This short article is a summary of an excellent Christopher Schwarz blog post on the topic. Visit the original post to read extended versions of each point, plus a seventh tip on skewing.
For the really extended version, I recommend the 2-DVD set of videos “Mastering Hand Tools.” This video series covers everything on how to use hand planes and other hand tools. Better yet, it is part of our current DVD sale, so take advantage!
Nothing in handplaning is more frustrating than tear-out – which is when the wood rips up in small chunks instead of being sliced clean away. Over the years, I’ve collected solutions to eliminate it and found the following ones to be the most useful, especially when first learning how to use a hand plane.
No 1: The Answer is in the Branches
When I pick my boards for any project, I stay tuned to the grain of the boards at hand. If the grain reverses on itself through the plank a good deal, then I skip the board or saw it into short lengths, which might not give me trouble. That sounds wasteful, but the most precious commodity in woodworking is not the wood – it’s the time we spend working (or butchering) it. You can make your work faster and easier just by being a lot more choosy.
No. 2: Look Sharp
For me, sharpening is like changing the oil in my car. It’s messy and time-consuming, but you do it regularly or disaster will befall you eventually. I’m not a sharpening fascist. I don’t take more than five to 10 minutes to renew a micro-bevel. But I firmly believe that a sharp iron is the second best way to reduce tear-out when handplaning.
No. 3: Think Small
You want to be able to take the thickest shaving you can without tear-out, chatter or requiring you to bulk up like Conan the Barbarian. A thick shaving will get you done with fewer passes of the smoothing plane over your workpiece. If I get tear-out with a beefy shaving, I retract the iron into the mouth of the handplane and extend it until the shaving looks like the photo at right-center. This shaving will clean up my surfaces in three or four passes. It usually eliminates tear-out more than the first setting. But sometimes I need to get nuttier. And that’s when I push my tool to get a shaving like the one at far right.
No. 4: Perfect Pitch
The higher the angle of attack, the less likely the wood fibers will lift up and tear out. Sounds good, right? What’s the catch? Standard planes can be difficult to configure to a high angle. Bevel-up can help. All three of these tools have their bevels facing up. This fact makes them easy to configure to a high angle of attack. It just takes a little sharpening.
No. 5: Button Your Lip
Do you need a fine mouth for high-tolerance work? I think the answer is: It depends. Tightening up the mouth aperture of your plane is just one of the weapons you have in your battle against tear-out. But I don’t think it’s the doomsday weapon. I start closing up the mouth of a tool only when my other efforts fail – I’ve sharpened the iron, I’ve set it to take a fine cut and I’m using the tool that has a high (62°) angle of attack. If all those efforts fail, then I’ll weigh my choices. I can either tighten up the mouth and face some clogging issues, or get out the card scraper or sandpaper and call it a day.
No 6: Chipbreakers
Early planes had thick irons and didn’t have chipbreakers, even during the age of mahogany, which is hard to plane well. In my view, the chipbreaker’s primary purpose in a modern plane is to mate with the tool’s blade-adjustment mechanism and to aid in chip ejection. That first purpose is the important one, as far as tear-out is concerned. The depth-adjustment mechanism allows you to easily set your tool to take the finest cut possible, which really will reduce tear-out.