The Brown Coated Assassin

I cannot say that my woodwork master at school left a great impression on me, except perhaps that of a dusty board rubber. He was a tall impressive man whose name, unforgivably, I cannot remember. He had been, in his day, a good cricketer, a specialist fielder at cover point capable of hitting the stumps from twenty feet more often than not. This prowess, more than anything, gave him the reputation of being able to leave the dusty mark of a board rubber between the shoulder blades of any boy thrown from anywhere in the depths of the woodwork shop. He was the brown coated assassin. More than any of my teachers he changed my life.

I went to Bridlington Grammar School and found the going hard, the only subjects in which I really shone were Art and Woodwork. This was the time before making, doing stuff with your hands, had been systematically removed from the curriculum, so I still stood a chance. I was a shy stuttering youth that desperately wanted to be “the best” at something and my brown coated assassin, I believe, knew this, and thankfully took the trouble to help me get it right.

We were all making a useful wooden garden tool, a dibber I think. I had made my through wedged mortice and tenon joint and wanted to clean it up. We had wooden planes in the school workshop all of them sharpened to perfection. Usually they worked straight away without adjustment but my plane seemed to dig in and grab the top of my dibber.

“Adjust it lad, dont mess about.” he boomed. The plane didnt have a screw adjustment like so many modern metal planes, these were old style “tap and try” This was a simple clever system, the blade was wedged into the body of the plane. If  you wanted to  take a heavier shaving you tapped the end of the blade then try it out on the job. Too heavy a cut and you tapped the body of the plane at the back and again gave it a try. Hence the name “tap and try.” It was quick and idiot proof. It was not twelve year old schoolboy proof. I was only slightly familiar with tap and try. I had seen it being done but had never had to adjust a plane, they just worked when I picked them up. I rummaged about to find a hammer grabbing a medium weight Warrington and sighted to give it a whack. “Not with that lad, Tap it, not Clout it!” By now the attention of the whole class had been gathered up. Still using the wrong hammer I attempted to gently… “Nay Lad, use this”, he said handing me a light pin hammer “If tha doesn’t listen I shall be puttin thee on the end of my board rubber”. This was the signal. “ Oh Sir, can we chuck board rubbers at him Sir? Please Sir!”

Thankfully school masters had complete control of classes in those days and I came away relatively unscathed. But Tap and Try are still with us and recent contact brought this back to mind out of fifty years of dark forgetfulness.

Veritas are makers of complex technically refined tools. More than other modern woodworking tool manufacturers they attempt to do something new with tool design, even at the risk of coming up with the answer to a question nobody was really asking. I like this, if we just copied old stuff we would still all be driving Morris Travellers.

Veritas came across me at an exhibition and have kindly been sending me “toy boxes” every now and again. The first one had low angle planes, three of them, it was just like Christmas, also tucked into the box were two small shoulder planes.

Shoulder planes are amongst those hand tools that you can manage without.  But if you are getting serious about this you will not do so for very long. They are wonderful for making small corrections to meeting surfaces. The blade goes full width across the sole so you can trim into any corner. A small shoulder plane will be most used but a big un is almost the only tool that can true up the inside of a solid wood carcase when fitting drawers.

I love Veritas shoulder planes. I have always wanted a really good shoulder plane, a Norris shoulder with the screw adjustment was my dream but I could never afford to buy one. Now I have my Veritases. They are better than the shoulder planes I have struggled with for years. These are old style Tap and Try.

I don’t worry about the tapping about to adjust, I got the hang of that at school, but my old planes are hand made. That should mean “really good” but it can also mean all the problems of inaccuracy that goes with hand made. My Slater one inch shoulder plane is an example of this, hand made in a small shop in about 1905 it has always been “not quite square”, the blade sitting in the body slightly out of whack. You get around it, the blade is hard as best cast steel can be, and it is a lovely tool to hold and use, but….

Yet these lovely little Veritas shoulder planes still are not without issues. The casting and manufacture is peerless. I love the engineering precision with which they are fashioned. However it seems that the sole of the plane is sometimes flat sometimes not flat. HUH??

Steve Perry checked this out for me, when he puts his inspection glasses on student makers tremble. It seems that the sole of the planes (this was a problem with both small and medium sized plane) were flat when the blade was not under tension but bowed out at the slender area just behind the iron as clamping pressure was applied to tension the iron. We solved this by flattening the soles of both planes with the blades backed off, but tensioned and in place. In manufacture this could be done in the same way taking a final flattening pass of the sole with the iron in place.

A second Christmas box of toys arrived not long ago. Thank you Robin. In it was three tiny violin makers planes. These were just exquisite, They are used, I believe, for shaping and hollowing the curved back of a violin. We could just as easily use then for shaping out tricky curved forms. They are tiny one handed tools fitting in the palm of the hand so only remove a small shave at a time. They are “Tap and Try” I quote from the instruction manual “Then advance the blade , hold the plane firmly in one hand and tap the end of the blade with a small mallet or a plane hammer. To adjust the blade for even shaving thickness, tap either side until the edge is parallel to the sole. Memories of Bridlington School Woodwork shop are still with me.

This is the medium sized Veritas Shoulder Plane 200mm long with a width of 18mm See how the iron is adjusted by a screw thread with a knurled brass knob at the rear, nice simple adjustment. The blade is held in place with a cast wedge pivoting in the centre of the body and applying pressure right behind the cutting edge and also further back near the handle. The front of the plane slides in and out to adjust the size of the mouth. Note also the small grub screws that maintain the critical lateral adjustment. Just about as good as it gets for shoulder planes.

This is the small Veritas Shoulder Plane at 190mm with a width of 12mm  Adjustable mouth and side locating grub screws. This is a tool that will get a lot of work trimming joints. This has a smallness and balance that will get it picked up maybe more frequently than its bigger brother.  

These tiny planes are available with a small flat sole, a sole hollowed across its width or most usefully, domed both down and across its width.This last little beauty can hollow out all sorts of things. The blades are A2 steel 0.060 thick so keep the honing angle as near 30 degrees as you can. A2 does not seem to like going below 30 degrees. 


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