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If you have ever sharpened a hand tool or tried to teach someone to sharpen a hand tool, there are a lot of mental and physical obstacles to overcome. One of the biggest problems comes when setting up an edge tool for the first time, specifically, flattening and polishing up the unbeveled face of the plane iron or chisel.

I’ve talked to hundreds of readers about this topic, and I regularly hear stories about people who spend a couple days (days!) polishing up the unbeveled face of a plane iron.

Usually, the reader is doing something quite wrong and ends up ruining the tool. I’ve never seen a tool that required days of lapping. If I did see one, I’d send it right back to the manufacturer.  But no matter if it is the user’s fault or the manufacturer’s fault it’s a frustrating obstacle beginners face.
In recent years, the quality of the premium irons and chisels has improved dramatically on this front. Many manufacturers have switched to A2 steel, which distorts less during the heat-treating part of manufacturing. And some manufacturers have gone to great lengths to figure out how to ship a tool that requires very little work on the user’s part. New tools from Veritas and Lie-Nielsen typically would require about 15 minutes of work.

Last year, I wrote about this same topic and the advances that both Veritas and Lie-Nielsen had made. Veritas has now raised the bar even higher.

Last month Wally Wilson at Lee Valley Tools (which is technically separate from Veritas, but the two companies obviously share many of the same resources) sent me an e-mail asking I’d like to try some new plane irons developed for the Veritas bevel-up handplanes. There was no other explanation. Of course I said yes.

The irons arrived and they looked a little different than usual. The shape of the iron was different and the unbeveled side of the tool looked really grey, like someone had misted it with some grey spray paint. So I went to set them up in our shop that afternoon. I usually start this process with a 1,000-grit waterstone, and after a few swipes I looked at the results. Most of the grey was gone. I was already done with 1,000 grit. I went to 4,000 grit. Same thing. Then 8,000. Then I realized, wait a minute I’m done and I haven’t even started.

All three of the irons behaved the same way. Then I tried setting up an iron in the company’s new ductile-iron edge-trimming plane. Honestly, and I don’t know how this is possible, but the thing was even flatter.

So I chatted with Robin Lee, the president of Lee Valley Tools, about the new irons. The plane irons they sent me were high-carbon O1 (which means “oil hardened”) steel, not A2. O1 blades sharpen up faster than A2, but they are usually more warped and the edge doesn’t last as long (so it can be a wash when you measure sharpening time). But the composition of the steel wasn’t what was cool. Veritas has started lapping its plane irons to what can only be called dead flat. Robin says the company was still trying to work out the description of how flat that is (in microns, I assure you). But let me put it in terms that all my journalism professors would scold me for: very, very, very  
The machine behind this news is a rotary lapping machine that Veritas is now using to flatten all of the O1 irons it makes (and soon will use to flatten all its A2 irons as well). Robin described how the machine worked to me using the phone, but I didn’t quite comprehend. So he sent me some photographs. That still didn’t take. So he took some movies of the machine in action and kindly allowed me to link to them on his company’s server. (8.7 MB) (12.8 MB)

The giant rotating disc is what does the lapping. The plane irons are installed beneath the large metal bricks that are captured in the three smaller rings. It takes about an hour of lapping to true up a batch of plane irons. And before you ask, no there are no plans to lap the soles  
of the bench planes this way, Robin says.

The process works remarkably well, and Veritas deserves a round of applause for this improvement.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 3 comments
  • Brent Beach

    Since I am currently reading "Good to Great", which discusses at length the mindset of companies that make and sustain a transition to greatness, this article by Chris is very timely. Lee Valley appears to be such a company in the making – deciding the niche in which they can be world leaders then doing what it takes day in and day out to achieve it. My one reservation is that all users will eventually have to sharpen their irons themselves, so unless they learn how to sharpen will never get as good a result as the first time they use their plane. Adding O1 back to the lineup will make re-sharpening a little easier.

  • David Charlesworth

    This is very good news for new plane users, particularly beginners.

  • Wilbur Pan

    That’s unbelievably cool. It seems so simple that I wonder why this hasn’t been tried before.

    If this is the whole machine, and if I count right, this process can lap 14 plane blades an hour, or 112 blades for an 8 hour shift. Is this considered a lot of plane baldes, or a small amount?

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