Flat Flat Flat: Can we talk about something else?

February 10, 2018

 When I was a kid I used to read "Dear Abby".  I don't know if it's still around but back then it was almost required reading.  Abby and her sister, Ann Landers, provided most of the country with the knowledge it needed to be decent folks, respectful to our family and neighbors, how to deal with fashion trends, style, dress, dating, personal hygiene issues and just generally how to be good, smart, well refined people.  Folks would write in and ask whatever question related to whatever issue or problem they were facing and ol' Abby would have the right answer. 

 

That is until The Great Toilet Paper debate.  The question from a reader inquired as to the "proper" way to hang toilet paper, sheets over the front or the rear of the roll?  OMG.  It was the Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the Bay of Pigs disaster all rolled into one.  For months the debate raged, ultimately with no definitive answer, except one.  Who gives a crap?  (I'd use the correct term but I read in Dear Abby that it's not nice to be vulgar).

 

And so, the world survived the controversy for 30 or so years, through the threat of global climate change, threat of terrorism, cataclysmic natural disaster and other, by comparison, similar trivial issues.  Until now.  

 

Today, in all of Tooldom, no issue raises as much controversy as the question of how flat should the bottom of a plane be?  Can one actually achieve flatness nirvana in the physical world of today if your plane bottom isn't as flat as the notes coming from a 4th grade orchestral recital?  Is one one thousandth of an inch too out of flat for the plane to produce the perfect shaving?  How about a ten thousandth or one one hundred thousandth?   Is the quest for the perfectly flat bottom on my favorite No 603 a never ending search requiring hours and hours, perhaps days of lapping and creating enough fine iron dust particles to supply every "Wooly Willy" toy in America?

 

We've all read articles on flatness.  Even Patrick Leach mentions it in B&G when referring to the long planes and the flatness fetish that many have. Go to any Facebook page that deals with tools or planes and inevitably, the topic rears it ugly head at least once a month.  No question in the history of mankind has sparked so much debate or created such hostility, except perhaps politics and/or religion; the topics of which should never come up at family holiday get togethers. The debate rages on and on with no resolution, no answer that can satisfy a majority, no way to judge as there is no "Court of Flatness" to make those determinations.

 

Flatness to one isn't even close to flatness to another and of course, my understanding  of flatness is much deeper than yours.  If you don't see it that way, clearly you must be an uninformed idiot.  "You can't make a flat board if your bottom ain't flat" is a common argument that I've heard/seen used.  The retort is invariably, "Oh yeah? If my board is as flat as your head, I'm OK with that."  Another: "If you don't measure it with a flatness meter, you can't tell how out of flat it might be."  From that we should, nay, we MUST buy us a flatness meter and test our flatness every time we use our plane.

 

Then, the debate goes beyond the flatness, down to the type of flattening media and even the substrate.  If your marble slab isn't flat, how then can your bottom be flat?  Wow, never even occurred to me, but it makes sense.  I guess the problem goes much deeper than just the surface of the iron.  But then should we use sand paper or an old used up belt from the bench top sander?  Which is better and why?  Is in fact marble flat enough, what about granite or glass?  The associated issues are far reaching.  But I digress.

 

OK, I've carried this far enough.  If you are perceptive, as I'm sure you are, you can see that my intent here is to create a "flat free" safe place where flatness is in the eye of the flatener.  A place where we can be free from those who must be flat to live. A place where even people like me, who don't need perfect, where a couple thousands off is OK. I do not wish to insult anyone but if you are a craftsman/woman who needs perfect flatness to a millionth of an inch, go for it, but not in our safe zone.  Instead go see a doctor because you are sick.  If, on the other hand, you can use a No 8 with a 1/2 inch bow in the middle, you are a crappy woodworker and I'll bet your work is demonstrative of your lackadaisical attitude. Of course for us in the "flat free zone" the answer lies somewhere in the middle.  Somewhere in the middle may be found in the very informative article by Don Wilwol at his website: timetestedtools.com.

 

So, finally we come right down to the last word on it.  I believe that perfection while perhaps desirable, is not achievable in this world but sloppiness, while easily achievable is not desirable.  You pick your poison.  Quite frankly, I don't give a crap.  Now, can we talk about something else for a change?

 

 

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