Making a Small Brass Plane by Hand with Bowmaker Ken Altman

This year, I am finally learning and using my grandpa’s Stanley planes on my home refinishing projects.  Seeing my newfound interest in planes, my wife put me in touch with a local master craftsman.  Plane-making is not his business, but surprisingly integral to his traditional craft of making violin bows. 

Ken in his Silverton, Oregon shop.

Traditional Planing Still Used in Bow Making

I am learning that Ken Altman is a highly renowned and successful bowmaker. He makes bows for violin, cello, viola, and bass.  Ken runs his own business, working from his cozy Silverton, Oregon shop.  Ken is very friendly and is eager to share his tradecraft with an appreciative audience.  Luckily, I brought a bright teenager along to share this great experience.  Bowmaking is a small and challenging market.  There is a far greater risk of the skills being lost than of creating excessive competition by sharing trade secrets.  Making small brass planes by hand is one of Ken’s special skills, and he sometimes teaches it to others in a college setting.  These are pictures from our great demo.  Follow along and learn to make a brass plane by hand!

6 of Ken’s small brass planes, all handmade by him for the production of violin and other instrument bows.

Music and Woodworking: a great combo for specialized skills

Ken has a background in both music and production woodworking.  For 13 years, Ken made beautiful puzzle-boxes which sold in galleries around the country.  He says he enjoyed the first 5 years of that gig.  Making bows has such a wider range of skills, from silversmithing and machining threads in titanium to rehairing bows with Mongolian horsehair, that it has provided a more pleasing and sustainable workflow.  When I consider turning my woodcrafting hobby into a production business, the amount of time around noisy and dusty equipment is a major detracting factor.  However, as I know from my own journey using bench planes, they are quieter and less dusty than an electric sander.  

Ken’s outgoing bows, lined up for shipping.

In Ken’s case, a powered sander just wouldn’t be suitable for the careful crafting of a fine instrument bow.  The weight and balance are so finely tuned for each stick, it is essential that he shaves off tiny layers with fine control.

Planing some Pernambuco with a tiny brass plane.

Violin Bows:  a high level wood and metal working craft

A bow only has a few pieces, but it is a precision instrument with moving parts.  The horsehair is securely fastened in at each end by custom mortised mechanisms.  At the base where the musician holds the bow, the horsehair is secured into the frog.  Ken makes the frog with ebony, silver and a mother-of-pearl inlay.  A silver button on a titanium threaded shaft holds the frog in place and tightens the hair.

All visible parts of the bow are handmade by Ken.

The wood for a fine bow is Pernambuco from Brazil.  However, Brazil is not allowing any more of it to be cut down and for export, as that endangers it for extinction.  Ken was wise and fortunate enough to buy a career’s worth of Pernambuco over 20 years ago.  The grains are so dense that even the crude wood sounds like a metal bell with a sharp tap! 

Ken never uses elephant ivory, but prefers legal mastodon ivory for the protective tip of the bows.  Now he likes to use titanium when possible, though it is harder to work with.

An amazing one-person shop

Ken’s shop is a great mix of traditional and antique hand tools. He also uses a computer controlled lathe for turning pen handles.  Chisels, files, glues and varnishes adorn every workbench.  Sheaves of Mongolian horse tails (150-200 tail hairs are used per bow) hang from a special stand with a small “Please Don’t Touch” sign on top. 

Mongolian horsehair for hairing a bow.

 Dust extraction systems and radiant heating panels give the carpeted shop a safe, warm feel.  Ken marvels at the fact that he used to make furniture in the same space, as it is rather tightly configured for bow and  pen making now.

Entrepreneurial diversity in a modern craftsman’s life

Specialized calligraphy pens are about 1/3 of Ken’s work now.  He sells them all to the same catalog and makes both the turned handles and metal nibs.  

Two of Ken’s calligraphy pens.

Repairing and rehairing bows is about 1/3, and the rest is in bow making.  I wouldn’t be surprised if all Ken’s work added up to more than 100%, as there is so much set-up and clean-up for each stage.  The craftsmanship part of his work doesn’t include include the customer communication, shipping, and other business overhead and maintenance work.  Still, for the solo craftsman or introverted artist, this is a dream life:  being appreciated and compensated for your fine craftsmanship so you can dedicate your life to its perfection with plenty of uninterrupted time in your own studio.

Given that a fine bow, like a fine instrument, is a treasure for the centuries, “K. Altman Bows” will leave a legacy longer than most.  Ken doesn’t have an apprentice and expresses doubt that a young person can make a living in bow making today, partly due to the Pernambuco scarcity as well as inexpensive Chinese bows that are ‘good enough’ for many players.  Those who play in professional orchestras will still seek a quality bow which matches to their instrument and style.  This is Ken’s specialty and why pro musicians seek him out.

Roughed out Pernambuco bows, weighed to the tenth of a gram before planing begins

Individually crafted bows matched to the player and instrument

Ken takes into account the player’s preference for heavy or light bows, among other factors regarding the instrument and playing style, before making or selecting bows to send for testing.  He often ships a few bows to be tried for up to a week.  Even if he has custom made a bow for someone, if it doesn’t sound great or feel perfect, he takes it back and sends another.  It is very difficult to predict which bow will sound great with a particular instrument.  Ultimately, a quality bow that doesn’t match the resonance of one violin will find one it pairs nicely with.  Altman bows start at $3600, recognized as a good value in an industry where great bows can sell for 5 or 6 figures.

Learning from the French Masters

Ken was fortunate to learn from some of the best American and French bowmakers.  It seems the best American bowmakers, such as William Salchow, learned mostly from French masters.  Both make up Ken’s lineage.  After about 7 years of making bows, Ken was invited to a special workshop at Oberlin College in Ohio, where top  French archetier were eager to share their craft with an appreciative American audience to help keep it alive.  

Special varnish formulas from Ken’s French and American teachers.

He learned to make the small brass planes from some of these French masters, and copied their patterns, which he uses to this day.

Patterns for plane making

Below is Ken’s wood model showing the 4 pieces for the brass parts of the plane.  The part he’s pointing at is the “frog” where the blade rests.  The smaller front piece helps when pushing the plane, and is cut to allow the curled shavings somewhere to go.  The walls aren’t just decoratively curved, but provide a comfortable grip for using the plane and a place for the pin to hold the blade & cap pieces.  

A wood model for a brass plane, about 4 times the actual size.

Making a brass plane by hand

Starting with brass bar stock (the one for  this plane is about 1.25” x 0.5”), Ken traces the pattern on with a marker, then uses a hacksaw to roughly cut out the 2 internal pieces from the thicker brass before cutting the curvy, thinner walls out of flat stock with a jeweler’s saw.

The brass stock with the 2 inside pieces for a small brass plane traced on.

The brass is easy to work with; an electric saw wouldn’t save time.  Of the two internal pieces, the larger one is the most important, as it provides the support for the blade and must be truly flat at the important spots of blade contact.

Brass jaw covers for the vise prevent damage to the brass material it holds.  Brass, being an alloy of copper and tin, is fairly soft. 

A file takes the roughly cut pieces to the next level of smoothness and evenness.  Ken mentions that the traditional training of a machinist involves a huge emphasis on filing at the beginning.

Filing brass to get a smooth, flat surface on the sawn parts.

An electric disc sander flattens the blade’s support surface (also called a frog, as on most planes).

Sanding, shaping, and sharing

Sharing a pro tip, Ken explains how he sands out a little concave part in the center of the frog.  This saves time and perfects the ends.  The end sections of the blade support must be in the same plane and perfectly flat.  It is a subtle concavity, but shows up clearly in later sanding.

Sanding a tiny concave area out of the center of the blade support.

Next, Ken uses a flat piece of plate glass and 150 grit sandpaper.  He slides the brass along a flat piece of wood to precisely flatten the new brass frog.

The concave portion in the center is just high enough to avoid the new sanding.

Here we can see the newly sanded ends, in the same plane, with the slightly concave center a different tone.

Cutting the curved sides of the plane

He traces the side patterns on thin brass stock and cuts them by hand. This just takes a few minutes and isn’t much of a strain:  the jeweler’s saw is light and the brass is soft.

Cutting the thin brass sides with a jeweler’s saw.

Ken files and sands the 4 pieces before assembly.  He “fluxes” them, wiping with an acid flux.  Then, he loosely assembles them with clamps.

The fluxed brass parts, clamped with cut solder placed strategically.

The throat (the opening for the blade) widens up as the bottom thins with sanding after soldering.  Ken says it can be set quite tight, meaning a narrow gap for the blade, at this stage.

Ken cuts six short lengths of silver-bearing solder for the joints.  It will flow towards the heat and fill the whole small gap along the walls.  The acid flux draws the molten solder through the fissures.

Soldering with silver

Ken lowers a fume hood, turns on the fan, and lights a propane torch.  He holds it under the newborn plane.  Heated through the brass, the silver solder shimmers and melts, bubbling as it is sucked into the narrow fluxed channels of the brass pieces.  As it cools, the plane effectively becomes one piece of metal.  There is considerable sanding and finishing work left to do another day, but the bulk of it is finished. 

The solder is starting to melt and flow into the faces between the brass parts.

Ken’s finished and used planes have a soft, rounded appeal, and are comfortable to hold in the hand.  With the hundreds of hours a year he uses them in shaping the dense Pernambuco wood for his bow making, he clearly has great interest in making a comfortable and sturdy plane.

A finished brass plane.

Oil hardening a blade

Ken crafts the plane’s blades from 01 Tool Steel flat stock.  Here he demonstrates an oil hardening method near the end of our demo.  The steel stock will normally stick to a magnet.  But when it heats to a certain level of red hot glow, the iron atoms are too chaotic to line up together around a magnet.  Importantly, at this point the crystalline structures in the high carbon steel break.  Then when Ken plunges the red hot steel into normal vegetable oil, the rapid cooling locks some new carbon properties in place, as a result creating a harder alloy.

Hardening the tool steel for the blade.

It is always inspiring to see a master craftsman’s shop and skills.  Truthfully, my feelings can range from inspiration to despair, realizing how little time I have left to refine my own skills towards mastery.  Additionally, many of Ken’s skills may not carry on to the next generation, due in part to the fragility of Brazil’s rainforest ecosystems as well as the shifting economic and educational sands here.  

The future is in someone’s hands

So many middle and high schools are cutting their music and shop programs.  Therefore, I wonder who the professional players and instrument makers of the future will be.  On the hopeful side, I find myself learning new skills all the time from YouTube and blogs, from generous, skilled, experienced craftspeople.  Many of these teachings would previously only have been available through a specialized school or apprenticeship.  Even here, in this post, I am documenting and sharing enough detail  of Ken’s creation process to enable an inspired reader to get some brass stock, acid flux, silver solder, and break out the hacksaws to make a tiny brass plane!

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