Chris Schwarz's Blog

How I Set a Bench Plane

There is no single best way to set a bench plane to take a proper shaving. I’ve seen people do it by eye, with their fingertips, using scraps of wood and even working on live stock and making adjustments on the fly. This last technique takes guts. It’s like working on a car while the engine’s running.

I’ve tried every single method above and can do them all with great ease. There is no secret to unlock any particular method. Only practice.

The following is how I prefer to set a bench plane to take a shaving. It’s in more detail than I usually go into on the blog, but here’s the dirty little secret about that: The reason I started writing this blog in 2005 was to create a way for me to answer common e-mail questions. Want to know the difference between bevel-up and bevel-down planes? Instead of answering that question six times a week, I could paste this link into an e-mail six times a week instead. Oh, and the blog would serve as a way to remember when I got my last tetanus shot.

Before we get to the good part, let me shove a little dogma down the disposal with the evening’s chicken bones. All of my bench planes (the fore, jointer and smoothing planes) have irons with curved cutting edges (so does my block plane, but that’s another entry). I camber the cutting edge to keep the corners from digging into the work and to allow me to remove material from selective areas on a board. People who disagree with my approach are encouraged to come to our shop in May for the Lie-Nielsen show with their torches and pitchforks.

The good news is that the way I set a bench plane works for any plane (even joinery planes and moulding planes). So don’t flee yet.

Step One: Kentucky Windage
The goal is to get the iron centered in the mouth of the plane. The strongest part of the curved edge should be in the middle of the mouth, and the corners of the iron should be tucked safely into the body of the plane. If your curve is too pronounced, you’ll take too narrow a shaving. If your curve is too flat, the corners will still dig in.

First you want to sight down the sole of the plane. Gaze at the toe of the sole and advance the iron until it appears as a black line across the sole. If your bench is light in color, you can use the benchtop as a background. If your bench is bubinga, do this against a sheet of paper.

Adjust the iron laterally until the black line appears consistent across the mouth. The camber on a smoothing plane and jointer plane isn’t really visible, so you’re looking for a consistent line.

Use a Scrap to Refine
Retract the iron into the body of the plane and start advancing it. Use a small shim (1/16″ x 3/4″ x 1-1/4″ is nice) and run it across the mouth of the plane as you advance the iron a bit. Where the iron is cutting, you’ll feel it drag against the shim. It’s not dramatic , more like a tug. I first got this trick from David Charlesworth. Thank you, David.

Where do I get my shims? Well you could send me $20 and I’ll send you a bag of them. Or you could look in your garbage can for waste that has fallen off from your rip cuts.

The end result is that you want to feel zero drag at the corners of the mouth and a little drag right at the center. You can adjust the iron using the lateral adjustment lever (if you have one), but I prefer hammer taps using a small Warrington or tack hammer. These are love taps and are unlikely to mushroom your iron. I’ve been tapping one iron on one smoothing plane for about five years. I’ve almost used up the entire iron and still have yet to find a mark from my tapping.

Final Adjustments
Then I start planing , either on scrap or live stock. Likely the shaving is too thin. And that’s OK. Advance the iron until you get the shaving you want from the plane. Then take a quick look at the shaving and where it is coming from in the mouth.

The shaving should be centered in the plane’s mouth. And the shaving should look like this: It should be thickest in the center and fade away to nothing at the edges. And it should be as wide as possible. That’s the sweet spot.

If I’m a little off-center at this point, I simply tap the iron with my baby hammer to move the shaving into the center of the mouth. Then I get busy.

– Christopher Schwarz

11 thoughts on “How I Set a Bench Plane

  1. J. Nelson

    "…but here’s the dirty little secret about that: The reason I started writing this blog in 2005 was to create a way for me to answer common e-mail questions."

    I can’t tell you how glad I am that you got tired of answering emailed questions. I really enjoy your blog!

  2. Steve

    JC: Getting good results on edges but having trouble with faces is one of the steps on the road to planing proficiency. David Charlesworth’s article in the October 2007 issue of Popular Woodworking (you can order paper and/or electronic versions from the online store) is an excellent tutorial on planing in general, and face planing in particular.

  3. Ken S

    Chris,

    Good advice, as always. Just wanted to tell you that even after I was comfortable sharpening, tuning, and setting my planes, I was still in the wilderness until I watched your "Coarse, Medium, Fine" video. My electric jointer and planer are gathering cobwebs now that I know how to use hand planes properly. I can’t believe all the time and effort I spent trying to devise jigs and fixtures to flatten a twisted piece of rough-cut mahogany when all I needed was my No. 5, No. 7, and No. 4.

    Thanks!

    Ken

  4. Christopher Schwarz

    Ryan,

    I’m not a match-planer (which is when you plane both edges of a panel glue-up simultaneously). I think the workholding with two boards is more work than it’s worth (for me, at least).

    I use a camber when edge-jointing. The camber is effectively flat at the center. The square shows it as flat. The clamps indicate it’s flat. It is (for wood) dead flipping flat.

    Hope this makes sense.

    Kind regards,

    Chris

  5. Ryan M

    Chris,

    I can’t recall which Lie-Nielsen DVD this was in (5 topics maybe?) but I recall that Charlesworth put a straight blade in a #8 to demonstrate match planing. This caught my attention since David is a big fan of the camber in most of his work.

    I’ve never heard you mention that you switch to a straight blade for match planing so I assume you don’t have any issues with the camber in your jointer here. Have you tried both methods? I am curious to know why you’ve settled on one vs. the other for match planing.

    Thanks!

    Ryan

  6. Christopher Schwarz

    The lever cap should be tight enough that the blade will not chatter. The lever cap should be loose enough that the blade moves freely in and out with minimal resistance.

    Quality old planes and new planes have a *wide* range of tightness that allows the plane to function. Bad planes have a *very* narrow range where the plane will work. It’s one of the things you pay money for.

    Chris

  7. Rob Porcaro

    Chris,

    To add to your method, here’s some variations that I use.

    I file the trailing edge of the mouth of my planes to create a small flat that is angled to the sole at about 45 to 60 degrees. I hold the plane as in your photo, with my bench lamp in front of the sole. The light reflects brightly off the flat while the blade shows up as a contrasting dark line (or arc), as you describe. This works very well with iron planes but not as well with bronze planes.

    I usually advance the blade pretty far out to where I can easily see it to get the lateral adjustment (I like the lever), then retract it to get the shaving thickness, then take up any backlash in the adjustment mechanism.

    I start with an intentionally conservative projection and advance it after a shaving or two.

    I hardly ever retract the blade before I store the plane with the front of the sole elevated on a very thin piece of cork sheet.

    You include that plane in the top photo for the twenty bucks, right?

    Rob

  8. Christopher Schwarz

    JC,

    It’s cherry. And it’s not really a thin shaving, either. I purposefully chose a thicker (.002") shaving to remove some of the intimidation factor when smoothing.

    It really is practice. And one other thing to mention: When beginners begin face planing they sometimes think they are in trouble when they are not. When you switch planes (from a fore to a jointer, or for a jointer to a smoother), the first round or two of shavings from that board are inconsistent.

    That’s because they are removing the high points left by the coarser tool. If you keep at it, things smooth out.

    Good luck!

    Chris

  9. Larry Wyatt

    Ya know, Chris, it’s really very sad that you’d practice on live stock when setting up your plane. Poor dumb animals! I’m calling PETA.

    Larry

  10. JC

    I’m just curious about what type of wood was used in the first photo. I’ve been trying to learn handplaning techniques on the material I’ve got and that basically means walnut.

    My shavings are never this thin/fluffy/transluscent, but maybe its the material? Overall I’m content with the results so far, but I’ve only been edge planing to remove saw marks. Face planing still gives me trouble in getting things smooth, but this is definitely a case of needing more practice. Thanks for another educational post.

    Finally, I’m looking to order your workbench book in the next few days. I’ve already read excerpts on books.google.com and can’t wait to get the whole thing. Even if I could have read the whole thing online, I’d have bought the book to thank you for the work and to have it at my fingertips whenever I wanted.

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