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About a month ago, I spent the afternoon at Phil Lowe’s school and shop, taking photos for an upcoming Fine Woodworking article. That gave me a chance to ask him three offbeat questions (and one follow-up question). Here they are, along with his answers.
A note for readers: If you wonder whether Phil is just being a jerk, or perhaps is having a bit of fun, take a look at the second photo above, the one of the guy on the ladder. If you still wonder after looking at that, relax.
A second note for readers: I feel really bad for Phil. He doesn’t deserve the personal attacks. He has been teaching woodworking for several decades and making furniture for longer than that. He has given way more to the craft than most of us can ever hope to. He is one of the best furniture makers in the country. And he incorporates hand tools into his work all the time. He is a tremendously humble, kind, and generous guy. This happens to be his opinion about a single plane (and there’s a bit of good natured ribbing involved). If you disagree, that’s fine, but don’t attack Phil personally. Instead explain why a block plane has a place in the furniture maker’s shop. Healthy level-headed debate is something that benefits us all.
Q: I’ve heard stories about you refering to block planes as a carpenter’s (and not a furniture maker’s) tool. Really? Why are they carpenter’s tools?
A: The block plane is designed to be held in one hand, allowing a carpenter to make trim cuts while hanging from a ladder or while perched on top of staging. The work is usually braced against the side of the building, a ladder, or some part of the staging while being held by one hand. That leaves just one hand to hold the block plane. Cabinetmakers or furniture makers work at a bench with a vise, which holds the work. So, they have two hands to hold a plane.
Q: You seem to always have a pencil behind your ear. Does it come out on the weekends?
A: I do generally have a pencil behind my ear. It serves a couple of purposes: One, of course, is to convey information. And I use it instead of my finger to clear away offcuts at the table saw, the bandsaw, etc. (using the eraser to grip the offcut and move it out of the way). Occasionally the pencil does come out of my ear on weekends, but a lot of times I am working around the house doing repairs (replacing windows and the like), so it does spend most of its life in that position.
Q:What do you do when you’re not woodworking?
A: My wife and I are do-it-yourselfers so we spend a lot of time taking care of repairs around the house and yard. We also enjoy visiting with family and friends. But when spring rolls around I spend some time preparing my sailboat for the water. During the summer I try to get out on the water as much as I can, and one night a week participate in sailboat racing in the bay.
Q: Is your sailboat wooden?
No. I gave up the wooden ones early on, figuring out that I like sailing them more than working on them.
Ladder not included. Phil sent me this photo, explaining that this "is the only way a student can use a block plane while building furniture at The Furniture Institute of MA." (Phil owns and is the head teacher at the Institute.) Oddly, none of the block planes I've ever bought came with a ladder. Looks like I need to get one.
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I'd like to know what brand of marking gadge you use in your video's
Also I'd like to have a marking knife like the one you use in your video's as well. who makes that or is it hand made?
Phil, is right of course. Thanks Phil for the great tip on marking and cutting tenons. I could never get my dado set to cut absolutely perfectly and it would frustrate me to no end. Now I can get them perfect every single time with ease. Your workbench video is loaded with essentials that are presented beautifully. Great job !!!! You are a fantastic teacher and keep the vids coming please.
Yeah, OK, cheap shot on the grammar. I apologize.
As for the block plane being a carpenter's tool, well, Jesus was a carpenter they say....
Brush on my grammar! If I thought it worth doing so, but I didn't. Personally I felt necessary to only spend less then a minute on my post and care less what others think-especially you. I simply expressed myself from the heart.
Some of you guys need to relax. It's not like he said "EVERY plane needs a tune up" or some such nonsense (tell that to Tom Lie-Nielsen). Mario Rodriguez did a review of block planes a few issues ago and he's one of the most accomplished woodworkers in the country, bar none. See his article on shellac in this month's issue BTW. Phil's school also teaches using a pencil to mark dovetails. All of you guys going to chuck you expensive marking knives? Use what works best for you and don't make any apologies for it, or get defensive when someone has a different perspective.
FIMWDWKR - I think you sell Phil short with the 95/98% comments which should likely be around 99.99. You should probably brush up on your grammar as well.
Everyone here who has issue with Mr. Lowe needs to think before they type or speak. This man is and will be faster, smarter, and more talented then 95% of the woodworking community. The block-plane was a crappy tool until Lie-Nielsen perfected it and made it what it is today. The block plane in the time period when Phil grew up and being trained in the craft was classified as a carpenter's tool. Phil can do more with a #4 then 98% of people can. We all wish to be as good as him. GIVE ME A BREAK.!!!!!! Guess what if you don't like it, then TO DAMN BAD. THE BLOCK PLANE IS A CARPENTERS TOOL. Have anyone of you seen a carpenter with any other plane? NOT ME!!!!!! If you have then they may actually be a furniture maker as well. This is the problem with you want-a-bees, think they know everything, and guess what you don't!!!! So change the attitude or shut your mouth.
I was lucky enough to study under this man and he deserves a lot more DAMN RESPECT THEN SOME OF YOU ARE GIVING. This craft of period furniture is dying and Phil is helping to keep it alive for others to enjoy. Oh don't tell me there is a ton of information now on the web to learn woodworking, for half that crap is wrong and you know it. It takes making a living in woodworking to actually know woodworking, after that you just hobbyist. I like Phil make a living making and restoring wooden items, and can appreciate all he has done for the woodworking community.
So THANK YOU PHILIP LOWE FOR SETTING THE EXAMPLE AND SHARING WITH US HOW TO BECOME A REAL CRAFTSPERSON.
AND FOR ALL WHO DISAGREE, SHUT UP FOR NO ONE CARES WHAT YOU THINK.
I think Lowe is simply stating the obvious. Taking a look at all the hand planes available for working wood, it's apparent that each of them is designed and (originally) intended for a particular purpose or two.
Furniture makers typically work at a bench, using bench planes. Finish carpenters typically work in situ, using a portable plane for final smoothing cuts, trimming of end grain and chamfering of corners.
If you are making high end furniture, you should be using the most precise tool and methods available to you in your shop. For handplanes, that would mean clamping your work and using two hands on your plane.
When someone is a teacher, as well as an artist, their natural tendency is to be as dogmatic in their instruction as they are fastidious with their own creations.
I usually use both paws when using my block planes, not as coordinated as I used to be. They are a precision tool in my opinion. Give him a break already, he has as much right to his ways as anyone else does, and more than most, judging by his work.
I totally agree with Phil at the same time I disagree.
Some of us furniture makers who were carpenters first ( '61 to '65) apprenticed and worked as a carpenter til '70, have learned to do some amazing woodwork with the lowly block plane and have carried that skill over to small and large jobs in the furniture shop.
A well tuned and sharpened Lie Nielsen block plane can outperform a lot of smoothing planes because of the narrow path of cut on stubborn grain.
I love articles like this that get people talking and hopefully learning.
Congratulations Mr. Kenney! I am amazed that so many folks can get this worked up over a couple hundred words in an online magazine article! Looking at the times some of these posts were sent, it would seem that you have some die-hard fans who will spend time with their computer before even saying good morning to the other folks living in their homes!
I stand in awe of your ability to get so many folks all worked up and completely miss the whole point of the article. I think you asked a wonderful set of 4 questions and I think Mr. Lowe had some fun furthering his belief. Seems like way back in college journalism classes I remember being told that a great story gets folks upset and thinking! I think the key word was "thinking" and I am hoping that all the folks who have taken such extreme exception to Mr. Lowe's comment will soon get over it and begin thinking! They just might learn a thing or two!
Again, great job Mr. Kenney, this old girl appreciates your story and Mr. Lowe's comment. Now don't any of you guys come around my shop being critical of my favorite joinery hammer! When I got my divorce and husband #1 Jake, was packing up "his" tools along with several of mine I stole his claw hammer to get even, named it Jake, broke the claws off and have enjoyed hitting things with Jake for many years! He always seemed to enjoy hitting me so why not huh? Hubby number 2 has from time to time told me that I really should be using a dead-blow hammer when tapping and coaxing joints together. I always tell him, no honey "I'm having too much fun banging Jake's head on things.
Who knows maybe Mr. Lowe had a tough time with a mean spirited, no good, low down, now ex-spouse who stole his block plane when he moved out and he's still angry over her taking it!
So guys, it really is more fun to make things than to tear them up! Go out to your shop, design something beautiful using or not using any old tool you might like in any way you think is right and post the pictures in the gallery area here and show us how good you really are, block plan or no!
Oh and Jake if you're reading this thanks dear, I really do enjoy hitting things with your hammer even after all these years there really is some satisfaction in it!
Folks, that's the wonderful thing about a craft like woodworking. There's more than one way to get any job done, plenty of differing opinions, and lots of opportunities for brilliant debate: case in point!
I extol the virtues of block planes.. for precisely this.. because they can be used with one hand. and modern day precision block planes are used to create fine woodworking.. I have 2 b locvk planes sitting on my benches at any given time, a standard and low angle. and pick them up very often for detail work or single-hand operations when holding a small board in the other hand..
True, we're all entitled to our opinions.. this is mine I guess :)
It's an opinion. Each of us are entitled to an opinion. We may agree. We may disagree. I read Phil's comments and I have a think about it. Do I agree? Do I disagree! I don't see any reason to get toxic about his opinion.....it's just his opinion!
There are lots of us opinionated grumpy old guys to ask questions of - is it worth the trouble to publish the results (not answers) if they are all as silly as the block plane question? Or is it so true he knows of a line of two-handed luthiers planes to recommend to validate the two-handed requirement to be a proper plane?
Not all fine woodworking is done in the luxury of a shop, or will even fit into a vise.
Is Phil saying that unless you have 2 hands you cannot be a cabinetmaker of furniture maker only a carpenter. There have been a lot of not so well off woodies that have produced fantastic work by having sharp, sharp and sharper tools, no matter what their make or brand.
I just recently joined the Fine Woodworking on-line site and read the interview with Phil Lowe and the resulting responses. I must have missed something but nowhere did I see any derogatory comments against carpenters or their craft. However, the response offered by the majority of readers is another matter. Wow, unbelievable. Another sad commentary on the human condition.
I've attended a handful of classes with Phil. He is not arrogant, he does not think he is a master, he knows it.
Uh what is the problem? Phil gave a factual explanation. Are facts now offensive? Phil's work speaks for itself.
in the end we are all wood butchers anyway, gee up until 1 year ago (i'm 55 now) i didn't know there was any difference, i suppose because down here in Oz everyone has to be able to turn their hand to everything because we don't have the population to specialise, i learnt that the hard way. you sepo's have got it easy, even in roy underhills world there are specialists
Mr.Lowe is entitled to his opinion about block planes but to be offensive about carpenters and other wood workers who use block planes is unacceptable. It is my opinion that ALL bevel up planes outperform their downfaced brothers simply because their lower profile means they are more rigid.
I can find no evidence that block planes were invented so that butchers could level their chopping blocks. First off butchers would never do this but would send it to the local cabinet maker just as cabinet makers would involve the local blacksmith when they needed anything made in iron or steel. I think it more likely they were called this becauce the first examples looked like blocks of wood.
There is far too much nasty comment flying around in the wood working world, witness the huge amount of this excrement recieved by Lost Arts Press, and it is time it stopped. Leg pulling is another time honour activity enjoyed wherever wood is worked but this foul stuff is not the same thing at all and should not be tolerated.
Be happy working wood, oh and if you do not own one yet....buy a good block plane.
As I said back on April 1: Arguing about woodworking is a more popular hobby than actual woodworking!
About the actual use of the word arrogant: While the actual word appears only a few times in the posts I mentioned, wording and tone throughout your comments amount to the same thing.
I have long since made of habit of stopping reading any on line post when the argument becomes personal. I doubt that I have ever missed any useful point of view because of this practice.If you had something useful to say, I haven't, nor will I ever read it. When I hit the word "arrogance" in the first line of your post, I stopped, skimmed the next few lines to find nothing more than a litany of names of people you consider arrogant. Then I went to your profile and skimmed several of your posts in other threads and discovered that "arrogant" is probably your favorite word. If you actually have something to contribute, I suggest you try the technique of providing your own counter argument to the opinion you find to be wrong. Your current method doesn't work.
Good heavens! Can't we have opinions about inconsequential things without people going nuts? I don't like leg of lamb. Don't hunt me down, lamb lovers!!!
I have talked with Phil Lowe and he is very humble guy, I believe every one has their own way of doing things and thats all he meant. In my opinion.
I've Know Phil at least 5-6 years. Spoken to him several times at Williamsburg. I've never known him to be anything more than a gentleman who certainly respects other opinions and certainly not a snob. I read enough of the blogs to get the general flavor of opinions which I think are a little thin skinned. Everyone is entitled to there opinion. I surely doubt that if all Phil had within reach was the block plane he would certainly use it.
one thing I've learned that carpenter or furniture maker regardless have problem solving skills. Some good ,others better maybe. I have never met one that I could not learn from. Every piece of furniture I have made I always learn other more efficient ways to do the same thing. Anyone I think could never come from a visit to Poplar Forest and not appreciate the fine carpentry of the Mahogany Windows made there by carpenters. For that matter the excellent plaster work without admiration. I know that blogging often allows people to speak there minds without great thought to what is said, but I think some should be ashamed of themselves. This is no place for shallow thoughts
I think Shakespeare said it best," Much Ado About Nothing."
AH, the arrogance of the better than thou... Shades of the other arrogant wood "ARTISTS"- Krenoff- no place for a file or rasp in my shop.. Maloof- really aloof. I had word battles with him in the early '70s in the FWW magazine..... and Nakashima was another one. The most interesting thing about these "ARTISTS", other than their arrogance, is how they made the item... Any one remember the "hippopotamus" desk of years ago???????- gave a new meaning to ugly wood work, but methods the builder used were amazing, as were his tools..... No tool is to low to be in my shop- even a lowly reworked file becomes a glue scrapper to get rid of squeeze out...... At least 85% of FWW subscribers are every bit as good as Lowe thinks he is. But they have one woodworking fault, they were never taught the arrogance that MAJOR contributors to FWW seem to have. Perhaps, it is a prerequisite. I had been a FWW subscriber for about 25 years from their start and got tired of the attitude of the artsy stuff. I just started getting the magazine again- it hasn't changed much in 35 plus years. The tips/methods of work are sometimes worth the cost of the subscription.. IGNORE the arrogance and digest the techniques that they employ.
A BLOCK PLANE WAS DESIGNED TO FINIS AND REPAIR THE TOPS OF CHOPPING BLOCKS, A CARPENTERS JOB AS CERTAINLY FURNITURE MAKERS AS A SEPARATE GROUP HAD NOT BEEN THOUGHT OF. iT ALSO HAS MANY OTHER USES.FOR JOINERY, MARQUETRY ETC.
SPOKESHAVE WERE MADE TO SHAPE SPOKES WHICH IS NOT FURNITURE MAKING.
PEN KNIVES WERE MADE TO SHARPEN QUILLS NOT PENCILS.
POCKET KNIVES, BELT SANDERS AND BUTT HINGES FOR RISING BUTTS ALL HAD THEIR USES.
IF YOU USE A TOOL FOR A JOB AND IT WORKS FOR YOU WHY NOT? IF IT DOESN'T WORK FOR YOU SO BE IT.
IF YOU MAKE DOORS, BUILT-INS AND FURNITURE WHAT ARE YOU CARPENTER OR FURNITURE MAKER?
A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME WOULD SMELL AS SWEET BUT THAT DEPENDS ON YOUR SENSE OF SMELL, TO SOME THEY MAY SELL AWFUL.
AMERICANS AND BRITISH WOODWORKERS ALL KNOW THE OTHER CANNOT SPELL.
THIS IS A LOAD OF BOVINE EXCREMENT REALLY ISN'T IT.
What a twonk.
I don't reject any tool that can do a good job for me no matter its origin or how it may have been used in the past. I use tools that were developed for metal working (drill press), auto body repair (circular sanders), even gamblers (playing cards for shims) and bankers (dollar bills for setting band saw blocks). If a tool works for me, I'll use it.
There are times when holding a board down on the bench with one hand and taking a shaving or two off the end with a block plane is more efficient, and just as effective, as carrying it over to the vi[c][s]e (take your pick), c[l][r]amping it in, and using a heavier smoothing plane. If Phil wants his students to take the extra time and effort, fine. I'll get the job done faster and just as well.
On the other side of the Atlantic, since we fortunately did not have Webster to redefine the language, we clamp our wood in a vice and also enjoy our vices (opposite of virtues) :-).
Disbelievers can check Axminster tools in the UK - search for both spellings. To round it off, Dieter Schmid in Germany plays both ends.
Now I'm off to trim some tenon ends (gripped in a Record vice) with a block plane.
I think a case can be made for block planes in the shop. I do use my shoulder planes from time to time, but I turn to my rabbit block plane the most. As for what Phil said, I agree. Block planes are ideal for working without a bench. Not to many carpenters carry a #4 in their tool belts.
I think some of the posters in here need to switch to decaf...
I've watched videos of Phil using a smoother to flush up dovetails and it inspired me to use smoothers in the same manor. The weight of the plane can help stabilize the cutting motion - especially for longer cuts that I might have used a block plane in the past. It made sense to me and actually became more comfortable.
Just because Phil has a bug up his butt with the over use of block planes in a woodworking shop doesn't mean he's saying you're a bad woodworker for using one or that a carpenter is less of a craftsman. He's just has an understanding of what tools work best for him and tries to inspire his students to use what he considers the right tool for the job. Frank Klausz banged out "the 3 minute dovetail" with two sizable frame saws, yet no one took that as a slight against fine dovetail saws or chisels. Krenov used wooden planes, loved wooden planes, made tons of them, but I never got the impression that he looked down on those who used metal body planes. He might have felt it was easier and more intimate working with a wooden plane, but that doesn't mean that he discredited a century and a half of metal plane production.
When a master craftsman and teacher with decades of experience holds an opinion on a better way to do something or a better tool to use in a certain situation, usually those opinions have some merit. It would serve you better to first listen to why they feel a certain way and maybe give it a try before you get offended. You might actually benefit from the suggestion and ironically feel privileged that someone of his stature shared information that may help your work in the future.
...or you could crap all over his opinion because you feel your 5 or 10 years building up a shop and dabbling in this hobby on the weekends makes you an expert. You could have t-shirts made up: "long live the 9 1/2!!" or "keep calm and chamfer on" or "Phil Lowe is coming for your block planes!" if it makes you feel better.
Personally, I think I'll continue listening to what Phil has to say and filter it for my own use. It seems like he's got a little experience with this woodworking thing...
In one of Phil's classes at MASW I was the target of a rant about block planes. I was shocked. Now I can take comfort in the knowledge I am not alone.
I disagree with Phil's position. A spoke shave, his favorite tool, consists of a fine cutting edge centered in a control surface. The same can be said for block plane or a #4 smoother.
My woodworking skills will never match Phil's; nor will I match his extreme bias against personal preference. It is the end result that counts.
I really dislike when things are turned into "hard and fast" statements. Nothing is "hard and fast", As an example, the block plane is not ONLY a one handed tool. In fact, I think a well tuned low angle block plane, in my experience is most times, the "preferred" tool to use for making adjustments to end cuts, as an example that comes to mind.
It's because of stuff like this I no longer participate in the forums here. What a cranky, cantankerous, easily offended, nitpicky bunch of people. Picking out spelling mistakes? Hassling the author over the number of questions? And undeservedly at that!
"That gave me a chance to ask him three offbeat questions (and one follow-up question)" - first paragraph
Three plus one is four.
Bristling with offense just because someone offered their honest opinion. Just because modern carpenters don't use handtools much doesn't invalidate his opinion, modern carpenters don't do a lot of things old fashioned ones did - and we have laser guided miter saws these days. And yes, any time any time you use a tool with one hand you are sacrificing accuracy. I don't know of any tool in woodworking where this isn't the case. If I'm chamfering an edge it doesn't matter. If I'm cleaning up a joint it does, and I use two hands on my block plane. If Phil has a different tool in those cases and it works for him - great. No two craftsmen have the same processes for everything. I personally use a block plane every day, but I was intrigued by his opinion on the matter. Any time a master craftsman of Phil's caliber wants to talk shop, I think it's worth hearing (or reading) what he has to say.
Oh, and in case I didn't make a spelling error before this, I'll include one here to satisfy the spelling and grammar tyrants. Wouldn't want you all to get bored….. Block Plain.
OK, If the gist of Phil's comments were not lack of respect for block planes and carpenters, your editors did a poor job of proofing the statements. That is the way it came across and that so many thought it so, shows it. Take your lumps and sin no more.
Woodworkers, carpenters, furniture makers or wooden boatbuilders are, with few exceptions, a pretty humble lot. Its part of the job description for most, since financial success is generally missing from the equation and we can always see the work of others that is superior to our own.
That was four questions, Matt. I've called your math teacher. She's on her way.
I'm responsible for "vice" instead of "vise," not Phil. He certainly knows his way around a vise. Me? Just vices.
Also, I don't see anywhere in Phil's answers where he says that carpenters are not as good as craftsman as furniture makers. And I don't think he is implying that. It's Saturday morning. Relax. Enjoy life.
I did not realize that if a person used one hand to manipulate a tool, that person was less of a craftsman, and that using two hands somehow made that person a better craftsman. With that logic, I suppose that if a tool can be used with one hand it is an inferior tool. It is good to know that us mere carpenters are an inferior bunch.
You guys are being awfully hard on Phil; I think your thoughts and the headline introducing his comments are misinterpretations.
I don't believe he was looking down on blockplanes, or saying that he'd never use one. I think he was just saying they were invented because they are most useful to carpenters.
Also, why are you accusing him of not knowing how to spell "vise". Chances are he made a verbal remark and the transcriber misspelled it.
See--I can nitpick too!
What pedantic nonsense.
Anyone who denigrates another man's tools, loses standing as a wise craftsman, his skill notwithstanding. Especially when he doesn't know the difference between a vice (such as arrogance) and a vise for holding work!
Hey! As a carpenter, I take offense to your caricature of carpenters' use of a block plane. Yes, sometimes we do use them on ladders, but few do in the real world of bang-bang, competitively-bid carpentry. For ladder work, only the fussy ones take their planes along. Laced shingle-corners require them, too, but that's on staging, not ladders. Mostly, though, it's on interior trim that block planes are used, and keep in mind that most homes are not built for patrons of the arts, but for people concerned about their monthly payment. Whatever can't be done quickly becomes something that the future homeowner has to do without.
I just attended a 2 day class at Phils school on making moldings -both straight and curved. The class was taught by Chuck Phillips. Chuck did a great job and conveyed a TON of information. Phil stopped by several times throughout the weekend and gave the intro primer for the history of moldings, origins, styles, etc.
We covered the use of molding planes, scratch stocks, and several examples of machine assisted techniques for making complex moldings such as a gooseneck molding on a highboy. Chuck even demonstrated how to miter a corner using hand tools and shooting boards. Everyone took home a specimen of what was made at the end of the class. All and all, it was a great balance of demonstration and hands on techniques.
Chuck even managed to bring out his block plane when Phil was not around, but there was no ladder in sight ... oh wait come to think of it, there was a ladder nearby...hmmm.
Carl Swensson's woodworking skills go very, very deep. But they go wide as well.
Cut nails and a clever lid clinch a traditional Japanese toolbox
Fast, fun approach to making a comfortable, casual seat
In this video Michael finishes the first of the three boxes. Gluing-up, planing, sanding and finishing bring a new piece of art to the world.
In this video Michael starts work on the second box, a carved and painted Saddle lid box.
Michael begins carving the saddle lid box with his ripple pattern along the top. Then turns to his 5/30 gouge to texture the sides of the box. This isn't work…
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