I love tools and I’ve accumulated a collection of them over the years that gives me the ability to tackle nearly any home improvement project. Since moving into our house, I’ve become fascinated by 18th century building techniques, and I’m consistently awed by the quality of work that builders were able to achieve using only their muscle power, ingenuity, and a few hand tools. In today’s age of power-everything, it’s easy to forget that hand tools can be quicker and easier to use for some construction tasks, with no sacrifice in the quality of the finished work, and with a whole lot less noise.
When it came time to install casings around the windows and doors of the new kitchen, I wanted to match the delicate bead detail that appears on the original trim in our house. I could have bought a router bit, chucked it into the router and gone to town, but the annoying voice in my head insisted that that approach would be way too straightforward. Eager to try out a different approach, I ordered a wooden hand plane from the Internet with a blade shaped to cut a beaded profile on the edge of a piece of wood – big mistake. The plane was as dull as a butter knife, and I could have achieved the same finish quality by gnawing the board with my teeth. Frustrated, but not yet ready to go the route of the router (pun intended), I ventured to Pittsboro, a small town similar to Hillsborough about an hour’s drive to the South. There, on the second story of an old building on the main drag is a place that I should never be allowed to visit with a wallet again, a collector’s tool shop stuffed to the rafters with antique hand tools.
With some guidance from the gregarious shop owner, I selected an expertly sharpened beading plane and rushed home to give it a try. Old moulding planes are beautiful objects. Most of them are fashioned out of a solid block of beech wood, giving them a nice weighty feel and a beautiful appearance.
The surface that rides against the work piece is called “boxing” because it’s almost always made of boxwood, an extremely dense, hard-wearing wood. The butt end of this plane is marked with the size of the profile (3/16″) and the manufacturer’s stamp (Casebeer Reed & Co. in New York), and the other end features the original owner’s mark (C. Altfelix).
Using this tool is hands down the most satisfying woodworking activity I’ve ever experienced. As you slide the plane across the wood it creates long, delicate curlicue shavings and makes a satisfying “zzzzziiiiiippppp” sound.
After about a dozen passes, the plane carves a perfectly smooth, delicately rounded bead.
Whereas routers are obnoxiously noisy and unwieldy machines, using a moulding plane is almost meditative, and so, so satisfying. Nothing short of a video will suffice to demonstrate what I mean. If you watch this and still don’t understand, I suggest you never try woodworking – it doesn’t get better than this: