In order to make a living with woodworking, I find there has to be a compromise between power tools and elbow grease, and I'll be the first to admit that I couldn't survive without power tools. Saying that, if there's one thing that power tools haven't been able to match, it's the fine control of basic edge tools in skilled hands. The bench hand plane, for example, is certainly a tool that will be practically impossible to replace; although electric hand planes make life easier, you'll never beat the crispness and fine control of a well-tuned hand plane.
There used to be a fair few manufacturers of planes, but Stanley was always the most prolific maker of the mass-produced metalbodied plane. As well as its eight basic lengths of bench planes (see table p91), Stanley turned out all manner of weird and wonderful types. This range has diminished, but we still regard Stanley as having been crucial to the woodworking world. Their spirit, however, lives on in the new quality planes from Clifton, Lie Nielsen and Veritas.
Step 1: Choosing a Plane: the Jack Plane
As its name suggests, it's a Jack of all trades and suited to a wide range of tasks: it can be used for some straightening, initial preparation, and final finishing work.
The No.5 1⁄2 differs from the No.5 in having an iron that's heavier and wider by 3⁄8in, and in my opinion that extra width makes all the difference. For one thing, it means it will sit on the work better when cleaning up a planked tabletop. Meanwhile, the No.5 could be seen as the better option for initial flattening of stock prior to truing up with a longer plane: it weighs less, and so requires less effort to drive it.
Step 2: The Smoother
Step 3: The Longer Planes
The No.7 and No.8, meanwhile, are try or jointer planes, though I tend to refer to the No.7 as the try and the No.8 as the jointer. Both planes are designed for truing up edges and bringing together two meeting surfaces, such as clapper board tabletops that are then simply glued and rubbed to form the top. They're also used for flattening a board on the face, so rails, legs and other fl at stock can be trued up quickly and accurately. In the case of a jointed tabletop, for instance, the jack can be used to take out any high spots and irregularities after glue up, before moving onto the jointer to give it true flatness. Then the smoother, set very finely, can be employed to make a final pass and remove any marks left by the jointer.
Whether you choose to use a No.7 or No.8 is largely a question of personal preference. The No.8 is a beast of a plane, and requires more effort than the No.7, but its extra mass means that it can power through knots and hard spots once it gets going.
The irons on the newer top-end planes from Clifton, Lie Nielsen and Veritas are superb. They take and hold an excellent edge and need minimal work to achieve razor-like sharpness. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the irons in modern mass-produced planes, the quality of whose steel means that while they can be honed to a sharpness that's sufficient for softwood and some hardwoods, their edge retention is poor. They may also need a lot more work to get them fl at on the back.
You can see the difference between a standard iron and a thicker Clifton replacement.
For the smoother and the jointer, the iron is usually kept either square with the corners eased, or with a very shallow curve, so that it doesn't leave a pronounced scallop that only leads to more work. I prefer a very slightly rounded profile, as this feathers the shavings on the edges when set for a full-width cut, though the effect is almost unnoticeable.
Step 8: The Cap Iron
When adjusting the cap iron, remember that the amount of backset will affect the cut: the further back from the edge of the cutting iron, the coarser the cut.
Step 9: Better Cutting
The alternative is to opt for a bevel-up plane from, say, Lie Nielsen and Veritas. To all intents and purposes these are oversized block planes and have irons ground at different pitches. They're very effective, especially when you have the option of an adjustable mouth.
Step 10: The Frog
The trick, then, is to remove the frog and check the meeting surfaces to ensure that they're not being held apart by the odd glob of enamel or an area of rough casting; scraping and light filing should be enough to rectify these problems. Sadly, modern mass-produced planes aren't as well-engineered as the older ones, whose larger bearing surfaces and superior machining produced better performing planes.
The face of the frog should be checked with a small straight edge which will indicate if there are any high spots that need to be relieved with a fine flat file. When refitting the frog, it's important that the frog is seated in a position that's not so far back as to prevent the irons bedding properly. You should fit the irons, then, and check how the frog sits in relation to the mouth of the plane.
Shunting the frog forwards closes the mouth down so the finish and shavings are finer, but if it's too far forwards the end of the iron can lack support and become prone to chatter; thicker irons don't suffer from this problem so much. Although the frog is there to be used, it's very unusual that I'll alter it once I've set it. This is mainly because the standard Bailey pattern planes need to be partly stripped in order to make adjustments, though if I were using a Bedrock style plane, whose design allows frog adjustments to be made with the plane assembled, I'd be more far more inclined to make alterations.
Step 11: The Lever Cap
The face of the frog can be sweetened up with fine flat file.
Step 12: The Grip
The whole frog assembly moves as one by adjusting this small wheel on the Veritas frog
TIP: For general planing, pressure should be applied at the front of the plane at the start of a cut, using the rear hand to steer it. Only towards the end of the cut, apply pressure to the rear and ease off the front; doing the reverse can result in the plane making the jointed edge slightly convex. Get into a rhythm, and walk through the cut so it's flowing with an even pressure throughout. Transferring the weight through the plane as the cut starts and finishes should help achieve consistent results.
Step 14: Saving Soles
I don't sit in the 'check for flat and fettle' camp, and see little point in unnecessary labour. I prefer to try a plane first and only do work if it doesn't perform. The thing to remember is that a plane doesn't necessarily need to be entirely flat. The crucial registration points are the front and rear of the sole, and just in front and behind the mouth; if these are in the same plane and have no twist, you can discount any slight hollows. For general carpentry, joinery and some furniture-making, then, the standard bench planes should hopefully be good enough to perform at the levels required.
It's only when I've exhausted the easier tuning methods and still find that a plane won't take a uniform shaving that I will delve deeper. It is possible, for example, that a plane that started its life true can move over time, as cast iron is prone to distortion (This is part of the reason, by the way, why cast iron was traditionally left to settle before final machining). Before you commit to surgery, however, you should be sure that you understand the mechanics of planing, and that it's the plane and not you that needs the work.
If you do need to resort to flattening your plane then, put engineer's blue or a series of cross-hatched lines made with a permanent marker on the sole, and pass the plane over a piece of abrasive on a dead fl at surface to reveal the hollows and high spots. A suitable surface can be made from a thick piece of fl oat glass stuck to a stable surface like MDF. A 19mm MDF backer, for instance, with 6mm glass on top is the minimum, but 10 or 12mm glass is much better if you can get it. You can also use the bed of a saw or planer, but again, this needs to be checked for true or you'll simply introduce more problems.
It's important that the frog, cap iron assembly (with the blade retracted) and lever cap remain in place during this process as they affect the tension of the casting. If they're removed during lapping, the casting may change shape, which will defeat the object of the whole exercise.
To lap the sole, you can use standard abrasives stuck down with spray adhesive, though engine valve grinding paste will do a similar job. Be warned though, this can cut very quickly, so don't be overly enthusiastic on the initial lapping when using a coarser grit! A light touch and running through the grits is all that's required when lapping. Shorter planes should be held over the frog as holding the knob and tote can lead to a slight increase in pressure at the front and rear of the tool and the removal of a fraction more metal.
If the sole is really bad, it may need surface grinding at an engineering shop, but care is needed not to remove too much meat as this will open up the mouth and the finer frog settings will be lost.
Step 17: The Last Word
Hopefully, though, these tuning tips, when combined with a little elbow grease, of course will allow you to turn even a moderately effective modern plane into a polished performer.