Chris Schwarz's Blog

File Under: Handplane Maintenance

When your handplane won’t create a perfect surface, there are several things to check. Here’s how I diagnose the problem when it looks like I’m making plane tracks in my work.

1. Is the iron set properly in the mouth? Using a little slip of wood, I’ll try to confirm the position of the iron. Is one corner digging in? If it is, I’ll tap the iron with a hammer to get it centered. If this happens regularly, I’ll increase the tension that holds the blade in the body of the tool.

2. Is there a nick in the iron? While I’m confirming the position of the iron, I’ll also look for small nicks – these look like plane tracks at first glance. If I can’t see any nicks, I’ll rub the slip of wood along the iron to feel for nicks. If the wood grabs at any point on the iron, I probably have a nick that I need to remove with sharpening.

3. I’ll feel all around the sole for dings. Most planes are made from soft iron or bronze that can ding easily. This happens all the time (unless you knit a cozy for your plane that covers the tool at all times). Sometimes another metal tool will knock against the plane, or you can hit something as you are planing. It doesn’t take much to create a raised metal nub on the sole that will leave an ugly scar on your work that looks for all the world like a plane track.

To remedy this problem, I recommend a set of Swiss-pattern needle files. These inexpensive files are thin and come in different shapes so you can get into odd places and remove burrs and roughness. I’ve had a German set since I was a kid that my grandfather bought me when I became obsessed with making silver quarters into rings. I also went through a phase where I made jewelry using bark chips, but if I tell you any more about that you’ll probably stop reading my blog.

I also use these needle files for fine work in wood – they are out on my bench most of the time.

In addition to removing burrs on the sole, I’ll also look for burrs around the mouth of the plane, especially if it is a new tool. Sometimes a burr will be left over from manufacturing that can leave an ugly trench in your wood.

And if the tool has sharp edges that need to be eased so I don’t slice open my fingers (the long edges of chisels come to mind) then out come the needle files.

You can find needle files at good hardware stores. Another good place to buy an inexpensive set is from McMaster-Carr. A set of 12 in a plastic pouch is less than $20. The files come in a range of aggressiveness – I like to use a No. 2 cut.

One last comment: Files are an essential part of general tool maintenance. If you’re leery of filing your sole or mouth or some other nubbin of metal, you should get over it.

— Christopher Schwarz

Other Handplane Resources I Recommend
• Want to fix up a junker? You need RexMill. Johnny Kleso is a metalhead who teaches classes in restoring tools. His Hand Plane 101 section of his site is an excellent place to start learning.

• Want to buy a decent old plane? Get to know Walt Quadrato at Brass City Records & Tools. New tools appear every Monday on his site. Your spouse will hide your wallet on those days if you aren’t careful.

• I still like my book “Handplane Essentials,” which is 312 pages of information on how to buy, set up and use these tools.

5 thoughts on “File Under: Handplane Maintenance

  1. Bert Gustafson

    Helpful video on plane maintenance for us plane-heads.

    Chris:

    McMaster-Carr has lots of files. Unable to find the one shown in the photo or the $20 set mentioned. Help!

    Found this product number "Set with Wood File Handles 8192A12 $54.00"

    A product number would help.

    Thanks

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