Professional Services Now Offered by Virginia Toolworks!

VA Toolworks Condensed Logo - LetterheadI am pleased to announce that Virginia Toolworks is now offering professional restoration, identification, and valuation services at very competitive prices!  While the primary focus is, and has always been, on vintage hand tools, I also offer restoration of faded and damaged photographs, as well as cosmetic restoration of firearms.


Tools – Adhering to the archival principles of restoration that have always been the foundation of Virginia Toolworks, we now offer archival cleaning and rust removal, and tuning and sharpening (if desired), with starting prices as low as $25.  For more information please see the Services Page.

Photographs – With 35 years of experience as a photography enthusiast, including considerable darkroom exposure (see what I did there?) before transitioning exclusively to digital approximately 16 years ago, I offer digital restoration of old damaged and faded photographs with prices starting at $50.  Examples of my work can be viewed on the Photo Restoration page.

Firearms – As most followers of this blog have seen, I occasionally do restoration work on firearms.  This work is primarily cosmetic – I am not a gunsmith. I offer cleaning of the action, restoration of wood, and light (cold blue) refresh of metal surfaces.  I can also help with missing parts.  However, to verify or ensure safe functionality before firing, you should see a qualified gunsmith for a safety inspection.


Virginia Toolworks now provides simple assistance identifying tools for a nominal charge of $10 per tool.  For more information please see the Identification Page

Valuations (Appraisals) & Research

Virginia Toolworks now provides written valuations (retail value) and historical research at a rate of $50 per hour with a one hour minimum.  For more information on Valuations, please see the Valuations/Appraisals page.

For more detailed information on these and other services provided by Virginia Toolworks, please see the Services Offered page.



When a 2×4 is No Longer a 2×4 – Living Life by the Lowest Common Denominator


There was a small news story recently that went largely unnoticed across the country.  Home improvement retailer Lowes lost a $1.6 million lawsuit in Kalifornia (see what I did there?) for its the labeling of building products, specifically, dimensional lumber.

A Superior Court judge laid out terms by which the retailer must advertise its 2x4s and other dimensional materials in response to a civil “consumer protection” action. Judge Paul M. Haakenson, handed down the order in response to a case involving claims by the Marin County, Calif., district attorney’s office that the retailer “unlawfully advertised structural dimensional building products for sale.” His finding lists three main rules for the retailer to follow going forward:

  • “Common descriptions” must be followed by actual dimensions and labeled as such. For instance, a 2×4 must be followed with a disclaimer that the wood is actually 1.5-inches by 3.5-inches and include a phrase equal or similar to “actual dimensions.”
  • “Popular or common product description,” like the word 2×4, must be “clearly described as ‘popular name,’ ‘popular description,’ or ‘commonly called.’”
  • Dimension descriptions are required to use the “inch-pound unit,” meaning they must include abbreviations such as “in., ft., or yd.,” and can’t use symbols like ‘ or ” to denote measurements.

According to a 1964 publication by the U. S. Department of Agriculture titled History of Yard Lumber Size Standards, the national standard for lumber dimensions was established in 1924, with several revisions made over the years since. How is it, then, after 90 years of national, government affirmed standardization, the “consumers” of Kalifornia are so bewildered that one company can be singled out and levied such an exorbitant fine for “unlawfully” labeling it’s product?


The real underlying issue, the greater concern if you will, has nothing to do with lumber dimensions.  This case is a mere symptom of a much deeper problem. There’s an increasing ideological divide in this country in which the courts and our government continually impose laws and rules that pander to the lowest common denominator. I believe the birth of this mindset originated with the McDonalds hot coffee lawsuit in 1992, which paved the way for these frivolous progressive “consumer protection” actions.  Common sense and personal responsibility have long since given way to this “nanny state” mentality, through which we all must be protected from our own stupidity and negligence.  After all, anything that threatens (reveals) our intelligence, or lack thereof, must be dangerous and offensive, yes?

Clearly not everyone thinks this way, hence the ideological divide. And make no mistake, the divide is real and gets wider every day as a result of the cultural and social dependencies nurtured by actions such as this lawsuit. I have no doubt that a significant proportion of the population is cheering this as a legal and moral victory. For every one of us who is outraged at the frivolous absurdity of this Lowes finding, there’s no doubt at least one counterpart in America who celebrates this as a victory against capitalistic dominance and discriminatory business practices.

We are a nation completely obsessed with taking offense. It dominates our news, our daily conversations, our social media, and shapes our political alignment.  Somebody please tell me, where is it written that anyone anywhere has a “right” to live without offense? Just because you’re offended, uninformed, underprivileged, or blatantly stupid, doesn’t mean you’re being discriminated against. And just because you’re inconvenienced certainly doesn’t mean you’re entitled to compensation.  Or at least it didn’t used to.

Everyone and his brother is fixated on one label or another, and any word, term, phrase, color, pattern, sign, or whatever that might cause someone hurt feelings is suddenly deemed insensitive if not discriminatory. Even our own US flag is under attack by those who worry it might be viewed as offensive. Imagine that!  Offensive!? Offensive to whom? And who cares?  This is America, and this is our flag, is it not?  But I digress.

We are becoming a nation of helpless entitled pathetic crybabies, more interested in reality television, selfies, and a government provided free ride than in learning and earning our way in this world. And God forbid, anything that offends any one of us, the lowest common denominator, might be socially and politically unacceptable. Perhaps all adjectives should be banned and we should all wear homogenous pattern-less uniforms of beige or some other benign color. While we’re at it, we can do away with nouns and names and just assign everyone a serial number. Equal income, equal distribution of wealth, equal opportunity regardless of effort or intelligence.  Socialism, Marxism, Communism…?  Where does it end?

You know what’s really scary?  There are plenty of “Americans” who think that’s a great idea.  How’s that for offensive?

I’ll tell you one thing, bub… if you don’t know that a 2×4 isn’t actually 2 inches thick and 4 inches wide, do us all a favor – instead of getting sawdust in your mangingo and lawyering up, put down the hammer, go buy yourself a box of tampons and a Midol, wash it down with that skinny soy milk double latte frappawhatever, and hire someone who knows what the hell he or she is doing.


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.


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