How to Use a Hand Plane – 6 Tips for Avoiding Tear-Out

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!

Dan Farnbach


Christopher Schwarz, contributing editor

Christopher Schwarz, contributing editor

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

When I have some      tear-out that I cannot tame, the first place I turn is my sharpening stones. A sharp iron greatly reduces tearing.

When I have some tear-out that I cannot tame, the first place I turn is my sharpening stones. A sharp iron greatly reduces tearing.

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

2ThinkSmallYou 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

3BevelThe 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

4MouthDo 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

5-ChipbreakerEarly 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.

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Dan Farnbach

About Dan Farnbach

Dan apprenticed and worked in two professional shops during the years after college. But sweeping shop floors only goes so far toward learning woodworking. These days Dan is online editor for Popular Woodworking, and is learning new skills every day. He divides his time between Boston and Maine.

3 thoughts on “How to Use a Hand Plane – 6 Tips for Avoiding Tear-Out

  1. jraposa

    Hi, first time commenter here. Question… those sharpening stones shown for tip #2… is that a kit, or a jig, and what kinds of stones are they? Could they be considered some sort of “all you need” collection? Thanks in advance.

  2. swirt

    Good list. But I think if your summary in #6 regarding chipbreakers is ” 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.” then you really need to watch this video. There is amazing physics at work here:
    http://www.timberframe-tools.com/tools/good-plane-advice-good-physics/

    If you only tune the breaker to mate with the adjustment mechanism on the frog, then you are missing out on the really cool benefits of it.

    1. Dan FarnbachDan Farnbach Post author

      That is a pretty amazing video. Many thanks for posting the link. I’d be curious to see Chris’ thoughts on that, but I don’t know how busy he is. I’ll check with him.
      One thing I notice is that the chip-breaker in the video is much heavier and thicker than most western varieties.

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