Don’t be intimidated by these essential joinery planes – a few tricks make them easy to use.
by Christopher Schwarz
Many woodworkers think planes that cut joinery are difficult to use, slow-cutting and complex to set up. Quite the opposite is true. If you can sharpen a block plane, you already have mastered the skill essential to using rabbet planes and plow planes – the two most important joinery planes.
In fact, when I teach students to use these planes, I usually have to ask them to stop making shavings at some point so we can all get back to work – the tools are quite addicting to use.
So why do most woodworkers opt for their router or table saw when cutting rabbets or grooves? I think it’s because there is little information out there on how to set up these hand tools and – more important – how to hold them properly. This article will tell you everything you need to get started with rabbets and plows.
About the Planes
The rabbet plane and plow plane cut two of the most fundamental joints in woodworking. Rabbet planes cut rabbets, and plow planes cut grooves. There are some fairly complex combination planes out there that can be pressed into cutting both of these joints. If you have one of these tools, I recommend you seek out its manual in order to get started.
Each of these tools has an extended family of planes that have different features, or sometimes are used for different woodworking trades. While there is no way to cover all the variants, here’s a quick and dirty lesson.
Let’s start with the plows because they are easier to understand. While there are dozens of different kinds of plow planes – usually the difference is in how the fence adjusts – the tools work the same as all their kin. You select a blade that equals the width of the groove you want. You set a depth stop to control the depth. You set the fence to control how far away the groove is from the edge of the board. And almost all plows have these same three controls – though some don’t have a depth stop.
Also in the plow family are “coachmaker’s plows” and “circular plows” – both are tools used for grooving surfaces involving curves. They are uncommon in a furniture-maker’s tool chest.
The rabbet plane family is, as one might expect from the sound of the name it shares with a certain mammal, rather large. What makes a tool a “rabbet” plane is that the tool’s cutter extends out to one – or both – of the sidewalls of the plane. This allows the tool to cut into corners.
There is no way to cover all the types of rabbet planes, so let’s discuss the ones you are most likely to encounter.
Web: Learn about combination planes at the Cornish Workshop web site.
Blog: Read Christopher Schwarz’s blog on handplanes – five years’ worth of free material.
In Our Store: Read “Handplane Essentials,” by Christopher Schwarz.
From the June 2012 issue #197.
Buy the issue now.