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.

Summary

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.

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[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.

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Tune Your Hand Plane Tonight

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

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

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

Step 1 – Pour Drink of Preference

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

 

Step 2 – Disassembly & Cleaning

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

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

Step 3 – Inspect the Sole

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

Step 4 – Address the Frog

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

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

Step 5 – Polish the Cap Iron

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

Step 6 – Sharpen the Iron

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

Step 7 – Lubrication

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

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

Step 8 – Assemble, Adjust, Cut

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

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

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

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.

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

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Open vs. Closed? Mouth vs Throat? – The Adjustable Plane Facts

Adjustable Mouth?  Open or Closed Throat?  Say what?

What’s all the ruckus about adjustable mouth planes? What are they? Do I need one? How do I use it? What’s the difference between adjustable throat planes and adjustable mouth planes?  Good grief, it’s enough to give any new galoot a headache!

Stanley no. 60 with mouth open on left; Stanley no. 18 with mouth closed on right.

What’s the difference?  To clear up the confusion, let’s start with the nomenclature. Both ‘adjustable throat’ and ‘adjustable mouth’ actually refer to the same feature. Both terms are used interchangeably, which is confusing and in my opinion, technically incorrect. The mouth is the rectangular opening that you see when looking at the bottom of the plane. The throat is the area above the mouth on the top side of the plane. The part that is adjustable is the mouth, not the throat.  That said, even Stanley wasn’t consistent in its terminology, listing ‘adjustable throat‘ planes in their catalogs some years and ‘adjustable mouth‘ planes other years.  Far be it from me to argue the point one way or the other, but for the rest of this post, I’m sticking with adjustable mouth.

What is it?  An adjustable mouth on a plane means that the size of the mouth opening can be adjusted, i.e., opened to make it larger or closed to make it smaller. Typically, this is accomplished by sliding the toe section of the plane forward (away from the iron) to increase the size of the mouth opening, or backward toward the iron to decrease it.

Not all planes have adjustable mouths. In the world of vintage tools, adjustable mouths were most commonly featured on the various manufacturers’ premium lines of block planes and a few of their specialty planes. Modern manufacturers like Lie Nielsen and Veritas understand the value of adjustable mouths to woodworkers and feature them on many of their bench planes as well their block planes.

Why do I need it?  The value of having an adjustable mouth on a plane is the ability to increase or reduce the space between the leading edge of the mouth opening and the cutting edge of iron. If you’re making a heavy cut and taking thicker shavings, you want more open space in front of the iron for the shaving to pass. If you’re making a fine cut, taking thin shavings, you need less space in front of the iron.  In fact, you want the opening to be just marginally larger than the thickness of the shaving.

How do I use it?  In practice, the leading edge of the mouth presses down on the wood fibers as you make a cut. Having a ‘fine set’ to your plane (meaning a closed mouth and very shallow depth of cut) keeps the wood in front of the iron tightly compressed.  This enables a very thin shaving with less chance of tear out, in which the wood fibers split well ahead of and below the cut. Opening the mouth accomplishes just the opposite. With less compression, the iron is able to take a thicker cut, and the larger opening allows the shaving to pass through unobstructed up into the throat area.

Naturally, the size of the mouth opening is only half of the equation – you also need to decide how far down to extend the iron based on how deep you want to cut. If you try to take a heavy a cut with the mouth too tightly closed, the shaving will be too thick to pass through the opening and will quickly clog the mouth opening or simply come to a screeching halt.  This effect can be more or less pronounced depending on the type of wood you are working on.

The trick, of course, is finding the right balance between set of the iron and opening of the mouth, but this is truly not as difficult as it might sound. A little trial and error will quickly build experience and give you a ‘feel’ for how to set your plane for the cut you desire. Once you have it set appropriately for what you’re trying to accomplish, the results will be superior to what you would get from a plane with a fixed aperture mouth, which lacks the flexibility for making fine adjustments to the cut.

As a final thought, it is worth pointing out that many planes without adjustable mouths can still be adjusted.  Virtually all bench planes have adjustable frogs.  Moving the frog forward or backward decreases or increases the size of the mouth opening, accomplishing the same goal as an adjustable mouth, even if the process is a little more involved.  Still, that is precisely why Stanley added the frog adjustment feature to their planes in 1907.

Unlike bench planes, the frogs of block planes are fixed, so unless they have an adjustable mouth, you’re stuck with the fixed size opening.  This is why adjustable mouth block planes are more highly regarded and valued by woodworkers.

Common* Vintage Planes with Adjustable Mouths

Stanley nos. 9-1/2, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 standard angle block planes
Stanley nos. 60, 60-1/2, 65, 65-1/2 low angle block planes
Stanley no. 62 low angle jack plane

Millers Falls nos. 16, 17, 26, 27, 36, 37 standard angle block planes
Millers Falls nos. 46, 47, 56, 57 low angle block planes

Sargent nos. 306, 307, 1306, 1307, 4306, 4307, 5306, 5307 standard angle block planes
Sargent nos. 606, 607, 1606, 1607 low angle block planes
Sargent no. 514 low angle jack plane

Modern Plane Makers

Lie-Nielsen – makes block plane models with adjustable mouths
Veritas/Lee Valley – makes both block and bench planes with adjustable mouths
Stanley – makes modern variations of their vintage counterparts
Wood River/Woodcraft – makes block plane models with adjustable mouths

* This is not a complete list, but includes the most common planes for use.

For more information on plane nomenclature, please refer to the Plane Terminology page for a full dictionary of plane parts and terms.

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Deconstructing the Wright Flyer

I spent this past week on vacation at the beautiful Outer Banks of North Carolina.  The OBX is one of my favorite places on earth, and I’ve been visiting just about every year for the past 30 years.  Despite its growth and development, especially over the last 20 years, there is still something raw about the Outer Banks.  Mother Nature may have yielded some of her land, but the spirit of the place is still very much wild, a precarious thin line of sand at the mercy of the Atlantic Ocean.  It was here, on the sandy dunes of Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills back in December of 1903, that Orville and Wilbur Wright first flew a heavier-than-air craft under its own power.

Kitty Hawk CampSitting on a dune deck overlooking the Atlantic just a few miles from Kitty Hawk this week, I got to thinking about just what kind of tools the Wright brothers might have used when building the Wright Flyer.  The plane’s wings were constructed of spruce and ash covered with muslin.  The rest of the frame was metal, not at all surprising considering the Wrights were machinists, not woodworkers.  After all, they designed and developed the Flyer in their Ohio bicycle shop.  They favored coastal North Carolina for its windy dunes and because it was remote – competition for flight was intense and they didn’t want a lot of press at that point.

Fortunately, the construction of the plane has been exhaustively researched and documented, not a task as simple as one might assume since the Wrights were very secretive, didn’t keep detailed plans of the design, and constantly made changes on the fly (no pun intended). [1]  The plane’s framework “floated” within fabric pockets sewn inside, making the muslin covering an integral part of the structure. This ingenious feature made the aircraft light, strong, and flexible. The 1903 Flyer was powered by a simple four-cylinder engine of the Wrights’ own design.  To fly the airplane, the pilot lay prone with his head forward, his left hand operating the elevator control. Lateral control was achieved by warping the wing tips in opposite directions via wires attached to a hip cradle mounted on the lower wing. The pilot shifted his hips from side to side to operate the mechanism, which also moved the rudder. [2]

Wingspan: 12.3 m (40 ft 4 in)
Length: 6.4 m (21 ft)
Height: 2.8 m (9 ft 3 in)
Weight, empty: 274 kg (605 lb)
Engine: Gasoline, 12 hp
Manufacturer: Wilbur and Orville Wright, Dayton, Ohio, 1903

Construction

Wright Cycle ShopMy interest in the Flyer was centered on the woodworking tools and techniques that might have been employed.  However, in researching the Wrights, their shop, and the Flyer, it became clear that the woodworking aspect of the plane’s construction was incidental at best.  Obviously the focus (both then and now) was on the science – weight, power, aerodynamics, and control.  Records of their workshop reveals it was sparse with relatively few tools, and those tools they had were mainly dedicated to metal work.[2]  The bicycle shop had a 14″ Putnam Lathe, a 20″ Barnes drill press, and a 26″ Cresent bandsaw.   References confirming this are attributed to a book, “Charles Taylor, Mechanician.”  Taylor, of course, was the man who built the aluminum engine specifically for the Flyer.

Orville Wright at work in ShopThe propellers, wing struts, and wing framework were the only parts of the aircraft that were made of wood.  Since the Flyer was designed to be portable, joinery was all temporary and removable, using clips and brackets that were fabricated of metal.  In fact, it can be assumed that the decision to use of wooden components was probably based on practicality.  Orville and Wilbur wanted to keep the weight and cost down, and wooden parts were easy to replace if broken.  Lightweight metals like aluminum, which was used for the engine, were still comparatively expensive at the turn of the century.  Parts made of Spruce were strong, lightweight, and cheaply replaceable.

While I could not find any direct reference to the woodworking tools and techniques employed to make the wooden parts of the plane, looking at detailed photos of the components provides some insight.  With the exception of the propellers, which were hand carved, the rest of the parts were fairly simple and utilitarian in both design and execution.  Also, given the fact that the Wright Bicycle Shop was a metalwork business, and the Wrights were cheap about their outlay for tools and equipment, it’s safe to assume that the wooden components were formed using the most basic of woodworking hand tools – Saws, planes, spokeshaves, and chisels.

Wright Shop Tools

It turns out that, from a woodworking perspective, the most interesting component were the propellers.  As mentioned, the propellers were carefully hand carved to achieve the greatest possible efficiency.  The Wrights thought propeller design would be a simple matter and intended to adapt data from shipbuilding.  However, their library research disclosed no established formulas for either marine or air propellers, and they found themselves with no sure starting point. They discussed and argued the question, sometimes heatedly, until they concluded that an aeronautical propeller is essentially a wing rotating in the vertical plane. On that basis, they used data from more wind tunnel tests to design their propellers. The finished blades were just over eight feet long, made of three laminations of glued spruce. The Wrights decided on twin “pusher” propellers (counter-rotating to cancel torque), which would act on a greater quantity of air than a single relatively slow propeller and not disturb airflow over the leading edge of the wings.[3]

Wilbur Wright At Lathe c. 1897The propeller blade is shaped like an airfoil and there is a pressure difference created across the blade because of the motion of the spinning blade. The pressure difference causes large amounts of air to be accelerated through the plane of the propeller and the reaction of the vehicle to this motion generates a force called thrust. The thrust pushes the aircraft forward in accordance with Newton’s first law of motion.  The use of high speed (~350 revolutions per minute), thin propellers on their aircraft was one of the major breakthroughs for the Wright brothers and allowed them to succeed where others failed. At the time, others employed low speed, thick bladed propellers, much like the blades of a wind mill. But the brothers correctly determined that high speed, thin propellers are more efficient than low speed thick blades. [4]

Fortunately, the Wright Flyer was a far more impressive piece of engineering than it was an example of turn of the century woodwork.  Call it a little vacation inspired curiosity, but I enjoyed exploring this important piece of history this week.  If you’re lucky enough to visit the Outer Banks, I highly recommend a trip to the Wright Memorial National Park at Kill Devil Hills.  Following an afternoon at the park, make sure you drive down Collington Road to Billy’s Seafood, one of the area’s more recent national treasures.  Best steamed crabs on the beach!

Steamed Crabs

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1. The Wrights left an obscure trail to follow, carefully guarding their findings and working in secrecy. As a result, little is available in the way of blueprints, designs or instructions. – http://www.countdowntokittyhawk.com/flyer/2003/construction.html
2. National Air and SpaceMuseum, http://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/gal100/wright1903.html
3. Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wright_brothers
4. Nasa, http://wright.nasa.gov/airplane/propeller.html

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Millers Falls Plane Specifications

Specification charts for Millers Falls planes have now been added to the site under the Tools menu.  Included are charts for bench planes as well as block and specialty planes.  These charts provide Stanley equivalents where applicable.

There is also a bench plane conversion chart cross-referencing planes made by Stanley, Sargent, Millers Falls, and Record.  I plan to have additional information available in the near future, including comprehensive information on both Millers Falls and Sargent.  In the meantime, enjoy!

Millers Falls page
Bench Plane Specifications Chart
Block Plane Specifications Chart
Plane Cross Reference Chart

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Stanley Type Studies and More Now Posted!

I’ve just about finished uploading the Bailey and Bed Rock type studies, specification charts, and block plane dating information to the site.  There’s a wealth of information here, both summarized and broken down in detail by the major individual components.  The Bailey and Bed Rock type studies are relatively easy to find elsewhere online, but you won’t find the specification charts or information on dating your block plane anywhere but here!

Look for more information like this coming to the site over the next month or so, including specifications, conversion charts, and type studies for other models and manufacturers including Millers Falls, Sargent,  and Record.

By the way, if you’re new to collecting, don’t miss the post on understanding type studies.  It takes some of the mystery out of the madness.

Specification Charts

Stanley Bailey Bench Plane Chart
Stanley Bed Rock Plane Chart
Stanley Block Plane Chart

Type Studies

Bailey Type Study
– Bailey Detailed Identification
Bed Rock Type Study
Block Plane Dating

Understanding Type Studies

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Understanding Type Studies

Catalog Image of Stanley Bailey Smoothing Plane, c. 1880sLet’s be honest, Type Studies are confusing to a lot of people, especially those new to tool collecting. One reason for this is that by their very nature, Type Studies attempt to identify very specific points in time that correspond with transitions in the design and manufacturing process of tools made in the past. There are many problems with this.  First and foremost, manufacturers never imagined that anyone in the future might care about tracking changes in the evolution of their designs.  Subsequently, even veterans who know better sometimes lose sight of just how blurry those lines of delineation are along the historical manufacturing timeline.

The first thing to clearly understand is that Type Studies are a present day construct. They were not a production guide used by manufacturers to identify, notate, or track changes in design.  Stanley and their competitors didn’t follow Type Studies.  Why, you ask?  Because Type Studies didn’t exist at the time the tools were made.  Did you get that?  Type Studies are a present day guide.

It was not until the 1970s and ’80s that people really started thinking about collecting vintage hand tools. And it’s only in the last 10 or 15 years, when woodworking with hand powered tools has enjoyed a resurgence, that vintage tool collecting has started to explode in popularity.  The big name hand tool aficionados (Roger Smith, Alvin Sellens, Clarence Blanchard, and others) conducted extensive research, pouring over company records and old catalogs and detailing the physical variations of thousands of tools in order to begin piecing together timelines for various models.

These timelines, delineated by significant and important changes in the design and manufacture of a tool are referred to as Type Studies.  Different ‘Types’ within a Type Study refer to a defined period of manufacture in which a particular set of features was unique.  That said, the change from one Type to another doesn’t mean the entire tool was redesigned.  In fact, virtually all feature changes overlapped others, and a given feature or set of features might extend over several Types.  A good example can be illustrated with the lever caps used on Stanley’s Type 13-15 bench planes made between 1925 and 1932.  While the same design cap was used on all three types, there were other feature changes that delineate the three different date ranges on the Type Study time-line.

Summing it all up, here are five important confusion-busting facts about Type Studies that should provide clarity:

    1. Type Studies are modern-day timelines used to identify the age of a tool by referencing important changes in its design, manufacture, and physical characteristics.  Different ‘Types’ within a Type Study refers to a particular period of manufacture in which a particular feature or set of features was unique.
    2. Manufacturers didn’t adhere to Type Studies because Type Studies did not exist at the time.  They simply manufactured tools and made periodic changes to design and manufacturing processes, just like manufacturers today.  We identify those periodic changes in the Type Study, and subsequently assign ‘Types’ based on the time period in which they were made.
    3. Type Studies are not interchangeable.   They only apply to a specific model or series of tools.  Different tools and different lines will have different Type Studies.  For example, Stanley’s Bailey line of bench planes have a completely different Type Study from the Bed Rock series.   Some tools, like the no. 71 router plane, have their own individual Type Study.  Many tools have never been studied in depth and don’t have a Type Study at all.
    4. Type Studies are approximations.  The manufacturing timeline was constantly evolving.  Even when design changes were made, existing (old) stock parts were used until their supply was depleted before moving to new parts.  Therefore, the changeover of features sometimes took months or even years, resulting in multiple variations of the same product being released at the same time.  While Type Studies imply that these changes were aligned with a specific date or year, collectors need to understand that the transitions were more evolutionary than revolutionary.
    5. Type Studies are not all-inclusive.  With some manufacturers and some tools, and some tools made during certain periods, features and materials varied quite a bit.  A good example of this is Stanley’s offering of Bailey bench planes made during World War II.  Brass was in short supply, and subsequently, the so-called Type 17 planes made during the war years have a variety of inconsistencies.  Some had brass hardware, where others have steel.  Some have rosewood knobs and totes, while others have painted hardwood.  Some have frog adjustment mechanisms while others don’t.   All made during this period, however, are considered Type 17, regardless of features.

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Select the Best Bench Plane for the Job

Stanley Bailey no. 5-1/2, Type 11

Asking what size bench plane is the best to buy is sort of like asking what size drill bit you should use. It depends on what you plan to do with it. That said, while you probably need a full set of drill bits in with a wide range of sizes, you certainly don’t need to own every size bench plane that Stanley ever made. In fact, you can accomplish just about every job you’re likely to face with just three bench planes.  More important than focusing on a specific model number is gaining a basic understanding of what the planes do and how the various sizes differ.

Bench planes, whether made by Stanley, Millers Falls, Sargent, Union, Craftsman, Lie-Nielsen, or Veritas, etc., all do the same thing – they shave wood. Of course, while shaving wood is the functional process, making the wood surface flat is generally the object of the exercise. To that end, certain size planes are better suited for a particular step in that process than others.

The first thing to understand is that neither physical size nor Stanley’s related numbering system has any relevance to how the planes are used or in which order they should be employed. In Stanley’s bench plane numbering scheme, the smaller the number, the shorter the length of the plane, with a few ‘1/4’ and ‘1/2’ width variations thrown in for good confusing measure. So, their no. 1 plane is the shortest at just 5-1/2 inches, while their longest is the no. 8, at 24 inches. Note that this sequential logic only applies to their bench planes, not their block or specialty planes.

Grouping them by function is a different matter, and far more relevant in understanding how to use them. Bench planes can be separated into three functional groups:

  1. Fore planes
  2. Try planes
  3. Smoothing planes

1. Fore Planes – For Rough Preparation

Stanley no. 5 Fore Plane, Type 11

Fore planes are those ranging from approximately 14 inches to 18 inches in length. In the Stanley bench plane assortment, these include the nos. 5, 5-1/4, 5-1/2, and 6. The term ‘Fore’ dates back several hundred years and is generally assumed to be a contraction of ‘Before’ and interpreted as the plane used first in flattening a surface. “It is called the Fore Plane because it is used before you come to work either with the Smooth Plane, or with the Joynter.” [1]

As the first plane one would use in preparing a surface, the Fore plane takes the most aggressive cut, removing rough saw marks and leveling out low and high spots, etc. The iron is sharpened with a significant camber, or curvature to the cutting edge, with as much as 1/16″ to 1/8″ difference between the center and the edges. This removes the most waste, but subsequently leaves the surface of the wood with a scalloped finish.

While either the no. 5 or no. 6 will do, I prefer the size and greater versatility of the no. 5. Rough planing is a very physical activity, and the lighter weight of the no. 5 makes it less fatiguing to use. It’s smaller size also makes it more versatile for a variety of other day to day planing jobs. If you’ll use your Fore plane exclusively for prepping tabletops or dresser carcasses, the no. 5-1/2 or no. 6 would be fine choices. But the no. 5 is, in my opinion, the most versatile of the group and the plane I use most often.

Those of you paying attention are no doubt asking, “If the no. 5 is a Fore plane, why is it so often referred to as a ‘Jack’ plane?” Indeed, the nomenclature pond is very murky at times. While no one knows for sure, most people guess the nickname ‘Jack’ originated from the term ‘Jack of all trades’ and refers to the versatility of planes measuring about 14 inches in length. And versatile they are; the no. 5 was by far the best selling size plane Stanley or its competitors ever made. Historical texts seem to support this moniker as well, as references to Jack planes extend back to at least 1703 (Moxon). Regardless, its length puts it in the Fore plane category, and its versatility assures it a place on the workbench.

2. Try (or Jointer) Planes – For Refining the Surface

Stanley no. 7 Jointer Plane, Type 11

Try planes, more commonly known as Jointer planes, are those over 18 inches, and are most commonly 22 to 28 inches. Stanley’s offering of Jointer planes are the no. 7 and no. 8, measuring 22 inches and 24 inches respectively.

As the name implies, a Jointer plane excels at truing the edges of long boards that will be glued together to make table tops, shelves, and carcasses. But its value and place on the workbench isn’t limited to edge work. The Try, or Jointer, plane is used to flatten and refine the surface left by the Fore plane. Its extra length allows it to true large flat surfaces without riding up over the peaks or dipping down into the valleys created (or left uncorrected) during the initial surface preparation.

Despite its heft, the Jointer should be considered a precision tool. The iron should be sharpened with a slight camber (or perhaps none at all if used exclusively for edge work), and the frog typically adjusted with a fine set for thinner shavings than the Fore plane. Working both across the grain and in all directions, the Try plane leaves a perfectly flat surface that requires only final touch up with the Smoothing plane.

Your choices between the two standards, nos. 7 and 8, are really a matter of personal preference. In this case, Newton’s laws of motion lend a helping hand.  The greater heft is actually a benefit, in that once you get it moving the additional mass helps keep it going with less effort. That said, the no. 8 is quite a beast, and my personal preference is for the lighter and shorter no. 7, which I find easier to manage.

3. Smoothing Planes – For Final Finishing

Stanley no. 4 Smoothing Plane, Type 19

Smoothing planes include the shorter planes in the lineup, those 10 inches or less. Stanley made a number of planes in this range, from the tiny no. 1 to the most popular no. 4 and its wider sibling, the 4-1/2.

The Smoothing plane is the final plane used prior to applying the finish. Executed properly, there should be no need for sandpaper. Used primarily with the grain, the Smoothing plane is normally sharpened with just the slightest camber or left straight with its corners eased to prevent them from digging in or leaving tell tale ‘lines’ along the edge of the cut. The frog is adjusted with a closed mouth for the finest of cuts, and the shavings produced are tissue thin, ideally produced from long strokes covering the full length of the wood. Aside from perhaps a little hand scraping here and there, the surface left by the Smoothing plane should require no further treatment. In fact done correctly, sanding would actually diminish the quality of the surface left by the Smoother.

More so than with the Fore and Try planes, the choice of which size Smoother is really a matter of and comfort and the scale of your work. All of them will do a comparable job, although the nos. 1 and 2 are really only suited for very small surfaces (and very small hands). The no. 4 is considered the most versatile size, and the one I use most often. However, I do have a smaller no. 3 and a wider no. 4-1/2 that I reach for, depending on the size of the project. But since the point of this article is to identify the three core bench planes you’ll need for woodworking, the no. 4 is probably the best overall size choice for a single Smoothing plane for most people.

Understanding and applying the concepts of the three steps is far more important than knowing which plane to choose. Depending on the size of your projects, you may want to scale up or down all three tool choices.  For most woodworkers, however, I recommend the vintage Stanley no. 5 Fore plane, the no. 7 Try/Jointer plane, and the no. 4 Smoothing plane, or the comparable size equivalent from one of the other major manufacturers.

I will conclude by pointing out the obvious – if you’re starting with dimensional lumber from your local home center or planing mill, you can certainly skip the Rough step altogether, and may be able to skip the Refine step too, getting by with just a little Smoothing. I can promise this, once you get the hang of a Smoothing plane, you’ll never want to pull out your random orbit sander again.

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For more detailed information on the three step process using hand planes, I highly recommend you check out Christopher Schwarz’s outstanding Course, Medium, and Fine, available on DVD.

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.

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1. Moxon, Joseph. Mechanick Exercises. London, 1703.

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

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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.

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