One of the great mysteries of the hand tool world is how Roy Underhill never seems to get older. (Is there a cursed painting in your attic, Mr. Underhill?) The other great mystery is about the unbeveled faces of vintage irons in handplanes.
If you’ve even bought an old plane you know of what I speak. You take one look at the face of the iron (what some people call the “back”), and it looks like crap. This flies in the face of modern handplane dogma. That surface is supposed to be flat and polished so our ancestors could see just how rotten their teeth were.
About half the time the face of the iron looks untouched. The other half of the time it looks like they dubbed over that edge , rounding it over. Bad form, no?
Plane pundits I know have speculated that this is the result of the plane falling into inexperienced hands after its previous owner retired and died. Or perhaps it was a carpenter’s tool that planed softwood and didn’t require a super-keen edge.
I have another crazy theory. Perhaps in some of these cases the woodworker had dubbed the face intentionally to create a back bevel.
Why would anyone do this? To increase the pitch of the plane and reduce tear-out. The higher the pitch, the less tearing. And because bevel-down planes are somewhat fixed at a 45Ã?Â° pitch, the only ways to increase your cutting angle are to get a new higher-pitched frog (a modern option for Lie-Nielsen plane users) or to apply a back bevel.
I have some smaller Stanley-style planes that I quite like. A No. 3 Bed Rock and a No. 2 Lie-Nielsen. Both have 45Ã?Â° frogs, which makes them unsuitable for reversing, interlocked or curly grain. So I polish a 15Ã?Â° back bevel on those tools, which transforms them into a 60Ã?Â° tool.
With the help of my cheapie honing guide, this is easy and repeatable. After honing the bevel, I’ll flip the iron over in the guide, set it to 15Ã?Â° by sighting it against a block of wood (someday , how about today , I’ll make a jig to set it automatically), and chase the burr off on an #8,000-grit waterstone.
It adds about five minutes to the sharpening time. And that’s well worth it because removing tear-out takes a lot longer than that. Give it a try on your 45Ã?Â° planes and test it on some mahogany with interlocked grain. Work against the grain (like I am below). I think you’ll be impressed.
– Christopher Schwarz
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