Chris Schwarz's Blog

High-angle Try Planes and Jointers

Years ago I got a phone call from plane maker Larry Williams that changed the way I look at long planes.

“Do you have the book ‘American Furniture of the 18th Century?'” he asked.

I sure did. I had rescued a damaged one that my company was throwing away back in 1996 when the book came out. It’s still marked “cut” , the mark for the dumpster.

Larry continued: “Turn to page 118. What do you see?”

Then he was silent. I looked at the photo at the top of page 118 for a good 20 seconds before it dawned on me. The enormous wooden jointer plane on that page had an iron that was pitched high. Way high. Higher than my college roommate who would play the game “What can we fry today?” while working at Long John Silver’s.

Larry said the plane was probably pitched at 60Ã?°. This was shocking because most planes these days are pitched at 45Ã?°. And it turns out that Larry was wrong. I measured the pitch of the plane in the photo, and I estimate it’s pitched at 64Ã?° or so.

This is not lunacy. Joesph Moxon , a 17th-century chronicler of the art of joinery , discusses how high-pitched planes can be used for hard woods. Though he’s discussing moulding planes in this intance, he suggests pitches of 80Ã?°. The bench planes shown in Moxon’s plates (which yes, I know, are actually French) are shown with pitches approaching 60Ã?°.

So there’s little doubt that pre-Industrial woodworkers used high-pitch planes, and not just for smoothing.

Why use a high-angle plane? To reduce tear-out on your show surfaces, primarily. But why have a high-angle try or jointer plane? Why not just use a high-angle smoothing plane? After all, a smoothing plane is the last plane to touch the wood, and its most important job is to make the wood look its best.

My answer is going to be muddy here. So sharpen your pitchforks and dip those torches in tar.

Deneb Puchalski of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks and I had a conversation about this topic today to compare notes. It was interesting to note how our experiences and feelings about tear-out overlapped, despite the fact that our planing methods are different.

First, Deneb and I agreed that you don’t always need a high-angle jointer. A plane pitched at 45Ã?° will allow you to take thick shavings with a reasonable effort. And if the wood is behaving, as most domestic hardwoods tend to do, then there’s no reason to move up to a higher pitch.

But when you experience tearing as you are jointing your surface, it’s best to stop for a minute and assess the situation. That’s because tear-out seems to have a half-life , that’s Deneb’s word; and I don’t have a better one. What this means is that you can remove this tear-out with your high-angle smoothing plane, but it will take longer than if you started on the same surface and it wasn’t torn at all.

In other words, as soon as you get tear-out on a board, you should switch gears to eliminate it immediately. That might mean reducing the depth of cut, sharpening the iron or tightening the mouth (both Deneb and I do this). It might mean switching tools (Deneb uses a plane with a toothed iron). It might mean skewing the tool , Deneb will try to plane the wood obliquely. Me, I tend to traverse a board that is tearing out , working directly across the grain. Any of these strategies can wipe out the tearing. Then you can move onto a high-angle smoothing plane with a clean, flat and tear-out-free slate.

The other option when you are getting into tough wood is simply to start with a high-angle jointer plane. Using a high-angle jointer or try plane can start the process on the right foot.

A couple other details about this are worth mentioning. Deneb reports that planes with more mass seem to deal with difficult woods better than lighter planes. We exchanged some theories about this, but they aren’t ready for even a blog. Also, when you use a higher-pitch jointer you should back off on the depth of your cut a bit, which also helps to control tearing. And it makes the plane easier to push.

Also, in general, high-pitch planes seem to do better with hard woods than standard-pitch planes. They seem to be able to take a bite and to cut better than standard-angle planes, which seem to skitter across hard surfaces.

Tear-out is such a crazy, mixed-up problem that I plan to devote a couple more entries to the topic in the near future. And so I end with a question: What is the most difficult wood to plane consistently without tearing it out? I have a species in mind already.

– Christopher Schwarz

23 thoughts on “High-angle Try Planes and Jointers

  1. gdblake

    Chris:
    This just confirms what I believe regarding try planes and jointer planes. They are not the same tool. To try a board is to flatten its faces. To joint a board is to straighten and square up its edges. It makes sense that there would be high angle try planes that could flatten faces without massive tear out. Here in the south I have found several examples of jointers with lower bed angles, down to 40 degrees. Out of curiosity I made one just to see how it performed. I was surprised by how much less effort it requires to take an edge (long grain or end grain) from rough to ready, even in really hard woods like ipe and Brazilian cherry. It is now my go to jointer for most work. While it is an excellent jointer, the plane is lousy for working the faces of boards (it’s not a try plane). It appears that when mass manufacturing and metal bodied planes became the vogue some distinctions between plane types faded in favor of more general purpose tools. Thankfully you, Larry, Joel, and others have the resources and working knowledge to bring to light practices and tools that may otherwise be lost to the woodworking community. Thanks, another great blog topic.

  2. Jason Sanford

    Older planes would have been used with older wood. Older wood would have been old growth with tighter growth rings.

    What impact would tighter growth rings have on planing?

  3. Ryan M

    It was my understanding (and experience) that with a 60+ angle and tough grain, the max depth of cut should be 2-3 thousandths. Otherwise, you lose the benefit of the mechanics of the high angle cutting action.

    No way I’d ever flatten a face at 2-3 thou, it would take weeks. I’d rather traverse 90 degrees to the grain to remove all wind and then follow up with the back beveled smoother.

  4. Jesse

    Another reason could be the get r done attitude. Maybe they stopped at the jointer w/high frog and never progressed to the smoothing plane for the final pass.

  5. Luke Townsley

    Tear-out isn’t the only consideration. Muscles were bigger then and apprentices cheaper, so more effort was less of a consideration.

    Also, plane irons were often softer with cutting edges that crumbled more easily at acute angles. Sharpening stones were harder to use and edges generally would not have been as keen as is possible with modern abrasives. Also, higher cutting angles meant a shorter edge to hone.

    Old growth wood was also a different beast although that may not have been a factor.

    I like working with a bit higher than normal cutting angles, but I don’t see much benefit for most modern woodworkers in excessively high angles.

    Ipe is the hardest wood I have tried to plane. My problem wasn’t so much tear-out as the fact that my blade just seemed to bounce off the wood.

  6. Sean

    I’ve had some pieces of curly cherry that forced me to break out the belt sander (fitted with a shoe).

  7. Josh B

    Another vote for quarter sawn sapele as a tearout champion. Those gorgeous ribbon stripes are all reversing, interlocked grain that just loves to tear out. It wouldn’t be so bad if the wood weren’t so chatoyant but even the smallest amount of tear out shows up when the light catches it. I’ve had the best luck on it with a very sharp, very heavy 60* single iron Knight smoother. The high angle smoother actually works a little better than card scrapers IME, I think due to the tight mouth.

    Cheers,

    Josh

  8. Christopher Schwarz

    A back bevel is fine. The wood doesn’t care.

    Good question. Should have mentioned that.

    Chris

  9. Dave Moore

    Do people generally find the high angle frog works better than using a blade with a back bevel?

    I’m thinking of getting a number 7, but I’m not sure if it’s worth the extra cost to get both the normal and the high angle frog.

  10. Andy

    The worst from my experience is planing a hard maple laminated top where the manufacturer took no account of grain direction when assembling the top.

    I wonder if the better experience with heavier planes might (aside from the greater momentum due to greater mass) have to do with the fact that heavier planes tend to be iron body planes with the rear tote closer to the sole of the plane.

    Even with my LA Lie-Nielsen 7 1/2 jointer, I sometimes grip the rear tote low so that part of my palm is resting on the flat part of the plane body behind the tote, especially when taking whisper-thin shavings.

  11. Steve

    I have a piece of Texas ebony (_Ebenopsis ebano_; not a true ebony) that I have determined to be unplanable. Even a card scraper causes tearout.

    I’ve also had fun with African blackwood. It planes very nicely with the grain, but as soon as the grain angle turns the slightest bit the wrong way, it tears out in big chunks.

    Someone else mentioned quartersawn sapele–that’s a dream to plane compared to these.

  12. Lyle

    Well lucky me, I have the Veritas Bevel Up Jointer! I guess Rob & his team had thought out all possible scenarios. They already have blades with different angles to accommodate high angle jointing scenarios.

  13. Narayan

    Timely post!

    For domestics, I’m going to vote for hard maple. I’m sure there are worse woods, but this one is causing me a bunch of headaches at the moment. Much like the orange roughy was originally known as "slimehead" but was renamed to make it more palatable, I think that hard maple was originally identified as "Tearouticus Maximus".

    I don’t use exotics often, but have tried to plane wenge. Not pleasant. Nor was zebrawood. I think both of these woods ended up planing me, and yes, I tore [my hair] out.

    Someone wise once told me there was no shame in sanding.

  14. Tony

    Sapelle, frequently called African mahogany or ribbon mahogany. Quartersawn evilness. A hand tool users nightmare.

    Surprised a toothed blade wasn’t recommended by the LN gang. It works….

  15. Larry Williams

    Chris,

    I can’t say exactly what precipitated my phone call but I think I know. It wasn’t about jointing edges.

    The photo of the E TAFT plane in Greene’s book and knowledge of another similarly pitched trying plane were part of what started me questioning a lot of what I’d heard about 18th Century finishes. I’m sure I was responding to an article in Popular Woodworking suggesting that early furniture makers didn’t worry about finish quality and didn’t use gloss film finishes.

    To me that E TAFT plane, and others, are just some of the evidence early furniture makers did care and did use gloss finishes. If you were hand preparing a large flat horizontal surface for a high gloss surface finish, what kind of tool would you want? Keep in mind that surface will likely be reflecting what ever is around it and needs to be true. I’d want a plane just like that E TAFT plane for large table-tops or similar surfaces. I think that plane is a finishing plane.

    There are a lot of period paintings showing just exactly this kind of finish and its reflections. You can see one of the more dramatic examples at this link:

    http://tinyurl.com/yzojk96

    You can click on the image to enlarge it.

    While pre-double iron planes are rare, a surprising number of those that survive are at higher pitches. To me this suggests woodworkers were well aware of the cutting geometry of their planes and there were a variety of traditional pitches readily available. This isn’t the case after the introduction of double irons. Try to find an old commercially made double iron plane at anything other than common pitch. The British generally used a 47.5º pitch and Americans used 45º. I consider these both to be common pitch. In all my years of looking, I’ve seen two double-iron Slater infills at middle pitch and I strongly suspect both were craftsman made from the kits we know Slater offered.

    There are a lot of woodworking authors who’ve written about the claimed improvement of double irons but I’ve yet to read where a single one of them explained double irons became available at the expense of traditional pitches. I’m obviously not a fan of the current fad of low angle bevel-up planes. The one thing these planes have proven, though, is that cutting geometry is far more effective at dealing with difficult grain than double irons.

  16. Jameel Abraham

    I had to turn to p. 118 to see. Wow. Surprisingly high. I’ve been quite pleased with my 50 degree #7 (Lie-Nielsen) over the past 8 months or so. The extra effort of a higher angle is a fair trade-off for less tearout, especially when edge jointing where tearout cannot be removed after assembly. Traversing is great for faces, but of course is not an option when edge jointing. Even after traversing, where tearout isn’t a huge concern, one has to then flatten the board along its length, and with tear-out prone woods a high angle is almost mandatory in order to make the work left for the smoothing plane manageable. What’s the good of traversing (as regards reduced tearing)if the next step makes more tearing? Sounds like a good situation for a weighty, high angle, longish plane. Perhaps an infill panel or jointer? I look forward to reading more about this topic.

  17. Philip Hirz

    How about rowed African Mahogany. I have some pieces of this stuff that are downright evil. I think I could get tearout using coarse sandpaper.

    -Phil

  18. John Cashman

    I don’t work much with exotics, other than for tool handles and such, but curly maple is the most difficult that I work with regularly.

    There was one piece of curly walnut that gave me fits, though. Tear out doesn’t seem to do that board justice — it seemed to fracture along the curls, even with a bevel up smoother with an effective cutting angle of 64 degrees. That was the day I wished I had a drum sander.

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