There is one thing at the heart of making things by hand. And that’s the need to learn to use planes. Almost everything revolves around your ability to use them. This includes not only your skill in using them, but also the know how to set them up in the first place.
There is a myth that has persisted for a very long time and almost everything you read about handplanes continues to pass it along. This myth is about the traces that handplanes leave behind. The truth of the matter is that handplanes, when set up and used properly, leave no tell tale trace of their passing. There are only a couple of ways to tell if a hand plane has been used on a flat surface and that is if it was set up wrong in the first place or the time wasn’t taken to prepare it for use. The only other way would be if the plane was intentionally used to leave marks. Such as using a flat soled plane on a curved panel.
I have been planing surfaces for over fifteen years now and you will not find evidence of my planes having been there. Unless of coarse you consider smooth, clean, and flat surfaces proof of handplanes. And no, this is not achieved by sanding or scraping. I gave up on sandpaper at the same time I picked up handplanes and I use scrapers only sparingly because scraped surfaces generally need to be sanded.
When set up properly and used with care and attention to what you are doing, perfectly smooth and flat surfaces, glueline free joints and assorted other tasks are easily accomplished with a handplane.
Metal or Wood
I mostly use iron planes with the few exceptions being a couple of specialty planes. I like the stability and the feedback you get from a hunk of iron. It seems like you would get a lot more feel from a wood plane, but that is just not the case. If you are comfortable with wood planes, by all means continue to use them and while much of the following still applies you will have to adapt some of it for it to be of use.
About my only complaint with iron planes has more to do with the makers of them than what they are capable of. Just look at every new plane as a kit not a finished product and you won’t be half as mad. What this means is that you are going to have to do some work to get the most out of them. So I figure the best place to start is how I go about preparing them. The following pretty much applies to all metal bench planes.
Use a straight edge and square to check for flat and twist. Most new planes are not. If you do get lucky, don’t mess with a flat sole, just put it to work.
To flatten the sole, first place sandpaper on a known flat surface. 1/2″ tempered glass makes a good flat surface and is not too expensive about $15 for a 8″ x 30″ piece. Don’t hesitate to start with coarse paper and use roll type sandpaper not pieced together sheets. I use 80 grit to start. Most planes are ground at the factory with 60 grit. If you start with finer grits you will be there forever.
I leave the frog and blade tightened into the plane with the blade backed out. Run the plane back and forth on the sandpaper, using firm, but not excessive pressure and check progress frequently.
You can work your way into finer grits, but don’t forget the goal is flatness not polish. I go no further than 120 or 150 grit.
Take a file to all sharp corners of the plane body, the factories used to be much better at this. Also, remove the finish from wood handles and replace plastic handles. This is not a philosophical decision; rather the aforementioned offenders will give you blisters.
Setting Up the Plane for Use
I use a Stanley No 7 for virtually everything. It is big and heavy, but I have gotten used to it because it does such a great job. There are things it is not good for, such as smoothing and cutting chamfers, and in these situations I use a different plane. The following section mostly applies to my No 7, but where appropriate I will let you know about things to do differently with other planes.
Placement of the Frog
I use a small throat opening, about 1/16″. This is a good middle of the road setting as I use my No 7 for many tasks. Smaller and it jambs and bigger results in tear out. If you need a much different setting, grab a different plane. You will find tinkering with the frog is a pain.
Sharpening the Blade
If you can’t shave hair easily the blade is not sharp. What you want to end up with is an almost straight blade that feathers out at the edges. This is easy to achieve with the natural wear of oilstones or just apply pressure at the sides of the blade during honing.
A convex edge (1 to 2 thousandths) makes any bench plane work better and is a must on a smooth plane. The curve eliminates the corners digging in and makes fixing twist on edges and narrow pieces easy. It also helps to remove unwanted bevels or put on ones you need. One other note: I keep 11 blades ready because I hate to stop in the middle of a task just to sharpen blades.
Setting the Cap Iron
A set back of about 1/32″ works in most situations. You won’t get chatter with an even larger set back. I have only seen chatter when trying to take too heavy of a cut, a loose cap iron or a board not secured properly to the vise or bench. If you have a hard time believing me on this one consider the lowly block plane, it does not even have a cap iron….
Set the Blade
Most books will tell you to hold the sole up to a light source to set the blade. Don’t. Hold the plane by the sole with your hand cupped over the throat and the heel of the plane on your bench. Sight down the sole and use your other hand to adjust the blade. The sole needs to face a light source and wear a dark shirt. Trust me on this last one, as it is an immense help.
The Lever Cap
Prior to tightening up the lever cap, while it’s still loose, pull back on the blade to ensure that it’s tight against the adjustment levers. When tightening down the lever cap it will tend to force the blade farther out the throat. So, lightly snug up the lever with what appears as too little blade showing and pressing the lever all the way home should give you the desired blade setting. Remember, when setting the lever cap, it should start to snug up before it runs out of room.
How to Hold It
First of all, there is no right or wrong way to hold your planes, but how you hold them can affect the results. Hold firmly, but don’t strangle it.
For edge planing, I hold the rear handle of my No 7 with my forefinger extended out to the blade or frog and with my other hand, I wrap thumb and forefinger around the edge of the plane next to the knob. In use, the back of your forefinger touches the workpiece and acts as a sensor and guide to help control the plane.
For surface planing, the grip is almost the same with the exception that you now use the front knob for obvious reasons.
Using Your Planes
Having a plane set up this way allows you to concentrate on using it, not on how to set it up for the upcoming task.
Start planing by knocking off the high spots with short strokes and moderate pressure on the plane. To oversimplify things, a surface you are going to plane is nothing but high and low spots. A concave surface is high on the edges or ends and a convex surface is high in the middle. Twist is no more than high spots on opposite corners. Even a rough surface fits this definition, as it is nothing but lots of little highs and lows. Whether you are working a flat surface or a perfect edge joint, planing is about removing these high spots.
And it goes without saying that you should almost always plane with the grain not against it. Running your finger along your stock will generally tell you the lay of the grain, even on some smoother surfaces. And if there is not a distinct grain direction, the board will plane better in one direction than the other.
Pay attention to what’s happening; even watch the throat of the plane to see where shavings are coming off the blade. You will find you can pinpoint spots you want to remove just by shifting the plane left or right. Bevels are a good example of this. You can remove or add one simply by using one or the other side of the plane sole. The left side of the plane removes the right edge of your stock and vice versa. But this will only work if the blade is sharpened with a slight curve. That slight curve in the edge also helps blend plane strokes together on flat surfaces.
When using your planes, try to develop a rhythm and flow and stay balanced. Keep your body as close to your plane as practical with your arms firm, but not locked and use your legs. Planing uses your whole body not just parts. Throwing the plane with your arms will tire you out and give you sore elbows from stopping the momentum of that hunk of iron.
Don’t be afraid to take a few swipes on the sole with paraffin, it makes the plane easier to push and can even give you a few more passes with an almost dull blade (try it if you do not believe me). As for the wax will wreck the finish argument, it doesn’t interfere with the oil/wax finish I am partial to and remember, don’t coat the sole, just a swipe or two. And the one plane I do this only sparingly to is a smooth plane. You will know when the high spots are gone when you get even width, full length shavings from your work piece. Low spots show up a s a break in the shaving. Final passes should run the full length of your stock. And keep a straight edge and winding sticks handy to check your progress.
Often the first thing you will have to do to a board is flatten one side of it. For the most part this is very simple; just knock off the high spots until the stock is flat. One word of caution here: Don’t get carried away with “flat”. Wood will always move and if you are not careful you may find yourself chasing an unattainable perfection. Minor imperfections are not going to be a problem. I will leave it up to you to define minor.
If the stock is close to flat you can knock off the high spots with your jointer plane. If it is way out of flat you need a plane with more bite. I use a scrub plane to rough out a flat surface or to clean up a rough edge prior to edge jointing. A scrub plane has a flat sole and a blade with a convex edge. It leaves a rough fluted surface, but removes stock quickly.
Setting Up a Scrub Plane
A No 5 jack plane makes a good scrub plane and they are probably the most common plane lying around unused. All you need to do is grind a blade to shape and move the frog all the way back to open up the throat.
To make the curved edge, grind down the corners by about 3/32″ then pivot the blade to shape your curve. You will find that it is easier to grind a curve than a straight edge. This amount of grinding should give you about 3/32″ of blade beyond the cap iron at the center. You don’t need more than this because it’s hard enough to plane off even a 1/16″ thick shaving.
Using a Scrub Plane
I use my scrub plane to cut with the grain, diagonally to the grain or, with caution and a sharp blade directly across the grain.
To flatten and thickness-plane a warped or twisted board, I first scrub equal amounts of wood off the high spots on one side, and ensure it is flat by sighting across winding sticks and planing until the sticks are parallel. (Following paragraphs go over winding sticks in more detail). And lastly, finish up the surface with a jointer plane.
Setting the Final Thickness
I scribe a line on all four edges to mark the desired thickness of the board, using the just flattened side as the reference for the fence of the gauge. Then I scrub off this side to the line and joint it flat. When removing lots of wood like this, I plane with the grain and diagonally to it. First remove a layer with the grain then switch to diagonal to remove the next layer and so on. This helps to maintain flatness when removing lots of stock and it also gives you a visual reference of just where the wood is coming off. It will take numerous passes to remove a large amount of wood and lots of effort on your part. Planing directly across the grain is usually reserved for wild grain that just won’t plane any other way.
When planing a large panel, the blade can get hot, so I am careful where I lay the plane. To keep the blade cooler and to avoid dulling it, I don’t drag the plane blade back over the wood before taking another cut (this applies to all planes…). I also knock dried glue squeeze-out from glued up panels before I thickness-plane and smooth them. I use the side and leading edge of the plane body and not the blade to do this.
Making and Using Winding Sticks
Winding sticks are two matching pieces of wood used to check for flatness, twist, alignment, etc. You will need to make your own, as I don’t know of any tool supplier who sells them. Dimensions are not critical; they are chosen to suit the maker. Mine are only 18″L x 1/2″T x 1 3/8″H (each). Anywhere between 16″ and 24″ would be a good length. Even longer “sticks” should be used for flattening large tables or a workbench.
Any stable wood can be used but a darker wood will make them easier to use and also allow you to put sights into them. Sights are just small pieces of contrasting wood inlaid near the ends of one of the sticks to improve visibility during use. I made my sticks out of Ebony and made the sights of Tagua nut.
After you have chosen your stock, true it up square, then clamp it together with two small C-clamps. Plane the long edges to ensure that the pieces are parallel to each other. This is what makes the sticks work; it is essential that the sticks are identical or at least as close as you can get them.
While the sticks are still clamped together mark one outside corner on each piece, then remove the clamps and chamfer the corners you marked. This chamfer ensures you use the sticks in the same position you made them in.
Sights and Finishing
I inlaid small squares of Tagua (vegetable ivory) into the top edge of one of the sticks on the opposite side of the chamfer. These squares, 3/8″ x 3/8″ x 1/8″ thick, are placed about 1/2″ from each end. In use the sights make any irregularities much more apparent.
There is nothing but a light coat of oil on my sticks for a finish. A coat of paste wax would work just as well. Do not use a glossy finish, as the glare will make them hard to use.
Sticks in Use
Winding sticks are very easy to use. First remove any cupping from one side of your stock, place the sticks at opposite ends of your workpiece, the one with the sights farthest away from you and the chamfers should be facing in opposite directions. Step back a pace or two and sight across the top of your winding sticks. If they line up parallel you have a flat workpiece, it not you have twist that needs to be removed. Also be sure to check the entire surface for flatness by repositioning your sticks along your workpiece. Plane off any high spots and be sure to work on opposite corners to remove twist. If you only work on one end you will have a flat surface that feathers out on one end. When your sticks line up the entire length of the stock you have a flat surface.
If there is a “Zen” to woodworking, this is where it will manifest itself. Nothing quite compares to the feel or “click” of a perfect edge joint coming together. There is no trick to edge planing just patience (of which I have none) and paying attention to the task at hand. A No 7 is not a magical cure all, but how you use it can be. First of all don’t bother trying to edge joint two boards at once, yes it can be done, but all you have to do is try to put those two boards back into the vise to make a correction to the joint and you will see why I don’t like it.
Set the blade to take a light cut, also make sure the blade is absolutely sharp. Too heavy of a cut will not make things faster, only more difficult. Rough in the edge with a scrub plane. This plane will take the brunt of the wear and you won’t have to sharpen your jointer irons as often.
As you work the edge start with pressure at the toe and gradually shift the mild pressure to the heel at the end of the stroke and remember, the entire edge is a single stroke. Only use short strokes to knockdown high spots. The final passes are continuous from end to end.
When the edge “feels” right get out your square and straight edge and see how you did. For long pieces a six-foot level is a good inexpensive straight edge and it may also tell you if there is any twist in the edge (the level will rock). Double check twist with a square it could be the level. For very long (5 feet and up) and wide (more than an inch) edges and stock that is less than flat, winding sticks are a much better choice. They won’t tell you if it’s flat in length but they will quickly identify any problem areas that are difficult to locate with a square. A long board with a slight twist may check out with a square when the edge actually has a twist to it. Winding sticks will quickly and easily show you where the edge needs to be worked. Don’t fret if things are not as they should be, practice is the cure.
Once you have that first edge done match the mate to it. One step leads to the next. The end result of all your labor should be a joint with no visible glueline. If it still shows you haven’t done it right.
Remember, you can’t force the plane to work properly. If frustration sets in, put the plane down and come back to it later. Frustration will only make this a bad experience. Edge planing not only takes the proper tools, but also the proper mindset.
Shooting End Grain
Shooting boards are popular with some people and they work well with small stuff, but get into larger work, large panel or cabinet sides for example and they are not very practical. Most of the time I shoot end grain instead of freehand planing. This ensures it’s square and true, but I don’t use a traditional shoot board. Rather, my bench becomes one with stops and blocks clamped to it. This method is far more flexible, than a conventional shoot board, and easier to store when you are done with it.
Set Up Your Plane
The sole must be flat with square sides and the blade set square to the endgrain you are going to shoot. If you sharpen blades with a slight curve as I do set the blade to take a square cut where the stock contacts the blade. The lateral adjustment lever of an iron plane will compensate for a slightly out of square sole as well.
One other note, shooting endgrain takes a much heavier setting of the blade compared to surface or edge planing. Set the plane up right and you will pull off shavings not just dust. Don’t forget to file off any sharp corners on your plane, as doing a lot of this will give you blisters in rather odd places.
Set Up Your Bench
Clamp a 2×2 stop block to the back edge with a hold down or C-clamp with the end grain facing the front of the bench. Every once in awhile I use a second stop to the left of the first one to better stabilize my work piece. Use two equal thickness scraps to elevate your workpiece. This raises it above that small section on the sole of the plane where there is no blade exposed. Place a back up scrap between the block and workpiece to prevent the back edge from blowing out. Lay your plane on its side and have at it.
Using your plane this way will dull one section of the blade quickly, but don’t put it aside or resharpen right away. By varying the height of the support pieces you can utilize the entire blade before heading back to your sharpening stones. I usually start out with thin spacers to use the lower half of the blade. Then, after this dulls out, I use thicker spacers to enable the upper part of the blade to be used. Make sure to use the lateral adjustment lever to get a square cut on your stock.
This set up works great for almost any size workpiece and is indispensable when squaring up pieces too long to stand up in a vise. Don’t forget that a bench hook can be used in a pinch on small pieces when you don’t want to drag out all the blocks.
Find a block plane that is light in weight and put in a better blade than the one that came with it. I put a Hock blade in mine. I have also heard that the blades in Lie-Nielsen planes are some of the best made.
I have an old low angle Stanley that I would not part with. It has the wrong shoe and there is a chip in the sole but it’s perfect for how I use my block plane.
Mostly I use my block plane to cut chamfers. To make this more efficient I angle the blade in the plane. One side takes a heavy cut and the other a finish cut. When doing a lot of chamfers this saves quite a bit of time.
Are low angle planes worth it? Don’t quote me, but I would say that blade quality has more to do with good results than the difference in angle. So find one that is comfortable in your hand, haunt the junk shops to find an old one cheap.
Something to think about when planing a lot of endgrain, grab a larger plane. I have often seen the advice about how well a block plane works in this situation and while this is partly true, a larger plane works even better.
One of the reasons I ever got into using hand tools stems from the fact that I hate the scratchy sound, mess and throw away mentality that goes with sand paper. The surfaces I can get with a plane are much “cleaner” and smoother than sanding will ever achieve. Another great thing about smooth planes is that it is much faster to plane a surface than to sand it, I don’t have to keep working up to the next grit or worry about leaving things in the finish, as the only thing applied to the wood is a sharp piece of iron.
I set up my smoother, a Stanley No 4, with a very small throat and the cap iron set close to the edge of the blade. As with my No 7, I keep a few extra irons ready (4) and they must be extremely sharp. I always finish honing on a Hard Black Arkansas to get the finest edge I can.
There is not all that much I can add to using a smooth plane that several hours spent using one will not teach you. That and following the advice I offer up in the first part of this chapter. I think most problems that occur with planes are the result of not preparing the plane for use and setting it up poorly. The quickest way to learn to use a smoother is to get yourself a piece of pine or other easily planed wood and have at it. Once the plane is working well, stop and take the blade out and force yourself to re-set the blade. The ability to set up the plane consistently is the most important thing in learning to use this or any other plane.
One little trick that can really bring out a nice surface is to burnish the freshly planed surface with shavings. At first I did not think just rubbing a surface with shavings would do a thing, but I gave it a try and it can bring out a little extra on a planed surface. One thing to note though is that this will not save or make up for a badly finished surface. You have to start with a nicely planed surface to begin with and remember to get the shavings off your bench not the floor.
There is not much of a trick to setting a rabbet plane. Just make sure that the blade takes an even shaving and the blade extends slightly past the side of the plane. If the blade does not extend out the side, the rabbet will start to get narrower with each pass. The amount of blade sticking out should be a little heavier than a shaving and your plane will work just fine.
Shoulder planes are a little tougher to set, but this is more of a sharpening dilemma than a set up problem. Because the blade projects from both sides of the plane body the blade must be absolutely square. I think most problems with a shoulder plane are caused by an out of square sharpening job. By keeping the cutting edge absolutely square to the sides of the blade during the sharpening process you should not have any problems. Using a honing guide makes this much easier. Also, don’t hone a curve into the cutting edge. Rabbet plane blades need to have a straight edge to work properly.
At first glance Combination planes are quite the contraption. But looks are deceiving as these planes are very easy to use and extremely valuable to the hand tool cabinetmaker. They are the best tool going for cutting grooves and dadoes.
While Combination planes can be used for a lot of different tasks, for the most part I use my Stanley 45 as a plow plane and dado plane. Setting it up to use as a plow plane is the same as any other plane, but there is also a fence that must be used. When setting the fence take care to ensure the fence is parallel to the body of the plane.
The only thing I do differently when cutting a dado is to turn the spur cutters so they will cut the edges of the groove and prevent tear out and to make sure the blade does not project past the spur cutters. The spur cutters are little blades that nick the grain just ahead of the main blade. This way the main blade doesn’t lift the edges of a dado causing tearout. Most of the time when cutting dadoes the fence is not used; rather a thin batten is tacked on to my work piece to guide the plane.
Also when cutting dadoes in a carcase piece I tend to cut the rabbets for a back panel first and then cut the dadoes. After the first pass or two, I use the shallow dado as a guide for my backsaw to cut down into the dado. This prevents the plane from blowing out the back edge at the rabbet. Cutting the dadoes first would prevent the need for this but I never seem to cut the dadoes before the rabbets
Setting up a spokeshave is not any different from setting a plane. The only difference is that the adjustments are made with a different mechanism. You still want a razor sharp blade with a slight curve to it and a setting that takes a fine shaving.
Due to the extremely short sole of spokeshaves, be careful that the front of the sole doesn’t dig in to your workpiece. Use a light touch to prevent this and check your progress frequently to ensure that you are keeping the curve fair and not digging a hole.
Spokeshaves are not the easiest tools to use, so don’t get discouraged if things don’t go well at first. Keep at it though and you will be surprised how often you reach for this overlooked tool.
As I mentioned at the start of this chapter, I do not use scrapers all that much. This is not to say that I don’t have any, there are three types I use. Flat steel scrapers of different thicknesses come in very handy at times. The ones I use are made by Sandvik, they hold an edge well and come from the factory almost ready to use. I also have what’s called a cabinet scraper, which is just a flat scraper mounted in a steel body. The only time my cabinet scraper got a lot of use was when I needed to level out the boards on the floor of one of my shops. The other type of scraper I use is a one-inch wide hook scraper. This is a rough tool mostly used for removing dried glue or scraping mineral deposits so they don’t tear up a plane iron. It is sharpened with a file while flat scrapers need to be honed on all sides.
The one time I find scrapers essential is when I remove the excess wood that sticks up after I glue in stringing. The scraper takes off the excess without damaging the surrounding surface. When sharpened properly and used with caution, I can get away with not having to replane the surface.