How to get more out of your handplanes
Above: Planes with various cutting angles, from rear—HNT Gordon Aussie jack (55°), Record 5-1/2 (45°), Veritas low angle jack (12°), Stanley low angle block plane No.60-1/2 (13-1/2°).
Words and photos: Richard Vaughan
For many woodworkers using the plane is a blissful experience. It is deeply satisfying to be able to remove the most delicate of shavings with confident precision, such as when edge jointing boards so they mate invisibly and so snugly they almost suck together. Or when making those minute adjustments to drawers or doors so that they fit just so.
When you have your plane well tuned, and set up, you are able to make very fine adjustments rather than endure the frustration of alternating between too much off one side and then too much off the other side. You can’t make beautiful music with an out of tune instrument, and you won’t take fine shavings with a plane that’s not tuned either.
Edges and angles
There are way too many variables to give some sort of chart of angles for different situations, but at least you need to be able to make informed choices.
The main angles affecting performance are the included or honed angle of the blade, and the cutting angle. The included or honed angle determines the durability of the edge as well as how easily it cuts. A fine angle, say 20°, will penetrate more easily than a thicker angle such as 35° but will fold or chip much sooner.
Planes with adjustable mouths, l–r: Veritas low Angle Jack plane, Lie Nielsen low angle smoother, Veritas Low angle block plane, Stanley low angle block plane.
Both the quality of the steel and the nature of the wood you’re working will determine the appropriate honing angle. You will need to experiment to determine what works best for the job in hand.
I use HSS blades and work almost exclusively with Australian hardwoods. I use the grinding wheel to set the initial or primary bevel at around 25°, then use a guide to hone the edge at 30°. For more assertive timbers such as spotted gum or river redgum I’ll hone at 32°. The edge is finished with a fine back bevel which slightly increases the honed angle as well as the strength of the edge. It also guarantees that the edge is the meeting of two finely polished surfaces.
1. The edges of the blade are slightly relieved during the final stage of honing. You can see small gaps at each end of the blade.
Other than for rebate or shoulder planes it is standard practice to just slightly relieve the edge toward the corners (photo 1). This prevents the corners of the blade gouging tracks when using the full width of the plane, such as when flattening a panel. It is also useful when jointing boards.
Cutting angle or pitch
For some reason there have come to be two mutually exclusive definitions of what the cutting angle is. I understand it to refer to the angle between the upper face of the cutting edge and the surface being cut. This is also called the ‘pitch’.
On standard bench planes, which have the blade’s bevel down, this is usually 45°. ‘York pitch’ refers to a 50° cutting angle, 55° is known as ‘middle pitch’ and 60° is called ‘cabinet pitch’. Some variation in this angle can be achieved by honing a back bevel.
Much more variation of the cutting angle is possible with low angle, bevel up planes. Because the bevel faces up you can change the cutting angle by changing the honing angle, and this is very useful indeed. A low cutting angle is excellent for cutting endgrain because it doesn’t exert the sort of lifting forces on the vertical fibres which a steeply pitched blade tends to do.
Imagine if the rotary lawn mower had the blades set at close to vertical rather than horizontal. If you think of the endgrain of the wood as similar to the grass you can see how such a cutting angle increases the likelihood of a torn, rough surface.
However when planing along the grain the lower cutting angle is more likely to lift the grain, particularly when the grain is wavy. This is when a steeper pitch is appropriate, and in really difficult timbers an angle which scrapes more than slices is often the only way of achieving a satisfactory surface.
Do you skew
Using the plane at an angle to the direction of cut lowers the cutting angle. But skewing the plane like this when jointing an edge shortens the length of sole on the surface. This defeats the purpose of having a long plane which is designed to flatten the edge rather than follow the undulations.
Close your mouth
The adjustability of the position of the frog on the familiar iron bodied bench planes serves two functions. The main purpose is to allow the space in front of the blade to be as narrow as practical for the shavings it will be taking to get through. This reduces the tendency of the wood to split and lift ahead of the blade, leaving a rough finish. If the shavings are constantly jamming in the mouth (rather than between chipbreaker and blade) then you’ve most likely got it set too narrow. Even with your plane nicely set up a shaving will every so often jam in the mouth, but a simple solution is to have an old toothbrush to hand to clear it without risking the edge.
Before machines took over dressing the sawn timber it was customary for a workshop to have planes set up with open mouths for the initial leveling of the surface and others with finer settings for the smoothing.
Being able to position the frog also allows for blades of various thickness. The advantage of a thicker blade is that it is less prone to chatter, that slight deflection in use which will affect the finish. Generally the lower the cutting angle the less of a problem this will be. But in any case I find that the stability of a heftier blade makes a noticeable difference in feel and result.
In some planes, typically the low angle types, the mouth adjustment is made by moving a fitted plate in the sole immediately in front of the blade.
What’s the use
Edge jointing boards so the junction or joint is invisible is a very satisfying part of woodworking. Of course I use machines as much as I can, and I keep them sharp and accurately set up—I’m making a living out out of this after all—but the refining of edges for joining boards is the task of the handplane.
2. Consecutive passes, left to right, after machine jointing. First pass on jarrah (left) took only tops off the jointer corrugations. Blackwood shavings on right illustrate similar stages.
Several passes with the plane do make the fine adjustments usually needed for a perfect edge match, but another benefit is that the plane blade will also slice away the slightly corrugated and probably slightly burnished surface left by the rotating jointer knives. Look at the crinkled first shaving from a machine jointed edge, compared with subsequent shavings (photo 2). With surfaces so well prepared and with the glues now available you definitely won’t need dowels or biscuits to be sure of a very solid join.
3. Checking whether the blade is centred.
Even with a well tuned and sharpened plane there are common mistakes in use which deny you accuracy and pleasure.
Firstly you need to set the blade so it cuts a truly symmetrical shaving across its width (photo 3). A slight favouring of one side compounds error very quickly. I always have a piece of straight grained softwood, usually hoop pine, to set the plane up before use so I’m confident the first cut on the workpiece will be accurate, and that I’ve not wasted any of the keenness of the edge. Certainly you don’t need to lever the blade to favour one side when jointing an out of square edge. That correction is made with the blade centred but the plane moved.
As well as setting for a shaving that’s good across its width you’ll also be setting the depth of cut. Lightness of touch is the key here—you are aiming for shavings that float to the floor so you can make finely controlled cuts, and approach perfection gradually.
There is invariably some slack in the depth setting adjustment on your plane. Even the most beautifully made versions I’ve worked with have had a little. This is the ‘backlash’ or ‘slop’ you read about in reviews of planes. As a consequence you need to be sure to set the depth of cut by turning the depth knob to increase the cut. If the shaving is too thick you need to wind the blade back to no cut, and then gradually wind it down till it achieves the floater shaving.
If you have the blade set a little too deep and merely wind the knob till the edge comes back a fraction, the pressure of cutting will push the blade back into the slack allowed by the backlash until it is not cutting at all. I like to have the screw which secures the blade assembly fairly tight but some of my students have had a struggle adjusting both depth and lateral movement. So I have a screwdriver which fits that screw snugly to ease it off a fraction, then retighten after adjustments.
Be sure that your vice holds the board perfectly vertical. That way you only have to concentrate on keeping the plane horizontal at all times to be able to get a square edge.
Checking for square
4. Looking toward a light and creating a shadow while checking for square.
Looking along the edge toward a light source, bring the blade of the square down to the surface until it excludes the light. Shielding it with your hand gives a shadow to make the light more obvious (photo 4). Check every 200–300mm and run a pencil line along any high spots.
5. High spots marked on edge after checking with square.
Now you can make use of the slight crown you have honed on the blade in the final stage of sharpening. As you plane the edge now you still keep the plane horizontal but move it to centre on the pencil marks and remove the high spots (photo 5), then back to centre where the edge tested square (photo sequence 6). Holding the front of the plane by the body rather than the knob lets you steer the plane more accurately by using your fingers running along the side of the board.
6. Using fingers to steer the plane over the high spots.
The blade pushing through the wood gets pretty hot, as does the sole as it rubs over the wood, and this will soften various resins, often leaving a sticky residue on the sole of the plane. I deal with this by having a scouring pad and a block of paraffin wax. The scourer removes the stickiness, but make sure you scrub the whole sole so you don’t wear a hollow in it over time. A light smear of wax followed by a vigorous buffing with the scourer will keep the plane gliding effortlessly over the wood without contaminating it with wax.
7. The resultant shaving showing pencil marks removed, beside a full shaving for comparison.
Using the handplane
The most common flaw in planing technique is that users make their arms do most of the work, and as a result tend to throw rather than push the tool. That may be good for an action image in a DIY television show, but it is not useful for fine woodwork. It also requires a good deal more effort than doing it properly. If you lock your arm to your side then walk beside the work in a kind of controlled fall you are letting the weight of your body and gravity do most of the work. You also have better control and consistent pressure.
8. Stages of handplaning
Keep the centre of the blade exactly centred on the surface of the edge being planed, unless you are adjusting for it being out of square. As you plane you watch the shavings rolling out of the mouth in order to monitor progress as well as your technique.
The action of planing should look, and feel, more like championship ballroom dancing than punching a wall.
Note in photo 8 above how I’m leaning into the work, knees bent, but not crouching, back straight and arm locked to side of body. At the start of the stroke lean firm pressure onto the knob at the front of the plane. The hand holding the tote is supporting the back of the plane to keep it level.
When the full length of the plane is on the workpiece you have shifted your weight, the downward pressure of your arms, to the centre of the plane. As the plane leaves the workpiece you smoothly shift your weight to behind the blade so the plane stays horizontal. Letting it tilt down will steadily take a bit too much off the end.
Each pass with a plane should be as deliberate and focused throughout as a good golf shot or roll of a bowl is. Don’t drag the plane back along the wood. It only makes for unnecessary wear on the edge, and from an angle that increases the damage. Ever so slightly lifting the plane on the return stroke pays off in longer lasting edges.
When holding the plane it is so easy for a finger of the hand holding the tote to rest along the edge of the blade and chipbreaker. The risk is that you’ll put enough pressure there to shift it off centre. The innovation by Veritas of having screws in their plane sides to secure the blade once set is a really good one. But for other makes you simply have to watch where you put your fingers.
More gain less pain
If you are one of the many who tend to use your arm rather than your whole body you’ll probably find find it a bit weird as you learn to practise a different method. But you’ll be glad you persevered because it feels so much better, and is more effective as well.
Over the years I have encountered many woodworkers who regard using a plane as a job which is a long way short of bliss. But I’ve also seen students progress from lip trembling frustration to real contentment just because of a little guidance in doing it right, so I hope that this brief outline on using this essential tool will help others to a better handplane experience.
Richard Vaughan is a furniture designer/maker in Brisbane who also runs woodwork classes. See richardvaughan.com.au