Hand Planes

First, some more woodworking poetry.  Pretty soon, I’ll have enough to fill a book!

One plane, two planes,
Three planes, four.
I work until
My arms are sore.

Today, I spent a good part of the day at Coquitlam Lee Valley showroom (where I work part-time) for their Plane Days event.  I talked to lots of interesting people and made lots of shavings.  The day went by quickly but I didn’t have enough time to flatten the 5′-long slab of maple I brought into the shop.  Oh well.  I’ve got two more days to work on it!  Besides, that’s not why I’m there.

I thought I’d share a couple basic tips to get the most out of your hand planes.

  1. Learn how to sharpen and keep the blades sharp!  Don’t overcomplicate sharpening.  Sharp is sharp.  (And dull is dull.)
  2. Check your bench height.  If your bench is too high, you will have a hard time providing sufficient downwards pressure on the plane to get a good cut.  And you will get tired quickly.  Too low, and your back will let you know the next day.
  3. Use your whole body – not just your arms.
  4. Find a way to secure the stock to the bench.  Dogs, clamps, planing stops and vises all work.  Also, make sure your bench is sturdy enough that you don’t have to chase it around either.
  5. If your work rocks on the bench, use a wedge to keep it steady while you flatten one face.  If your bench rocks, shim it.
  6. Be mindful of the sharp edges created while planing.  Two freshly-planed surfaces make a sharp point that can easily cut you!
  7. Watch the grain!  If you are unsure of which direction to plane, set the plane for a light cut and try a test pass.  You will be able to feel when you are going with the grain and when you are going against it.  You can often avoid severe tearout by planing diagonally or across the grain, but you won’t get as smooth a cut as going with the grain either.
  8. Know when to stop.  Don’t get carried away and plane until you are left with a toothpick.  Also, don’t plane into the bench.  My coworkers often warn me of this.
  9. Lower cutting angles are easier to push.  Higher cutting angles are less likely to cause tearout.  A plane with a sharp blade, tight mouth and light cut will produce a good surface in most situations.
  10. Keep your blades sharp.  That’s important.

4 thoughts on “Hand Planes

  1. “A couple basic tips?” You ended up with 10! – but they are good, so I guess no one is really complaining. Your first and last points, I hope, are not falling on deaf ears because 3 out of the 4 woodworkers I spoke to at the Calgary store Plane Days event don’t have any proper or reliable way of sharpening their hand tools….One was introduced to the MKII honing jig and water stone set which he bought but that earned him no discounts.

    1. What can I say – I get carried away easily! A few woodworkers have asked if there is anyone who sharpens chisels and plane blades locally. It seems that there are two types of woodworkers – those who can sharpen and those who can’t.

  2. Great tips! Who said: “If I had eight hours to cut a tree, I would spend 6 hours sharpening my axe”?
    In my next life, I will sure learn how to sharpen much earlier, at the beginning.

    1. You are referring to Abraham Lincoln, and the exact quote is: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

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