There are two kinds of “essential” tools: all-purpose tools that you use for all kinds of jobs, and specialized tools that you use for just one operation. Up to this point in this blog series, I’ve featured tools in the first category. A lot of my essential tools, like my dovetail saw and my spokeshaves, are ones I use all the time, no matter what I’m making.
There are other tools, however, that spend a whole lot of time sitting at the bottom of my tool chest, just waiting to be put to use. But when I need them, nothing else will do. Hence, they make the list of “essential” tools.
Take, for example, my plow plane. It’s a tool that excel at just one job: cutting narrow grooves in wood. It doesn’t seem like a very important operation, but when I’m making anything with a drawer or a frame-and-panel component, the plow plane is absolutely essential.
I know this because, for several years, I avoided making things that required long grooves. Then, when my wife asked me to make us a proper bed frame, I announced that I would need to acquire a plow plane in order to make the frame-and-panel headboard. She agreed.
The plow plane I choose was the only new one then on the market (that didn’t have an absurdly long waiting period). The Veritas small plow plane does exactly what it’s designed to do. It cuts narrow grooves reliably and precisely.
Some time later, Veritas offered a “conversion kit” for the plane, which allows it to accept wider cutters for making rabbets, as well as tongue-and-groove cutters. I have used the conversion kit occasionally, especially when I need to make rabbets.
I do have an older rabbet plane (a Stanley clone made by Sargent), which I do not like using. It’s uncomfortable to hold and sloppy to adjust, but it does have a wider cutter than the Veritas small plow, even with the conversion kit. But I usually opt for using the Veritas plane when I can. When cutting rabbets with the small plow, the plane is riding only on two skates, whereas with the rabbet plane, there’s a whole, solid sole that rides on the wood. Still, I find the Veritas easier to use–mainly because of its superior ergonomics.
The tongue-and-groove cutters have been fun to play with, but I have yet to actually use them in a project. They do work. But, for me, they are not part of the “essential” function of this tool.
After using it out of the box for several years, I finally outfitted it with an auxiliary wooden fence, which makes the tool more accurate in use. Without the extra fence, it’s too easy to slightly skew the plane at the beginning of the cut, causing the cutter to wander and resulting in a crooked groove. With the extra fence, the plane stays in line through the whole cut. Given how many accessories Veritas offers for this plane, I’m surprised that they don’t offer a factory-made auxiliary fence for the tool.
My second essential joinery plane is my newest acquisition: a shoulder plane, also made by Veritas.
This plane is especially built for trimming joints to a perfect fit. It excels at trimming tenons and rabbets. In fact, that’s about all it does do. But after years of awkwardly trying to trim tenon shoulders and cheeks with other tools like chisels, I finally decided I needed to own a proper shoulder plane.
Unlike the plow plane, there were several different options to decide between. I considered several different brands, both new and vintage, before settling on the Veritas. Why? It came down to ergonomics. I hadn’t had much opportunity to use these planes, but after making some inquiries with experienced woodworkers, I saw that the traditional design of the shoulder plane pioneered by Stanley was not particularly comfortable to hold.
As soon as I unwrapped my new Veritas medium shoulder plane and put it to the wood, I knew I had made the right choice. It comes to hand perfectly. Since then, every time I have gotten to use it, I have found it a truly enjoyable tool to handle.
Ultimately, I think enjoyability* in use is one of the criteria by which I judge a tool to be “essential.” I don’t often reach for tools that I hate using. Given the choice between two tools, I will naturally reach for the one that I like to use–the one that comes to hand easily, that hefts and balances well, and that does the job with a minimum of fuss. That’s part of what makes a tool “essential,” regardless of how often I use it.
I hope that you, too, have a few tools that bring a smile to your face each time you use them.
*My spellchecker thinks “enjoyability” is not a word. But since I have a Ph.D. in English, and my spellchecker does not, I will go ahead and use the word anyway. Although it does not show up in my dictionary, Google reassures me that I am not the first to have coined it.