To point or not to point your index finger during planing

I was sifting through the net of some old woodworking photographs when I came across this one below that took my interest.

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I was contemplating on how simple their shops were and how minimalist in tools they were too. In fact, I haven’t yet seen an antique photograph or drawing with any more tools on their walls as to what you see here. Oh well each to their own, I love my tools and just like clamps you can’t have too many.  As I was about to click off the image I noticed something else, something peculiar and evidence to what was developing into a myth is now proof it’s not a myth at all; the pointing index finger.

point

The idea has spread like a virus among my small circle of friends that extending the index finger whilst planing is a modern day invention. Whilst many argue that there is no need to extend the index finger during planing, no one yet has come up with a plausible argument to dispute their theory. Their claim that this practice probably begun over the last 100 years. Well, now I have the evidence to prove they are wrong.  A photograph taken in 1848 of two woodworkers showing that one worker has his index finger extended during planing. Whilst I agree that it serves no purpose in hand planing, I however continue to do it out of habit.

I would like to know your thoughts on the subject.

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17 thoughts on “To point or not to point your index finger during planing

  1. I find I generally do have my index finger up along the blade-chip breaker assembly — I think it does steady the plane, but there is a much simpler explanation — my hands are large with arthritis in the fingers — my index finger doesn’t fit comfortably around the tote.

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  2. Extending the index finger while planing makes perfect sense. As with sawing the extended finger helps with proper alignment, whether consciously or subconsciously. Extending the index finger also makes for a secure yet loose grip. I extend my finger while using all of my saws, planes, and molding planes.

    Great blog post, Salko. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Love the photographs Gary. I’ve seen some woodworkers work gripping the tote full fist and I haven’t seen any rotation you speak of. If you plane with a low angle jack, extending the middle finger just feels awkward so you don’t see it done by most people and the same applies with the Veritas grooving plane or the Stanley tongue and groove. However, try to grip with all fingers on an 18th century no.7 or 8 it’s impossible without extending the index finger. The handle simply isn’t big enough to accommodate all of the fingers. Look this is my theory or observation. I’m sure there is another explanation.

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  3. Hi Salko,
    The pointing of the finger in bio mechanical terms does a few things.
    Its a cue to start a movement/kinetic chain that’s linked way down in our history: where that finger points the arm will go.
    Pointing fingers (either index or middle) also recruits less muscle but adds tension which can be released or reintroduced easily- think boxing or some type of martial art with hand techniques.
    While employing the finger aids in an increase of fine motor skill and isolates particular tendons and muscle groups and just plain kick starts a movement it HAS to be trained as well.
    I find no big difference in jointing a 6inch face on a 6foot board with a finger grip or enclosed grip but I will switch between the 2 to avoid fatigue and where more fine control is required.
    Long winded sorry I’m trying to be concise… So since our nuero muscular and skeletal systems haven’t changed much in a few million years its a safe bet in thinking there’s more than way to hold a tool to be effective in time and technique.

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    1. Sam what you speak of holds true to sawing and I can safely say without it you would have a hard time sawing straight, not unless you were to train yourself to do so without the extension. But I don’t think in planing extending the index finger would aid in any movement. Remember skewing the plane whilst pushing it forward with the finger extended doesn’t aid nor conflict with the directional movement. So still I’m baffled if my theory of the handle being too small on older planes doesn’t pan out.

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  4. The index finger’s forward positioning is irrefutable based on your sharp-eyed photo evidence. However, as a small correction, your dating the photo to 1848 seems wrong. That skew back hand saw hanging on the wall was first patented June 23, 1874 by old Henry. The Derby hat was first made in England in 1849. I think dating your image to around 1875-85 might be more accurate. The big facial hair also seems more common post-Civil War than not.

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  5. I was thinking the same thing about the dating of the photograph. 1848 was too early for this type of a photograph. For a photo of standing people to be taken like this one the film had to be fast enough and a mechanical shutter with a speed short enough to render the sharpness and clarity seen here. This was not possible before the 1870’s. Judging from the attire of these gentlemen my guess would be mid 1880. That aside the discussion is great. I find that I use an extended finger on some planes and not on others, not sure why.

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  6. Sawing and pointing yes and to the best of my knowledge all the time. Planing, pretty much anything goes depending on the task. Paul Sellers studied his own hand movements fairly recently on the plane and there were quite a few according to task. I don’t tend to point specifically but especially for finer work there is a lean toward that. Even with a block plane I have found there are quite a few hand orientations, some of that could be due of course through my site work on fixed in joinery , planing anything upside down sucks..the plane not me:) To my mind while good technique is important comfort is right up there too, if something is annoying or physically hurts in a task it impacts on your concentration. Hands up those with injuries!

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