Though dragging your plane backward on the return stroke can make your iron dull faster, not all the old books agree that you should avoid the practice.
In fact, many of my books are silent on the issue. “Spons’ Mechanics’ Own Book,” a massive tome on woodworking and other trades, has nothing (at least that I can find) on the topic. Likewise, “How to Work with Tools and Wood,” which was published by Stanley Tools, is also silent.
But other books and authors do weigh in on the topic.
“Carpenter’s Tools” by H. H. Siegele (1950) has the most colorful explanation I could dig up:
Bringing the Plane Back.–Early in the author’s experience as a carpenter, the foreman put him to jointing board. After a while the foreman happened along, and remarked with a grin, “I notice you sharpen your plane on the return trip.” Then he went on to explain that if the tool is pulled back over the edge of the board, the heel of the plane should be lifted, otherwise the return trip would dull the plane bit, rather than sharpen it.
That short paragraph seems to settle the issue. But other authors have more to say. Charles Holtzapffel’s classic “Construction, Action and Application of Cutting Tools” (1875) has this to say:
During the return stroke, the (downward) pressure should be discontinued to avoid friction on the edge, which would be thereby rounded, and there is just an approximation to lifting the heel of the plane off the work; or in short pieces it is entirely lifted.
Holtzapffel’s description is exactly what I do. I pull the tool back by the tote with no downward pressure at all.
But then there is “Audels Carpenters and Builders Guide” (I have the 1947 edition), a four-volume set of books on the trade. In Vol. I in the section on “Smooth Facing Tools,” the authors make the following dictum:
In planing on the return stroke lift the back of the plane somewhat so that the cutter will not rub against the wood and thus prevent it being quickly dulled.
This refers to large surfaces especially when they are rough, but on small work it is not necessary.
This seems to directly contradict Holtzapffel. So I went to the mountain: Charles H. Hayward, my personal woodworking hero. I didn’t go through all his writings on planes – that would take a few days. But I did consult his seminal “Tools for Woodwork” (1973). His advice is nuanced.
It will probably not prove practicable to take the plane right through the length of the wood (when smoothing). The best plane therefore is to raise the right hand as the far end of the stroke is reached so that the plane ceases to cut. Do not attempt to lift the plane bodily as this will invariably leave a mark.
Hayward is suggesting that the worker release the downward pressure on the return stroke when smoothing, much like Holtzapffel.
So I think that all the sources would agree that you shouldn’t bear down on the tool during the return stroke, which is like saying, “Duh, you should not poop in the water you drink.”
However, they don’t agree on if you should pull back while lifting the heel of the tool or merely release the downward pressure.
To me, this says I should dig deeper into the issue and start combing through all my books. Or just go back to building stuff.
— Christopher Schwarz
For a discussion of when I drag (and don’t) check out this story I wrote earlier today.
Also, don’t forget to check out my new DVD called “Super-tune a Handplane,” which shows you how to turn an old plane into a high-performance tool. You can get it at ShopWoodworking.com.