I've asked a few questions about planes and have gotten some good detailed answers...Other people have asked about hammers and saws and so forth and there are places that give detailed instructions and explanations of these basic tools. I wonder if there's a place I can learn more about planes. Every thing from the stroke so to speak that you use to plane, to the adjustment, the different kinds and so forth.
Lately, there seems to have been a number of questions in regard to hand planes; things do seem to go in cycles. Any who, it got me to thinking that even though I’ve made numerous postings in reply to specific questions concerning the subject, it would be most difficult to conduct a search here, in terms of the sheer number of “hits” one might get in doing such a search. So, as is my wont when I’ve had too much java late at night, I thought that I would offer up another “primer”. This one on hand plane basics.
As I’ve noted here before, there does seem to be some sort of “mystique” on hand planes and their use. This is something that is not unique to this forum, but in the “real” world as well. The hand plane really is a very basic tool and dates back to ancient Egyptian times. In my case, a hand plane was the second tool I was taught to use, excluding a pencil and rule of course. This was around the age of 4, for what ever that is worth, other than perhaps that if a 4 year old can learn to use one, so can you.
There are numerous advantages to learning how to use a hand plane from accuracy that is not achievable by machine, the efficiency in preparing a surface for finishing, to the end result. Not to mention the health issues and just the pure pleasure of feeling the wood through the plane.
Hand planes can be classified into three major categories, bench, block, and specialty. I will note that Mr. Hack would disagree; he lists 4 major categories. Each of these can be broken down even further, the specialty planes having the greatest number of subdivisions. For this primer I will speak mostly of the bench planes and blocks, though the “fundamentals” would apply to most all others.
In my experience, the key to having success in their use is to first understand the cutting geometry for any given plane type, more on this as we go along. Once this is understood, setting up the plane for use becomes very easy. I’ve found that most who have difficulty set their planes improperly as a result of not being clear on how a plane is designed to work.
These are the hand planes most of us are familiar with; used for dimensioning and smoothing stock. Most manufacturers of metallic planes follow the numbering “system” that Stanley Rule and Level used back in the 1860s; #1 through #4 ½ would be the smoothing planes, #5 through #5 ½ is the jack, #6 is a fore plane, and #7 and #8 are your jointers. Typically, a bench plane’s iron will be bedded at 45º (Common Pitch) with the bezel down sharpened at 25º. Unfortunately, this angle of attack is really a compromise for general purpose use (we can all thank Stanley for this). The higher the angle of attack for face grain work, the more efficient the slicing of the wood fibers becomes, up to about 60º. Additionally, the end result will also be superior, particularly on highly figured stock.
Your own success and satisfaction in using a bench plane will begin with the iron. If it is not properly sharpened and honed, you are doomed to frustration. It is imperative that iron be back lapped first. This is done by first removing the cap iron (loosen the screw then rotate it 90º first then slide it up; you don’t want to damage the iron’s edge) flattening the back of the iron either on the stones or using sandpaper on glass. This will ensure that once the bezel is established, sharpened, and honed; the cutting edge will be straight and consistent. Once the iron is back lapped you shouldn’t have to do it again. I would recommend going down to a 4000 stone or 1200 grit silicon carbide if the so called “scary sharp” method is used. The next step is to sharpen the bezel at 25º and then hone, again working down to the previously mentioned grits. I like to put on a micro bezel on the irons of my bench planes. A micro bezel is when you hone at a higher degree than the primary bezel, in my case that would be 30º. While this does not necessarily improve the quality of the cut, it does save considerable time in sharpening/honing and removes far less steel from the iron. Going this route, one needs only go down to about a 2000 stone or 400 grit silicon carbide when sharpening, then progress down to 4000/1200 when honing, I usually get around two or three dozen honings in before I have to sharpen. On my smoothing planes, I will radius the corners to prevent tracking, the bezel is straight. Since I use my jack for light thicknessing; its bezel has a slight crown of about 3/32nds. The jointer’s bezel is straight and 90º at the corners. I “strop” the edge after honing by making slices on the face grain of a piece of Western Red Cedar; some use a leather razor strop. When the iron can slice a single shaving off the end grain of a piece of pine or fir, it’s sharp. I don’t recommend shaving your arms to test, but if you can, it’s sharp.
Once this is completed, you will need to fettle the cap iron it’s self. The cap iron serves two purposes; one is to stiffen the iron and more importantly to lift the shaving up and away from the mouth of the plane. This is why some refer to the cap iron as the “chip breaker”, though if you are getting chips your plane is either out of tune or your working with Gaboon Ebony. The mating front edge of the cap iron should be perfectly flush with the iron, any gaps what so ever can cause the plane to choke. I do this by using 200 grit silicon carbide (on the glass) with the back end slightly below the glass. Aside from maybe incorrect depth setting, I’ve found that the lack of fettling and improper set up of the cap iron is the single largest cause of frustration for the beginning user. The finer the cut, the closer to the iron’s cutting edge is where it should be set. For example; on my smoothing planes the cap irons will be anywhere from a 64th to a 32nd from the edge. This too can vary somewhat depending on what type of wood I’m smoothing. Regardless of the type of bench plane, it should never be more than an 8th from the iron’s cutting edge.
The other factor to ease of use is the depth of cut and mouth opening relationship. The mouth is opened and closed by adjusting the frog. It’s very important that the shaving is supported as it’s being sliced up and away from the surface. If the mouth is open too much, you will get tear out and chattering not opened enough it the plane will choke. The mouth opening should be just a hair over the amount of the depth of cut. In other words, slightly more than the thickness of the shaving.
Okay, now your plane is back together and set up, now for some technique. First you will want to make sure that the board to be planed is secure on the bench at about belt buckle high. A plane is driven mostly by the shoulders with the arms bent at the elbow at about 90º; you plane with the grain. You begin by resting the toe of the plane on the stock, begin the drive with downward pressure on the toe, even out during the drive, and then end with downward pressure on the heel. You want momentum going throughout the drive; any stops will cause a tear out. It is always better to start with light cuts to get the feel of the board, then deepen the cut as confidence builds and/or you “get to know it”. One way to set up for the initial cut is to retract the iron, then turn the plane up side down and “sight” down the sole from the toe and adjust the iron until you see a black line about the thickness of a hair.
These little guys are used mostly for end grain work and are smaller than their larger brothers. A block plane is normally use with one hand; it has no frog or cap iron. The iron is bedded at 20º, regular, or 12º, low angle and the bezel is up, normally sharpened and honed at 25º. Wood fibers are a lot like straw, so if a bench plane was used on end grain there would more of a crushing action than a slicing action. Your lesser quality block planes will not have an adjustable mouth, so I always recommend folks to invest in one that does. These little guys are very versatile and an entire “primer” could be written just on them alone. Suffice to say there are a few misconceptions about them, particularly a regular angle block. Because they are bedded at 20º and normally sharpened and honed at 25º, this will result in a 45º angle of attack, not very suitable for end grain. But, if you sharpen and hone at 20º (which is the absolute minimum one should sharpen at) you end up with an angle of attack that will be 40º, which can work in a pinch on end grain. Don’t despair though because therein lies the versatility of the block plane. Let’s say you have a piece of stock that’s “difficult” and you don’t happen to have a Norris or Spires smoothing plane that has a York (50º) pitch or a Middle (55º) pitch. What to do? Well, whip out that little regular block that’s sharpened and honed at 25º; just re-hone it at 30º for a York pitch or 35º to achieve a Middle pitch. Then just touch up the difficult spot. Slick, huh?
Now then, the low angle block does excel on end grain because its bedded angle is 12º, with a bezel sharpened and honed at 25º that will equal a 37º angle of attack. On any plane the angle of attack can be decreased without re-sharpening or re-honing. This is done by skewing the plane as it’s driven. This is also something you want to remember when using a bench plane; normally you don’t want to skew it when face planing.
As with any thing, practice does go a very long way. Each and every board you handle will have it’s own unique character, in learning how to use a hand plane you will also quickly learn how to “read” a board. The benefits gained by learning how to use these very basic tools far outweigh the short amount of time it takes to learn. Your own wood working efforts will, in fact, be taken to a higher level in terms of quality, efficiency, and satisfaction.
So, this little “primer” is by no means complete, it’s intent is not only to get those interested or frustrated started. This is also intended to generate questions and further discussion.
Garret Hack's handplane book is covers everything you could ever want to know about hand planes. 'making and mastering wooden planes' also covers planes very well. I would also reccomend the fine woodworking video on planes by mario radriguez.
P.s carefull, handplanes are more addictive than power tools :)
"Use the talents you possess, for the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except the best." - Henry Van Dyke
Note: the first two pictures, top to bottom, show the sample woods I bought to match: mahogany, walnut, oak, the bottom is the side of the table. The remaining 3 pictures are of the wood in question...