If you ask most woodworkers what a block plane is good for, the usual response is trimming end grain. While this is true, there are many other chores that it performs well. One of my favorites is shaping edges. A block plane can chamfer or round over an edge in less time than it takes to find the wrenches and install a router bit. And no, you don’t need an attachment to make a nice chamfer.
A while ago I worked on a three-legged stool for Woodworking magazine, and the shape of the legs is an example of where a block plane can do something a router can’t-round an edge with a varying radius. These legs taper, and at the wider bottom end of the leg, the outside edge has a radius of about half an inch. At the top the radius is about an eighth of an inch. Here’s how I go about making this edge.
This is a two-stage process. There is a lot of material to be removed, and then the edge needs to be refined. The first thing I do is open up the mouth of the plane, and skew the blade as much as I can. On one side I can take a thick shaving, and on the other end I can take a finer one. This lets me work from coarse to medium simply by shifting the position of the plane side-to side relative to the edge I’m working on. This is also a place where the inexpensive high angle block plane with the gaping maw I bought before I knew better works pretty well.
Putting a radius on an edge begins with making a chamfer, then planing off the sharp points. It’s easy to do because you’re only removing the point, then removing the two points you just created. In short order you have so many facets that the edge is essentially a curve. If the radius were constant, I would chamfer the entire edge. Because this one will taper, I raise the back of the plane, knock off the corner and chamfer back from the end a few inches.
Then I back up about six inches and continue the chamfer until I have a continuous edge to the end of the leg. I repeat this until the entire edge is chamfered, tapering from very little at one end to relatively wide at the other. All it takes is to balance the sole of the plane on the pointy part of the edge. Don’t worry about the exact angle. If you do this a few times you get a sense of where 45 degrees is. If a chamfer is your goal, you can check with a square if you feel the need, but I think a soft chamfer and an inexact angle look better. If you want it to look like you used a router, you should probably put down the block plane and use one.
When the edge is chamfered the entire length of the leg, I begin to remove the corners between the faces of the leg and the chamfer. Again, this is done by balancing the plane on the sharp corner between the two flat surfaces. I can control how much material is removed with each pass of the plane by shifting it slightly sideways with each pass. At the start, I want the maximum depth of cut to flatten out the point. As the chamfer widens, I shift over so that the effort of pushing the plane stays relatively constant and tear out is minimized.
It doesn’t take long to go from a corner with two sides to four, eight, sixteen and so on. Each time you knock the corners off it gets closer to being round, and the facets get narrower. When the curve begins to take shape, it’s time to retract the blade to take a finer shaving and close down the mouth. The shavings on the left in this picture are the finishing cuts, much thinner and narrower than the initial cuts in the upper right.
This leg is almost done. With the long edges complete, I’ve started to round over the bottoms. The curve isn’t quite finished, but it’s pretty close. A few swipes with #150 grit Abranet will remove the tiny remaining high points and my leg will be ready to assemble.
For more on using handplanes, check out Christopher Schwarz’s “Building Furniture with Hand Planes” DVD.