Years ago I got a phone call from plane maker Larry Williams that changed the way I look at long planes.
“Do you have the book ‘American Furniture of the 18th Century?'” he asked.
I sure did. I had rescued a damaged one that my company was throwing away back in 1996 when the book came out. It’s still marked “cut” , the mark for the dumpster.
Larry continued: “Turn to page 118. What do you see?”
Then he was silent. I looked at the photo at the top of page 118 for a good 20 seconds before it dawned on me. The enormous wooden jointer plane on that page had an iron that was pitched high. Way high. Higher than my college roommate who would play the game “What can we fry today?” while working at Long John Silver’s.
Larry said the plane was probably pitched at 60Ã?Â°. This was shocking because most planes these days are pitched at 45Ã?Â°. And it turns out that Larry was wrong. I measured the pitch of the plane in the photo, and I estimate it’s pitched at 64Ã?Â° or so.
This is not lunacy. Joesph Moxon , a 17th-century chronicler of the art of joinery , discusses how high-pitched planes can be used for hard woods. Though he’s discussing moulding planes in this intance, he suggests pitches of 80Ã?Â°. The bench planes shown in Moxon’s plates (which yes, I know, are actually French) are shown with pitches approaching 60Ã?Â°.
So there’s little doubt that pre-Industrial woodworkers used high-pitch planes, and not just for smoothing.
Why use a high-angle plane? To reduce tear-out on your show surfaces, primarily. But why have a high-angle try or jointer plane? Why not just use a high-angle smoothing plane? After all, a smoothing plane is the last plane to touch the wood, and its most important job is to make the wood look its best.
My answer is going to be muddy here. So sharpen your pitchforks and dip those torches in tar.
Deneb Puchalski of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks and I had a conversation about this topic today to compare notes. It was interesting to note how our experiences and feelings about tear-out overlapped, despite the fact that our planing methods are different.
First, Deneb and I agreed that you don’t always need a high-angle jointer. A plane pitched at 45Ã?Â° will allow you to take thick shavings with a reasonable effort. And if the wood is behaving, as most domestic hardwoods tend to do, then there’s no reason to move up to a higher pitch.
But when you experience tearing as you are jointing your surface, it’s best to stop for a minute and assess the situation. That’s because tear-out seems to have a half-life , that’s Deneb’s word; and I don’t have a better one. What this means is that you can remove this tear-out with your high-angle smoothing plane, but it will take longer than if you started on the same surface and it wasn’t torn at all.
In other words, as soon as you get tear-out on a board, you should switch gears to eliminate it immediately. That might mean reducing the depth of cut, sharpening the iron or tightening the mouth (both Deneb and I do this). It might mean switching tools (Deneb uses a plane with a toothed iron). It might mean skewing the tool , Deneb will try to plane the wood obliquely. Me, I tend to traverse a board that is tearing out , working directly across the grain. Any of these strategies can wipe out the tearing. Then you can move onto a high-angle smoothing plane with a clean, flat and tear-out-free slate.
The other option when you are getting into tough wood is simply to start with a high-angle jointer plane. Using a high-angle jointer or try plane can start the process on the right foot.
A couple other details about this are worth mentioning. Deneb reports that planes with more mass seem to deal with difficult woods better than lighter planes. We exchanged some theories about this, but they aren’t ready for even a blog. Also, when you use a higher-pitch jointer you should back off on the depth of your cut a bit, which also helps to control tearing. And it makes the plane easier to push.
Also, in general, high-pitch planes seem to do better with hard woods than standard-pitch planes. They seem to be able to take a bite and to cut better than standard-angle planes, which seem to skitter across hard surfaces.
Tear-out is such a crazy, mixed-up problem that I plan to devote a couple more entries to the topic in the near future. And so I end with a question: What is the most difficult wood to plane consistently without tearing it out? I have a species in mind already.
– Christopher Schwarz
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