Vintage Tools

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Learn How. Discover Why. Build Better. - Christopher Schwarz


D. L. Barrett & Sons Bridle Plow
Copyright 2008. Originally appeared in the Fine Tool Journal

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Meet the young and skilled hands behind a near-perfect tool.

This bridle plow – based on the famous Mathieson
was built by an 18-year-old student now studying tool and die making.

Unlike a number of tool collectors I know, I don’t have a full-blown plow-plane obsession. Ebony screw-arm plows with ivory tips and silver fittings are beautiful and ingenious, but I’ve always thought that their flashy details somehow diminish them because they make them too nice to use. It’s like a table saw with a solid gold top.

In my work, I’ve always used metal-bodied plow planes, though they eject shavings into your hands, are cold and seem heavier than their wooden cousins. The overriding advantage of the metal plows, however, is that their fences are easier to keep parallel to the tool’s skate than your typical wooden screw-arm plow plane.

As a result, what I’ve always wanted is a wooden-bodied plow that has a robust and easy-to-adjust fence. My search ended in February 2008 when I judged a toolmaking contest put on by the web site and sponsored by Lee Valley Tools.

For that contest, we judged more than 60 tools that had been brought into Lee Valley’s board room in Ottawa, Ontario. The moment I walked into that room my eyes locked onto a beech-bodied plow plane with ebony arms and a simple metal fence-locking mechanism.

The moulding on the fence is remarkably crisp, even as it returns
across the front. Here you also can see the boxwood lining and
the two sliding dovetails that attach it.

When I finally got to pick the tool up, I was impressed by how lightweight it was and how the fence slid smoothly on its arms and locked with the quick twist of a thumbscrew. The real test, however, came when I started plowing grooves using a workbench that Lee Valley employees had moved to the board room.

The plow plane both glided over the work and removed a sizable shaving. It was the easiest groove I’d ever cut by hand in maple. This was quite surprising. Usually with tools as complex as a plow or a moving fillister plane, there is a break-in period while the tool and its user circle each other and neither performs at the top of their game. This plow plane was different. It was like I’d been using it all my life.

After a couple days of discussion, we awarded that plane first place for craftsmanship, and I resolved to track down its maker and ask that person to build one for me.

When I finally got in touch with him, I was shocked to find out that Kyle Barrett was an 18-year-old high school student in Barrie, Ontario, who had built the plane in his father’s workshop. I was even more shocked to learn that his prize-winning plane was only the second handplane he’d ever made.

“I Enjoy Seeing How Things Work”

Kyle’s toolmaking adventure began years ago in his father’s shop. Dan Barrett is a trained carpenter and cabinetmaker with more than 25 years experience in building and teaching. When Dan built the family’s living room chairs, Kyle was right there in the shop watching the process and helping where he could. When Dan built some shelves that looked like an airplane flying out of a wall, Kyle was there as well.

“I thought it was really cool getting to see how things were made,” Kyle says.

Then Kyle, who said he’s always interested in trying new things, took a shop class at high school. After learning about hand and machine work in his father’s shop, he said the next logical step was to challenge himself by building a walnut grandfather clock. To make the beading on the clock’s ogee bracket feet, Kyle had to make a simple handplane for the job.

“I really enjoyed that,” Kyle says. So the pump was primed when he happened upon an ad for a toolmaking contest in one of his dad’s Lee Valley flyers.

To enter the contest, he had to figure out what tool to build. As Kyle was flipping through “Wooden Plow Planes” by Donald Rosebrook and Dennis Fisher he spied the Hermon Chapin plow plane on page 98. That Connecticut-made plane was very similar to the Scottish-made Mathieson bridle plow, and Kyle locked onto that plane and resolved to build a version of it for the contest.

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