Plow planes are some of the easiest joinery planes to use , once you know a few tricks to getting good results. I struggled with the tools until Don McConnell (now a planemaker at Clark & Williams) set me straight years ago with one simple piece of advice:
“Each hand should have a separate job,” he said. “One hand holds the fence. The other pushes the tool forward.”
Before that point, both of my hands were engaged in job sharing. My hand on the fence was also pushing forward. My hand on the tote was twisting the tool to keep the fence tight on the work.
Editor’s note: This article was first published on our site in 2009. The original photos were lost in the digital void, so we re-shot them featuring Logan Wittmer as the hand model.
Here are the other things I’ve learned about gripping a plow plane over the years:
1. It’s a bit like sawing. The hand that holds the tote (or the stock) should be directly lined up with the cut and should swing free. Sometimes this means getting your body over the work (a low bench is helpful here). If your forearm is not in line with the skate of the tool, it’s gonna be a roughie.2. It’s a bit like jointing an edge. For my fence hand, I wrap the web between my thumb and index finger around the stems (sometimes called posts) of the tool. I reach my fingers around the fence and touch the work and the front edge of the bench if possible. My thumb is pressing down. If you joint edges of boards by hand, you’ll recognize this hand position immediately.
3. Workholding: Keep it Simple
There are lots of ways to hold your work for plowing. If your end vise and dogs are positioned near the front edge of the bench, you can usually pinch things directly between dogs. You also can use a sticking board, which is a little shelf that holds your work.
Or you can do what I do: Clamp a batten to the benchtop to brace the edge of your workpiece. And plow into the tip of a holdfast. This is very quick for plowing drawer parts , there’s no clamping and unclamping and you can work with a bunch of different lengths easily.
4. Set the Fence
Set your plow’s fence so it is parallel to the skate and the desired distance from your cutter. The most common cut I make is a 1/4″-wide groove that’s 1/4″ from the fence. Conveniently, the brass section on my folding rule is exactly 1/4″ long, so it’s easy to set things at a glance.
5. Begin at the End
You can use a plow plane like a bench plane and make full strokes that run from the near end to the far end. But I have found this to be sometimes troublesome. Sometimes the cutter will follow the grain in the board and the tool’s fence will drift away from the work. The results are ugly.
Instead, I start at the far end of the board and make short cuts. Each succeeding cut gets a little longer until I am making full-length cuts. The advantage to this is that if your plane wanders, it will only be for a short distance and the next cut will correct the error.
After you are making full-length cuts there’s little danger of the tool wandering.
The shavings should be fairly thick, you don’t want to do this all day. These shavings are .015″ thick. I could probably go a little thicker in pine.
Results and Then…¦
When the tool stops cutting, you stop stroking. The edges of the groove might be a little furry , that’s typical even for the best work. That’s why I wait to smooth plane my pieces after I have grooved them. That removes the fur.
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