Tune Your Block Plane Tonight

Following the popularity of the recent post, Tune Your Hand Plane Tonight, let’s now talk about block planes.  Much of the information will be the same, but block planes are different enough to warrant a dedicated set of instructions.  Besides, since there are probably more block planes owned today and sitting unused in garages and workshops than there are bench planes, they deserve a little love of their own.

As I’ve written before, I have a particularly strong affinity for block planes.  They are  the sexy two seater sports cars of the hand plane world – quick, nimble, and fun to handle.  But more than that, they are extraordinarily versatile and practical for many handy-man chores around the house, as well as indispensable tools in the wood shop.  Even the most ardent power tool user, and certainly the average homeowner, should have at least one or two block planes in his or her arsenal.

Keeping a block plane in good working order is quite easy.  Tuning one for optimal performance is a simple proposition that can be accomplished in an hour or so, if not less.  As I did with the bench plane instructions, I’m going to assume that your block plane is already in a mechanically functional condition and doesn’t require a full blown restoration.  For that level of detail, I recommend reading the posts under Preservation on the menu bar at the top of the page.  Since there are multiple mechanical styles and configurations of block planes, I’m going to try to keep it fairly generic, so you may need to interpolate for your specific plane.

Step 1 – Pour Drink of Preference

High-West-WhiskeyFor working on block planes, let’s go with something a little more exotic than the bourbon we enjoy with our bench planes.  I recommend Rendezvous Rye from the High West distillery.  It is… complex and superb.  Of course, what you drink is up to you, but moderation is certainly recommended, for while you won’t be working with electrically powered tools, you will be handling very sharp objects.  (5 minutes)

 

 

Step 2 – Disassembly & Cleaning

064 SB9.5 -Type 18 Post8The second step is to completely disassemble your plane and clean all the parts.  Using screwdrivers of the appropriate size, remove all the parts – lever cap, cap bolt, lateral lever, eccentric lever, adjustment screws, knobs, etc.  If you’re not completely familiar with what and where everything goes or are worried you might have trouble putting it all back together, take before pictures or notes.

Once disassembled, brush off all the sawdust and dirt.  If the filth is excessive, use a toothbrush and orange degreaser (available at the hardware or grocery store).  Also take a few minutes to clean the threads and slots on all the screws and bolts.  I use a small wire bristle brush with a little turpentine or light penetrating oil like WD-40. Once cleaned, wipe them down and set them out of the way so they don’t attract grit.  (10 minutes)

Step 3 – Hello Froggy

160 SAR5306 Post7Unlike frogs on bench planes, the frogs on block planes are usually fixed platforms cast into the body of the plane.  The top of the frog provides a small platform for the iron to sit, while the flat area behind the mouth offers support near the cutting edge.  Both surface areas should be clean of dirt and debris.  A toothbrush or brass bristle brush with degreaser works well, although you can also use WD-40 or turpentine.  The face of the frog is one of the more critical surfaces of the plane.  Once clean, fit the iron against the frog and verify that it sits flat and securely with no wobble.   You don’t want any wiggle or movement, so any high spots or irregularities in the casting need to be carefully filed or sanded flat.   (5-15 minutes)

Step 4 – Adjustimability of the Mouth

165 SB9.5 Type 12 Post7Many “premium” models of block planes feature an adjustable mouth opening.  This typically means the front section of plane’s sole is a separate piece than can be positioned toward the toe (thus opening the size of the mouth) or closer to the iron (closing the size of the mouth opening).   It is necessary to periodically remove this piece to clean out sawdust that has accumulated, and to clean and lubricate the tracks upon which the plate rides.  If it doesn’t adjust easily forward and back, it needs attention.

Since you’ve already disassembled the plane, make sure both the plate itself and the receiver in which it sits are both clean of debris.  Brush the edges of the plate and tracks of the receiver with a brass or wire bristle brush lubricated with light oil or turpentine.  Fit the plate in place and verify that it moves fairly freely.  It is not normally necessary (nor desirable) to sand the edges of the plate to make it move more easily, although this is sometimes necessary if the plane is vintage and the plate a replacement.  If you decide metal removal  is absolutely necessary, be careful and go very slow.  You can’t un-sand.  (5-15 minutes)

Step 5 – Inspect the Sole

165 SB9.5 Type 12 Post5Take a look at the sole (bottom) of the plane.  Inspect for dents or dings with raised points around the edges that might dig into your wood surface when planing.  If you find any, carefully file them flat with a mill file, followed by a little 220 grit sandpaper.  Unlike bench planes, which have a lot more surface area, flattening the sole of a block plane is a relatively painless process.  Although not usually a critical requirement, flattening the bottom will often provide superior results in use.

First, temporarily re-install the iron and lever cap and tighten to normal pressure.  This ensures the body will be under the same stress (and any possible distortion) as when in actual use.  Working against a dead flat substrate such as a granite sharpening block or the iron bed of a table saw,  start with 60 grit and go through progressively finer grits until you are satisfied that the toe, heel, and areas just in front of and behind the mouth are all completely flat and smooth.  I usually stop with 320 grit.  Aluminum Oxide sandpaper is my preference. If you don’t want to invest in a granite sharpening block, granite floor tiles from your local home center are just the right size and cost around $5 each.  (30-45 minutes depending)

Step 6 – Time to Sharpen

Sharpening SetupYes, sharpening is the step everyone loves to hate, the step that prevents so many people from ever trying a hand plane.  The trick is not to wait until you need to use the tool.  Make time for sharpening in advance, and make a party out of it!  Okay , so maybe not a party, but there is something truly rewarding about getting an edge you can shave with.  It’s relaxing and I really do enjoy it.  Since this is not a sharpening tutorial, I’ll leave the particulars on methodology to another post or reference.  But if you do nothing else, take the time to put a keen edge on your plane’s iron.  A 25 degree bevel works perfectly on most block planes – both low angle and standard angle models.  The angle of the plane’s bed varies on these models, usually either 12 degrees for low angle planes or 20 degrees for standard angle planes.  Add the 25 degree bevel and you end up with a 37 degree low angle of cut, or a 45 degree standard angle of cut (same as bench planes).  Add a micro bevel if you want, and don’t forget to polish the unbeveled back edge. (30 minutes)

Step 7 – Lubrication

Pure Oil 1Lubrication is a good idea, but should be done sparingly since oil attracts dirt and grit.  I add just a drop of light oil to the threads of all the bolts and screws before re-installing them.  I also add a drop to all the moving/adjustment parts, but wipe them with a rag afterward so that only a light film is left.  They certainly don’t need to be dripping.

Some guys believe in waxing the sole.  Nothing wrong with that as long as you don’t use a silicone based wax.  However, I just wipe down all exterior surfaces with a little Jojoba oil for storage.  (5 minutes)

Step 8 – Assemble, Adjust, Cut

187 SB18 Type 14 Post1Time to put it all back together.  Re-attach the eccentric lever and front plate (if it has one), adjustment wheel, lateral lever, knobs, etc. and all related hardware.  Carefully put the iron and cap iron assembly in place being careful not to fould the newly sharpened edge, and install the lever cap.  It should lock down securely, but not so tight as to inhibit raising and lowering the iron.  Adjust the front plate (if it has one) forward or backward as needed for the type of planing you intend to do (again, see open vs closed mouth).  Once set, lower the iron into the mouth to take your first test cut.   All of your hardware and adjustment mechanisms should move freely and smoothly. (10-15 minutes)

Unless you run into an unexpected problem, the entire tuning and sharpening process can be completed in about 1 to 2-1/2 hours, and even quicker if you’re tuning a new plane or re-tuning a plane that has already been tuned or well cared for.  It’s easy, rewarding, and builds both knowledge and confidence in your ability to master hand and block planes.

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Tune Your Hand Plane Tonight

Among the most frequent web searches that lead people to this site come from those looking for information on tuning a hand plane.  Admittedly, for those new to the craft, or at least new to using hand tools, the prospect of setting up and fine tuning a hand plane is daunting.  After all, the nomenclature of parts is bewildering, the functional mechanics are an exercise in geometry and physics, and then there’s that whole issue with sharpening.  It’s no wonder so many people would rather spend an evening prepping for a colonoscopy.

But yea I say unto you, fear not!  Tending to a neglected (or new) hand plane is both relaxing and rewarding, and in most cases takes just an hour or two.  Best of all, the gratification is instant, the rewards immediate.

Now in the interest of keeping things simple, I’m going to assume that your plane is already in a mechanically functional condition and doesn’t require a full blown restoration.  For that level of detail, I recommend reading the posts under Preservation on the menu bar at the top of the page.  I’m also going to focus solely on bench planes.  I’ll cover black planes in a later post.  For simple tuning in one evening, read on…

Step 1 – Pour Drink of Preference

PVW-trio-4What you drink is up to you, and moderation is certainly recommended, for while you won’t be working with powered tools, you will be handling very sharp objects.  I personally prefer a finer bourbon, perhaps Maker’s 46 or Elijiah Craig 18 year, or if I’m in a particularly festive mood, a little Jefferson Presidential Select 17 year or Pappy Van Winkle.  Either way, begin by putting on some relaxing music and have a drink.  (5 minutes)

 

Step 2 – Disassembly & Cleaning

Disassembled Plane, Ready for TuningThe second step is to completely disassemble your plane and clean all the parts.  Using screwdrivers of the appropriate size, remove all the parts, screw, bolts, washers, etc.  If you’re not completely familiar with what and where everything goes or are worried you might have trouble putting it all back together, take pictures or notes.  Or just pay attention; it’s not that complicated for heaven’s sake.

Once disassembled, brush off all the sawdust and dirt.  If the filth is excessive, use a toothbrush and orange degreaser (available at the hardware or grocery store).  Also take a few minutes to clean the threads and slots on all the screws and bolts.  I use a small wire bristle brush with a little turpentine or light penetrating oil like WD-40. Once cleaned, wipe them down and set them out of the way so they don’t attract grit.  (10 minutes)

Step 3 – Inspect the Sole

Stanley No. 7 Jointer PlaneTake a look at the sole (bottom) of the plane.  Put a straight edge against it if it makes you feel better.  Once you’ve convinced yourself that it’s flat enough (which it undoubtedly is), set it aside and have another drink.  Seriously, after owning hundreds and using dozens of planes over the years, I’m convinced it’s rare to come across one with a sole so warped, cupped, or bowed that it’s unusable.  If there are any dents or dings with raised points around the edges that risk digging into your wood surface, carefully file them flat with a mill file, followed by a little 220 grit sandpaper.  You can also use the sandpaper or steel wool to remove any heavy crud – I suggest lubricating it generously with WD-40, Mineral Spirits, or Turpentine.  Working against a dead flat substrate such as a granite or the iron bed of a table saw is recommended.  Go easy.  No need to overdo it; you just want it to be clean and smooth.  (5-30 minutes depending)

Step 4 – Address the Frog

Lap frog face on edge of stone to protect yokeFirst inspect the seat for the frog on the top side of the plane’s base.  This is the area of contact where the frog attaches to the body of the plane.  The mating surfaces must be clean and flat.   Use a toothbrush with the degreaser.  If there is stubborn crud to be removed, use a brass bristle brush.  If the crud is really bad, you can use a small steel brush, but be very careful to to damage the surrounding finish.  Mating surfaces on the frog itself should also be cleaned in the manner described above.

The face of the frog is one of the more critical surfaces of the plane.  It needs to be as flat as you can get it so the iron sits completely flush against.  You don’t want any wiggle or movement, so any high spots or irregularities in the casting need to be filed or sanded flat.  I go back to my granite surface and sandpaper for this.  Taking care not to damage the tip of the yoke that engages the iron and cap/iron, carefully sand the face surface of the frog until it is as flat as possible.  Change directions periodically to keep it even.  You only need to do enough to ensure the iron sits flat against it.  (15-30 minutes)

Step 5 – Polish the Cap Iron

Cap IronThe leading edge of your cap iron (also called the chip breaker) will need a little attention.  Flatten the leading edge of the cap iron where it contacts the iron so that it seats completely flush against it.  You don’t want any gaps that shavings can slip through.  While you’re at it, polish the top side of that leading edge as well (the hump) to make it nice and smooth.  Less friction makes the shavings pass over it more easily, helping to prevent clogs.   The smoother the better, but don’t obsess over this step.  (10 minutes)   

Step 6 – Sharpen the Iron

Sharpening SetupYes, I know, the step everyone loves to hate.  Even for me, it’s often a task that I procrastinate over, but once I get going, I actually enjoy it.  Since this is not a sharpening tutorial, I’ll leave the particulars on methodology to another post or reference.  But if you do nothing else, take the time to put a keen edge on your plane’s iron.  A 25 degree bevel works perfectly on bench planes; add a micro bevel if you’re into that, and don’t forget to polish the unbeveled back edge. (30 minutes)

Step 7 – Lubrication

Pure Oil 1Lubrication is a good idea, but should be done sparingly since oil attracts dirt and grit.  I add just a drop of light oil to the threads of all the bolts and screws before re-installing them.  I also add a drop to all the moving/adjustment parts, but wipe them with a rag afterward so that only a light film is left.  They certainly don’t need to be dripping.

Some guys believe in waxing the sole.  Nothing wrong with that as long as you don’t use a silicone based wax.  However, I just wipe down all exterior surfaces with a little Jojoba oil for storage.  (5 minutes)

Step 8 – Assemble, Adjust, Cut

Stanley Bailey no. 5, Type 17 - WWII VintageTime to put it all back together.  Re-attach the frog and all its related hardware first, but don’t tighten just yet.   Put the knob and tote back on if you took it off.  Carefully put the iron and cap iron assembly in place and install the lever cap.  It should lock down securely, but not so tight as to inhibit raising and lowering the iron.  Adjust the frog forward or backward as needed until the iron’s cutting edge is positioned appropriately for the type of planing you intend to do (see open vs closed mouth).  Once set, tighten down the frog and lower the iron into the mouth to take your first test cut.   All of your hardware and adjustment mechanisms should move freely and smoothly. (10-15 minutes)

Unless you run into an unexpected problem, the entire tuning and sharpening process can be completed in about 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 hours, and even quicker if you’re tuning a new plane or re-tuning a plane that has already been tuned or well cared for.  It’s easy, rewarding, and builds both knowledge and confidence in your ability to master hand planes.

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Wait!  What about the tote and knob, you ask?  You can read all about their care and repair right here.

New Old Vintage Planes for Sale

I will be listing several planes and other tools for sale over the next few months.  You can view current offerings by clicking on For Sale on the menu bar.  To view these tools in greater detail or if you are interested in purchasing, please visit the Virginia Toolworks eBay page at http://www.ebay.com/sch/virginiatoolworks/m.html.

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