easily, including changing the angle of cut. A lot depends on how it is you work.

  5. I respect Paul Sellers immensely. I like the furniture he produces. I think he's a fantastic teacher: I've learned as much from the few half-hour seminars he's given at the Springfield Wood Expo as I have from almost everywhere else. His book is great. I've been to his seminars at the Wood Expo often enough that last year he recognized me when I sat down. It was one of those seminars that convinced me I could work inside at a small bench. I'm still learning, and not building much that's actually functional yet, but he convinced me it was possible to abandon my shop full of low-quality tools out in the cold and move in where it's warm.

    I don't read his blog. Why not? Because, as a soapbox, it encourages him to be definitive in places where I don't really think he is. He admits in his book and his seminars that he's really pleased to have a band saw for resawing, and there have been times when he's used a table saw to speed up ripping. On the blog, he talks about how no one should use any woodworking machines at all, and everything should be done by hand. There are times when I honestly wonder if he's got a ghostwriter writing the entries for him.

    Basically, his books are great, and he's a fantastic teacher. I think it's unfortunate that many people only ever get to see him speaking through the blog, because I think it doesn't show him as he appears to be in person.

    1. Hi Andy,

      Thanks for being patient, Blogger had ditched your comment into the spam box for some reason. I have been having to go through that box lately, as I've found a few of my responses in there. Really, how can Blogger dump MY OWN comments into the spam box?


      I very much appreciate your comment. I am crazy about Paul Sellers' videos. His bench build, and most recently his video on saw sharpening are superb. What a great guy he appears to be. I hope that someday I get to meet him and perhaps take one of his classes.

      Perhaps you could be on to something about his blog, as all of the information he's put out that I disagree with is there.


  6. I echo Kees' response above, put better than I could have. I didn't get any sense of exactly why BU or BD from P. Sellers.

    It kind of falls under the usual refrain I get from his writing that: "i've been doing it for thousands of years this way and it's how all my contemporaries did it, soo...."

    I have both bevel-up and bevel down planes in my kit, wood and metal. I'm just an amateur. I'm sure hopelessly ignorant and not worth the energy it took for the remote servers to commit this text to disc.

    adam of Oakland, CA

    1. Hi Adam,

      Your opinion is most certainly as valid as anyone else's. I've noticed that attitude in his writing, too. In addition, I don't particularly like when he refers to it as Real Woodworking, as if whatever it is the rest of us do is not 'real woodworking.'

      In his defense, I have never seen this come out in any of his videos, only in his blog writing.

      Perhaps we should all keep that in mind when reading his blog. Run it through this filter and perhaps the rest won't get in the way of his message. Indeed, his message is good for woodworking overall. There is room for us all, though.

  7. I come down firmly on the fence on this topic. I have espoused both the Jack and the Smoother as first planes in two places on my blog. I even ran a live broadcast with my Veritas BU Jack where I showed just how it can be used to take a board from rough to finish ready. In a video tailored toward beginners I went the smoother route. Why? Because it depends. This is where Paul and I often come to loggerheads. While I appreciate his cut through the BS, "this is the answer" style that worked great when he was trained, I think there is too much information out there today to expect someone to follow that approach blindly and there are too many variable in woodworking to possibly believe that one way is better than another. So to my original point, the smoother is a good first plane for the woodworking who has some power tools already and does their milling with planer and jointer. Cleaning up a jointed edge is a snap with a #4 and doesn't really need the longer bed of a Jack. Getting a good shaving over a shorter distance is easier than a long one so the inexperienced user will get greater satisfaction quicker with a smoother and be able to use it in many applications. However, if any kind of hand milling is to be done from a rougher state then the smoother falls apart and I go back to the Jack being the prime choice. In my experience since starting The Hand Tool School though I have found that many like the idea of hand milling but grow exhausted and frustrated quickly and buy a planer to help. So in other words, like everything in woodworking the answer is simply: it depends :)

    1. Well said, Shannon! It is great to get your opinion on this being a famous woodworking teacher, and all. :o)

      There is definitely more than one way to skin a cat.