Chris Schwarz's Blog

A Smoothing Plane for When Grain Gets Nasty

Lately I’ve been planing stuff that has been a lot nastier than your typical run-of-the-mill cherry, oak and walnut. First Senior Editor Glen D. Huey tried to torture me by bringing in some curly maple for the blanket chest on cover the Summer 2008 issue.

Then I built the cover project for the Fall 2008 issue from some walnut that should have been on the burn pile. Honestly, I had to go through about twice as much material as usual to find enough wood to build this 18th-century wall cabinet.

Then, this weekend I had to plane some rowy mahogany while teaching at Kelly Mehler’s School of Woodworking. Kelly had prepared mahogany pieces for the project that the students built (a Shaker utensil tray). And a lot of that was rowy , which is when the wood has rope-like bands of grain through it where the grain reverses in each rope.

The tool that has kept me away from the wide belt sander these last few months has been my little Wayne Anderson smoothing plane. I’ve had this tool for more than two years now and have published an article on its long-term performance in the most recent edition of Popular Woodworking, the August 2008 issue.

Below is the text of that article, plus a link to download a pdf slideshow presentation that shows the evolution of this form of plane using pictures supplied by Wayne himself. Enjoy.

Despite the amount of bronze, iron and beech in my tool cabinet, most woodworkers need only three bench planes: A fore plane to reduce the thickness of boards, a jointer plane to flatten them and a smoothing plane to prepare them for finishing.

That’s in a perfect world. In reality, we work with a material (wood) that is unpredictable, cantankerous and vexing , like my first redheaded girlfriend.

During the last few years, I’ve gradually folded a fourth plane into my  arsenal, and now I cannot imagine working without it.

It’s a small smoothing plane with a steeply pitched iron (a 57Ã?° angle of attack), no chipbreaker and a mouth aperture that a gnat would have a hard time squeezing through without damaging his Dipteran hinder.

This is my plane of last resort. When my smoothing plane leaves nasty torn grain in its wake, I pull out this plane. It doesn’t care if there’s a grain reversal in the board. Or if I’m planing against the grain. Or if the grain is interlocked, curly or worse. When set for a fine cut, this plane almost never fails me.

This plane has become a staple of Wayne Anderson, a custom planemaker in Elk River, Minn. (andersonplanes.com or 763-486-0834). This form of plane started out several years ago with Wayne’s interest in high-angle planes without a chipbreaker. He built this version for writer Kerry Pierce to test for a competing magazine. Then I bought the plane from Wayne. (Despite the fact that it was a used tool, I paid full price.)

Since that time, I’ve fallen head-over-heels for the plane, and Wayne has pushed the tool’s design in new directions for other customers. If you’re not familiar with Wayne’s work, he’s a bit different than other custom makers. He seldom makes the same tool twice.

The profile on the rear of the iron might change. Or the shape of the sidewall or lever cap will morph. But the tool still looks like itself , like a fraternal twin.

As to the function of the tool, you could set up a 6″-long block plane to do the exact same job, but there’s no way the tool will look as good or fit your hand so well.

With this small smoothing plane, the coffin shape of the body lets you squeeze the tool right in the middle by its mouth. And having mastered the tool, I find I can change the depth of cut merely by squeezing and pressing at the center of the tool, or by releasing that pressure. The weight of the plane (2 lbs. 2 oz.) keeps the tool in the cut without chattering (try that with your block plane) even when I use little-girl pressure to control it. The result: Thin shavings; no tearing.

The rear bun is rounded nicely so it feels good against my right palm, and the tall iron keeps my hand right where it should be.

The short sole (about 5-1/2″) allows you to plane in areas that longer smoothing planes can’t get to. When I say this I don’t mean tight little spaces inside a cabinet, I mean the small and large hollows that occur on any flat board. A small tool rides the gentle waves of a board where a longer plane skims off the peaks instead. And when you’re trying to get a tabletop looking right (perfect flatness be darned) a short plane is invaluable.

If you’re thinking of investing in one custom plane, this plane would be an excellent addition to any standard lineup. These tools start at $825.

– Christopher Schwarz

13 thoughts on “A Smoothing Plane for When Grain Gets Nasty

  1. Swanz

    Derek Cohen interview two reknown infill collectors Peter Byrnes and David Trusty. They compared their infills vs 2 new Bevel up plain designs. Their conclusion was that they outperform infills once they got used to them. They tested high end Philp Marcou smoother and LV Bevel up smoother. Here’s one quote from Peter Byrnes "The new breed has dashed the superiority held by good quality infills for a century or more. These planes are very, very good."
    And here’s Colin Webb who admitted his favorite was the humble LV BU. "The Lee Valley smoother performs at least as well as the Marcou plane. It handled the truly difficult task of smoothing that knotty, gnarly jarrah with aplomb.

    So both planes – in the new and modern category of bevel-up smoothing planes – have demonstrated clearly they can do the job – even on the toughest of Australian hardwood. Which would I choose if price were not a consideration?

    Objective judgment now goes completely out of the window and personal, entirely subjective preference is all that counts. I would go for the Lee Valley plane. Its flat, wide shape appeals to me. I like the chunky, upright tote. I like its modern lines. No disrespect to Philip Marcou’s beautiful plane. I just prefer the Lee Valley model. So shoot me!" Like I said, there’s people on both camps.

  2. SWANZ

    Ray Iles infill smoother cost about a grand. I definitely consider Wayne’s planes a value in comparison considering his workmanship.

  3. David

    SWANZ – David did not, of course, reach such a conclusion. This is a direct quotation from Charlesworth’s 2nd volume, page 58: "I compared the performance of the Holtey A13 soother against my highly tuned (Lie-Nielsen) 5-1/2 bench plane, putting it through its paces with a piece of purpleheart which I was told would not plane without tearout. …. The Holtey plane produced an almost flawless finish while my standard pitch plane caused considerable tearout over a wide band of interlocked timber in the centre (sic).

    In volume 3, page 20, David compares 4 planes – a 50 degree pitch L-N 4-1/2, a L-N 5-1/2 (45 degree pitch), and two infills, a Shepard tools 45 degree pitch infill and a Ray Iles 47.5 degree pitch infill. In this test, his conclusion was "I can see no clear advantage of these two infills over a top-class modern bedrock…"

    Of course, the sub-text to the last article should’ve been that both the Shepard Tools and Ray Iles infills are manufactured products that are quite rough, and well below the standard of quality that Wayne Anderson, Sauer and Steiner, and Karl Holtey produces.

    It’s a completely normal human characteristic to self-justify our choices, and it’s certainly common for many woodworkers to absolutely INSIST that an expensive tool is a "rip-off", whether applied to high-end hand tools or Festo power tools. Such pronouncements rarely have much basis in fact.

  4. SWANZ

    I got one of DAvid Charlsesworths books. He compares a couple infills against a LN 4 1/2 bedrock. His conclusion is the LN bedrock equals or out performs any infill. I’m sure there are plenty of people on both camps.

  5. David

    Mike – I have a large number of planes, including the L-V and L-N low angle smoothers, as well as a number of Norris infills and 3 infills by Konrad Sauer. I use all of them.

    Just as in most endeavors, you get what you pay for. While the LN and LV low angle smoothers are nice planes that work well, they don’t come close to the performance of the Norris and S&S planes, particularly on curly maple and the nastiest wood (in my opinion) out there when it comes to hand planing – honduran rosewood.

    There’s just no free (or cheap) lunch, no matter how hard many people insist that it’s so.

  6. Nate

    I’ve always wondered why Stanley (and LN) came out with a #1 and #2 bench plane, but the article has me wondering if it was just for this purpose of fixing smal problem areas on a large panel. I’m not sure if #1 an #2 bench planes came with York pitch, so they may not have been intended for working on rough irregular grain areas.

    So what was the original purpose behind the #1 and #2 bench planes?

    -Nate

  7. Christopher Schwarz

    Frank,

    Different chips; different surfaces. A planed surface is less wooly than a scraped one. It looks better.

    You don’t have to have *this* plane to do this work. But this plane works very well.

    Chris

  8. SWANZ

    Nice, don’t you have a similar sauer and steiner smoother. I assume it’s the one with the 50 degree pitch you mentioned, or was that the LN? I have the article a couple years back displaying all the smoothers, including the Krenov. Though you were kind to all the makers and didn’t want to compare any as best or better. Just a jig to hold a chisel. I gotta take one of those infills for a test drive someday.

  9. Mike

    My favourite plane for this kind of purpose is the Veritas low-angle block plane with the addition of the full-size tote and front knob. It then becomes a ‘#3 smoother’ with an easily adjustable throat, and an attack angle of pretty much anything, depending on what angle you grind the bevel to. Put a camber on the iron, and enjoy. It’s blissful. It’s not as pretty as Wayne Anderson’s product, certainly, but it has the benefit of being a small fraction of the cost. I have an extra block plane dedicated to the task.

    Mike

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