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By Chris Gochnour
The smoothing plane is one of my best friends in the shop, and I reach for it frequently. A sharp smoothing plane meticulously shaves the surface of a board, creating a glass-smooth sheen that highlights the wood’s figure while leaving a dead-flat surface in its wake. For most furniture parts, a handplaned surface is good enough for finishing. But not everyone has success with the handplane. Many who buy a smoothing plane have so much trouble getting good results that they set the tool on a shelf, where it becomes a dusty spectator to the real action in the shop.
Problems occur for three main reasons: The blade is not sharp, the tool is out of tune, or it’s not being used properly. This article focuses on the third factor, showing how to set up and adjust a traditional bevel-down plane, and how to use it for optimal performance. For space reasons, we will assume a handplane is in good working order with a blade that is razor-sharp.
Install the chipbreaker and blade
The first task is to understand the parts of the plane and to make sure they are assembled correctly. Mounted on top of the blade, the chipbreaker deflects shavings up and out of the plane. The first step in setting up the plane is to secure the chipbreaker to the blade.
Set the chipbreaker. Keep the leading edge slightly inset from the front of the blade, and parallel of it.
Put the assembly on the frog (the angled bed that connects the plane body to the iron) and secure it with the lever cap. Set the tension on the lever cap just enough to hold the blade assembly in place while allowing for blade adjustments.
Set the mouth opening. Use the small screws by the mouth opening to adjust and accomodate heavy or light cuts. For finer cuts, open the mouth 1/64-in. to 1/32-in. For more aggressive cuts, open the mouth 1/16-in.
Open the mouth
As the plane cuts, shavings pass through an opening in the sole called the mouth.
How wide you open the mouth depends on how thick you want the shavings. Heavier cuts need a larger opening, while lighter cuts need a smaller one.
To adjust the mouth opening, advance the blade until it barely projects through the plane’s mouth. Then move the frog forward or backward until you get the desired mouth opening. The bedrockstyle frog offered by Stanley, lie-Nielsen, and Clifton makes these adjustments convenient. Simply loosen the two side screws at the rear of the frog, then use the central adjusting screw to move the frog to open or close the mouth. Once set, tighten the side screws to lock the frog in position. The Bailey pattern planes require the blade to be removed to access the frog screws, making the adjustments a little less convenient.
Adjust the blade
With the mouth opening set, it’s time to adjust the blade laterally and to fine-tune the depth of cut. First adjust the blade laterally so that the shaving is coming through the mouth in the center.
Retract and rotate. With the blade retracted fully, move the plane across a flat board, slowly advancing the blade with the depth-of-cut knob. Stop when the blade contacts the board.
Now set the depth of cut by advancing the blade. Aim for a shaving about 0.001 in. to 0.002 in. thick that’s near full width and tapers to nothing at its edges. A cut is too heavy if it causes excessive strain on the user, causes the plane to jump and chatter, or leaves unsightly plane tracks on the surface.
Lateral adjustment. Move the lever toward the heavy side of the cut to bring the shaving to the center.
If the cut is too heavy, lighten it by rotating the adjustment knob counterclockwise. After raising the blade in this manner, remove the backlash, or slop, from the plane’s
adjusting mechanism. Rotating the knob clockwise until it is snug does it. Eliminating
backlash prevents the cut from changing as you plane.
Now move forward. Advance the blade until you’re cutting a gossamer-thin, near full-width shaving that tapers to nothing at its edges. Now you’re ready for the real work.
Anyone can plane like a pro
If you’ve struggled with your plane, it may surprise you to know that a handplane naturally wants to make surfaces flat and smooth. But to get there, you need to pay
attention to your grip, stance, and planing motion—all at the same time.
Secure the board to the bench—Be sure the grain is oriented in the direction you wish to plane (for more on finding grain direction, see Rules of Thumb: “Determining Grain Direction,” FWW #172). The best way to hold the board is with the benchdogs on a cabinetmaker’s bench. Do this by opening the tail vise, placing the board between the dogs, and closing the vise to clamp the board. Do not overtighten the vise because this will bow the board upward. Complete the clamping process by tapping each dog slightly downward with a hammer. This draws the board firmly against the bench. Alternatively, a planing stop, which is basically a wood strip that is secured across the width of your bench, will do the trick.
Power through the cut—Once the board is secured, grasp the plane by the tote (the rear handle) and the knob. Use a three-fingered grasp on the tote with the index finger pointing forward. Hold the knob in a way that feels comfortable. Some use a fingertip grasp, while others hold it in the palm of their hand.
Full contact. Once the plane’s sole is completely on the board, apply pressure equally to both the tote and knob. Skewing the plane will reduce
resistance and help eliminate chatter. Be sure to maintain your wide
stance and use your body to drive the tool forward.
I also recommend skewing (angling) the plane throughout the cut. Skewing lowers the blade’s cutting angle, reducing resistance and helping to eliminate chatter, which is especially useful on unruly grain. A skewed plane is also the most natural and comfortable way to hold the tool. Because your stance is in a slightly forward position, it’s awkward to align your hands one in front of the other. It is far more natural to have them spread apart, side to side.
Use your entire body to drive the plane. At the beginning of the cut, concentrate pressure on the knob to counter the natural tendency of your hands to rock the plane as it meets the board. Then transfer pressure to both the knob and tote evenly. As you exit the cut, put more pressure on the tote and tease up on the knob. Then transfer pressure to both the knob and tote evenly. As you exit the cut, put more pressure on the tote and tease up on the knob.
Power the plane. Use your entire body to drive the plane.
On the return stroke, it’s OK to maintain contact with the board, but tilt the plane slightly on edge so as not to add needless wear to the cutting edge.
Continue planing end to end, working from the near edge to the far edge with consistent, overlapping passes. (It is a lot like mowing the lawn, but far more enjoyable.) Repeat the pattern until all the mill marks and snipe are eliminated, leaving a surface ready for finishing.
Simple solutions to common problems
A smoothing plane is not a complex tool, so it’s pretty easy to diagnose and cure the most common ills. By the way, none of these solutions will work if the blade isn’t sharp.
Chatter--When your plane stutters or skips through a cut, it’s called chatter. The
problem often leaves a rippled surface, but you usually can feel it happening as you
plane. To avoid chatter, take a lighter cut; put more pressure on the knob as you power into the cut; increase the angle of skew; or resharpen the blade.
Avoiding chatter. You can cut down on chatter by taking lighter cuts, putting more pressure on the knob, increasing the angle of skew, or re-sharpening the blade.
Tearout--Tearout is one of the most common problems associated with planing. Instead of shaving the wood cleanly, the iron pulls up the wood fibers, leaving a fuzzy, rough surface. Combat tearout by taking a lighter cut; changing planing direction; planing straight on (don’t skew the plane) and/or resharpening the blade.
Plane not cutting--Sometimes a plane stops cutting, even after successful passes.
Check for a clogged mouth; advance the blade to take a heavier cut; inspect the chipbreaker for poor contact with the blade; or resharpen the blade.
Plane not cutting. When a plane quits cutting, check for a clogged mouth.
Tracks--A plane is supposed to leave a smooth, flat surface in its wake. But a plane
that’s not set up right can make tracks, or ridges, in the surface. When this happens, readjust the blade laterally; take a lighter cut, or, when resharpening the blade, push down on the corners to relieve them slightly, creating a cambered edge.
Photos by Thomas McKenna; drawings by John Tetreault
This article originally appeared in Fine Woodworking #204.