Thursday, March 12, 2009
Making a Prototype at Brese Plane
Earlier this year I had to opportunity to travel to Thomaston, Georgia and spend some time in the shop of Ron Brese of Brese Plane.
About a year ago I received an email from Ron Brese asking if I'd participate in testing his first plane kit offering: a small smoothing plane made of brass. I was flattered by the proposition and eagerly agreed. I was a bit presumptuous with my kit though. I overstuffed the infill and made some rather large cuts into the sidewalls of the plane. It was completely different than the plane Ron had designed. To Ron's credit, and probably to my detriment, he didn't chew me out for changing his design. In fact, Ron was pleased with the result. And so were his customers. Those changes are now standard fare on Ron's "J model" small smoothing plane. I don't get any royalties from Ron either. I'm just happy that my small ideas can be enjoyed alongside the excellence of Ron's craftsmanship.
A couple months after I finished the plane kit I approached Ron about building a miter plane, or more accurately, a shooting board plane. I have always wanted a dedicated plane for shooting. So I built a mock-up of what I had in mind with a spare 2" Krenov-style iron that I purchased from David Finck. It wasn't ideal for the mock-up, but it worked.
One idea I had was to replace a typical "hot dog" handle that is common to planes of this type with a more ergonomic version. I mocked up a crude handle and started playing with shapes, removing material here and there until I arrived at something that felt and functioned the way I wanted. After a few versions, I wasn't satisfied with the hot dog idea. I didn't like having to grip the handle and push forward at the same time. My hand was cramping up. I came to realize, through the failed hot-dog mock-up, that I wanted to concentrate all my effort on pushing the plane forward in a controlled, predictable manner that only required minimal effort from my hand muscles. I wanted something that would engage the web between my thumb and forefinger, since that part of my hand was falling directly on top of the plane in use. I'd only have to lay my hand on the plane, engage the handle in web of my hand, and push. The answer was a knob. Knobs on miter planes are nothing new, I know. But I usually see knobs placed forward of the cutting edge, and this can cause the plane to swing out when shooting, at least it has for me.
So I turned a couple knob profiles and experimented with different positions until I found one that worked well. I even tried a knob from an old Stanley plane, but it was too large, both physically, and visually.
I also experimented with a rather short, stubby knob, but it felt (and looked!) awful.
After I felt I had exhausted the options, I settled on this shape, size and position for the knob.
In the meantime, Ron got busy, I got busy and the miter plane collected dust.
Fast forward a few months. When the opportunity arose to visit Ron, he calls me up and says "bring that miter plane mock-up with you and we'll build a real one while you're here". Needless to say, I was excited about my idea becoming a working tool. I tossed the mock-up in my luggage after I scribbled "miter plane prototype, 2008" on the side.
As I arrived in rural Georgia and pulled into Ron's driveway, I knew that I was in the presence of an accomplished craftsman. Ron's understated and refined taste in evident throughout his entire property and home, most of which he built with his own hands. His home is a New England-style Cape designed and built by the man himself, as is his shop (at left, in the small grove of pines) and garden house (to the right, just behind the house). Ron used modern, economical materials to replicate the look and feel of an historic New-England home, such as Masonite sheets cut in clever ways to replicate wide-plank paneling on the ceilings and walls. The floors in Ron's home are 1x8 pine construction lumber, (that he got on the cheap) fastened meticulously to the sub-floor with hand-cut nails. It looks as if it had been there for decades. The furniture throughout the house, as well as all the interior trim, doors and kitchen cabinets, is also crafted by Ron in several, but similar classical American styles. I was particularly struck by a Shaker tall clock placed elegantly between two windows in Ron's living room. All of Ron's furniture is beautifully finished, with surfaces that are a joy to touch.
This picture doesn't do justice to Ron's work. I felt as if I were inside a magazine layout in Ron's home.
All of the interior doors in Ron's home look as if they were made from wide plank boards and battens. In fact, they are stable, inexpensive mdf. They are dead flat, beautifully uniform, and have just enough heft that when closed the high-quality hardware sounds out a satisfying and precise click.
Ron's ingenuity and high level of craftsmanship allow him to produce such beautiful, functional, and practical work, and it shows not only in his carpentry and furniture making skills, but also in the wonderful tools he produces.
The first day of work on the shooting board plane had me looking around Ron's shop as he prepared steel for the project. I spied a rather humble looking log in the corner behind the bandsaw. In fact, Ron's entire shop seemed pretty humble to me. I was expecting a laboratory-like atmosphere, with neatly arranged blanks of ebony and rosewood, chunks of steel, brass and bronze waiting to be made into planes. What I found was a typical woodworking shop with all the familiar tools, and even a few that I thought I'd see, but didn't. There is a certain humility that Ron's shop expresses, an unpretentious feeling that one might not expect, given the museum-quality tools that Ron produces. I think it makes a statement that although the planes that come out of this shop are built with precision and beauty, they are first and foremost tools. Ron's shop is a tool in itself, and judging from the work that emerges from this shop, a finely-tuned tool.
The first day at work during my visit I watched Ron cut steel to length, mill the parts to precise dimension and begin the assembly process. I was only able to visit Ron for a couple days, not nearly long enough to make an entire plane. Nevertheless, I was able to observe how Ron works, and see some of the more technical aspects of what it takes to create one of his planes. It was great fun, to say the least. I felt like the young apprentice on his first day at the master's knee. Ron even let me handle some of the more technically demanding tasks, like lapping the plane sides and preparing the iron. (okay, more like grunt work!) I even got to run the shop vac and clean up metal shavings from the mill area. And in those two days I got good at it. I still wonder if Ron's shop is as clean as the day I left.
Seriously, Ron did let me handle some interesting tasks, like peening rivets. This was pretty tricky actually. One missed whack and the peening tool would make a nice deep dent in the plane side. And that puppy wanted to slide off the rivet any chance it got. I managed to do an entire side without incident. (thanks Ron!)
The best part of my visit was watching Ron work. The worst part that Ron only has one stool in the shop. And there is no beer fridge. Well, that's probably a good thing, actually. But other than that I was pretty content. One other thing I really liked. Ron has a barbeque setup just outside the shop door. Nothing better than pork tenderloin smoking gently while making infill planes a few steps away. Yeah, Ron has pretty sweet setup.
Unfortunately, I didn't get the to see plane finished before I had to return home. The body was assembled and the infill blank fit. The last time I saw the plane it looked like it did in the picture above. That's my wood mock-up (and knob) alongside the infill prototype. The next time I saw the plane, it looked like this:
The prototype was built with walnut infill. Using a valuable piece of ebony or rosewood would have been foolish, since this was after all, a prototype.
But prototypes aren't just about testing function. Especially with an infill plane. Ron also wanted to see how the plane would look in steel and ebony. So Ron ebonized the walnut.
And the plane took on a entirely different character. A sleek beauty emerged.
My visit to Brese Plane was a blast. Ron and Julie's hospitality was overwhelmingly southern. They treated me like a king, and I thank them for it. I'm already brainstorming my next infill plane adventure, just so I have an excuse to return to rural Georgia for some apple pie, pork tenderloin, steel and rosewood.
Here are some pictures of the finished shooting board plane. The plane is 10" long, with a 2" wide 0-1 iron, bedded at 38 degrees. The plane body is precision ground 1018 steel, with brass lever cap and ebonized walnut infill. The plane weighs 7 pounds. Ron now offers this model as part of his standard lineup, here.
Please also enjoy the following video of my trip to Brese Plane.
VIDEO: Shooting Board Plane (hi resolution, 69 megabytes)
VIDEO: Shooting Board Plane (lower resolution, 24 megabytes)