While I don’t consider myself a “real carver”, I find myself applying details on a regular basis that are too fine for power tools. In these situations, I have generally reached for a utility blade, pocket knife, chisel, or whatever other sharp object is within my reach, to attempt the task. Every time I have done this, however, I have known that a better way exists, and I was reminded of an item buried deep on my “mental to-do list”, which is normally synonymous with “ain’t gonna happen”. Somehow the stars aligned this time, and a picture of a perfect little carving tool appeared on my Facebook news feed at a time when I had a few minutes to dig deeper, and the purchase process was so easy I pulled the trigger.Two things drew me to this little gem. First, its appearance was both beautiful and looked exactly as I had imagined the perfect tool for my needs to look. Secondly, the name “Hock” was associated with it. I have been familiar with that name for nearly 15 years, from my earliest days in serious woodworking. Back then the old timers who lured me into woodworking in the first place would speak this name with great reverence, and talk about “chatter-free plane blades”, carbon count, cryogenic steel treatment, and many other concepts that were foreign to me at the time.
While I admit that I am not schooled in the finer points of steel science, I have certainly come to appreciate high quality hand tools through the years, and I now know when I am holding a winner based upon its ability to take and keep an edge. The main lesson that stuck with me from those long gone discussions was that some guy in California named Ron Hock is deeply passionate about steel and if you want the best in sharp tools, go to Ron. Well, I am from Minnesota, and if you listen to Prairie Home Companion on public radio, you know that means I don’t feel worthy of the best, so I never gave myself permission to look into it. Then, while looking through my Facebook news feed I saw a picture of a perfect little knife, and overcome with tool lust, I dared to take a peek. A couple clicks later I realized that it would only cost me $40 delivered to my home? Are you kidding me? I have been denying myself, and struggling for 15 years, and the answer is only $40? Life is short, Ron, send mine express. How much extra to ship it back in time a few years for me?
I sent an email with some questions to Mr. Hock himself in the evening, and got a response from him that same evening. The next day I called the company’s toll free number, and guess who answered? Yep, it was Ron himself. He answered my questions, explained his processes, and his passion came across the phone line like electricity. That probably explains why I called to buy a knife, and ended up with a couple other goodies as well (will explain in a bit). It wasn’t because he tried to sell me things, but the more I heard, the more I wanted.
The Knife. The knife is beautiful.Part of the beauty is in its simplicity. Ergonomically, it is the perfect size. There is nothing wasted in the design, and when you hold it in your hand, it feels like it belongs there. And the blade, oh my, the blade. My old woodworker mentors were right. I felt like I was introduced to Ron Hock when I examined the blade, with its beautiful steel, perfect bevel, and insane polish. I knew immediately know that Mr. Hock is obsessed with quality and detail, and I was appreciative. At that moment I believed what my mentors told me all those years ago, and everything that I read on the Hock Tools web site was validated in my mind.
Then, I dared to make a cut. Part of me was nervous because I had built this moment up quite a bit in my mind, and sometimes the anticipation can be greater than the thing itself. Not so in this case. The high carbon steel knife cuts effortlessly in the assortment of hardwoods in my shop, and it is a joy to use. In the picture I am performing a cut on a piece of rock maple, and the results were impressive. This knife exceeds my expectations on every front. Bravo, Mr. Hock!
It’s all about the Steel. In my conversation with Hock, he was insistent that producing a blade with an edge this was a science, not an art. “Forget the folklore and legends. Through years of calculations and experimentation, we have come up with the optimal tool steel recipe and heat treatment approach.” He further explains on the Hock Tools web site “Our choice of High-Carbon Tool-Steel (.95% Carbon: either O1, our “high carbon” or A2) offers the finest, sharpest edge possible. Its chromium and vanadium additions amount to only 1/2% each allowing quick, clean honing with traditional techniques. High-carbon steel holds and takes an edge better than anything else. We guarantee it.”
Got a plane blade too; just couldn’t help myself. The two other things that I picked up were a plane blade and cap iron (chip breaker) to upgrade my 1950s era #5 Stanley knock-off plane. Again, I had thought about this on and off for years, so when I had Mr. Hock on the phone I couldn’t help but ask a few questions about his plane irons, and the next thing I knew the mailman had a box under his arm for me.
The plane that I upgraded was pretty decent to start with, and honestly I didn’t think it needed an upgrade until I got my hands on a Lie-Nielsen plane, and realized the full potential of a hand plane. After some exploration with Mr. Hock about the differences between high carbon steel and A2 steel, I chose high carbon. A2 steel is more resistant to abrasive pressure and therefore holds an edge longer, which is why it is generally chosen for heavy duty applications. If I were using my hand plane many hours per day to smooth a lot of rough stock, I might have considered the slightly more expensive A2 steel, but the high carbon version is somewhat easier to sharpen, and holds a wicked edge that frankly exceeds my needs as it is.
Does size matter? Thickness is a factor. Hock is known for producing blades that are thicker than most stock blades. As an example, the blade I replaced measured .076″, which the Hock replacement blade was .095″, a full 25% thicker. The advantage to a thicker blade is that it reduces chatter as you slice through stock, and the difference is noticeable. But Hock explained to me that increased blade thickness alone is not enough to produce a superior cut. Other critical factors include steel quality, flatness, precision mating of the blade and chip breaker, and ultimately the hand plane that holds the blade has to be solid and well tuned.
Simple upgrade. The upgrade of the blade and chip breaker was easy. Pop the old ones out, and install the new ones. Because Hock’s irons are thicker than the stock blades on most hand planes, sometimes it might require one to slide the frog back a bit to create the necessary clearance in the throat. An easy task, this adds only a few minutes to the upgrade. In rare cases the throat may need to be opened up a bit with a file as well to accommodate the additional thickness, but it was not the case with my plane.
Time for a test run. After the upgrade, I gave the plane a good workout. I could feel what a difference the upgrade made immediately, and most of the workout was not really for testing purposes, but really more just for fun. I actually enjoy working with a finely tuned hand plane more than just about any other activity in my shop. It’s something of a religious experience for me, and with this new upgrade to my father’s old plane, it just got even better. I can’t say it’s now superior to my Lie-Nielsen, because there is more to a great hand plane than just a great blade, but with a good tuning (several hours worth) and this simple upgrade, my Dad’s old plane now shaves wood as well as any plane I have used.
A bit about Hock Tools.Ron Hock got started in this business 30 years ago, making knives in his Mendocino, CA studio and touring around selling his wares at craft shows and other venues. Then he was persuaded by some staff and students at the famous fine woodworking program at the College of the Redwoods to make plane irons for them, which proved to be a defining moment for his business. Over the years, as Hock’s reputation for quality tools grew, so did his business, and in recent years he has outsourced some of the blade manufacturing to facilities in the US and France that are required to meticulous follow Hock’s standards for materials and quality production. While these manufacturing partnerships have allowed some scaling of the business, the focus is still the high end discerning user who wants the best hand tools made with the finest steel available. The Hock Tools product line remains focused on a small number of items that are differentiated in the market by using extremely high grade steel, precision processing, and a high touch business that is available for direct interaction by its customers.
1 Carving Knife, CK100, $30 plus shipping
2 High Carbon Plane Blade, BP200 $38 plus shipping
2 wide #4 & #5 Cap Iron (Chip Breaker), BK200 $28 + shipping
Hock Tools (888) 282-5233