let’s talk about sand. it’s a beautiful, sunny day and you’ve spent the morning dreaming of sunbathing, swimming and the joy of bikinis. or not. i mean, it’s october and i’m stuck in the sixth ring of hell — northern europe in fall as the arctic ice melts and the climate degrades to a point not seen in the last nearly-twelve-thousand years. but i can dream, right? the problem with this picture, though, is that my thoughts aren’t focused on this kind of sand. what i’m thinking of is surface-preparation. getting a piece ready for finish. and there is an ongoing debate about it in the woodworking community — sandpaper or handplanes. now i know where i stand on this when it comes to what i want my pieces to look like. i want the surface to be glass-smooth, high-grit, uniform sanding, preferably to at least eight-hundred with a finish that feels more like organic float-glass than a tree. my argument isn’t that you shouldn’t like your handplaned surfaces, though. if that’s what you want your piece to look and feel like, that’s totally fine. i mean, if you’re leaving it with a planed surface cause you’re lazy as all fuck, you should be ashamed of yourself. but if you’re doing it intentionally because you legitimately prefer that result, that’s legit and there’s not a drop of shame in that bucket. for me, though, handplaned surfaces are just not finished. they’re only a step in the direction of the absolute-glass surface i want.
this is a different debate, though. and it’s one based on personal preference and aesthetic choices. many great makers have chosen both sides through the centuries, though i should probably mention the balance is generally on the side of higher-polish in fine pieces if that’s a factor in your decisions.
what bothers me, though, is the argument about traditional methods. here’s the false dichotomy i see on forums and even on youtube and in magazine articles — traditional woodworkers planed, scraped or even left their surfaces raw while sanding, especially high-sheen, high-polish sanding, is the result of a perfectionist, modern attention to detail historical makers didn’t care about and sandpaper is a contemporary obsession and invention. there is a word for this type of statement. the word is “bullshit”.
let’s take a little stroll down woodworking history. real history, though, not just into the last century or two. i’m sure you know the recent stuff. in the mid-nineteenth-century, bailey revolutionized handplane technology with the gradual appearance of an adjustable metal plane and with stanley’s industry penetration shifted the western world from cumbersome wooden tools to what we know and love today. yes. that’s accurate. but that’s only a very small part of the history of the plane. there are excellent examples of handplanes being used depicted in roman art and they’re not spectacular or novel — they were certainly common at that point and there have even been finds suggestive of planes as far back as the time of moses (yes, if you’re curious, that’s about a millennium and a half before the common era) and perhaps a few centuries more. most of these finds are in what was or would become parts of the eastern roman empire — what we think of now as western-asia and the middle-east.
china and its derived cultures (korean, japanese, tibetan, vietnamese, thai) and india, somewhat later but just as solidly, also show evidence of handplanes in use in common everyday life at least two millennia ago but it wouldn’t be a stretch to think of the handplane as having at least three to four-thousand years of history. so what’s the problem? it’s definitely an ancient tool. like beyond ancient. four-thousand years? that’s as old as written language. can’t be any problem with calling planing a traditional methodology, can there? absolutely not.
with a few caveats.
one is what we call a plane. the modern, metallic version of a plane as an adjustable and rigid thing that doesn’t depend on the stability and rigidity of its wooden body isn’t a relic of the biblical era. it’s a result of the late-industrial period and quite modern. if you’re using a metal-body jackplane, you’re not being nearly as traditional as you might think because this is an invention of the last century, not the last millennium. you probably know that. but it’s important to remember if you’re riding a traditional horse and using it as an ethical justification for your decisions. keep the plane. ditch the horse.
but there’s a more important distinction to make. and that’s the difference between a modern-era wooden plane and an ancient one. result. while we are well-aware of the fact that roman joiners and zhou-dynasty cabinetmakers (no, i’m aware it’s an anachronistic term if applied to the west but it’s actually historically-accurate as a trade description in second-millennium-bce china) used something analogous to handplanes but what was the steel and what kind of results were they getting?
at first, they were getting sweet-fuck-all. the handplane began as a tool to hold a rough edge — think about the way you make a quick, cheap router-plane, youtube-style. take a board, make a hole, shove in a chisel, instant router-plane. well, that’s not a new idea (sorry, youtubers). that’s exactly how ancient planes began. they were holders for edge-tools that were somewhere between a hatchet and a chisel shoved in the middle of what is realistically a stick.
oh and the shape wasn’t exactly what you might be imagining at first.
the first evidence of handplanes actually looks far closer to what we think of now as a drawknife with a wood-encapsulated body, something like a very rudimentary spokeshave. it had side-handles. ok, that’s putting it a bit too technically. it was a stick with a hole in the middle and a blade was wedged in the hole and the whole thing was pulled in the direction of the user — yes, traditional handplanes began as pull-tools, not push-ones, regardless of continent. there are reasons for this and the shift to push-tools actually happened far back in the historic period in the west but not quite yet.
an aside but an interesting one, by the way. if you’ve ever used a traditional chinese plane, especially what has become popularized as a hongkong-style plane thanks to a few modern manufacturers, this is the middle-ground between the two styles with its wide handles that turn the thing from being shaped like a cigar with an erection to an actual airplane (that’s too excited for its own good, yes, that never changes for obvious reasons — the handplane might be, after all, the most manly of tools, at least in its silhouette).
the steel was, well, not steel. actually, it wasn’t even iron. if you know your archeological history, you’ll realize the era of moses and his ancestors (or of the tang emperor, if that’s more your cup of green-tea) isn’t in the iron age. it’s in the “bronze” age and, well, bronze is soft. really soft. i mean, iron itself isn’t that hard but high-carbon (carbonized) iron is much, much harder. that means edge tools made with bronze were two things — weak and brittle. ever wonder why we hear stories from those times of people wandering for decades in the woods without actually seeming to build much? well, in a time before anything even resembling modern metallurgy the thought of actually having an axe that worked well enough to cut down trees to build a simple structure was as foreign as hailing a cab to go home and chill in front of the evil broadcast box.
so we’re not talking about the recent precursors of the traditional planes we think of in a workshop of, let’s say, the roman era or even, if you’re really modern, félibien or roubo’s time. we’re talking about the evolutionary equivalent of a stick with a blade. and that’s how it all began. by the roman era, though, things had really shifted. with the generalized acceptance of newer materials like strong iron, the idea of a flat blade in a narrow, long box with an escapement had become completely expected and part of daily trade life. the exact route this took is unknowable, not just unknown. but i suspect it happened something like this. it could have been transmitted from a single point but that’s unlikely. it was probably discovered as new metals became available and already-existing simple edge tools were gradually upgraded to use the new forms — possibly first in egypt as that’s where much of the new technology related to standardization of metal-production was first embraced wholeheartedly. maybe it first appeared in china. india would have been unlikely as it was a bit behind-the-times shifting from bronze but it’s possible. all three places, though, the near-east, china and india quickly accepted the modernization of the plane and, by the time the buddha was teaching and the christ-child was doing his christmas routine, plane life was thoroughly enmeshed in all three cultures.
i’ll make one other little mention here that’s less a caveat and more a statement of awareness that a few pieces of the world are left out of this discussion of history. you’ll notice i’ve mentioned the three standard locations thought of as “cradles of civilization” in the modern world — china, india and the middle-east, giving rise to their respective groups of nations — east-asia, central-asia and the west. but there are two other large homes of civilization that often get forgotten in discussions and i want to be sure not to do that, at least not accidentally. the southern part of africa (the part not generally thought of as part of the near-east and roman territories) and mesoamerica, the part of the “new world”, as people awkwardly call it, inhabited by the maya, aztec and northern cultures. why haven’t i mentioned them and why won’t they play a big part in this handplane narrative? well, they didn’t have them. yes, both general areas developed metal tools. but there’s no handplane tradition in either. so they’re not left out because i am blinded by racism or my eastern background. we’ll get back to this in a minute, though.
where did all this technology go, though? well, in china it became more and more refined. the handplane, while probably a rough-surfacing tool around the time of laozi and master kung, had definitely been turned into what we now think of as a “smoothing plane” (and a jointer, for that matter), with joiners using a stable of them instead of a single board-roughing device by at least the beginning of the six-dynasties period (beginning 200ce-ish), if not the han (the five-hundred years or so centered on 0ce). in the middle-east and its roman offshoot empire, things had developed enough by the time of the now-infamous pompeii disaster that roughing, jointing and smoothing were almost exclusively done by plane, not that this was done at a modern level of precision (the metal simply wasn’t there yet) but it was certainly approaching that. indian plane technology is a mystery from this period until the european conquests in the subcontinent but i can speculate much the same happened and most of that progress was probably destroyed along with much of indian society by the british and dutch, among others, showing up and, well, doing what europeans tended to do throughout history — shoving their culture up the asses of the locals as if they were uneducated animals. i know you’re aware colonialism sucks. just a friendly reminder as i’m preaching to the choir.
what happened then, of course, is an interesting diversion from progress. and the fact that it was pretty-much global is both ironic and predictable in hindsight. if you have any background in chinese history, you’ll remember the spring-and-autumn period gave way to the warring states period and, while this stimulated the rise of literature and philosophy, development of technology generally ground to a halt unless it was directly related to the ongoing conflicts — if you haven’t read the romance of the three kingdoms, by the way, i highly recommend it as a way to understand what happened in the later part of this period. it’s not historically-accurate in an absolute sense but it’s a pretty good depiction of the general state of east-asia at the time. and it’s an awesome war story.
india was a loosely-integrated collection of disparate societies and remained that way until western powers showed up with their modern weapons and exploited the fact that there was no strong unified sense of identity spanning the whole subcontinent. much as in china and surrounding lands, this period was plagued with vague infighting and little technology evolved. in the roman empire, things began to collapse and western nations began to break away as the once-great empire became its byzantine-ugly-grandchild and europe rose from the ashes, though certainly still on fire and committed to at least a millennium and a half of continuing to burn itself to the ground in wars of religious excuse and greedy desires to control everyone and their sheep.
the moral of this is that, while weapons of destruction may undergo revolutionary development during such periods, little of value in the construction of beautiful pieces of furniture arose from any of our three target areas and the handplane languished in the shadow of the raging battles and misguided crusades. while we’re at it, by the way, during this period the form we now know as the japanese plane (kanna) was refined and developed in isolation and became an impressive modern smoothing and finishing tool. once the darkness of greed and willful ignorance (yes, saint francis, you were right — the truly good want to know more and the truly evil want to control and ration that knowledge but that’s a whole other treatise and one that was written long ago) had begun to dissipate, progress could once again continue in the land of furniture and happy-little-wood-curls.
western and northern europe saw the development of the standardized shape of the modern plane — a roughly-square-in-cross-section rectangular prism with an offset-v in the middle where a blade was wedged in a tiny mouth to take a shaving. while eastern-europe tended to take the same approach and make it horny, these differences were cosmetic. in asia, the form standardized on a much wider and lower device, sometimes pulled, sometimes pushed — often both by the same user at different times — with the blade tending far closer to the heel than the almost-centered location more common in the european tools.
with the progression of craftspeople from europe to what is now america, canada and the rest of the americas, western technology became more and more widespread and, with the construction boom of eastern-north-america, which people often dismiss as simply the result of colonial expansion, there was a huge demand for one thing that hadn’t been present since before the roman empire took its first breaths — the wholesale construction of entire nations of new cities. this wasn’t gradually upgrading mud-walled shacks to progressively-more-modern structures. this was wilderness being turned into up-to-date homes and cities sprang from the forests on america’s east coast. this meant the technology developed more and more rapidly there and in western-europe to compensate for increased demand. the cycle of development became more and more rapid and planes (and many other tools) became more and more refined with time. as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries pushed on, the modern wooden planes were more and more ubiquitous — and good-quality steel was more readily available at a good price.
the rest of the story, you already know. enter the metal planes and the mass-manufacturing revolution and here we are.
what’s with all the detail, though? well, it’s to demonstrate how historical the handplane is, which you likely already suspected. but to show that the version you’re using is only a modernized version of things much, much older. so if you are proud of your connection to a historical tradition, that’s fine. but be aware you’re a relative modernist unless you’re not just using a plane but using the technology from the days when jesus was just learning to swing a hammer. there’s nothing wrong with modernization and improvement of old tools. there is, however, something wrong with false-pride in traditional methods that would have been seen as incredibly revolutionary and nothing traditional at all when they were being developed.
but what about the joys of sand we were speaking of way back in the beginning? oh, right. handplanes were almost a tangent by comparison but the history of sanding isn’t quite as deep. actually, it’s pretty simple.
there’s pretty solid evidence people were using rough rocks to polish boards back before human culture even really got started — you can even see primates doing this with their crude sticks against the rough surfaces of rocks. is that sanding? well, no. but it’s the kernel of the idea. the use of sand encased in hardened bricks, though, or even just using the bricks themselves to polish the wood that was split and formed into basic shelters, though, is certainly the first evidence of sanding and abrasives used for woodworking purposes — and that’s so far back in human history it’s almost hard to call it human at all, definitely into the last ice age and likely far beyond that.
egyptians and mesopotamians were probably the inventors of much of what we now think of today as basic technology — i mean, they invented writing about the same time as the ancient chinese and that’s probably the most important development in the storied narrative of our species. one of these great inventions coming out of that part of the world is pottery. first, dried clay. then fired clay. but that clay wasn’t always smooth — actually, at first most of it was pretty rough. and as we can see in some early inscriptions and drawings, the builders of the time preferred to shape their constructions using the clay. brick-on-brick action, you could call it. no, it’s not woodworking and there’s no direct evidence either way. but it was common practice to take a harder, double-fired brick with a rough edge and use it to refine the shape of a brick or stone component before it was fitted in construction during the middle-kingdom period (a little before the time of moses, if that helps you place it in history — about 2000-1800bce) and possibly even the old kingdom (back another millennium or so). this was common practice. of course, they had wooden furniture. and it was made by many of the same people. there’s absolutely no discussion in the record of how it was built but i suspect, as you likely do at this point, the same techniques of using twice-fired rough bricks to shape the wood and refine it the way it was done when they were making stone and brick pieces — wood is, after all, far easier to shape with a sanding block than most stone or fired materials and it only makes sense they’d use the same techniques.
the chinese record is a little (only a little) clearer on this front. for a few thousand years, it was common enough for abrasive stones (mostly natural) to be used in standard construction as shaping tools in addition to the then-already-common edge tools like the predecessors of modern chisels and axes. planes had started to make appearances around this time but mostly what we’re talking about is riving and splitting with something we might imagine as a big sanding block made from a piece of stone. of course, construction was rough. but there was more and more refined furniture being built for indoor use, especially in higher circles of society. so while again it’s not specifically discussed it’s quite likely the same techniques that were extensively used in building stone temples were adapted — either way, the use of abrasives was a common, everyday technique well-accepted in ancient chinese society, whether it was part of the woodworking practice or not, which i suspect it was.
why this particular interest in china? well, other than the obvious — that it’s truly fucking fascinating — sandpaper in its modern incarnation began there in the first centuries of the second millennium of the common era. sand and other marine-focused things — shells and crushed nuts, etc — were adhered to paper using the usual high-intensity glue of the historical chinese world — natural gum. this was used to refine wooden furniture and the smooth-to-the-touch surface was born. this technology quickly spread through areas impacted by chinese culture (korea and japan plus the rest of east-asia), over the mountains into india and traveled to the west. by the time of the spanish conquests in the americas, the use of sandpaper in woodworking was an ancient tradition. in some places, things other than sand were used — most-well-known, equisetum hyemale in japan and korea, though other plants were common enough in much of the world.
sandpaper’s evolution was relatively slow until the nineteenth century when developments like glass-paper appeared in europe. what was the downside to sandpaper? it was consumable. what was the upside? it was inexpensive and replaceable. much the same as today, really, when you think about it. it was so fundamental to traditional practice in the nineteenth century, there were even treatises published talking about the differences between using quality (mostly glass in the west) and cheap (actual sand) as an abrasive.
in the twentieth century, a time you probably know far better, glass was replaced by natural silicon and its derivatives for a far faster cutting action and longer life. the chinese traditional approach (gum) meant they’d been grinding stuff in the wet with it for centuries but western sandpaper, created with water-permeable glues, tended only to work in the dry until wet-dry sandpaper appeared around the end of the first-world-war.
ok, this is probably more than you ever wanted to know about the history of handplanes and sandpaper. but this is the reason i’ve gone into all this detail — i’m tired of seeing people shamed for their use of sandpaper as non-traditional or imperfect procedure.
so i’ll say it again for the ones in the back of the room.
sandpaper is traditional. sanding is actually, in many ways, an older tradition, especially in stoneworking — by thousands of years — than planing. there’s nothing wrong with planing. and i do it all the time. but these are not methods that are competing for historical legitimacy.
so the next time you want to talk about your skill, “it’s just off the handplane, no sanding” might not be the right way to think of the “correct” or ‘historical” approach.
i’m not an apologist for bad joinery or inaccurate surfaces. but i really am tired of students who think sandpaper is for beginners and they’ll eventually graduate to a “surface-ready planed component” like that’s a more-ethically-positive goal. i plane. i sand. they work well together.
i’ll get back to tips, techniques and designs soon, i’m sure. but this was on my mind this morning and i’m exhausted watching debates and sniping and criticism in the online community, judgment, especially historically-inaccurate judgment between woodworkers and other makers and the general unkindness that our modern troll-accepting society has created.
may you be at peace regardless of your preferred finishing style. thanks for reading!
(a note — much of this is a look at scholarly ideas of timeline and assumptions and suspicious based on very-thin evidence from ancient time periods, which is all we really have to go on, in many cases. i’m happy to talk about this in detail but if you’re looking for a fight, a debate or to convince me i’m wrong, look elsewhere. i don’t engage in debate on any topic, least of all things as truly-unknowable as the ancient past and you’re wasting your breath. i can save you lots of time. i don’t engage. there’s no point in trying. i won’t defend my ideas and you won’t cause me to doubt them.)