Tuning Bench Planes at Vesper World Headquarters
Honestly, I’ve tuned so many dang metal planes in my lifetime that I’ll never worry about having enough iron in my diet. They might mine my carcass for the mineral when I’m dead.
For me, it has always been an analog process: Do it by hand with inexpensive supplies.
Today I spent the day tuning old bench planes with a half-dozen Australians in the shop of toolmaker Chris Vesper. It was, for me, like finding a room in your house you had never before spotted.
Vesper is, without a doubt, one of the most passionate and talented toolmakers I’ve ever met. He lives above his shop and plows a huge portion of his profits back into purchasing better equipment and better supplies. He can set up his machines in a heartbeat, and so today we were able to fix problems on planes in minutes instead of hours (or weeks).
Here are some highlights of the process:
Sole Evaluation: We began by stripping down all the planes and sorting out what needed to be done. After lightly dressing the sole of each plane with a stone, Vesper placed each plane on the bed of a surface grinder and evaluated it with the thinnest feeler gauge available. He then sorted the tools into two camps: Those that required surface grinding and those that didn’t.
Surface Grinding: Vesper used two surface grinders to true up the soles and sidewalls of the handplanes. Watching the process will make you think that every household should have a surface grinder. (Hmm, this ham sandwich would be tastier if the edges were 90° to the face of the ham….)
Frog Evaluation: Several of the planes had frogs that wouldn’t sit flat on the base casting. When I encounter this problem, the solution is a tedious process of marking the high spots with dye and filing them away. For Vesper, it was a 10-minute process of tweaking the frog and base casting with a milling machine – removing only a few microns of material.
Hand Lapping: For the soles that were almost flat, Vesper set up an enormous and flat welding table outside with #150-grit sandpaper. There the attendees flattened their soles manually when they needed just a wee bit of metal removed.
Improving the Bits: Also incredible was the process of improving the individual parts that make up a handplane. Vesper cleaned all the gunk out of the screw threads with a wire wheel. Plane irons that were warped were trued up on the surface grinder (again, incredible).
Fiddly Bits: So what the heck did I do? Finish up the fiddly bits. I helped the students true their breakers, set up their tools, sharpen their irons and take shavings. It was impressive to see how many of these old junkers came to life after a day of work and Vesper’s talented hand and machines.
One of the students became a “true believer” that day – always fun to watch. He kept planing and planing the board in the vise with his old Marples plane. After he was chased off, he came back for more planing.
Right before he left, he said: I’m going to go home and plane all night.
That moment made the whole day worthwhile.
You might not have a machine shop in your back yard, but I’ll bet you know someone who does. If you need to restore a handplane, seek that person out. Bring them a case of beer, offer to do their taxes or mow their lawn. You might just learn something about machine work, handplane mechanics or both.
Even if you don’t seek out a machine shop, you can true up your metal planes by yourself. We have a DVD on this process called “Super-Tune a Handplane.” Good stuff.
— Christopher Schwarz