Monday 13 May 2013

Hand Plane Tuning, Read This!

Last weekend I taught a course at West Dean College. There were 8 in the class which is enough and we had a good time as well as plenty of good food. Here is Scots Jim planing down his birds eye maple box panel.
On the first day we dealt with plane tuning which involved truing up the sole and one side of each plane as well as preparing and sharpening the blade. What was really interesting was just how much work was needed on the sole flattening. The planes brought to the course were 4 Stanleys, 3 Cliftons and 1 Record, varying between a number 5 and 7 in size. None were flat enough to be usable and the worst ones were the 3 Cliftons, which was a big surprise considering the high price tag. Even when the Cliftons were tuned and sharp they didn't really 'sing' like the others. In fairness a 4th Clifton was brought in on the second day and this was much flatter, so maybe things have improved over time.
When I first referred to a plane 'singing' no one seemed to know what I meant, by the end of day one everyone knew! If you want to hear planes singing watch this video
Another plane brought in on the second day was a Veritas 2" smoother and this was noticeably not flat with high spots on the front and back, not good!

Here is Jim (number 2) planing his top sitting down, the plane needs to be sharp to do that in hard maple. Duncan, pictured below, brought in a Stanley 5 1/2, a good sized plane for which he had bought a replacement Lie Nielsen blade. What he hadn't realised was that the all Stanley 5 1/2 's before the second world war had 2 1/4" blades so the 2 3/8" blade was over sized. 15 minutes of linishing, including frequent breaks to prevent overheating, soon had the blade fitting.
Another Stanley was also brought in which had been surface ground by Ray Isles, now you would suppose this would have been perfect, working to engineering tolerances but when we ran it over the granite surface plate it revealled a high spot right behing the mouth which is the worst place possible. It transpired that before he does the grinding the blade, frog and handles are all removed which means the plane is not under working tension, hence the problem.
I've been having discussions with Kevin Ireland from Popular Woodworking in the US about the effects of pressure from the lever cap on the sole of the plane. I always like to have the lever cap extra tight when flattening the sole so that any relaxation of that tension will create a tiny hollow in that crucial area behind the blade. This is the same principal the Japanese use when dressing the soles of their wooden planes.

Day two of the course was spent making a mitred picture frame, edge jointing using a 90 degree fence as well as the shooting board and making the box pictured below. This involved shooting the corners on a donkeys ear shooting attachment, planing the top and bottom flat and down to fit the grooves and fitting the mitred lining.

Most people got the box assembled and separated on the band saw and Duncan managed to complete his, doing a very nice job into the bargain.
Looking back on the course the champagne moment was when Curtis ploughed his box top straight through his planing stop. I then leant him my bench hook and he ploughed his way straight through that as well! He's a big strong lad and I thinks he's learnt to stop and check things if it doesn't feel right. Apart from that he did very well over the weekend.


  1. I've got a #7 that needs flattening. What method did you use to flatten the larger planes, glass? granite? surfacer?

    1. We used all of those on the course! As long as the surface is dead flat and at least 50% longer than the plane you are trying to flatten, it's fine. We used spray mount to glue 180 grit sandpaper, changing it regularly as it wore out. The key to the action is to use a locked wrist and push the plane in one direction only. Rubbing it back and forth just creates a sole that is both curved in both the length and the width. All the best, David.

  2. Ditto...I was going to ask what substrate you recommend on which to flatten plane soles? In the absence of cast iron machine tables or granite slabs, do you recommend float glass or would a piece of MDF do? Also, what grits of paper would you recommend? Thanks!

    1. Float glass is good 10mm thick is ideal and at least 50% longer than the plane you are flattening. Mdf is not suitable unless it is placed on a dead flat surface. The grit is 180, finishing with 240 if you wish. All the best, David.

  3. David goes into the whole flattening sequence on his bench planes dvd which is well worth getting hold of.