Chris Schwarz's Blog

The 12-step Program for Smoothing Planes

The first handplane I ever bought was a Popular Mechanics block plane I purchased one night at Wal-Mart. There was no blade-adjustment mechanism. No adjustable mouth. And the iron was so soft that it might actually have been made of iron (instead of steel). The tool was a bona-fide piece of junk.

As I set out to use the plane on a project I expected to be frustrated. (That’s the way the story usually goes, don’t you know.) But surprisingly, the plane actually worked, and I can remember clearly using it to trim some apron pieces flush on a low sitting bench I was making. One of the shavings was like gossamer; and at that moment, I was hooked on planes.

Like many woodworkers, I became as obsessed with creating those shavings as I did with the tools that made them. No matter what plane I bought, I fussed and fussed with it until it made those magical .001″-thick shavings. My Stanley Type 11 jack plane (a $12 flea market special) got souped up with a new iron and I worked the sole until the plane was perfect. Same with my jointer plane. And even my rabbet planes. And on and on.

It took me a few years to realize what a huge waste of time a lot of that tuning was. With all my planes set to take fine shavings, it took forever to get anything done , further cementing the myth that hand tools are slow. Then one day I had my second epiphany with handplanes, and I remember it as clearly as my first.

I was smoothing up the side of an entertainment center and there were some serious low spots. I worked the piece for almost an hour before I started thinking about buying a belt sander. Something clicked in my head. I put down my super-tuned smoother and picked up my jointer plane. I set it to take a thick .006″ shaving. In two passes, the whole side was true. Then I picked up my smoother again , still set to take a fine shaving. In two passes, the whole side was shimmering and gleaming and perfect. Right then my world turned upside down. Instead of focusing on tuning a tool to take a fine shaving, I focused on tuning my coarse tools to take a thick shaving without chattering. I started using my coarse tools more and my fine-set tools less. And I became a much faster builder.

So many woodworkers I know are obsessed with fine shavings. It seems proof perhaps that we are masters of our tools because we can make them perform this parlor trick. If this sounds like you I encourage you to try something. Take a board fresh from your powered planer. Flatten it with a finely set smoothing plane and count the passes you make to get it ready to finish. Now flip the board over and set your jointer plane to take a thick shaving. How thick? As thick as you can take while still easily maintaining control of the tool. Flatten that board. Then come back with a smoothing plane. Count your strokes.

– Christopher Schwarz

2 thoughts on “The 12-step Program for Smoothing Planes

  1. Roger Nixon

    An excellent article, Chris! I’m so tired of seeing articles treating every plane as if it is a polishing plane. This is a real service to handtoolers.
    The weblog is a dandy!
    Roger

  2. daniel

    — Christopher Schwarz… THANK YOU ! It’s about darn time someone else made this observation.. other than myself. The Mrs. Thinks I’m crazy to have collected 2 of every animal. But you know what.. .It works! Older tools to do the heavy shavings, The bright and shiny, best-that-I-can-afford tool for the fine shaving.

    It’s more fun, it’s FASTER and my work comes out better. Now.. If I could just get the older yankee spiral drives to function as well :})

    Thanks for the comments, and your article.
    Daniel.

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