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  Letter from Down Under - December 12, 2006 by John Manners


Last Friday evening found me, for good and substantial reasons, a considerable distance from where, if things run according to the even tenor of my ways, I hope to be early on Saturday mornings, and the larger part of Saturday's daylight hours were occupied traveling the distance usually accomplished on Friday nights.

The OT upshot of this was that I was unable to participate in the traditional exchange of civilities between the Yandina wallabies and myself, the almost invariable prelude to my attending one of my favorite fleas.  As circumstances had conspired to prevent my escape from Brisbane for some weeks past I felt a trifle deprived to the extent that the roar of the surf had lost a little of its appeal for me as I tramped along the beach in company with the old dog.

However, by way of making the best of my lot, early Sunday morning found me in company with spouse and small granddaughter at the flea at Fisherman's Road.  This flea, in the past, has held few charms for me, being mostly devoted to oriental oddities, garden greenery and assorted primary industries' produce, all of which pleased my company.  As I moved to pass an unattended stall containing a collection of light fittings I saw a small wooden plane.  I picked it up to inspect it and a voice which apparently had no-one to speak for said, "Three dollars".

So far as I am aware, notwithstanding my somewhat mixed Norman ancestry, I am not descended from the family which gave us Joan of Arc.  I was reassured in this from the circumstance that the voice which demanded three dollars did not quite carry the resonance which one imagines is associated with any deity who chooses to have his or her voice heard by a mere mortal but, reassuringly, was given over to broad Australian nasal vowels.  I was more than content not to haggle with the voice but perplexed as to how to deliver the asked-for part of my wherewithal to it.  The voice then said, "Over here", and, looking at another table displaying a jumble of light fittings I finally discerned, supine beneath it, he whom I took to be the owner of the voice.

The voice's hand reached up and, as I deposited the required sum therein, the voice explained that it had "a bugger of a night with me mates" and, what with packing its trailer, driving to the flea and setting up, it had not had a chance for a bit of kip since it left the pub.  With the prudence which is a byword for those who practice the black arts of my profession I refrained from inquiring into the exact nature of the miracle whereby he was rendered sober for his drive to the flea and, plane in hand, moved briskly along.  My only other stop was at the stall of a pleasant lady who sold me a set of four volumes on carpentry and joinery for six dollars.

The plane's wedge displays the remnants of a circular paper sticker in red and gold on which appear the letters "HBS".  There is a similar circular motif stamped on the iron, beneath which is stamped the word "garantie". 

It sports a single iron, painted black for three quarters of its length and has the number "40" stamped on its rear end.  This number corresponds in millimeters with the width of the iron and from all this I deduce that the plane is of European manufacture.  The plane is not furnished with a knob but has a piece fixed on top at the rear end, the forward side whereof is a continuation of the bed and the rearward side of which is rounded and shaped to fit the hand between the thumb and forefinger.  It is 180 mm long by 60 mm wide by 55 mm thick.  The iron is a little peculiar in that, about two thirds of the distance above the edge, it has a small slot at the mid-line in the shape of a stylized inverted tear-drop or the keyhole in a lock's escutcheon.  I have no idea who or what "HBS" may be or for what purpose the keyhole has been cut into the iron for a single-iron plane.  The body, the extended bed and the wedge all appear to be made of light-colored, blond beech.  It weighs 500 grammes with the iron, which is 3 mm thick.  The bed is at common pitch.

The plane, as acquired from the "voice", had the iron placed bevel up.  The iron was not tapered and in good condition except where, at the edge, it had been worn slightly concave, as had the sole of the plane.  This condition seems to be common to a lot of planes, both metal and wood, which I find in the wild and I ascribe it to the plane's being used, for the most part, by house-carpenters to remove arises from framing members.  The edge was ground square on an oilstone with the iron's sides, which were parallel, and, as plenty of bevel remained, I set about re-establishing the edge on a coarse silicon-carbide oilstone after a few passes confirmed that the back was quite flat.  Although the facet I had cut in squaring the edge was quite small the iron's metal seemed very hard and it took me the best part of an hour, pausing to have a puff from time to time, to produce a wire edge.  In doing so I went through the collection of five silicon-carbide combination stones I had on hand and was mildly surprised by the very noticeable difference between the cutting ability of some as compared with others.

With the wire edge produced it was fairly plain sailing to refine the edge using the fine side of an India stone, a natural stone and a bit of stropping.  Without flattening the sole I reset the plane, bevel down, and found it performed quite creditably, full width, on a piece of hardwood with the grain but dug out a bit against the grain due, I think, to the coarse setting in the middle of the sole brought about by the concavity.  Sole flattening is for another day.  The edge was maintained throughout a fairly hefty workout.

The four books were the descendents of the carpentry and joinery books first produced in the fifties by the New South Wales Government for the enlightenment of apprentices in those trades which were once, I believe, combined as a single trade in that State.  My edition had been published in the eighties and had been heavily updated in terms of power tools although, it seems, nothing much concerning the use of hand tools had been removed.

Saw sharpening occupies quite a few pages. Of interest were the passages relating the use of the metric steel square where it was stated, in "don't argue" terms, that tables would no longer feature on steel squares, "set" marks were omitted and it would contain simply numbered divisions of 2 mm with lengths of rafters to be "stepped" by the square with stepping stops or an adjustable hypotenuse. 

It "seems" simpler, describes how the metric square may be used for hexagonal and octagonal work as well as for rectangular work, but I shall have to peruse it with some concentration before I can convince myself to abandon the old tabulated square with its set marks.  I have a granddaughter's (she who accompanied me to the flea) hexagonal aviary project in the offing so I may acquire a plain, metric steel square and see how I go, the keeping of the bird in being the proof (or otherwise) of the pudding.

My "good and substantial reasons" mentioned in the first paragraph involved a reunion of a shark-school of some twenty lawyers who had worked together in the same office forty years ago.  After a while, about five hours, it became noticeable that most of my old comrades either wore ill-fitting shoes or suffered some disability of the legs. 

I was, of course, too polite to mention to these old friends the infirmities which had so obviously overtaken them in their declining years and, with sorrow in my heart for the ravages the passing of time had wrought upon them, I discovered, after no more than half an hour's search, the door whereby I had entered the venue, and regretfully made my departure.

I'd have called an ambulance to their assistance but the light must have been poor as I was unable to read the numbers on my telephone.

Regards from Brisbane,

John Manners
December, 2006

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