Sunday, November 06, 2016

Things I've learned about the lowly block plane

As part of my workbench build, I've been planing some end grain after making crosscuts on boards. The usual tool for this job is the often overlooked block plane. I've found that it's pretty hard to plane edge grain well!

The problem is when planing end grain you are cutting across all the wood fibers, instead of splitting off a few long wood fibers as you do when planing with the grain.

Here's that I've figured out so far:
  • Make sure the plane blade is as sharp as possible.  This is always true, but with other planes you can get by with a less than razor-sharp blade
  • Set the depth of the plane blade to take a very shallow cut, otherwise the plane will be hard to push and may chatter.
  • It helps to make a skew cut on the end grain (turn the plane at a 45-ish degree angle to the board)
  • Soak the end grain with a bit of alcohol to soften the wood fibers
  • Make sure you're putting enough downforce on the front of the plane. If you have too much force on the back of the plane then it may cause the blade to chatter
  • If the plane has an adjustable mouth, adjusting it to make the opening smaller helps with making shallow cuts
  • If you have one available, use a low angle plane, as the lower angle of the blade makes it significantly easier to cut end grain.
A fine tool, but maybe not for planing end grain

I started off with my vintage block plane, which is basically a Sargent 306.  It's a good plane but adjusting it to cut end grain well was tricky.  There were several issues with that plane:
  • The depth adjuster had alot of backlash, meaning it was hard to get a really precise depth adjustment
  • Locking the blade with the lever cap tended to change the depth and lateral adjustment of the plane a little, which usually meant it took several tries to get it properly adjusted
  • The plane is not a low angle plane

A New Plane
Just when I was getting frustrated, I lucked out and my Mom found a vintage Stanley no. 60-1/2 low angle block plane at an antique store (Thanks Mom!).  It needed a little work to tune it up, but it was in good shape.

When I tune up planes I usually clean the grime and rust off, but leave some of the patina that makes it look old.  This is less work and in my opinion looks better anyway.  Some people prefer to make the plane look like the day it rolled out of the factory, but that's more than is required to make the plane function like it's brand new.

Here's a few before and after pictures:
Top: before, Bottom: after.  Not much difference visibly except there was lots of paint and grime in the knurling and threads of the depth adjuster.  I cleaned that out with a dental pick.

Again not much visible difference except that the blade was previously coated with lacquer or paint to protect it from rust, I guess.

The blade was sharpened with quite a bit of skew. I straightened it out on the grinder.

After flattening and polishing the back of the blade.  There is a bit of pitting, but nothing catastrophic.

The plane sole was in pretty good condition.  I made sure it was flat and shined it up a bit.

The first cut: works like a champ!

You never quite know how good a plane is going to be until you're done tuning it up, but this one turned out really well. Here's the payoff:

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