In Praise of the Bead Plane


Around the autumn equinox is typically our hottest, driest time of year, with golden brown fields and chalk dry dust under the orchard trees, now barren after harvest. The tips of the redwood branches have turned an orange-y yellow, and happily soak up the sea fog of a rare night. I can feel the rains lurking and my days are marked with anticipation. I know I need to prepare my woodpiles for winter shop work, clear the gutters, and make any house repairs before the wet season arrives and the sun’s lowering angle keeps everything damp until late spring.

Over the past two weeks I made and installed 16 small casement windows as a clerestory on the south-facing kneewall above our shed-roofed main floor. I love making windows, especially when I can use one of my side bead planes (above). I use the plane to cut a rounded ‘bead’ at the bottom corner of the exterior casing, which creates a drip edge for rainwater, preventing it from wicking back towards the house. The bead is kind of a special case of a chamfer, and is more often found used as pure decoration on 18th century furniture than as a functional feature in contemporary architecture. I first learned of its simple effectiveness while studying the vernacular, wooden architecture of coastal New England, where I began collecting bead planes and learning how to use them. For me, cutting beads in well-seasoned cedar or cypress while thinking about shortening days and pending storms hearkens autumn. It’s like my World Series.