Sometimes You Just Have To Work Out of the Bed of Your Truck

I love this little Stanley no. 18. It’s my first go-to for anything a block plane might be able to handle. It dates from the 1910s (V Logo), and is as close to mint condition as a 100 year old plane can be. The nickel plating on the cap is p e r f e c t, and the japanning 100%. Aside from a little patina on the cheeks, it looks like it just came out of the box.

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Setting Up and Tuning a Block Plane

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Stanley Bailey no. 9-1/2, c. 1952-55 ~ one of the most popular block planes of all time

As a follow up to an earlier post about setting up and tuning bench planes, this one will focus solely on block planes. Some of the information is taken directly from that post, so if you’ve read it, it may sound familiar.

On to Setting Up Those Block Planes…

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 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 block plane for use.  Block planes tend to be less complicated than bench planes, but there are still many variations, 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 – Soles Need Saving

I’m not a stickler when it comes to flattening the sole of a plane.  After owning hundreds and using dozens of planes over the years, it’s fairly rare to come across one with a sole so warped, cupped, or bowed that it’s unusable.  If you happen upon one that is truly 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.

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The sole of this plane was lapped by hand using a granite surface plate

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 will work for block planes.  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 from bouncing around in tool boxes, 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 – Flatten ‘dem Frogs

The hole in the iron straddles the lateral adjustment pivot disc and seats against the tiny frog where it engages the tiny pins on the height adjustment lever mechanism

The hole in the iron straddles the lateral adjustment pivot disc and seats against the tiny frog where it engages the tiny pins on the height adjustment lever mechanism

Block planes do not typically have removable frogs like bench planes, but there are some exceptions, mainly on some of the specialty and low angle planes where part of the frog moves with the iron when adjusting depth of cut. Either way, the function of the frog is the same on all planes. It provides a secure platform on which the iron is supported.  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 and secure as possible. This platform on most block planes is frequently very small, especially when compared to bench planes. Click on the photo to the right and you can see the frog is less than 1/2 square inch.

Since the frog on your block plane is typically not removable, you only need to touch up the seat with a firm sanding block to ensure it is flat.  Also, because 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 – Lever Caps (This is not a drinking game…)

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Just the leading edge to the underside of the lever cap at the bottom of the photo needs to be flattened. This photo, taken before flattening, shows the edge to be a little rough, which will compromise flush contact with the iron.

Block planes don’t have cap irons, so the lever cap plays a more important role.  Use your coarse sharpening stone or 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 along the front edge.  File it smooth and give it a couple of swipes across your 1000 grit stone. If your plane uses one of the nickel plated knuckle style lever caps, just flatten the bottom of the front edge in a similar fashion.

Step 4 – I Pity the Fool Who Don’t Sharpen His Tool!

The iron has been sharpened with a small 2 to 3 degree secondary bevel added (the dark line at the very edge)

The iron has been sharpened with a small 2 to 3 degree secondary bevel added (the dark line at the very edge)

The simple 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. You may want a perfectly straight edge if working on joinery, or you may want it cambered (with a slight radius) for smoothing out small surface areas. It’s up to you, but if you do nothing else in the way of tuning or preparing your plane for use, at least take the time to properly sharpen it.  Do not skip this step!  Sharpen the iron.  Again, sharpen the iron!  Sharpen it I say!

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.

Step 5 – 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…

The adjustable mouth plate on the Stanley no. 9-1/2. The mouth opening is adjusted by loosening the knob and rotating the eccentric throat lever left or right (to open or close the mouth).

The adjustable mouth plate on the Stanley no. 9-1/2. The mouth opening is adjusted by loosening the knob and rotating the eccentric throat lever left or right (to open or close the mouth).

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, many (but not all) block planes have adjustable mouths.  Use a larger mouth opening for thicker cuts, and a smaller mouth opening for fine shavings.  For details on this please see my post on adjustable mouth planes.

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 a full turn or two.  Just turn it until you begin to feel resistance. Make any lateral adjustments necessary using the lateral adjustment lever if your plane has one (some do and some don’t). If yours doesn’t, just tap the side of the iron with a small hammer to properly align it. I use a brass hammer so as not to mushroom the iron’s edge, but what you use is up to you. 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.

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 (or two) of your favorite Kentucky brown, put on some music of choice, and saddle up to your work bench.

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Stanley Bailey no. 18, c. 1936-42

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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.

New Planes vs. Vintage Planes

Stanley-Bailey-5.5C-Type-14One of the first questions many people contemplating their first  plane purchase ask is “Should I buy a new plane or vintage plane?” Indeed, this was the first question I asked before my first purchase many years ago. There is no simple single right or wrong answer. It depends on a few different factors:

  • What is your budget?
  • What is the plane’s intended use?
  • Are you willing to invest a little time setting it up and tuning it for use?

Virtually any plane you buy, new or vintage, is going to need some degree tuning and sharpening. The modern hardware store planes will require virtually the same tuning process as a 100 year old Stanley or competitor. Even a brand new Lie Nielsen or Veritas (both of which I am a huge fan) will need a final honing, if nothing else. The quality of hand tools today is generally abysmal. The demand and quality for hand tools fell sharply after WWII as electrically powered tools took off and the era of self-sufficiency evolved into one where paid tradesmen were hired for jobs around the home.  It’s only in the last decade or two that niche companies like Lie Nielsen and Veritas have again produced hand planes that are of acceptable quality for fine woodworking. These, however, come at a cost.

Lie Nielsen Smoothing Plane

Lie Nielsen Smoothing Plane

If you’re a professional or serious woodworker, investing $200 to $400 in a precision plane is arguably justifiable. Both companies mentioned above manufacture extremely high quality tools. On the other hand, the planes found at local hardware stores, big box retailers, and even some specialty shops – those generally under $150 – are simply not in the same class.  Quality of materials, manufacture, fit and finish are often quite poor. And it’s important to note that these brand new sub-$150 planes will undoubtedly require at least a couple hours worth of tuning and sharpening to make them function correctly.

By contrast, the vintage planes made by companies like Stanley, Sargent, Union, and others, especially from about 1910 to 1940, were of excellent quality, and are generally superior to most of the planes made today, especially those under the $100 to $150 price point.  These planes can be found in antique shops, yard sales, tool swaps, and eBay, often for as little as $10 and rarely (depending on the model and rarity) over $100. The caveat with vintage tools is that they will almost always need some degree of restoration and tuning.  Like the cheaper new store bought planes, the sole may need lapping, the frog face flattened, rough surfaces smoothed, and the iron sharpened and honed. However, for the same investment in time and effort, you will likely end up with a far superior plane for less money than you would have spent at your local big box hardware store.

Stanley Bailey no. 2, Type 8

Stanley Bailey no. 2, Type 8

If you have a couple hundred dollars to spend and want the best CNC machined plane money can buy, a Lie Nielsen is a good investment. However, if you’re like most people just starting out, pick up one (or even two) vintage Stanley planes and give them a try. The knowledge gained by disassembling, tuning, and sharpening it will actually aid in your understanding of its mechanics and function. Here are a few resources from the Virginia Toolworks site that might help:

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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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