Friday, February 25, 2011

Shaping an Ebony Tote, or, Have you been Cleaning Out the Fireplace Again?

Obviously the rear tote is the first thing your hand touches when you pick up a plane and you will either immediately like the tool or you'll be indifferent about it. There's an old saying "you never get a second chance to make a first impression" and this holds very true to the rear tote of a hand plane. This is also the area in which you get all the feedback that the plane offers while in use. For this reason I spend an inordinate amount of time in the shaping the totes on my planes.

There are basically two types of totes. Closed totes and open totes. Open totes tend to be more upright and this makes sense because they are unsupported and need the more upright configuration to maintain structural integrity. The shape of a closed tote can be enhanced because it supports itself and this allows a more forward leaning shape that most find much more comfortable and inviting. In order to close the gap between iron and tote the even steeper pitched planes have an even more forward leaning shape and I find them the most comfortable.

I started first thing one morning with the tote already in the shape shown in the photo below. Roughly shaped, all the features that fit it to the plane body already in place, some of the areas rounded over. This particular tote will be part of a 132-50P stainless steel panel plane. I will use three tools to form the details of the shape I want to achieve. I start with an extremely sharp 1/2" chisel, you have to start sharp because it won't stay that way long while working ebony, a fairly course rasp, and a fine cabinet makers rasp. Both rasp are flat on one side and rounded on the other. This is critical for obvious reasons. You'll need to refresh the edge on the chisel several times during this process. When the chisel starts pulling out pieces instead of shearing it's time to hone.

I begin by blending the transitions from the rounded areas to the areas that remain somewhat flatter and I find that I can remove material much quicker at this stage of the process with the chisel.

As you start approaching the desired preliminary shape take lighter cuts with the chisel. This will allow you to refine the larger flat facets of the chisel cuts and make the shape much fairer.

Also note that I'm using the chisel with the bevel side against the surface I'm cutting. You can gauge the depth of the cut easier this way and it follows the contour. In the picture below you'll see that I'm making the radius of the neck of the stem deeper than it started. Some areas of the tote need to be shaped into a more elongated radius, I'll talk more about that later.

Next I shape the thumbnail at the top of the horn. It starts as shown in the picture below. You need a lot of control here so I do this with the finer of the cabinet makers rasp, and I find that I can achieve much better symmetry in the shape if I just move the rasp from my right to my left hand rather than moving the tote so as to work both sides with my dominant hand. Working left and right handed in some areas is just something you have to teach yourself to do. You'll find that it saves time and your perspective of your work piece doesn't change which is very helpful when trying to achieve a symmetrical shape.

The competed thumbnail shape at the top of the horn.

The process of refinement continues by working with the coarser rasp and continuing with the finer rasp as we approach the final shape. It's hard to show what a rasp really does in pictures so I decided to spare you those details. Below is the completed shape after shaping and sanding. I typically sand up to 600 grit and then use #0000 steel wool to polished the surface even further.

If you examine the picture below thoroughly you see that the radius of the neck has been expanded into a more elongated shape that accepts your hand in this area, almost asking you to hold the plane. The areas at the bottom of the main stem are also shaped into an elongated radius but here is where there are some minor differences.

The neck just under the horn needs to be shaped in a similar manner on both sides of the tote, however the area at the bottom of the stem should be shaped based on the approach of the hand. In other words if the user is right handed then that area will be more elongate on the right side or side of approach, the other side needs to be less elongated so that area of your smallest finger from the joint to the tip has an area to grip. This particular tote was made for a left handed user so it's shaped opposite that description.

Because this tote is for one of my stainless planes I have a little more leeway in the shape at the bottom of the tote. I did not have to work around the confines of the areas where the side pieces attach to the center section as is the case in one of my infills.

The next step is to apply the shellac polish. I apply the first coat as full strength two pound cut shellac which is allowed to dry and then flattened with 400 and 600 grit sandpaper followed by #0000 steel wool. Then I apply several coats of french polish which is subsequently rubbed down with steel wool and then buffed on a soft buffing wheel. This makes it look as satiny as it feels.

As I mentioned early I started first thing in the morning shaping this tote. It did not get the first coat of shellac until later than evening around 7:00 pm. It was a long day, my hands, shirt, pants and everything that was even close to the workbench that day was as black as coal.....and I loved it. If you haven't figured it out by now.....I sort of live for this stuff!



  1. Hi Ron,

    What a great post. It's a real pleasure to have you describe the subtle details that make all the difference, both in visual appeal and to the hand of the user. In arriving at the shape you are pleased with, how much modeling was done? Did you work in a soft wood or even clay to work out details, or mostly from drawing?



  2. Tico,

    Years ago when first developing the totes for my tools a lot of modeling was performed. Over the years, in the process of shaping many totes, the process and shape have continued to evolve and be refined. As I designed totes for newer plane designs it usually only requires a slight modification so less modeling is required. Experience is the best teacher.


  3. Ron,
    I've come back to this post several times. You did a great job with the shaping. It's awesome.