Planes, Trains and Automobiles

I’ve written extensively about trains on this blog (for obvious reasons), and have even written about automobiles – at least, the 1:64 die-cast kind.

What’s left? Well, planes, for a start. Specifically, hand planes for woodworking – and how they relate to the model railway hobby.

I have a number of metal-bodied planes by Veritas. They look awesome, and they do an excellent job:
Metal planes photo VeritasPlanes.jpg

But for two days last week, I was immersed in a course where I built my own, wood-bodied smoothing plane:
Smoothing Plane photo SmoothingPlane.jpg

My friend Chris Abbott, a regular on this blog, joined me on this course, which was led by Steve der Garabedian from Black Walnut Studio and held in the seminar room at my local Lee Valley Tools. Steve taught Chris and me to build a classic bow saw earlier this year, so we were keen to take another course with him.

Chris has written a very good summary of the plane-building course on his blog, so I won’t repeat his efforts except to say that I too thoroughly enjoyed the experience. But once again, I learned many lessons while building my plane, which are just as valuable for my model railway pursuits.

First, I was reminded of the lesson of humility. I know almost nothing about wood-working, and when I went into this course I knew absolutely zero about building a hand plane. So, I paid attention, asked questions, checked with Steve before, during and after each step of the process, and generally made sure I understood exactly what I was about to do – and why – before I did it. As a result, I did not make any mistakes. That can’t be said for everyone who took the class. Some worked ahead, on the assumption that they knew what they were doing – only to find that they did not, and needed to rework aspects of their plane. Fortunately, none of the work-ahead types wrecked their project.

How many times, though, do we exercise humility when learning a skill for a hobby that we think we have already mastered? How many times do we question our knowledge about how to proceed with a model railway-related task, such as track laying, wiring or kit-building? It’s easy, when the tools and the task are familiar, to fall into the trap of “this is how I’ve always done it”, even if that way is not, necessarily, the best way.

Second, I was reminded of the lesson of patience. Every step on my plane took time, and many steps were critical: for example, the bed on which the blade rests can be anywhere from 44 to 46 degrees from the bottom of the plane, but it must be 90 degrees to the sides. Not 89.5 or 90.6 – 90. Sounds straight-forward, but it requires care and precision to set up. It must also be absolutely flat so the blade does not rock. Taking one’s time here – checking one’s progress regularly and working in small steps – paid off. In fact, I did not finish my plane completely: It works mechanically – beautifully, in fact – but I still have to shape the top of the body to make it more comfortable to hold, and trim back the front and back edges to remove the portions of the plane with the wooden dowels. (These were added to help align the two core pieces with the cheeks as we glued up the bodies.) It would’ve been nice to have finished the plane during the time allotted – but I would rather have a bit more work to do on it, than to have rushed my work and botched the job. The goal of the exercise was not Beat The Clock.

Yet, how many times do we rush a project in the hobby? For example, how many of us take the time to document our wiring or do a dry-build of a kit before applying glue? How many of us always read the instructions through, from start to finish, and make notes before we tackle any project?

Third, I was reminded of the lesson of safety. This is always a good one – but especially when working with power tools. Nobody got hurt – that’s a successful course. But I caught myself a couple of times heading into the power tool shop without my hearing or eye protection. The good news is, I caught myself every time, and went back to my bench to get them. Not everyone was so vigilant.

Fourth, I was reminded of the lesson of challenging oneself. Building hand tools is a new experience for me, and it required learning how to use unfamiliar tools and techniques. I feel better for doing this. The same lesson applies to model railways – if we don’t continuously challenge ourselves to expand our skills, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.

And fifth, I was reminded of the lesson of pride in building something, instead of buying it. The wood-working hobby – like the model railway hobby – is littered with opportunities to buy things. For woodworkers, it’s tools – and I’m guilty of a few purchases like that myself. But I feel immense satisfaction every time I look at my not-yet-finished smoothing plane. It’s exactly the satisfaction that I do not feel, whatsoever, when I pick up one of the Veritas metal planes in my tool chest – even though they too are beautiful machines. The difference? I didn’t build the Veritas planes.

The parallel is obvious in the model railway hobby. We can engage in chequebook modelling – sweeping ready to run product off the shelf into our basket – and build a huge empire. Or, we can build everything from scratch – with a much more modest layout as our goal – and derive immense satisfaction from each element. For most of us – myself included – the truth lies in the middle. But it’s easy to compromise one’s vision for the sake of expediency. It’s easier to buy a kit for a station than it is to scratch-build one, but the scratch-built one will probably be a better representation of one’s prototype – and will definitely be something unique to one’s own layout. Plus, of course, we can point at that station and say to our visitors, “I built that myself”.

And that is a great feeling.

4 thoughts on “Planes, Trains and Automobiles

  1. Great fun. Very satisfying to spend a day (or two) and physicallly create a useful object. Now what should we pester Steve about teaching next?

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