In Shop Blog, Techniques, Tools

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This year I’ve made friends with my chisel plane. In fact, I don’t think I could have installed the Benchcrafted wagon vise as a retrofit without it.

Today I got another lesson in chisel-plane use from Carl Bilderback that I’d like to share with you. Carl is a woodworker, semi-retired carpenter, tool collector and active member of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Assn. As a finish carpenter, Carl had several specialties, including repairing finished or veneered surfaces on the jobsite and hiding those repairs from customers.

His skill at cutting a “dutchman” prompted me to publish one of his articles on his process in Popular Woodworking‘s February 2008 issue (if you have that issue, you should definitely check it out. Good stuff.)

In any case, Carl said that one of the reasons he was always sought out for repairs was because he owned a chisel plane.

Because of that tool, Carl said he could trim face-grain plugs and dutchmen without touching the surrounding finish. And he also could trim end-grain plugs with ease. Other carpenters would sand their repairs flush with the surrounding surface, which made more work for the guys who had to repair the finish.

Now I have had no trouble trimming face grain with a chisel plane, but trimming end grain with a chisel plane has always been difficult for me. Carl explained how he did it. I tried it in the shop this afternoon, and it was like the light bulb went on. I think everyone needs an old hand like Carl around. Perhaps Lie-Nielsen could start making Carls for everyone….

Here’s what you do: Set the chisel plane so its cutting edge is flush to the sole and will not cut the surface of your work. (I know, this is obvious, but I have to say it.)

Now approach the plug with the corner of the cutter. You want to try to nibble off no more than 1/16″ from the plug. Less material; less resistance.

Keep firm downward pressure on the the tool and pivot the corner into the plug, like you are picking away a small portion of the plug. Once you remove that first 1/16″, head to the next 1/16″.

I tried this procedure on some tough white oak and maple end-grain plugs and, as we say in Arkansas, it worked like a peach.

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Showing 19 comments
  • Christopher Schwarz

    It’s the small one.

    Like I said, I’ve never used the big one so I cannot really comment. The small one fits my hand well. I could see how the mass of the big one and the length of its sole would be an asset in places that weren’t tight.


  • Allen Long

    Is this the regular size or small chisel shown in the picture? The small chisel plane looks to be more handy. Your thoughts?

  • PAUL (But I'm Much Better Now)

    My experience is with the bullnose/with removable nose. I do custom fitting of recoil pads on VERY EXPENSIVE Shotguns. I use R/A Saw to cut the stock(shorten), rough fit the pad with rasp(the one I use looks like plane float with teeth on both sides), then final fit with bullnose in chisel mode.
    This allows me to avoid having to refinish stock on $20,0000.00 dollar trapguns. I use radial saw to maintain or change the pitch & cast of stock(compound angles).
    I also works with paint spills on finished work

  • Manuel Cardoso-Lopes

    Hi Chris,

    A chisel planes always been one of those tools that no matter how much you try & jutify purchasing you always come slightly short.
    As an interim, I found a broken Stanley No.78 (often found with the nose piece broken off).
    I cut away the front part of that plane body just above the level that the blade sits at with a metal band saw, tidyed it all up nicely with a file & now use it with a well honed blade as a sort of bevel down chisel plane, mainly for removing glue squeeze out & flush trimming inlays with the grain quite successfully on unfinished surfaces.
    If one wanted to add a chisel plane to ones tool arsenal, would the normal sized or the 1/2 sized plane made by Lie-Nielsen be the most usefull…. my gut says the 1/2 size for doing the odd trimming of end grain plugs, which size do you own?

    South Africa

  • Jonas H. Jensen

    Maybe its a bit off topic, but what is a dutchman?

  • Sean

    Mark – you could also use a crank necked chisel. You can also turn your bench chisel over and ride the bevel, but that takes a more deft touch.

    For what it’s worth, I often use my chisels to pare away end grain in much teh smae manner Chris demonstrates on things like slightly proud through dovetails, etc. I’ve never felt like I needed a chisel plane to use this sort of pivoting slicing motion effectively; a plain old chisel will do just fine, as you say.

  • My two cents

    Let’s not forget those bullnose planes that allow you to remove the nose piece, thereby leaving you with a chisel plane. Two for the price of one.

  • Don Peregoy

    Thanks for passing on Carl’s help with using the chisel plane.

    I have tried to use it with little success. I have difficulty setting blade depth. I bought it for the wrong reason – for a project I just FINISHED. What works best for my skill set is a very sharp bent shank paring chisel.

    Wonder if applying alcohol or mineral spirits would help with plugs.

    Trimming is tedious but realizing that even high skilled wood workers trimmed to fit – was a breakthrough in my education.

    I can imagine this conversation.

    “Mr. Greene this project is going to take a long time – all those finger joints to trim – will take forever.”
    “Well Mir Hall if its going to be that much of a problem Just round them over and be done with it.”

  • Mark Clench

    A normal chisel would work fine for paring things on the edges of your work, but a chisel can only sit flat as long as the blade can reach, so after a few inches you run into the handel and have to tilt it up to go any further, then you risk gouging the surface.

    That seems to me to be the main advantage of a chisel plane, trimming things flush in the middle of large surfaces where a paring chisel can’t reach.

    I guess you could also use a handplane blade bevel up and get similar results, just a little more awkward to use.

  • Kip

    Ok, I’ve got a chisel plane use I should report. I wish I had taken some pictures of it.

    I had to restore ten 13 foot long organ wind chests that were built in 1902 and made of poplar. They had ancient, rotting leather gasket on one side and cork on the other. Both had to be removed while being very careful of the wood underneath. When the chests are assembled the gaskets need to seal well enough to hold in 20" of wind pressure and little dips and dings can cause a big problem when troubleshooting later. Because of this the accepted technique to remove the gaskets was to soak them with hot water until the hide glue was saturated and then carefully scrape, pick and peel the slimy gaskets off an hour later using a paint scraper and a hot rag. I was instructed to do it this way to avoid damaging the wood underneath. It was an unpleasant and time consuming chore- until I got a chisel plane.

    It took me some time to figure out a technique but eventually I could get right under the material to be removed. I skipped the water and left the glue as it was. The same as Mr. Bilderbach, I set the iron so it was not quite at the level of the sole so I knew I could scrub away without worrying about a catch. I actually tried to never have the iron ever touch the wood at all. The gaskets didn’t come quite to the edge of the chest so if I started at that flat reference point I could clean off both sides of a chest like nothing. The leather mostly came off in ribbons and, even more satisfyingly, the cork would crumble and pop off in little bursts. To sharpen I would go straight from the grinder to the work (no need to hone since I was basically planing 105 year old hide glue.)

    Each chest was 13′ long and 24" wide and had gaskets on top and bottom. So that’s 60′ of gasket per chest x 10 chests = 600 feet of bucket and rag work avoided. That little chisel plane was like a magic bullet. I made it its own shelf in my cabinet after that.

    Philadelphia, PA

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Matt and Chris,

    There are lots of ways to level end grain. I’ve used a shallow gouge for years myself. But the chisel plane is almost foolproof. That’s all.


  • Chris F

    What about using a flat gouge (#3 or #2.5 if you have one) for levelling pegs? The swept up corners make it hard to dig in a corner the way that a straight chisel can.

    I’ve used this technique to level plugs on prefinished flooring, and it worked well.

  • mdhills

    What is the advantage of using this over a chisel with a flat back? (I use a similar nibbling technique — I assume both have potential to gouge the surrounding surface if you don’t keep the tools flat)


  • Christopher Schwarz


    I second what Justin is saying. Usually I just bench plane the whole assembly when it’s raw wood. When it’s got a finish on it – or it’s veneer, especially – I think the chisel plane can be your friend.

    It is indeed a specialty tool, which is why originals are fairly rare.


  • Megan

    I borrowed Chris’s chisel plane (thank you Chris) to plane some cap moulding flush with the panel beneath it in my bathroom – I _couldn’t_ use a bench plane to get into the corners – I love this plane.

  • Justin Tyson

    I would just use a regular plane on a plug in an unfinished surface, but I can see how the chisel plane would be superior for a finished surface, to avoid gouging the surrounding areas.

  • joel moskowitz

    isn’t easier just to use a regular bench plane and plane the plug as per normal?

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Yup, there is definitely a secondary bevel. Polished to 8,000 grit.


  • Dano

    Handy enough technique I suppose; if one owned a chisel plane. I can certainly see where it would excel in paring down dutchmans.

    Curious to know if there is a secondary bevel on the iron?
    I’m no Brent Beach, but the scratch marks on the iron appear rather large despite the image size.

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