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Preview: Smooth Planes – The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly with Harry Bryan

April 26, 2013

Ever wondered what all those moving parts in your hand plane were for? Well Harry takes a couple of smooth planes apart and shows how to recognize a good smooth plane from a not so good smooth plane.

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– When you want to acquire your first planes, I think that you should get a block plane and a smooth plane. These are both smooth planes here. This is a Stanley smooth plane and this is a much less expensive hardware store plane. I don’t know when this Stanley was made, but the patent date is 1910 on it. So it was probably made anyway, before World War Two. The plane is in perfect shape. It works just as well as it did when it was manufactured. At some point or another, there was a crack and someone glued the handle up. And you may well find, when looking for an old plane, either a cracked or missing handle. If you are even a beginning woodworker, you can make yourself a new handle or repair the old one. Let’s take this plane apart and see what its components are. This is what I call the lever cap. Move the lever. There’s a slight counter sink here and a slight taper underneath this screw so they key together. The blade itself is in two pieces in a smooth plane. The regular cutting iron underneath and a chip breaker on the top, which does exactly what the name says. If I run this down on the edge of the piece of wood, a fine shaving will come up and instantly hit the edge of that chip breaker and break off. So it controls the size of chip that can be made. Without that chip breaker, the iron could lever up a chip and make a really rough job of wood where the grain was not favorable to the direction you were pushing it in. So the chip breaker is a great thing, which is one of the reasons a smooth plane will cut smoothly. So that iron should be adjusted very… I don’t know if you can see there, but we’re less than a 16th of an inch of exposure between the end of the chip breaker and the cutting edge of the tool. That can be varied a little bit more, up to a full 16th for cutting with soft wood, where you want a big shaving making progress. Or somewhat less if you were working with birdseye maple or wood that’s difficult to plane without chipping. So you’d break that chip off immediately, but you can only take a small thin shaving if you have it closer than that. So that less than 16th is good. You need a perfect fit between the two, so that the shavings can’t get in there. If one shaving gets in, it will lever that cap up and the next one will get in and your tool will have a big fuzzy line across it and you’ll have to take it apart. Occasionally that happens anyway. It’s quite easy to fix. Here’s the screw that hold the two together. As long as you don’t twist hard, if your screw is at all jammed, use a screwdriver, you could break this thin casting. But if it’s only moderately tight, as it should be, you can loosen it up with that. This is not hard steel. Work with a file can true up this edge, to make sure that when they go together, you’ll get a perfect fit between the two and that’s very important to the way your plane works. If you’re buying a second hand tool, take it apart and look at the condition of the surface of the steel on the flat side. It doesn’t matter how rusty the beveled side is. But the flat side, if it’s rusty and pitted, it will always appear on the edge of your tool as you sharpen it. Unless you can take it to a grinding stone, a diamond stone, some surfacing lapping compound and someway restore the almost perfect sheen on the flat side of your tool, you cannot get a good edge on it. So you might reject a blade that has a lot of pits in it, but perhaps not reject the plane because you can buy replacement blades quite easily from any of the good tool purveyors. The frog is the casting that supports the blade and carries the adjuster and the sideways adjuster for the blade which works in this slot. This one has a fine adjustment screw in the back of it. Some planes do not have that fine plane adjusting screw and to move that, you need to slack up the two nuts in the oval holes and move your throat casting… Your frog back and forth, which varies the amount of the throat opening. The slot where the shavings come up. The smaller that opening is, by moving the frog forward, the less you will tear up cross grain woods and the further back it is, the faster you can cut, take big shavings in soft wood. In reality, I get it the way I like it for average work and I have never ever adjusted a frog, once I got it where I wanted it. So it is not at all necessary, in my view, to have a fine adjustment down here. You can just get it where you want it, lock it and you’ll never have to move it again. To put it back together again, it’s best to assemble it this way and then slide it into place, rather than take a nice sharp edge and run that steel against the steel and dull it up that way. So put it on this way, slide it up until it’s a little less than a 16th from the edge and tighten your screw by hand just a bit more. It doesn’t take much to keep it from moving and work. Drop it in place over the adjustment and shake it back and forth until you know that your sideways adjuster is well engaged. Pop on the lever cap and you should have this screw so that it’s loose enough you can move with your fingernail. Sometimes it does get out of adjustment and if it’s too tight… Let’s see, let’s tighten that right up. Just give that a half a turn and that’s pretty tight. Now I can still make my sideways adjuster move, but I always feel badly for the plane when I work the adjustment that makes the blade go in and I’m dragging that blade along at the expense of wearing out the threads on that adjuster. So, whatever does the job and no more. I loosened that up a little bit, so it’s fairly light. I can actually move that by hand now, but it will not move under working conditions. So, look at a strong light, adjust that blade so its exposure is very even and then back it up. And the best thing to do is come at your piece of wood and take a light shaving and slowly increase it until you get what you want. One more thing, get in the habit of laying the plane on its side, not down this way and then you can go out and do work on the sidewalk and lay your plane down without hurting the blade. You never have to worry whether there’s a screw or a nail on the surface you’re working with. This is a Stanley smooth plane and this is a much less expensive hardware store plane. This was bought on sale for $5.99 and that should put a red flag up to you, if you’re looking for quality right away. There is a certain niceness and ruggedness about the blister pack, but that’s about it. Throw that out of the way. The planes you see, really look almost identical. You might pick up a slight difference in the finish on the handles and stuff. But whereas this old Stanley, is a fine plane and it’s been owned by many people before me and it will go on for generations after me. This has never been used and it never will be used, because it’s so poorly made. I can show you right away, that the way the lever works to hold the iron in place, it’s almost impossible to get in and out. If I loosen this screw enough so that I can work it down and then finally work it into place, it just falls right apart again. So the cam under that lever is so poorly made, that it can’t lock the mechanism together. This screw, for instance, should have a counter sunk head on the bottom of it, so that it can fit into a slight counter sink in this part, but the main issue is the cam is not correctly made. Plus, if I could hold it together this way and tried to adjust it… it’s a lovely brass knob. But I can only adjust it so far and it jams up, it won’t move any more. And if I was able to make this tight, where it belongs, I can’t even make the blade protrude through the bottom of it because they have machined this slot poorly or made the little stud too big, that pushes the blade back and forth, so that it cannot possibly work. Also, the chip breaking cap iron, which should have a beautiful close fit to the blade, so that as the finest shaving comes up, it hits that and bends off and breaks. It has an open… I can get my fingernail under this corner of it, it’s a poor fit and this faux antique finish that they have put on, adds roughness exactly where you want smoothness on the end. There’s a little straight wall here, which will surely catch shavings if they were to come up and jam. So it astounds me that this kind of thing ever gets onto the shelves of a store and I feel sorry for the person who made it. It can’t be a very rewarding career to be apt to make something like that. So, put that aside and spend some money on an old tool if you want, or you can spend $200, maybe $225 on a lovely Lie-Nielsen or Lee Valley plane and I don’t think that’s too expensive. I think that if these lovely old Stanleys had been kept in the same quality that they are and over the years, had inflated in price along with our currency, we would be paying that much for the Stanley. So, $200 for a lifetime tool or more than a lifetime tool, is not all that expensive.



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