Chris Schwarz's Blog

The 17-degree Difference

When I was first learning to use a handplane, I was both intimidated and skeptical of some of the claims made by the “handplane gods.”

The gods claimed they could plane any species of wood, with any grain direction and with any sort of figure in the wood without the wood tearing out. So what was the secret of the gods?

Sometimes it was the tool (usually an infill plane, but sometimes a Bedrock that had spent some time in a peyote hut in New Mexico getting in touch with its inner frog). Or sometimes it was their sharpening skill and waterstones (#100,000-grit stones, or perhaps the trail of split hydrogen atoms they left in their wake.) Sometimes the secret was their skill , they could plane any board with a piece of tin foil taped to a Monchhichi doll.

But I was skeptical, because these boasts were never accompanied by photographic evidence.

So here’s a bit of truth about my own work. I’ve been handplaning boards for more than 15 years now, and I still fight and struggle with tear-out, even in some domestic species. Usually, the way I deal with tear-out is to choose my wood with extra care and stay away from boards that are going to give me trouble. Careful planning makes for easy planing.

After that, I must say that I have the most success in removing tear-out by using a plane with an iron pitched at a high angle (usually 60�° to 62�° , whatever my honing guide can manage).

This week I’m building a blanket chest for the Summer 2008 issue of Woodworking Magazine, and the wood is some kicking tiger maple that I bought from a fellow woodworker’s private stash. While machining all the boards, the grain tore out in some critical spots.

Then I flattened all the boards and assembled panels with my jointer plane. It was freshly sharpened, pitched at 45Ã?° and set for a fairly light cut , .003″ or .004″ I’d say. The tear-out didn’t recede much, but I didn’t panic.

That’s because I have a plane with a 62Ã?° angle of attack that is for just this purpose. The one shown on my bench is the Veritas Bevel-up Smoothing Plane, but don’t take that as an endorsement of that single brand. I have a Lie-Nielsen version at home (the low-angle jack) set up identically. And I can even get this 62Ã?° angle on a standard old-school handplane by honing a back-bevel on the iron.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that it’s not the tool as much as it is the angle.

The photos show the results of the high-pitch plane. The tear-out took about eight passes to remove with the tool set to take an extremely thin shaving. I don’t think I’ve entered the realm of the handplaning gods, but when you have small victories like this, it sure makes you feel like one.

– Christopher Schwarz

18 thoughts on “The 17-degree Difference

  1. Alex Grigoriev

    Folks,

    Check Leonard Lee’s (of Lee Valley fame) book on sharpening. It explains a lot.

  2. David Charlesworth

    Chris,

    Nice to see someone else spreading the high EP message.

    62 degrees EP (effective pitch) works well for most domestic temperate woods, but for Praki’s Bloodwood and some other hard cranky exotics, I would use a tiny back bevel, at 25 degrees, in a conventional bench plane with a thick blade.

    This raises EP to 70 degrees, and is more covenient than trying to hone extremely obtuse angles on a low angle bevel up blade.

    Coincidentally, three methods of taming cranky grain, will be shown in detail on my next DVD published by L-N later this year ~;-)#

    Back bevels, raised EP in bevel up planes and Setting and use of Scraper planes.

    When I had worked it all out from a passage in Joyce, back bevels allowed me to plane timbers which I had previously thought to be un planable. See my first technique book page 43.
    best wishes,
    David Charlesworth

  3. Christopher Schwarz

    Ben,

    I think infill planes are beautiful. I also like that many of them were made by the people who used them.

    But do they plane wood any better? I have my doubts. Any plane with a sharp, well-bedded iron that is pitched at a high angle will do a good job on figured and reverse-grain wood.

    Expensive infill planes usually satisfy all those above factors and so they do superb job.

    If you’d like to do further reading, check out David Charlesworth’s "Furniture Making Techniques Vol. III," in which he compares infills to high-quality planes.

    He’s an article you might like:

    http://www.popularwoodworking.com/articleindex/test-driving-exotic-infill-handplanes

    Chris

  4. mike Siemsen

    17 degree, 45 degree, 62 degree… Aren’t these all part of the hierarchy of the Masonic Lodge? Maybe this is one of their "secrets", along with the handshake you get the inside scoop on plane bed angles. Kevin Costner will get on it right away! Wait I think this information is hidden in the Fresco of the last supper! See the angle that Jesus is leaning? He was a carpenter after all, it is all beginning to make sense, more peyote anyone? Handplane gods!
    Everyone on this side of the table for the picture!
    Mike

  5. Al Rossi

    Thanks for the monchichi reference, and the all too easy link to its damned picture. All of my childhood nightmares came rushing back to me crossing the decades in the blink of an eye, and now it seems that I’ll have to re-start my therapy sessions from the beginning.

    But the tip on the backbevel for a standard plane was GOLD – pure Gold Jerry! Now I have a use for that extra #4 that’s been kicking around under the bench.

  6. Ben C

    I have recently become slightly obsessed with the beauty of infill planes (thanks in no small part to your link to Sauer and Steiner). I haven’t been very successful in finding out if there is an advantage to these beyond their good looks. Your mention of infill planes above implies that they are advantageous over other plane styles in the battle against tear-out. Why would that be the case?

    ~Ben

  7. Tom Knighton

    But, but, but…I don’t WANT a Performax. Actually, I don’t want to sleep on the couch for the next six years, which would be the result of getting a Performax. That, and nothing else would fit in my shop…including me 😀

    Great article Chris. I’ll be honest, I still don’t understand back beveling to much, but that’s something for me to do some research on. It might be easier to just buy from Lee Valley or Lie Neilsen 😉

  8. Christopher Schwarz

    Oh crap! I forgot that we *do* have a drum sander in the shop.

    Ignore all that stuff above. Just get a Performax.

    Chris

  9. Jeff Skiver

    Ahhh the beauty of blogging on the internet.

    4 billion people in Asia wouldn’t give a flip about this, but you are able to reach an audience who will not only take the time to read about your victory over tear out, but who will also feel proud to be part of your accountability circle.

    "I faced a tough case of tear out this week. It would have been so easy to have used the drum sander at the PopWood shop, but I did it at home with the help of 62 degrees. And you know what…you guys can too."

    "Thanks for sharing, Chris."

    "Guys, find a friend. Get a sponsor. Find a way to ward off the sand paper demons. Despite what the world says, you can conquer tough grain with without giving into the sand. Just stick with the steel, the stone, and the angle you choose."

    "Now, let’s all say the serenity prayer."

  10. John G

    I’ve had good luck with an L-N No 4 with 50 degree frog, a sharp iron, and light cut… but it’s still sometimes easier to fix the photographic evidence in Photoshop. ;~)

  11. Chris F

    David,

    I actually like the look of the LV planes–they’ve got sort of a form-follows-function industrial chic thing going on.

  12. Christopher Schwarz

    Dorje,

    So sorry about that.

    That song has been rattling around in my head for decades. And I cannot get it out. It burns!

    Chris

  13. Dorje

    Chris –

    Now I have the Monchichi theme running through my head…used to be that it was only associated with the "soft and cuddly" dolls, but now however, it is associated with 62 degrees. Okay, I think I can handle that. Can you tell me a bit more about the foil-Monchichi reference? A figment of your imagination?

    Thanks,

    Dorje

  14. Christopher Schwarz

    Praki,

    You already own a high-pitch plane — your block plane. Try sharpening the bevel to 50° and then trying it on your board. I wouldn’t use a block plane on a cabinet side (way too many strokes), but for a "small Bloodwood board" it could be just the thing.

    Let us know who it comes out.

    Chris

  15. David

    And if it weren’t for the fact that they’re so flipping ugly, I’d have one of those L-V planes. They did a helluva job engineering them, but seemed to throw aesthetics out the window when they designed that line of planes…

  16. Andy

    Thanks for the article! I had a very similar revelatory experience recently while making some candle holders out of some spectacular quilted maple. They were small pieces, but boy was it nice wood! Anyway, I tried planing with my high angle (37* blade) LV Bevel up Smoother, but that still left a little tearout. I tried scraping with a card scraper and a hand-made scraper plane, but neither of those left a very good surface either (very possibly due to my lack of burnishing skill). I tried sanding, but I didn’t like the way that muddied up the figure/chatoyance. So I turned to even higher angle planes. I have a very inexpensive "Hong Kong-style" miniature smoothing plane with a blade bedded at 60 degrees, and that left an excellent surface, but was a little hard to use due to its small size. So I reground one of my LV bevel-up blades to ~47*, which came out to about 60* when combined with the 12* bed angle. This worked just as well! With both of these planes, however, I found I had to re-hone the blades quite frequently to prevent any hint of tearout, and to get rid of tiny nicks that left tracks on the wood.
    But it sure was satisfying to plane that wood! And as for your proof, here are photos of the two completed candle holders:
    http://i181.photobucket.com/albums/x86/andynewhouse/Woodworking/quiltedcandle2.jpg
    http://i181.photobucket.com/albums/x86/andynewhouse/Woodworking/quiltedcandle1.jpg
    Andy

  17. Praki Prakash

    Hi Chris,

    I have a #4 and a block plane. Neither of them worked on a small Bloodwood board. I used a scraper to clean up the resaw marks (no band saw and had to do it on my table saw). It took me a long time and I couldn’t avoid gouging entirely.

    Do you think I should have used a high-pitch plane instead? Or , should the approach be plane it with a smoother and follow it up with either a high-plane or a scraper depending on what you prefer?

    Thanks,
    Praki

    (BTW, I am reading and enjoying your latest book!)

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