The Complete Lee Enfield No. 1 MKIII Restoration

Lee-Enfield SMLE No. 1 MKIII

Lee-Enfield SMLE No. 1 MKIII

For those of you who have followed along, I finally finished up the Lee-Enfield this past weekend, and I’m pretty pleased with the results. To recap, this rifle was given to me by my father-in-law back in early January. It’s a Lee-Enfield SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) model No. 1 MKIII (.303 British caliber) produced at the Birmingham Small Arms Co. in England in 1940. Lee-Enfields were manufactured from 1888 to the early 1970s, and total production was nearly 14 million rifles. This one appeals to me because it was made in England during the Battle of Britain, and shows evidence of actual deployment in combat.

The WWII No. 1 MKIII rifles are plentiful even today, and not particularly valuable. I probably exceeded the value of this one in the parts alone that I purchased, but I didn’t restore it to sell. It’s a keeper and a shooter that will be enjoyed and passed down.  As it happens, the first high-powered rifle I ever shot as a kid was an old WWI vintage Enfield that belonged to my uncle.  I remember that .303 kicked like a 12 gauge.  I may even still have that first casing somewhere in a box of my childhood stuff.

The Enfield before restoration with new forestock and hand guard above

The Enfield before restoration with new forestock and hand guard shown above

As I wrote in earlier posts, the rifle had been ‘sporterized’ at some point, or at least someone started that process. Unfortunately, this was a popular practice in the post war years. The guns were plentiful and cheap, and guys who bought them apparently preferred the look of a traditional hunting rifle. Since the Enfield featured a barrel fully shrouded in wood, sporterizing them usually began with removing the nosecap and hardware, the upper hand guard, and cutting off the front part of the forestock.  Sometimes the rear sights were removed or altered to accept a scope, but fortunately the bubba who hacked away at this rifle didn’t get that far.

The forestock had been cut and the upper hand guard removed

The forestock had been cut, the hand guard missing

The forearm on this rifle had been cut just behind the swivel band. The entire nosecap assembly at the front was missing, along with the swivel band, forward swivels and a variety of related hardware, and the upper hand guard. The rear hand guard was still there, but its ears had been cut off and so it needed to be replaced. It appeared all of the remaining wood on the rifle was scrubbed with a heavy wire brush, leaving the surface pretty rough and scarred with brush marks. All of the original finish was long gone.

After the initial disassembly and inspection, I was happy to find the action and barrel in surprisingly good condition. Areas of rust were minimal and superficial. All the serial numbers thankfully matched, so I knew everything was likely original. The action and barrel had significant areas of olive drab paint, which I discovered was routinely applied to rifles used in tropical climates during WWII to help prevent rust. I was careful to leave that intact.

Enfield Serial

Receiver with bolt removed – original forestock still on the rifle (note the olive drab paint)

I was able to identify and source all the missing parts without too much trouble. Since there was such a long bedding space on the Enfield’s full length forestock, I decided to go with an unissued but old forestock and hand guard assembly. With so much hand fitting required, I didn’t want to take a chance on a stock that had already been on another rifle. I may have been misguided in this assumption, but that’s what I did. I left the original buttstock on the rifle since there was no need to replace it other than the aesthetic contrast between it and the new wood. I preferred to keep the rifle as close to original as possible.

Enfield New Stock Fit 1

Fitting the new forestock to the receiver – completed

The new wood required quite a bit of fine tuning and adjustment to get it to fit the receiver and barrel correctly. There are several fairly critical areas on Enfield rifles where the wood needs to fit very flush against the metal, so the work was slow and cautious. With so many parts all needing to come together and a half-dozen attachment points that all had to be aligned, I spent more than a few hours wondering why I ever started this project. But in the end, it all finally came together and I feel really good about the fit. It seems to fit like a glove where it’s supposed to, with the appropriate generosity in the other areas where called for.

The hand guard sat too high for the nosecap to slide on

The hand guard sat too high for the nosecap to slide on

Of everything on the rifle, the nosecap I sourced ended up being the most difficult part to get properly installed. Initially the upper hand guard sat too high for the nosecap to slip over it properly. That required carefully reducing the height of the guard along its full length, but not so much that the top of the barrel would bottom out preventing it from seating against the forearm. Once that problem was resolved, I then found that the screw holes through the forearm were just lightly out of alignment, preventing the front nosecap screw from engaging the threads on the opposite side of the nosecap. Eventually, with a lot of patience and careful filing, everything fell into place and the wood was ready for the finish.

While not the most practical by today’s standards, I wanted to keep this rifle as true to original form as possible, and so went with the tried and true linseed oil finish. This is what was used when the rifle was made. Since boiled linseed oil is chemically different, I used raw linseed oil. Or at least I assume it’s raw. I had a can of artist’s grade linseed oil that I bought when I was in college 30 some years ago and never opened. I cut it with 50% turpentine to help ensure it would dry sometime this decade. Following the old adage, once a day for a week, once a week for a month, I’ve applied about 8 ‘coats’ and the results look great. The wood has a nice rich low luster and even the contrast between the new wood and the old stock doesn’t jump out too much.

Enfield Complete 4

Rear Sight with new upper guard in place


I completed the restoration with an original WWII vintage Enfield sling, also dated 1940, that I found on eBay. That and the war vintage bayonet I previously wrote about are the icing on the cake. Not that I need a bayonet, but it’s in unissued condition and the price was too good to pass up. I’m looking forward to putting a couple dozen rounds down range sometime in the next few weeks.

Lee-Enfield SMLE No. 1 MKIII

Lee-Enfield SMLE No. 1 MKIII


Restoring a WWII Vintage Lee-Enfield Rifle – Part 2

It’s been a couple of months since I first wrote about restoring the old 1940 vintage Lee Enfield no. 1 MKIII rifle.  (See the earlier post)  I managed to source all of the missing parts, including a new forearm and hand guard set.  I found an unused set of unknown date, but I figured I’d be better off fitting a new stock than buying an old one and hoping it would fit properly.  Enfields, especially the no. 1, are notoriously finicky when it comes to proper stock fit.

Relacement Wood

The Enfield with original furniture in place, just before disassembly

In the photo above, you can see the rifle in its original, butchered forearm.  The lower forearm was cut off and the hand guard discarded, along with the entire nose cap assembly.  The new replacement stock, forearm, and hardware are shown above the rifle.  The new wood appears darker in the photo, but once I work on the buttstock a little and the oil finish is applied, I think it will look okay.

After removing the entire lower forearm, I found that the action in excellent condition.  There was a couple of traces of light rust, but nothing of any consequence and no corrosion damage.  I tried to remove the buttstock, but the screw that attaches it is deep inside the stock itself, and requires a very long screwdriver. Unfortunately, the screw is locked up pretty tight, and rather than risk buggering up the slot, I decided to just leave it on and refinish the stock in place.

The first order of business was fitting the new stock. It wouldn’t seat at all on the first try and required some fine tuning to get it to slide over the receiver.  Going slow, I had it properly adjusted and fitting like a glove in short order.  Moving on to the upper hand guard, I had to take a little off the inside of the ears to get it to slide easily into place around the rear sight.  This is not supposed to be a tight fit, and I may have to take a little more off after it’s finished.

Enfield New Stock Fit

The new stock slides right into place after fitting

With everything looking good, I put both forearm and hand guard in place and slipped on the nose cap for a dry fit assessment.  As you can see in the photo below, the upper hand guard sits too high for the nose cap to slide on properly. Using some folded paper, I was able to determine that I had about 0.5mm of surplus height within the hand guard to work with.  By sanding the bottom edge of the hand guard on my trusty flat granite sharpening surface, I reduced the height enough to let that nose cap slide into place.   Everything looks good at this point, so onto cleaning the action and applying the finish.

The hand guard sits too high for the nose cap to slide on all the way

The hand guard sits too high for the nose cap to slide on all the way

All of the wood on this rifle was stripped at some point in its past and scrubbed with a heavy wire brush, leaving a lot of marks in the wood.  I lightly sanded the worst of these marks, but didn’t want to lose all the character of the wood, so I really did just enough to open the grain a little for the new finish.  At this point, I went ahead and cleaned the action and barrel thoroughly.  There was some crud, but not as much as one might expect from a gun this old.  Thankfully, I think the gun was cleaned after it was last shot, so it didn’t take a whole lot of effort to get it looking good.

Action cleaned up.  I'll lightly clean and oil it again before final assembly to remove any dust or grit that accumulated during finishing

Action cleaned up. I’ll lightly clean and oil it again before final assembly to remove any grit that accumulated during finishing

I decided a while back to use the original type of oil finish that was applied when this gun was made (or as close as I could reasonable come).  In WWII and earlier, most military gun stocks were finished with linseed oil, or something close to that.  Although not very effective against the elements, it is very easy to maintain. Rather than use Boiled Linseed Oil common today, which is modified with petroleum distillates to speed drying, I’m using artist grade linseed oil, which I assume is basically raw oil.  I happened to have an unopened can that is about 35 years old and it doesn’t specify.

Starting with a 50/50 ratio of oil to turpentine (to help it dry), I began applying coats with 4-0 steel wool.  I really hate steel wool.  It just makes a mess with steel wool fibers everywhere.  I abandoned the wool after the first application and just rubbed it on by hand after that.  Using the old adage, once a day for a week, once a week for a month, and once a month for a year, I’m on day three and the wood looks fantastic.  I don’t think I’m going to go for the full seven applications.  This morning I upped the ratio of oil to turpentine to about 70/30.  If it doesn’t dry within 24 hours or so, I might add a little japan dryer to the next batch.

The stock and hand guard with 3 coats of oil applied

The stock and hand guard with 3 coats of oil applied

The next update will cover cleaning up the 1940s vintage bayonet I found for this gun!


Selecting Your First Hand Plane


Collection of Stanley Planes from

It seems so simple at first.  Maybe you have a specific project in mind, or perhaps you’re like me, and simply decide that you want to add a hand plane to your tool box.  You start doing a little research and soon realize that anything you can buy at your local hardware store is junk, and many of the planes made by the specialty shops cost more than your fancy router and cordless drill combined.  Eventually you might find your way to some online forums or blogs (like this one), and learn that buying an old Stanley is your best bet.  But which one?  After all, there are so many shapes and sizes from which to choose.

Selecting your first hand plane can be a confusing proposition.  Stanley alone made hundreds of different variations and sizes, and as you probably know, different planes were intended for different purposes.  “But I really only want to start with one!” you say.  “One all purpose plane…”

Well, the fact is there’s no such beast as an all purpose plane any more than there’s a single all purpose screwdriver, but since everyone needs to start somewhere, let’s figure out what that means for you.  The first, and most obvious question is, what do you intend to primarily use it for?

Keeping it simple, hand planes can be divided into three broad categories – bench planes, block planes, and specialty planes.  Generally speaking:

  • Bench planes measure about 8” to 24” long and are operated with two hands.  The edge of the irons (or blades) in these planes are sharpened straight to slightly cambered.  Bench planes are used for three distinct purposes depending on their length, but all basically take shavings off the face (or edge) of wood to reduce its thickness, flatten and smooth the surface.(1)
  • Block planes measure about 3” to 7” long and are usually used with one hand.  They are similar to bench planes, but can be divided into standard angle and low angle.  Standard angle block planes shave the face or edge of wood just like bench planes, while low angle block planes are better suited to shaving end grain.
  • Specialty planes encompass every other variety of plane, from router planes to rabbet planes to molding planes.  While there are a couple of specialty planes that are also considered bench and block planes, I don’t want to confuse you so we’ll just let that be for the moment.

The Stanley no. 5 – Venerable “Jack of all Trades” Plane

Stanley Bailey no. 5, Type 11 (c. 1910-1918)

Stanley Bailey no. 5, Type 11 (c. 1910-1918)

For general use around the house, an obvious choice is the Stanley no. 5 plane, a 14” plane commonly referred to as a “Jack” plane.  Although I don’t think anyone knows for sure, the term Jack is often presumed to refer to “jack of all trades,” implying that the no. 5 can do a little of everything, even if it doesn’t do any one thing better than any other plane.

The no. 5, like the larger no. 6, is usually considered a Fore plane.  Fore planes are the first planes used when preparing rough stock, squaring it up and planing the surface relatively flat.  Strictly speaking, it’s actually a little too short to be a Fore plane and a little too long to be a smoothing plane, but it’s often included in the former category anyway, because we humans love to categorize everything.

The Stanley no. 5 and its competitor’s counterparts is an all purpose plane.  As I said, while it does most things well, it doesn’t really excel at anything in particular.  The no. 4 is a better smoother and the no. 6 a better Fore plane, but the no. 5 can pass for either, which is not something the others can do.  For taking a little width off a door or quickly reducing the width of a board, the no. 5 is a great solution.

If the heft of the no. 5 is too much or your projects tend to be a little smaller, go for the shorter no. 4 plane.  While designed to be a smoothing plane, the 9” no. 4 is also a very passable all purpose plane, especially for smaller applications.  Better yet, just get one of each.

The Stanley no. 18 (or no. 9-1/2) Block Plane

Stanley Bailey no. 18 (c. 1947-1960)

Stanley Bailey no. 18 (c. 1947-1960)

In my opinion, everyone needs a good block plane. They’re small, lightweight, easy to handle, and extremely versatile around the house and workshop. While there are several flavors of block planes that will suit just fine, my favorite by far is the Stanley no. 18. Incidentally, the no. 18 is identical to the no. 9-1/2 in every way except the design of the lever cap. I find the no. 18 to be more comfortable, but the no. 9-1/2 was historically more successful, so decide for yourself. Other than the design of the cap, they’re identical.

The no. 18 is 6” long with a standard 45º angle of cut, the same as the larger bench planes. Functionally, it does the same thing as a bench plane, but on a much smaller scale. In fact, it may very well be that if most of your projects or planing jobs are small, a block plane will be more valuable than a larger bench plane.

A Couple of Other Options

Stanley Bailey no. 10, Type 10 (c. 1907-1909)

Stanley Bailey no. 10, Type 10 (c. 1907-1909)

A possible (although more exotic) alternative to the no. 5 bench plane could be the no. 10 rabbet plane.  It’s the same size as the no. 5, but features an opening on each cheek that enables the iron to cut flush against each side of the plane.  While it can still be used for all the things a no. 5 is used for, it has the added benefit of shaving right up against edges.  No. 10 planes are nowhere near as common, cost considerably more, and are much more fragile, but they are quite versatile.

An argument can also be made for one of the low angle block planes, such as the Stanley no. 60 or no. 65.  While the 12º bed angle for these planes is lower, the iron is positioned bevel up.  If you have two irons for your plane, you could hone one at the normal 25º for low angle use (12º+25º=37º), and another at 33º to achieve standard angle (12º+33º=45º) use.  This could be a good solution if you are dead set against owning more than one block plane (yeah, good luck with that).

Wait… what?

If you seriously plan to only purchase ONE bench plane, a nice vintage Stanley no. 5 is hard to beat.  I would argue the same for the no. 18 block plane.  These are also good planes to start with if you intend to build a small collection.  Ultimately, your decision should be based on your needs, the size of your work and the how you will use them.

[1] For more detailed information about the three types of bench planes, see
Selecting the Best Bench Plane for the Job.


Sharpening Angles for Bench & Block Planes

Sharpening Basics

Since sharpening is such an expansive topic in and of itself, I will leave the specific how-to details for other posts.  What you need to know in the context of fine tuning, however, is that any plane, new or old, requires initial sharpening and honing.

At a minimum, new plane irons need to have their un-beveled side flattened and polished to at least 4000 grit and preferably 8000 grit.  You don’t need to fuss with the entire surface; just the first 1/8” to 1/4” along the cutting edge is all that matters.  You also need to put a final honing on the bevel edge itself.  It may look sharp, but it needs to be honed, again, ideally to 8000 grit.  The goal is to get your cutting edge to as close as possible to a zero degree radius.

Sharpening is too often the deal breaker that dissuades woodworkers from trying hand tools.  This in unfortunate, for it requires little monetary investment to get started, is not particularly difficult to learn, and can be accomplished rather quickly with surprisingly good results.  For detailed information on the how-to of sharpening, I recommend investing in one (or both) of the outstanding books on the subject by Ron Hock or Leonard Lee.   Chris Schwarz has also written a number of fantastic articles on planes and sharpening plane irons.

Getting Down to Business

If all you want to know is what bevel angle to sharpen on your plane iron, make it 25º and call it a day.  But if you want to better understand the reasoning behind the geometry and some of the variations possible, read on.  In order to master your tools, it’s helpful to understand the principles behind the geometry at play.  So, first a few concepts and then we’ll tie them all together.

Frog Assembly

The frog is screwed to the body of bench planes

First things First – Before you can determine the optimal angle at which your plan iron should be sharpened, you first need to know the angle at which it sits in the plane.  Plane irons are held in place against the frog via a clamping device called the lever cap.  The frog is attached to the base, or sole, of the plane and provides an immovable seat for the iron.   The angle of the frog face is not adjustable, so it must be considered a constant.  On standard bench planes, the angle is usually 45º while on low angle planes it is typically a very shallow 12º.  This angle is traditionally referred to as the ‘pitch’ of the plane.

Pitch / Angle of Attack – Pitch, or what Ron Hock refers to as the Angle of Attack, is the angle at which the cutting edge engages the wood. [1]   As stated above, most bench planes have  a bed angle of 45 degrees.  This is referred to as ‘common pitch,’  and has traditionally been considered the optimal pitch for bench planes.  A slightly higher 50º pitch is called ‘York Pitch.’  This higher angle pitch is used in some bench planes for working harder woods and woods with difficult grains.  ‘Middle Pitch’ of 55º and ‘Half Pitch’  (also known as ‘Cabinet Pitch’) of 60º are frequently found in molding planes for soft and hardwood respectively. Angles of less than 45º are referred to as ‘Low Angle’ or ‘Extra Pitch,’ and are used in planes for softwood and for cutting end grain. [2]

Here’s a summary table of the different pitches and their intended use.

Pitch (Angle of Attack) Name Use
60º Half Pitch / Cabinet Pitch Molding planes for hardwood
55º Middle Pitch Molding planes for softwood
50º York Pitch Harder woods with difficult grain
45º Common Pitch Optimal Pitch for most planes
<45º Low Angle Softwood and End Grain

Bevel Up vs. Bevel Down – All planes fall into one of two categories – Bevel Down and Bevel Up.  Bevel down planes have irons that are situated with the bevel angle facing down, while the irons on bevel up planes are positioned with the bevel angle facing up.  Most bench planes are bevel down while most block planes are bevel up.  Specialty planes can go either way, depending on their intended purpose.  There are some advantages to the bevel up configuration, but we’ll cover that later.

Regardless of whether the plane is bevel up or bevel down, the angle of the frog face (upon which the iron sits) is an important determining factor in determining the desired bevel angle.  As stated above, the vast majority of bench planes have frogs with a 45º bed, meaning the cutting iron sits at a 45 degree angle from the work surface.  Since these bench planes are bevel down, changing the bevel angle doesn’t change the pitch, or angle of attack – that’s essentially fixed at 45 degrees.  Changing the bevel angle does, however, change the relief angle, or clearance behind the iron.

SB605 Type 6

Bevel Down Bench Plane

Bevel Down Planes – Since the irons on most bench planes are positioned bevel down, this is the most common configuration faced when sharpening.   Because the un-beveled side of the iron is positioned up (i.e., bevel side down), the angle of attack is the same regardless of the angle at which the bevel is sharpened.  That doesn’t mean the bevel angle is completely unimportant; durability, for example, is still a consideration.  The bevel angle is, however, less critical than it is on bevel up planes.  That said, there are still a few tricks you can employ to fine tune your angle of cut, but more on that later.

The standard primary bevel angle for bevel down bench planes is 25 degrees.  This offers a good balance of shearing action and durability while providing an adequate relief angle (behind the cut).

SB65.5 Type3

Bevel Up Block Plane

Bevel Up Planes – Block planes have the iron positioned bevel up, but they’re not the only planes with this configuration.  Low angle bench planes, including the Stanley no. 62 and the Sargent no. 514 were bevel up, as are several models made today by Veritas.  There is an advantage with bevel up irons in that the angle of the bevel can be changed to affect a change in the angle of cut.  This provides a measure of flexibility that bevel down planes don’t have, at least not to the same extent.

While there is more to consider in edge geometry than just the angle of cut (i.e., durability), you could reasonably sharpen the bevel on the iron of a low angle block plane iron to 33 degrees.  Given its 12º bed angle, you would end up with an angle of cut of 45 degrees (12º+33º=45º), the same as on a standard angle plane.  By contrast, to accomplish a low angle of cut using a standard angle plane, you’d have to sharpen the bevel at a very shallow 17 degrees (20º+17º=37º).  Durability of such a thin cutting edge would be problematic with most woods.

See “Beyond the Standard” below for information on adding secondary bevels (micro-bevels) and back-bevels.

Common Sharpening Angles

The table below shows the three most common bench and block plane types and the proper angles at which to sharpen the irons.

Common Plane Types Frog Angle Angle to Sharpen Angle of Cut
Bench Plane – Standard Angle 45º 25º to 30º 45º
Block Plane – Standard Angle 20º 25º 45º
Block Plane – Low Angle 12º 25º 37º

Beyond the Standard

Secondary/Micro-Bevels – The terms secondary bevel and micro-bevel refer to the same thing.  Secondary bevels are a very shallow bevel along the cutting edge of the primary bevel.  These angles, usually 1º to 3º, serve primarily as an aid in honing.  It takes considerably less time and effort to final hone a small secondary bevel that it does the entire primary bevel.  They also make honing touch ups a snap.  As long as the edge has not been damaged, it’s quick and easy work to re-establish a keen edge on the secondary bevel with a few strokes on a sharpening stone.

On a bevel down plane, adding a secondary bevel affects no change in the angle of cut.  The only thing it changes ever so slightly is the relief angle – the angle between the back side (bevel side) of the iron and the work surface. It also slightly reduces the total bevel angle on the iron itself, but should not be enough to affect durability of the edge.  On most planes the addition or subtraction of a couple of degrees of bevel angle is not going to make any difference.

Some people will tell you you can’t (or shouldn’t) put a secondary bevel on a bevel up iron.  That’s nonsense.  If you’re that concerned with the cutting angle, sharpen your primary angle a few degrees shallower so the secondary angle brings you back to 25º.  I’ve never experienced a problem with a secondary bevel on a bevel up iron, and it’s a sharpening technique I apply consistently.

Back Bevels – Back bevels can be added for a couple of reasons.  On a bevel down plane, (unlike the secondary bevel) adding a back bevel will affect the angle of cut.  This is something you can use to your advantage.  For example, with the frog fixed at a 45º angle, adding a 5º back bevel increases the angle of cut from 45º to 50º.  This technique can be used if you’re working with harder woods or wood with difficult grain.

Back bevels are also helpful if your plane’s iron has rust damage or pitting to its un-beveled side.  By putting a back bevel of 1º to 2º on the pitted back side, you effectively cut through the pitted surface creating a clean, undamaged edge.  You end up with a cutting angle of about 46º to 47º – not a critical difference for most woodworkers.  If you’re obsessive about your edge geometry and angle of cut, this might not be a satisfactory solution.  Although if that’s the case, you probably shouldn’t be futzing with a vintage plane in the first place, let alone salvaging a pitted plane iron.  But if you’re like me, having one or two extra irons set up for different purposes is a must, and finding good use for old irons suffering from age and neglect makes me feel good.  It’s just a matter of purposing them for the right job.  And again, increasing this angle of attack is actually advantageous when planning wood with difficult grain. [3]

Back bevels on bevel up irons won’t change the angle of cut, but they do change very slightly the relief angle and the bevel angle of the iron itself.  Again, a couple of degrees difference should not adversely effect the  durability of the edge.


Wrapping up, the vast majority of both bench and block planes can be sharpened with a 25º bevel angle.  However, with a little experimentation, you may find that making some adjustments to the geometry helps overcome challenges presented by both difficult wood and less than perfect plane irons.  Don’t be afraid to experiment.  That’s the best way to learn.


[1] Hock, Ron, Back Bevels and Plane Geometry, 2010.
[2] Whelan, John, The Cutting Action of Plane Blades, 1993.
[3] Hock, Ron, Back Bevels and Plane Geometry, 2010.


Save Those Apple Wood Scraps!

Back in the summer I came across some live edge apple wood slabs that I thought might be perfect for making small appetizer serving boards for gifts.  Now I know what you’re going to say – apple is notorious for warping and cracking.  True enough, but given the size and casual nature of this particular project I wasn’t overly concerned.  The working properties of apple, however, is not the subject of this post.

Since these were rough sawn pieces with bark still attached in places, I used what I could, but ended up with a lot of unserviceable scraps left over.  Rather than toss them out, I kept them for use in my smoker.

I’ve long been a fan of using hickory or pecan for smoking pork.  On the few occasions when I’ve smoked beef, I’ve used a little oak or mesquite, although the latter is not my favorite.  Apple chunks are not always the easiest thing to find, and while I’ve heard others extol its virtues for creating irresistible pig pickin’s,  I could not personally attest to the fact.  So when I recently decided to smoke pork ribs for a group of my co-workers, I used apple wood for the first time.

Smoking Ribs

I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to both ribs and pulled pork barbecue.  I use a dry rub (of my own making, of course) and if I’m feeling very generous, might allow a sauce on the side when the meat is served.  I apply the rub at least a few hours before cooking, and then smoke the ribs for 2 hours at 200-225 degrees.  After 2 hours, I baste the racks generously with a mop sauce (sorry, the recipe is my secret), seal them up tight in aluminum foil, and let them bake right on the smoker (so smoke, just heat) for another 2 to 3 hours.

So instead of my standby hickory, this time I used the apple wood scraps left over from the serving boards.  All I can say is “Oh my goodness, I had no idea what I’ve been missing!”  The flavor was much more subtle than that imparted by hickory, and considerably more appealing.  Rather than flavoring the meat so intensely, the apple smoke delicately complimented the dry rub seasoning, resulting in ribs that were perfectly smoky, tangy, and just plain bone sucking, slap your leg and pass the sweet tea good.

My co-workers went nuts over them, claiming them the best ribs they’d ever eaten.  I have to admit, they were easily the best ribs I’ve ever produced on my smoker and among the tastiest I’ve ever sampled anywhere.  Apple wood for smoking pig parts is now my permanent go to.  So save those apple wood scraps, or better yet, ship them to me.  Otherwise, I may need to find my own apple orchard.


A Lost Fragment of Joseph Moxon

Hysterical parody of Joseph Moxon by Christopher Schwarz; too good not to share!

Hand Planes for The Rest of Us

A very utilitarian workbench under construction in a less than ideal work space

Seems like most of information related to using hand planes today tends to lean toward the puritanical.  The vast majority of instructional material is written for those planing rough boards straight from a sawmill.  Certainly, there is a good deal of logic behind this.  After all, hand tool purists prepare their wood from the roughest of cuts, be it from saw or froe. For them, the three bench plane model makes complete sense.

That said, there are an awful lot of folks out there in the midst of transitioning from powered to hand tools, and many more who, while using hand tools to some degree of exclusivity, work primarily with dimensional lumber due to constraints of time and available space.  In some cases, a project may include a combination of both.  I often use dimensional lumber for drawer carcasses for example, in order to save time.  The fact is that working rough lumber is not always practical.  I know men and women who are passionate about their craft, but have to move the car out of the garage just to get to the saw horses they use as a bench platform.

Taking a momentary step back, the traditional three bench plane system consists of a Fore Plane, Try Plane, and Smoothing Plane.  Used in sequential steps of coarse, medium, and fine, you can take just about any slab of tree and turn it into a finished board.[1]  Yet while that works perfectly for woodworkers preparing rough cut wood straight from the tree or mill, it doesn’t make much sense for those using dimensional lumber.

Dimensional lumber, of course, is the pre-surfaced wood you find at your local home center, etc.  1x2s, 2x4s and the like are all dimensional lumber.  The wood has been processed through commercial planer and jointer machinery to make it a consistent and standardized size.  And while it’s far more expensive than unprepared wood, it’s often more practical for small singular projects or when wood storage is simply not an option.  I will confess right now to using dimensional lumber for many of my own smaller projects.

Even though dimensional lumber is pre-surfaced, it still requires some degree of final finishing.  Further, the wood still needs to be cut, trimmed, jointed, etc., in order to construct whatever it is you’re working on.  I use my hand planes, hand saws, brace, and chisels to do as much of work as possible, but the workflow tends to be a little different than when I’m preparing rough lumber.

With dimensional lumber, there’s really no need for the coarse step of flattening with a no. 5 fore plane.  For most smaller surfaces that have not been edge joined (panels and tops), a quick pass with a very finely set smoothing plane, card scraper, or scraper plane is usually all that is required.  For glue ups, I use my no.7 try plane with a straight beveled (no camber) iron to prepare the edges to be joined.  I also use my no. 7 with a slightly cambered iron to level out uneven joints before moving to the smooth plane.  Again, a very fine set is all that is needed.

For everything else, the same rules apply as when working rough lumber.  For the occasional woodworker interested in getting started with hand planes, or for those who work mainly with dimensional lumber, you might still want the three fundamental bench planes – the no. 4, no. 5, and no. 7, but you won’t likely use them in the same manner as you would if preparing rough lumber from the mill.

The point is, don’t avoid hand planes simply because you work with dimensional wood.  Just understand that you’ll be using them differently than you would if you were preparing rough lumber.  And don’t be ashamed of using dimensional wood if it’s more convenient or practical for your work space.  It may not be the most economical way to go, but it’s better than missing the opportunity to work wood at all.


1. Christopher Schwarz, Coarse, Medium, and Fine.


Setting Up and Tuning a Hand Plane

In today’s culture of instant gratification and disposable everything, most of us are conditioned to expect the stuff we buy to just work right out of the box.  Even the caveat “some assembly required” is printed on the packaging of many items, just to make sure there is no misunderstanding.  Published reviews of shop tools invariably dedicate an entire section to the experience of unpacking, cleaning, and setting up the tool for use, before the subject of functionality is even broached.  Whether a realistic expectation or not, once a tool is put together, most people want no further inconvenience beyond plugging it in and turning it on.

It’s no surprise that so many ‘modern’ woodworkers, especially those used to plug-and-play electric tools, eschew anything that requires sharpening, let alone tuning and fettling to make it work properly.  But the fact is, whether 100 years old or brand spanking new, virtually all hand planes benefit from some degree of tuning to bring them to their full potential.  Fortunately, this is not a difficult proposition, and actually aids in better understanding how the tool functions and how to get the most out of it.

Below are the basic steps for setting up and tuning a hand plane for use.  Since there are so many variations of planes, both new and used, I’m purposefully keeping it fairly generic, so some interpretation may be necessary when applying the concepts to the tool in front of you.  But don’t worry, there are no tool police surveilling workshops and garages.  Feel free to skip a step if you don’t think it’s relevant or needed.

Step 1 – One Righteous Sole
I’m not a stickler when it comes to flattening the sole of a plane.  After owning hundreds and using dozens over the years, it’s fairly rare to come across a plane with a sole so warped, cupped, or bowed that it’s unusable.  If you happen upon one that is unusable, my advice is to return it, sell it, or throw it away.  The only possible exceptions are block planes, which are pretty easy to flatten due to their smaller size.  Bench planes are far more difficult, especially the larger ones.  You can take them to a machine shop and have them milled or lapped flat, but forget trying to flatten them yourself with sandpaper unless the problem is very minor.

Good luck trying to lap this 22″ bad boy!

If you do decide to lap your plane’s sole flat, you’ll need a dead flat substrate.  The cast iron bed of a table saw or jointer works well, or if you don’t have one of those available and want to keep it on the cheap, a piece of 12” x 12” or larger granite surface plate or a marble tile from your home center will work for block planes, and typically costs less than $5.00.  Just make sure you retract the blade and tension the lever cap as you would in actual use.  This puts the correct stress on the plane body.  I start with 60 grit and progress up to about 320.  Removing high spots (convexity) is more critical than low spots (concavity).  Keep in mind that you don’t even need the entire sole dead flat.  As long as you have smooth contact at the toe, around the mouth, and at the heel, the plane will work just fine.

Vintage planes often have raised dings, especially along the edges, toe or heel.  A flat mill file makes very quick work of these minor problems.  Finally, some woodworkers file a very small 45 degree chamfer along each edge of the sole.  This is completely optional, but helps prevent inadvertent gouges when using the plane should you tip it slightly.  I’ve seen some Stanley planes from the mid 20th century that appear to have been made that way at the factory.

Step 2 – Flat Frogs Make Better Mates
Bench planes have removable frogs.  Block planes do not.  However, the function of the frog is the same – it provides a secure base to support the iron.  In order for the plane to shave wood correctly, there must not be any movement (wobble, play, rocking, etc.) to the iron.  It must be firmly seated against the frog, so the face of the frog must be as flat as possible.

On your bench plane, unscrew and remove the frog and all of its hardware, including the lever cap bolt on the front and the adjustment plate and screw on the rear.  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. I use the edge of my granite block for this, and change direction often to ensure I get a surface as flat as possible.  No need to obsess over it, you just need the iron to seat firmly against it.  While your at it, touch up the mating surfaces on the bottom of the frog where it attaches to the plane base.  Also take a moment to touch up the mating surfaces on the plane body too.  You want the frog to seat as firmly as possible to the body.

Lap frog face on edge of stone to protect yoke

On vintage planes, thoroughly clean all the threads of the screws and bolts to remove any crud or rust, and apply a little light oil before reassembly.  This is particularly important for the large brass adjustment knob, which needs to turn freely along the full length of its bolt.

On your block plane, the frog is not removable, so you only need to touch up the seat with a firm sanding block to ensure it is flat.  Since the flat sloped area behind the mouth on the plane’s base provides much of the forward support for the iron, it needs to be flat too.  Unfortunately, it’s hard to get to, and since you don’t want to enlarge the mouth at all, just a touch using a small piece of angled wood with fine sandpaper wrapped around it is about as far as you want to take it.  Thankfully, this is all that is usually needed to remove old crud. A Dremel or quality flexible shaft tool with a wire wheel brush will also work if the problem is limited to dirt and light corrosion.  Finally, as on the bench plane, clean the threads on all the hardware and add a little light oil to help retard moisture and rust.

Step 3 – Chip Breakers, not Deal Breakers
On bench planes, the chip breaker, more accurately referred to as the Cap Iron, serves three important purposes.  1. It adds rigidity to the iron (blade). 2. It provides a small opening through which the depth adjustment mechanism engages the iron.  3. It helps ‘break’ the shavings as they rise off the cutting edge of the iron, thus preventing them from jamming up the throat of the plane.

Most cap irons, even on new planes, benefit from a little tuning to make them more efficient.  The leading contact edge, where it rests upon the edge of the iron, needs to be completely flat so that no light (or shavings) can pass between the two.  This is a simple matter of a couple of passes on a sharpening stone.  I use my 1000 grit stone as anything higher is overkill.  If you don’t have one, use whatever comparable sharpening media you have available.  Ideally, you should undercut it slightly, so just the front edge makes initial contact.  As you tighten the cap iron against the iron, it will flatten out some.  The idea is to make it completely flush so that fine shavings do not slip in between the cap iron and iron.

Cap iron with polished arch

The other tuning point on the cap iron is its forward arch.  For lowered resistance and smooth chip passage, this arch should be polished.  You can do this by hand using your sharpening stone or sandpaper.  Again, 1000 grit or thereabouts is enough.  Smoother is better, and there’s no downside to over-polishing other than the time it takes.  Once complete, you may need to remove any burr that has formed along the front edge.  I run mine edgewise (like cutting with a knife) down a piece of scrap wood.

Note that block planes do not have cap irons.

Step 4 – Pop a Lever Cap on that Sucka
While appearances and designs vary greatly, all planes have some sort of lever cap.  The lever cap provides the tension that holds the iron in place.  There’s not really a whole lot that needs to be done to the lever cap.  Just ensure that the contact edge on its back side is reasonably flat, so it makes flush contact with the cap iron on which it sits.  Wood shavings will find their way through the tiniest of gaps.  If you’re obsessive, you can polish the forward arch a little just as you did with the cap iron.  You might also add a drop of oil to the working joints to ensure smooth operation.

Bench plane and block plane lever caps

On block planes, since there is no cap iron, the lever cap plays a more important role.  Take a fine file to the back side and remove any rough spots, giving close attention to the leading contact edge.  This is most important on block planes with cast iron hooded style lever caps, such as the old Stanley 9-1/2.  The back sides of these caps are notoriously rough and unfortunately japanned. You don’t need to remove all the japanning, but you do want to get a smooth line of contact down front where it touches the iron.  File it smooth and give it a couple of swipes across your 1000 grit stone.  I like to touch up the top front edge as well, but this isn’t critical.

Step 5 – I Pity the Fool Who Don’t Sharpen His Tool!
The simply fact is, even with brand new planes, the irons require final honing before use.  This is not due to some lack of attention on the part of manufacturers.  Irons are provided this way on purpose, since the manufacturer has no way of knowing what you will be using the plane for, and subsequently how the iron would need to be honed.  If you do nothing else in the way of tuning your plane, at least take the time to properly sharpen it.  Do not skip this step!  Sharpen the iron.  Again, sharpen the iron!  Sharpen it!

Basic sharpening setup using a waterstone

Since sharpening is such an expansive topic in and of itself, I will leave the specific details for other posts.  What you need to know in the context of tuning, however, is that any plane, new or old, requires initial sharpening and honing.  At a minimum, new plane irons need to have their un-beveled side honed flat and polished to at least 4000 grit and preferably 8000 grit.  You don’t need to fuss with the entire surface; just the first 1/8” to 1/4” along the cutting edge will do.  You also need to put a final honing on the bevel edge itself.  It may look sharp, but it needs to be honed, again, to at least 8000 grit.  The goal is to get your cutting edge to as close as possible to a zero degree radius.

Sharpening is too often the deal breaker that dissuades woodworkers from trying hand tools.  This in unfortunate, for it requires little monetary investment to get started, is not particularly difficult to learn, and can be accomplished rather quickly with surprisingly good results.  For detailed information on sharpening, I recommend investing in one of the outstanding books on the subject by Ron Hock or Leonard Lee.   Chris Schwarz has also written a number of fantastic articles on sharpening plane irons. Sharpen the iron.  Again, sharpen the iron!  Sharpen it!

Step 6 – Final Adjustments
Now that you’ve finished tuning and sharpening your plane, it’s time to put it all back together and adjust it for use.  Hopefully, you have a better understanding of what each part does and how they all function together.  This will make adjusting it for use, and while in use, more intuitive and fluid.

A few points of consideration…

While the frog’s position on bench planes is adjustable, meaning you can shift if forward to decrease the size of the mouth opening or backward to increase the size of the opening, it needs to be firmly attached in whatever position you decide so that it doesn’t move when in use.  In other words, to adjust its position, you will have to loosen the screws that attach it to the base.  Without getting into detail, use a larger mouth opening for thicker cuts, and a smaller mouth opening for fine shavings.  Set the position of the frog where you want it and screw it down tight, understanding you may need to do this a couple of times before you get to just the right position.

The cap iron should be firmly screwed to the iron, leaving just a tiny edge of the iron protruding forward.  This should generally be as small as possible – 1/64” for fine shavings to 1/16” or more for heavier cuts, depending on the amount of camber on the iron. The iron/cap iron in place, the lever cap bolt should be tightened just enough to hold the iron firmly so it doesn’t slip in use, but not so tight that you can’t adjust it’s depth of cut using the large brass or steel wheel at the rear of the frog.  If that knob won’t turn, the bolt holding the lever cap is too tight.  This too, may take a couple of tries before you get the feel of it.

Holding the plane upside down, and looking down the sole at a low angle, lower the iron until it just begins to appear through the mouth – just a whisper.  Note that it’s not unusual for there to be quite a bit of slop in the wheel that lowers and raises the iron, as much as ½ to ¾ of a turn.  Just turn it until you begin to feel resistance.  Make any lateral adjustments necessary using the lateral adjustment lever that extends from the top of the frog.  Turn it upright and make a test pass on a piece of scrap wood.  If the plane digs in, back off the depth just a bit.  If it misses entirely, lower the iron a little.  You will quickly get a feel for when it’s ‘right,’ as evidenced by the rewarding ‘thwack’ sound a plane makes when it cuts a perfect curl.

On block planes, adjustments for use are a simple matter of properly tensioning the lever cap and setting the throat opening via the front adjustment plate (if the plane has one).  The same principles apply that you use in adjusting your bench planes.

Tuning a hand plane is not a difficult endeavor.  Once practiced, the whole process can be accomplished in about a half hour, even less depending on the tool.  Rather than view it as an unpleasant chore, I actually enjoy it, especially later in the evening when the dust has settled and the world is quiet.  Pour yourself a measure of Kentucky’s best brown, put on your music of choice, and saddle up to your work bench.

Stanley no. 5 Jack Plane, c. 1940s


Tools shown in the photos were returned to functional condition by Virginia Toolworks using museum quality archival preservation techniques.  Sharpened and tuned for use, every tool is fully tested and adjusted until perfect.

Two Block Planes Everyone Should Own

I have a weakness for block planes.  They are the two seater sports cars of the hand plane world – quick, nimble, and fun to handle.  Heck, from the classic lines of Stanley Excelsiors 130 years ago to the high performance Veritas planes of today, they even look fast.  (Both shown below)

I have a sizeable collection of block planes that includes some of the rarest and most beautiful ever made.  Those, of course, are now relegated to display, as their value precludes risking damage in use.  But the vast majority in my collection are sharp and ready to use, and I do exercise each of them periodically when I’m working on a project.  This helps keep them in working order, and it just makes me feel good.

Still, over time I’ve found myself unconsciously reaching for the same couple of planes whenever the need arises.  If I were forced to reduce my toolbox to just two block planes, these are the two I would keep:

The Stanley No. 18 Standard Angle
The Stanley No. 60 Low Angle

Stanley no. 18, c. 1913-19

The Stanley No. 18 Standard Angle
This is my go-to block plane for everyday use, the one I always seem to grab first.  Mine is a very pristine WWI era model that I’m pretty sure I’ve used more than anyone else in its history.  Although it’s almost 100 years old, it looks like it could have been manufactured last year.  Both the japanning and nickel plating are pushing 100%, and so I baby it.

The Stanley no. 18 is a standard angle plane, meaning the iron is seated on a 20 degree bed.  With a bevel angle sharpened at the standard 25 degrees, you have a cutting angle of 45 degrees, same as a bench plane.  It also has an adjustable throat plate, an essential feature in a block plane.  The no. 18 is 6 inches long and fits my hand better than its longer, otherwise identical 7 inch brother, the no. 19.  And unlike the more popular Stanley no. 9-1/2, it feels more like an extension of my hand.

The no. 9-1/2 plane predates the no. 18 by about 15 years, was in production longer, and was the best selling block plane Stanley ever made.  It’s still made today, in fact, although the current design features a completely different mechanism from the original.  Admittedly, the no. 9-1/2 was the more popular of the two.  I truly don’t know why, though, since the design of the no. 18’s knuckle cap was far superior to the hooded lever cap on the no. 9-1/2, and it’s also more comfortable to hold in the hand.  I also find that the hooded cap on the no. 9-1/2 is more prone to slip around a little in use.  Not so with the no. 18.

Ironically they are both basically the same plane with two different styles of lever caps.  Other than the lever cap and its mounting bolt, all the other parts are interchangeable. Stanley charged a little more for the no. 18 and marketed it as virtually indestructible.  This of course was not true, for while the steel cap is arguably more durable, the bodies of both were cast iron and therefore susceptible to breaking if dropped.

I have several vintages of both models in my collection, but find the no. 18 with the knuckle cap superior in both function and comfort.  I use this more often than any other block plane I own.

Stanley no. 60, c. 1910

The Stanley No. 60 Low Angle
The Stanley no. 60 (and the identical japanned version 60-1/2) is a low angle plane, meaning the iron is seated on a 12 degree bed.  Sharpened at 25 degrees, you have a cutting angle of 37 degrees.  The primary advantage of the lower angle of attack is that it excels at shaving end grain.

Like the no. 18, the 60 series of planes are approximately 6 inches long.  However, the 60 series are narrower with an iron width of 1-3/8 inches, vs the 1-5/8 inch irons on the standard angle planes, and the 60 series featured a narrower version of the hooded lever cap used on the no. 9-1/2.  The 60 series planes also have adjustable throat plates.

As with the standard angle planes, Stanley made another low angle plane that was more popular than the No. 60.  The no. 65, which was wider and longer, is even today considered by many to be the ‘Cadillac’ of Stanley block planes.  I have a couple of no. 65s, which I use occasionally, but I prefer the no. 60 for its smaller size.  The size of the no. 65 makes it feel a little awkward to me for most projects, although it excels on wider boards and edges where the no. 60 is too small.

Most people are familiar with the knuckle jointed lever cap on the no. 65, the very same cap used on the nos. 18 and 19 standard angle planes.  It’s interesting to note that the no. 65 was originally made with the hooded style cap until about 1917 when Stanley switched to the knuckle jointed steel cap.  I’ve never quite understood why the no. 65 is so highly regarded.  Being 7 inches long, I find it a little too big in the hand.  The no. 60 series planes are smaller and much easier to handle, and ironically, I never found their hooded cap to be problematic as I do with the no. 9-1/2.  So, maybe it’s just me.

Ultimately, that’s the point.  I had to try all of the various models and sizes until I found what I liked best.  On all of these block planes, the iron is seated bevel up, whereas on bench planes the bevel is usually down.  There is a tremendous advantage with bevel up irons in that the angle of the bevel can be changed to affect a change in the angle of cut.  While there is more to consider in edge geometry than just the angle of cut (ex. durability), you could reasonably sharpen the bevel on a low angle plane iron to 33 degrees and end up with an angle of cut of 45 degrees (12+33=45), the same as on a standard angle plane.  However, to accomplish a low angle of cut using a standard angle plane, you’d have to sharpen the bevel at a very shallow 17 degrees (20+17=37).  Durability of such a thin cutting edge would be problematic with most woods.

For this reason, along with a few others, many people consider the low angle plane to be the more versatile of the two.  I tend to agree.  While I use my standard angle plane more often, if I could only have one block plane, it would have to be a low angle.  Fortunately, despite what my wife says, that’s not the case.

The no. 18 and no. 60 are my two primary go-to block planes when I’m working on a project.  I have most of the other Stanley sizes in my collection, and like I said, I’ll pick them up to use sometimes just for nostalgia, but the nos. 18 and 60 are my favorites. These are the two that I think everyone should own, but ultimately, you won’t know which you prefer until you try a few for yourself.


Vintage tools shown in the photos were returned to functional condition by Virginia Toolworks using museum quality archival preservation techniques.  Sharpened and tuned for use, every tool is fully tested and adjusted until perfect.

Perfection is a Matter of Perspective

Antique_Chest_of_Drawers_Victorian_Flame_Mahogany_English-Dovetail_Joints-3466_-_4cEver look closely at a really fine piece of vintage furniture in a historic building or museum? The vast majority, if viewed at a low angle across their flat panels, have a very subtle but distinct scalloped surface finish. This, of course, was due to the final shave with a smoothing plane – one with a slightly cambered edge.

Since most of the furniture we purchase today is mass produced through automated, computerized processes, fit and finish usually appears precise, even if overall quality of construction and materials is lacking. As a result, many casual woodworkers are subconsciously conditioned to pursue machine-like perfection. I can personally attest to feeling frustrated and disappointed when my labor of love and endless hours of work failed to produce a result that achieved the level of precision I saw in store bought furniture. Convinced that my deficiencies were a direct result of the tools I was using, I invested in more and better quality tools and obsessed over my mastery of them. Woodworking became a matter of investment in tools and their mechanical proficiency.

Then, a few years ago, something happened that changed the way I view perfection and altered my entire approach to woodworking. It wasn’t so much a sudden epiphany, but there was definitely a short trip to ‘hang on, maybe I’ve been looking at this all wrong.’ Instead of using modern production furniture as a benchmark, I started climbing underneath and inside 18th, 19th and early 20th century furniture – the stuff that was made by hand using human-powered tools. In addition to educating myself on the design and construction, I started thinking about how the woodworker cut, shaped, finished, and assembled all the parts. Understanding that everything was made without the benefit of table saws, jointers, and router bits, I wondered what tools and techniques were employed a hundred or so years ago. And I noticed something else, too. The construction, while solid and cleverly engineered, was certainly not precise in the way I was used to seeing in modern furniture. The joints, cuts, and surfaces all very clearly reflected the working hand of man, not machine. And somehow, despite its imperfections, it was more appealing and more beautiful than almost anything I can purchase new today.

Once I came to understand just how classic period furniture was made, and started to recognize the beauty of the ‘fingerprints’ of the craftsman who made them, my entire mindset and perception toward woodworking changed. Perfection is a relative concept. The real beauty in a piece of handcrafted furniture is not in its machine-like precision, but rather in its reflection of the person who built it. Well executed technical prowess is undeniably impressive, but it’s the signature hallmarks of imperfection – of man working wood with his hands that give the piece character and life.

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