Making Planes

One of the first things we learned at College of the Redwoods (after sharpening) was how to build a wooden handplane.  I remember one of our instructors, Greg Smith, saying something to the effect of, "It would be really good if your first one came out great."  My first plane, an all-purpose smoother, could charitably be called tolerable, if all of your other tools were on fire.  Luckily, I wasn't so discouraged by the first one that I swore off wood planes forever, and, figuring that chances were slim (although not by any means impossible) that I could build a worse plane, I attempted a second plane, this time a round-bottom coopering plane.

As luck would have it, I did, in fact, manage to make a crummier plane than the first one, and I ended up borrowing one of Michael Burns' old planes to start, and finish, the cabinet I had planned.

Since those first few efforts I have built almost twenty planes, and I have learned something new every time.  For such a simple tool, they are amazingly refined, and every detail will affect the performance and comfort of the finished tool.  In a way, building a plane is like cabinetmaking itself: details, each with its own purpose, add up to a unified whole.  Change one detail, and you end up with an entirely different piece.  Not necessarily better or worse, just different.

There is a sort of necessary honesty to making a plane.  There is nowhere to hide, no way to patch veneer, or fill in with glue or putty or shellac.  No tricks.  You either remember all the steps, and your plane works great, or you don't and it doesn't.  Anyway, all this is a way of saying that I love making planes, and I wanted to share a few tips and techniques that have worked well for me.   I should stress here that I did not by any means invent this kind of plane, nor is this the only way to make a plane.  However, building them this way has, for me anyway, led to more successes than failures (although not by a landslide.) For further reading, I would highly recommend David Finck's wonderful book Making and Mastering Wood Planes. Have fun!

First things' first: find the right piece of wood.  You can use almost any kind of hardwood, so long as it is reasonably heavy and stable.  For domestics, maple and oak both seem to work great.  Exotics work well too, although I would avoid the extra-oily varieties (I have a cocobolo smoother that is falling apart on me.)  Rally, I would say to use whatever kind of wood you like.  You might spend the rest of your life building furniture for other people (regardless of whether you are giving it away or being paid for it, which always still feels like you are giving it away), but you get to keep your planes.  Make it out of something you love, something that will not let you do bad work.  Anyway, the pair I am working in these pictures are made from a 10/4 chunk of afzelia.  I chose afzelia because a) I like it, and b) I have it.    Also, it is durable, stable, and smells great when you cut into it.

The two stacks pictured above will eventually be a 1 1/2" 55-degree smoother and a 1 3/4" 50-degree smoother.  Both are an experiment for me, since I have only ever made 45-degree planes in the past.  (The angle I am talking about refers to the slope of the bed the plane blade rests on, in relation to the sole of the plane.)  In theory, a higher angle should work better on figured woods, since it is closer to a scraping cut (image a blade held perpendicular to a surface) than a shearing cut.  The downside (I think) is that you might have more resistance from the blade as you push it, which could lead to chatter, or maybe more wear on the blade.  I am not entirely sure one way or the other.  In any case, I was excited to give both "non-standard" angles a shot.  Worst case, I will be out a few day of shop time and approximately one board foot of lumber, and I will have learned something in the process.

So: two chunks of wood, each about 3" x 2.5" x 12."  Although each plane will only be six or seven inches long when they are finished, I keep the billets over-long until they are glued up, both for safety and ease of working.  The cheeks are bandsawn out, and milled to 5/16".  (You can make them 1/4" if you are low on material, but I think the sides end up looking a little thin.)  The body of the plane is milled to whatever width of blade you plan on using plus 1/16". (It helps to have the actual iron in-hand before you start.  I think I have failed in this regard almost every single time I have made a plane.)  Much more than that, and the blade tends to rattle around in the plane (like trying to play soccer in Frankenstein's boots), any less and you might have trouble adjusting the blade to account for an out-of-square grind.  Give the parts a few days to acclimate after they have been sawn out.  You know, just to let them shake out their shimmy shimmies.

After the parts have settled for a few days (or weeks), re-mill everything flat and square. Hopefully you haven't lost too much material at this stage - it is very easy to plane just a little too much out of the body of the plane, making it too narrow for your blade. (Then it's time for a boring couple of hours on the grinder to try to get your blade/chipbreaker assembly to fit. I am speaking from experience. And more experience. And really? Again?) Anyway, the body/middle section is sawn into three parts: the front/nose section, the back/ramp section, and the central waster section (which will be used later on.) I usually cut both sections out on the bandsaw. And, while the front section can be freehand-cut with a slight curve, the cut for the back section is critical, as it defines the ramp the blade will rest on. I still make this cut freehand on the bandsaw, but I try to follow my line (be it 45 degrees - normal - or in this case, 50- and 55-degrees) as close as I can. Then I clean up the cut with a (freshly-sharpened) block plane. It is absolutely that the ramp be both perfectly flat and square to sides, otherwise the blade will never seat properly in the finished plane. More than any other step of making a plane, this part is worth spending time to get right.

One more thing: while you could make the ramp-cut on the tablesaw, I prefer to use a bandsaw, because I would still have to clean up any inconsistencies with a block plane, and it takes longer to set up angled cuts on the tablesaw (at least for me it does.) Plus, planing the ramp is good practice (and kind of fun.)

Next, rout a groove in the ramp to make room for the cap-screw of your plane-iron assembly. I use a Multi-Router with a 1/2" end-mill bit to mill the groove with the ramp-block on its side. Be sure to leave enough material at the bottom and sides of the ramp to create a sturdy "bed" for the iron.

Locate the front and back sections in relationship to each other by reassembling your four pieces (front block, ramp block, and two cheeks), with the lower corners of the blocks about 1/4" apart. Clamp everything together, then drill and insert one 1/4" dowel into each upper, outer corner of the assembly. Remember: the dowels serve as registration pins. You should be able to take everything apart and put it back together without anything shifting.

Next, locate the cross-pin hole by measuring up 1 1/4" from the bottom of one of the sides/cheeks.  The center of the hole will be at the intersection of that line, and one drawn 7/16" <i>above</i> the iron-chipbreaker assembly.  (I use a block of wood 7/16" thick placed on top of the blade assembly.)  It helps to have one cheek and the two block clamped to the bench for this part.

After marking the center of the hole (I use an awl to punch a starting point for the bit), drill a 5/16" hole in the cheek.  Then, clamp the entire assembly back together, and flip it over so that the drilled cheek is facing up. (You may need to set the assembly up on a riser-block to make room for the clamp heads.)  This hole will serve as a guide to drilling the opposing cross-pin hole in the other cheek.  Make sure your drill press is square in both planes - any wonkiness in your table will translate to an off-kilter pin when the plane is assembled.  (Also, you can see the 1/4" registration dowels from before in the picture below.)

Your plane assembly should now look (more or less) like this:

Now to make the cross-pin.  I usually make three or four at a time, since it needs to fit the plane fairly tightly, and, well, they are easy to screw up.  Anyway, the cross-pins start life as 1/2"-square blanks.

Cut the blanks <i>just</i> narrower than the width of the assembled plane.  Scribe the shoulders by placing the pin on top of the plane assembly and marking 1/32" inside the cheek.  Cut the shoulders on all four faces of the pin with a  tablesaw and crosscut sled.  Remember, the tenons on the pin will be 5/16" in diameter, so the shoulder-cut don't need to be very deep.  Below, the first test-cuts to determine the length of the tenons and central pin (which is determined by a stop-block on the crosscut sled.)  If the pin is too long, the shoulders will hold out the cheeks when you (try to) glue everything together.

Sawn tenons.  The pin just barely drops into the block-space.

Prepping the pin to finish the tenons the lathe.  I use my tiny knife to take down the corners.

I turn the tenons with a parting tool, then check the fit with a 5/16" wrench.  The tenons should be snug, but not press-fit tight.

Shaping what will be the top of the pin with a block plane.

Hard to tell from this picture, but the edges of the pin-holes are slightly chamfered.  This is impossible to do once the plane is together.

The two planes, ready for glue up.  Note the registration pins.

Glue up!  If you look closely, you can see thick cauls on both cheeks.  Each assembly is clamped to the bench (with some newspaper underneath) to keep the bottoms flat.  Also, make sure you don't glue the pin into place.  (It needs to be able to rotate.)  Also, make sure you don't forget the pin altogether.

Plances, post glue-up.  The newspaper helps keep the planes from becoming permanent fixtures on the bench.  The pencil marks running across the soles help locate "low spots" when running the sole over the jointer to clean everything up.

Next up, milling a recess for the sole-insert.  The insert has several functions: it can be made from a harder wood, thus preventing wear on the sole, and its placement determines the size of the "throat" which is the distance between the edge of the blade and the trailing corner of the front block.  In a nutshell, the larger the opening, or throat, the thicker the shaving.  (And the more prone your workpiece will be to tearout.)  Therefore, the goal is to have as narrow a throat as possible.  (Think 1/32" or so.)  The insert itself is optional, but I find it <i>much</i> easier to adjust the throat by planing the insert than to file away at the front block after the plane is glued up.  Also, if anything ever happens to the throat, you can always mill the insert out and glue in a new one.  Anyway, the mark across the soles indicate where the recess will be (about an inch or so into the front block.)

Milling the recess for the insert.  It should be about 3/16" deep.

Fitting the insert-blank to width.  I start with a blank that is slightly too wide, and barely thicker than the depth of the recess, and slowly plane the edge into a snug fit.

Marking where the edge of the blade <i>barely</i> pushes past the sole.  This will give a rough estimate of how long to cut the insert.

Test-fitting the inserts.  I made these from goncalo-alves, where is a fairly hard-wearing tropical timber.  (Also, I had some lying around the shop.)

Planing the insert to width with a bench hook and block plane.

Test-fitting the inserts.

I use a circle template to draw the rounded corners onto each insert.  Alternatively, you could chop out the recess to get square corners, but I kind of like the little rounded corners.  Anyway, it is easy enough to to draw a circle that matches the diameter bit used.  (In this case, a 1/4"R circle to match the 1/2" bit used.)

Rounding the corners with a disc sander.

Fitting the inserts.  At this point they fit fairly well, but are a little too long.

Shooting the back (non-rounded) end of the insert with a block plane.  The idea is to sneak up on the fit so that the blade <i>almost</i> protrudes past the insert.

Relief bevel cut into the underside (or face-up side, once it is glued in) of the insert.  This keeps the throat from getting clogged.

Almost there.  The blade is hitting the back edge of the insert about 1/16" up from the bottom face.  A few more swipes with the block plane should do it.


After gluing in the insert, the next step is to cut the wedge to hold the blade assembly.  At this point I rough-cut the plane-blocks to give me a little bit better idea of how they will perform.  In the picture below, the basic final shapes are drawn on with a soft pencil.

Sketching the wedge onto the waste piece left over for cutting the front- and ramp-blocks.

Sawn wedge.  The front edge has a slight chamfer so as not to crowd the throat.

Trimming down the wedge so it fits inside the plane.  (Remember, it is the exact same size as the plane blocks when it is first cut out.)

Flattening the sole.  I stick some sandpaper to the bed of the jointer and get to it.  (Not to worry - the spray-gunk cleans up fairly easily.)  At this point the blade and wedge are tightened into the plane (thus accounting for any distortion the wedge might cause to the plane.)

First cuts on a scrap of narra with the 50-degree smoother.  This looks promising.

I try to keep the shape of the plane fairly simple.

Shaping one of the back corners with some dodgy bandsaw maneuvering.

Rough-shaped plane.  The cross-pin was sanded and polished before glue up.

Re-flattening the sole (in case shaping released any last tension in the plane body.)  The circle indicates a low spot (or would it be high spot?) on the sole.  Like flattening a chisel back or plane iron, everything else will have to be removed to get to the lowest spot.

Calling it flat.

Final shaping with tiny spokeshaves and files.

Taking her out for a spin.  Trying to find a shape that I can grip comfortably.

Lightly sanding the planes before finishing.  Purists would say this is utter poppycock, but I prefer the look and (more importantly) feel of a tool with just a little bit of oil and wax on it.  Plus, it keeps them from looking like mud after a sweaty day.

Two high-angle planes, oiled, polished, and sharpened.

To my pleasant surprise, the higher-angle planes work great.  The 55-degree scraper-smoother is a little fussy (the blade seems to want to chatter with such a steep angle), but the 50-degree smoother works like a dream.  Not a bad few days at the shop.