Novice woodworkers often ask how to develop skills with a hand plane. The resurgence of hand-tool woodworking over the last decade has brought these timeless tools to the forefront again. And, while they are not difficult to use, the learning curve for proficiency is greater than that of their corded counterparts.
While I can understand the romantic drive toward hand tools, I’m certainly not giving up my apprentices (you know them as the table saw, jointer and planer). Even if you’re a total power-tool devotee, it doesn’t mean you don’t need good hand-tool skills. There are just some operations that are better done by hand.
To build hand-tool skills there are things you’ll need to practice, but that doesn’t mean you have to stand at a bench for hours, mindlessly pushing a plane. You can develop skills by making something useful for your shop – an inlaid sanding block.
When I started woodworking, Werner Duerr (my teacher) had his students make a sanding block shortly after learning how to sharpen. The block helps build planing and chiseling skills, and improves your accuracy. It works with a quarter of a sheet of sandpaper, so it needs to be a specific size. Plus, in order for it to function properly, the bottom of the block has to be flat.
Making the block a specific thickness and including a quarter-round edge on the top and a figured maple diamond inlay aren’t functional necessities, but they do kick up the skill level of the project a bit. It’s an easy project that you can accomplish in a short period of time, is fun to make and helps you become a better hand-tool woodworker.
Begin at the Beginning
I’ve made plenty of these sanding blocks over the years – I like to start by selecting the right stock. To better level surfaces when sanding, I make my blocks from hardwood, but I don’t choose wood that’s so hard that it becomes difficult to mill. Generally, I like to use scrap mahogany. But if you prefer to use a local hardwood, knock yourself out – it’s just a sanding block.
Because I’m preparing the stock by hand, I want to find material that’s fairly straight grained and lacking in figure. Curl, crotch and other figure is not only harder to plane flat and smooth, it introduces instabilities in the material that might not lend itself to the rigors of sanding. You want a block that’s stable and strong enough to handle a fair amount of pressure and abrasion.
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