Looking Back: Making Music with a Plane
A celebrated craftsman explains his devotion to an indispensable cabinetmaking tool
Synopsis: A look back at James Krenov’s iconic essay on handplanes.
When I was in school in Sweden, we had regular European planes that had to be held in a certain way. For some reason, curiosity or whatever, I made a little wooden plane out of maple. Suddenly, my friends are gathered around, and we’re making shavings. I realized the versatility of that little block of wood. It was comfortable with two hands on it. It was comfortable with one hand doing a tiny little edge or corner. It had a new dimension because it did not force me to relate to it very rigidly in one certain way.
I don’t think that you can prove in a court of law that these little wooden planes make thinner or better shavings than any other plane. I think the emotional element is the main difference, not necessarily performance only. It’s a connection, an intimacy. The really good plane becomes an instrument. It becomes something that you want to make music with.
I used to make planes as a kind of therapy. Between jobs, I couldn’t be idle and sit around. I’d finish a piece and have time to catch my breath, so I’d make a couple of planes. Some I’d give away: I’ve never sold one, and I never will.
There’s no magic in any tool until you put the magic in it. The magic doesn’t come with the tool. There’s no one plane that will do everything. Mine go from jointer size down to very small. My favorite one is the little cocobolo one pictured in A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook. It was my favorite, and I gave it away to someone very nice. I don’t have a sentimental attachment to the planes…