“Excelsior” Profile Stanley Block Planes

Ever wonder about the origin of the word “Excelsior” as it refers to the body style on Stanley block planes?  Why Excelsior?  What does it mean?  Was it an official Stanley name or a term that has been applied in recent years?

Me too.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, the “Excelsior” profile refers to the first body style used on Stanley block planes.  Dating from 1873 to 1898, the Excelsior profile differs from the later profile in that the “hump” in the cheeks is positioned more toward the rear of the plane.  After 1898 the hump was centered in the cheek profile and has the familiar milled Handi-grip indentions.  And yes, there was a very brief period of a few months in 1898 when the excelsior bodies also included the Handi-grip indentions.

Early Excelsior Profile Stanley 9-3/4 Type 1

Early Excelsior Profile Stanley 9-3/4 Type 1

The word Excelsior comes from the latin word excelsus, meaning meaning “ever upward” or “even higher.”  It is the origin for the word Excel, which obviously means to surpass in achievement.  However, more interesting and relevant for us, “Excelsior” is commonly defined as fine curled wood shavings used for packing.  Given that definition, it certainly makes sense that “Excelsior” was the name Stanley assigned to a line of block planes.

The earliest Stanley reference to Excelsior I could find is in the 1867 price list, which lists a “Patent Excelsior Tool Handle,” a wooden multi-tool handle that included 20 Bradawls and tools.  However, the multi-tool handle design more commonly referred to today as Excelsior was patented on March 19, 1867.  That patent design was awarded to Nathan S. Clement, and featured a different method of clamping the tool bits into the handle than the previous Stanley offerings.  As was often the case, the patent was eventually acquired by Stanley Rule & Level and incorporated into their product line, and was reflected in both wooden and the ornate iron handled multi-tool handles.

62938_IMPROVEMENT_IN_AWL_Clement 1867

Stanley also referred to their Bailey’s Patent Adjustable Block Planes as “Excelsior Block Planes” when they were introduced in 1873.   This term only applied to the adjustable mouth planes, such as the no. 9-1/2, no. 9-3/4, no. 15, etc.  The no. 110 and other non-adjustable planes had a different cheek profile, and were simply listed as Iron Block Planes in Stanley catalogs.

I did a little patent search sleuthing but could only find one reference that in any way tied in the term excelsior to hand or block planes.  In 1875, Albion K. Hall of Jackson, MI patented a plane specifically for making excelsior shavings.  However, I found nothing that tied him in any way to Stanley, so I assume there was no relationship between the two.

Stanley continued to use the Excelsior name for their multi-tools until 1902, and their planes until about 1898, when the profile was redesigned, moving the hump toward the center of the cheek.  Today, the Excelsior planes are attractive primarily to collectors.  While certainly usable, their castings tend to be thinner and more fragile than the later models, lending them better to display shelves than workbenches.  Either way, they remain, in my opinion, one of the more attractive plane designs ever devised.

The Excelsior line included the following planes:
no. 9-1/2
no. 9-3/4
no. 15
no. 15-1/2
no. 16
no. 17
no. 18
no. 19

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The Confusing Grey Area of Type Study Transitions

Block Planes from the Author's Collection

Block Planes from the Author’s Collection

As I’ve written before, I periodically receive questions from readers.  I really enjoy this, and a few of these questions have led to good friendships along the way.  In a recent correspondence with one of my long distance tool friends, the following question was posed.  I thought it was a good one, and worth sharing…

I have a No 4 type 5 and the iron has the “J” trademark which was allegedly used 1874-1884.  I think it’s original to the plane and the “nut” hole is at the top of the iron. The lateral adj lever is the single piece and everything else adds up. According to the type study (if one goes by that) that particular plane was produced 1885-1888. Now, also according to the type study that plane should likely have an iron with TmP, which I have but the hole is at the bottom of the iron which wasn’t supposed to happen until type 6 planes 1888-1892.  …I know type studies are a modern phenomenon but obviously are used today to determine the approximate time the plane was manufactured and sometimes it has a real effect on the value. …  The type study seems to be a little off on this particular time line but am I putting too much value on the information anyway? I haven’t studied this long enough to understand how the studies determined typing but now I’m not sure that the specificity of subtle changes determining the difference in type is valid. I think my plane has the correct Tm on the iron but a type study would lead someone else to question it.   – Mark

Mark, you nailed it – specificity of subtle changes determining the difference in type is, in fact, NOT always valid.  It’s actually kind of interesting that our brains all seem to want to interpret type studies in a very organized, linear manner.  Strictly speaking, when the type study for Stanley bench planes was created, the transition points from one type to the next were logical from a feature standpoint, but somewhat arbitrary from a date standpoint.  Take your Type 5 to Type 6 transition, for example.  The type study dates the type 5 from 1885 to 1888, and the type 6 from 1888-1892.  While the transition of some features, like the re-design of the frog receiver, probably switched on a specific date, other changes were implemented over time.  And remember that despite what the type study leads us to believe, all the changes implemented (where we mark the transition from one “type” to the next) were not coordinated.

When Roger Smith created the type study, he made judgment calls for when to mark the date of change from one type to the next, which makes sense in the context of a type study.  However, in reality, the transition from one type to the next wasn’t so prescribed, and actually reflects an unspecified period of time in which there would have been a mix of features.  It wasn’t a single month or year in most cases, but likely a period of one to several years.  In a couple of cases, this transition period was so pronounced that the type study includes references to “hybrid” types, as is well documented between types 8 to 9.

The guys at Stanley were brilliant when it came to product differentiation and marketing.  They knew how to keep their line of tools fresh and relevant, and implemented subtle changes to help remain current and sustain demand.  Some of their changes were likely implemented for that reason alone.  The trademark stamp on iron, for example, served no functional purpose.  As such, I imagine that changes from one mark to the next took place independently of most other design changes, and therefore has the least correlation to the type studies.

A lot of people point out that the change from one plane “type” to the next should be interpreted very differently from how we understand the change from one model year car to the next.  This is true.  Comparatively, Stanley’s planes were more like today’s computers, where change is an ongoing evolution rather than a series of annual steps.  Imagine 100 years from now someone trying to create a type study for Microsoft/Intel based personal computers.  I can envision some poor soul trying to understand why his vintage “Type 4” Dell PC has a Pentium IV processor, when the “type study” clearly states it should have a Pentium III.

So, don’t fret, Mark.  What you have is a late type 5 or very early type 6.  The mix of features simply indicates the plane was probably made during that period of transition, and if anything, actually helps narrow the date range.  While you can’t prove it, you’d be quite justified to estimate the date of manufacture to sometime between, say, 1887 and 1889.  And you’d probably be pretty darn close.

 ***

Get a (Handi) Grip on this Stanley no. 18 Plane

Every so often I receive a question from a reader about a tool they own.  I enjoy this.  It gives me a chance to virtually meet folks from across the country and across the world and discuss a topic we both love.   The most recent question came from Vincent Tuinema, an architect in the Netherlands who found a nice vintage Stanley no. 18 block plane with an unusual feature – or lack thereof.

no18_1_tuinemaVincent’s no. 18 is a typical mid-20th century example in every way except one.  There are no handi-grip indentions milled into the sides.  He wanted to know the reason for this and age of the plane.  Let the sleuthing begin!

The first point to keep in mind about the no. 18 is that the body is identical in every way to the no. 9-1/2.  Stanley no doubt used the same casting for both.  Vincent’s excellent photos clearly show the raised Stanley marking at the toe of the plane, and Made in USA marked at the rear of the bed.  This tells us that the plane was made after 1930, the approximate year in which the latter marking was permanently added.

The second clue is found not by what I see, but what I don’t see.  Block planes made after 1947 had the model number stamped into the bottom of one cheek (side).  Since Vincent’s plane is not stamped this way, it indicates it was likely made before 1947.

The third, and in this case, most telling clue is the lack of the milled handi-grip indentions.  Although fairly uncommon, it is well documented that Stanley omitted the hand-grip feature on at least some of their block planes for a brief time during World War II.  Patrick Leach’s Blood and Gore site indicates that this was likely due to the fact that Stanley was using the same machinery to mill similar indentions into Howitzer artillery shells to make them easier to grip.

Similarly, brass was in short supply during the war, and Stanley switched to steel and rubber hardware on many of their planes.  If you click on the photo at the bottom of the page, you can see that the front knob on this no. 18 appears to be made of steel, not the typical nickel plated brass.  I suspect the rear adjustment wheel is probably steel as well.  While the shortage of brass for commercial purposes during the war is understandable (they needed the brass for cartridges), it seems a little surprising that steel was so readily available.  Considering of all the military hardware being produced, you would think steel would have been in short supply as well.

This mystery solved, Vincent’s no. 18 is a nice example of a WWII vintage Stanley block plane.  In the absence of a simple feature that we take for granted is reflected a time of sacrifice and uncertainty in our world.  To me, it symbolizes the united efforts of a country and a world working in partnership to defeat tyranny.  Sure, that sounds dramatic, but those missing handi-grip indentions were not just a mistake or cost cutting measure.  They were omitted for a reason.  They mean something.

no18_2_tuinema

Thanks, Vincent, for sharing your photos and allowing me to use them for this post!

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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.

____________________________________

[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 Block Plane Tonight

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

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

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

Step 1 – Pour Drink of Preference

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

 

 

Step 2 – Disassembly & Cleaning

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

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

Step 3 – Hello Froggy

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

Step 4 – Adjustimability of the Mouth

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

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

Step 5 – Inspect the Sole

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

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

Step 6 – Time to Sharpen

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

Step 7 – Lubrication

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

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

Step 8 – Assemble, Adjust, Cut

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

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

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Tune Your Hand Plane Tonight

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

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

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

Step 1 – Pour Drink of Preference

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

 

Step 2 – Disassembly & Cleaning

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

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

Step 3 – Inspect the Sole

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

Step 4 – Address the Frog

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

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

Step 5 – Polish the Cap Iron

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

Step 6 – Sharpen the Iron

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

Step 7 – Lubrication

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

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

Step 8 – Assemble, Adjust, Cut

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

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

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

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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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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