Sole Discretion

The topic of plane soles – as in smooth vs. corrugated soles – is one that often evokes impassioned opinions. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to crop on woodworking fora as often as other touchy subjects – like, say, sharpening or SawStops. Many users have no preference one way or another, but those who have formed a opinion typically view corrugated soles with a level of contempt normally reserved for laser-guided handsaws.

Paul Sellers has made his opinion known:

…corrugated soles grab shavings, especially super-thin ones that cling to the grooves of corrugated soles. Even flat soled planes do this. The problem inherent to corrugated soles is the grab and mush up in the grooves and on subsequent forward thrusts, damage the surface you are supposed to be smoothing. No craftsman I ever knew favoured these planes…It also damages corners and edges of wood when you start to plane angles such as chamfers or form bullnoses to things such as box lids, window sills and stair treads.

Yikes. Sounds like something I’d like to avoid. So what’s the point of the corrugations in the first place? Paul addresses that as well:

The corrugated sole was produced in Bailey pattern planes for a period with the intention of reducing the surface area of the sole to further reduce the friction of the plane on the surface being planed. Indeed it does do that…

Paul is actually kinder to corrugated planes than some other authors, who opine that corrugated soles do nothing to reduce friction, making them worse than useless. Well, I have been using the three planes pictured below for the past several years, so in the name of good fun, I would like to offer my contradictory assessment:

From top to bottom: Craftsman No. 5, corrugated; Stanley No. 6, smooth; and Stanley No. 7, corrugated.

Aside from the Stanley No. 4’s that you see peeking into the upper right corner of the photo, these three planes chew up the bulk of the shavings that are produced in my woodshop, and they have done so for quite some time. The No.7 is my most recent acquisition (from 5 years ago), while the No. 5 is my oldest companion (the first decent hand plane I ever owned, from 10 years ago).

So without further ado, here are a few unfiltered observations about the performance of these tools, with regards to the sole:

  • The corrugations do indeed drastically reduce the friction; I can easily use the No. 5 and the No. 7 without wax, whereas the No. 6 is nearly impossible to push once the wax wears off.
  • I don’t necessarily view the additional friction of the smooth sole as a bad thing. It’s just a gentle reminder to wax your stupid planes.
  • I rarely/never have an issue with shavings clinging to the corrugated soles. This is very likely related to the fact that I rarely/never make “super thin” shavings with my corrugated planes. The No. 5 is set up as a fore plane; it has a strongly cambered blade for hogging off meaty shavings, often cross-grained. The No. 7 is used almost exclusively as a jointer, for truing up edges; the blade is sharpened straight across, and it takes substantial shavings that curl up into neat, tight spirals. There’s simply nothing to get caught in the corrugations. None of my smoothing planes have corrugated soles, but I can certainly see how this might be an issue with their tissue-thin shavings.
  • Finally, I’ve never had much of problem with the corrugations damaging chamfers or bullnoses. For one thing, I would never use my jointer for this task (no use pushing more weight than necessary). And secondly, if I do use my fore plane (AKA No. 5), it’s only to hog off the bulk of the waste; I would inevitably follow with the smoothing plane set to a finer cut to tune up the edges.

In summation: Corrugated planes are fine for most situations. I think they’re particularly well-suited to jack planes/fore planes that take the coarsest shavings and can benefit from a little friction reduction. I would personally prefer a smooth sole for smoothing planes, but if I found a great deal on a corrugated No. 4, I certainly wouldn’t pass it up. For try plane/jointer planes, I don’t think it makes a nickel’s worth of difference either way. Just be aware that with the more massive smooth-soled planes, you’ll definitely need to keep the sole well-waxed, which is frankly a habit that you should get into anyway.


Repairing a Stanley Plane Handle

Today, I eschew my usual verbosity in favor of a pictorial:

Stanley Handle 053
A plane handle in sore need of repair.
Stanley Handle 055
The horn must be repaired in two spots. I flatten the first break with a sharp, wide chisel and select a rosewood scrap for the repair.
Stanley Handle 056
Superglue is my glue of choice for rosewood totes. It forms a strong, invisible bond, and it hardens on rosewood within 5-10 seconds. Use plenty of glue – the excess will squeeze out and you can clean it off later.
Stanley Handle 057
Saw the excess off of the patch.
Stanley Handle 058
Shape it with the chisel.
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Now to address the horn itself. Flatten as best you can with the chisel.
Stanley Handle 060
If need be, you can resort to a bit of sanding to flatten the break. Place some 180-grit on a flat surface, and carefully rub down until you get a clean, flat glue surface. Careful not to tip the the handle at all, or your surface will be less than flat.
Stanley Handle 061
More glue. More rosewood scrap.
Stanley Handle 062
Sketch out the shape of the horn, then saw away the excess.
Stanley Handle 065
A carving knife, a chisel, and a rasp shape the patch so that it blends smoothly with the original wood. You can see that my patch covered the old nut-hole. I’ll open that back up with a small drill bit and a rat-tail rasp.
Stanley Handle 066
A bit of sanding blends everything together and removes the old finish. Now, the lower break must be addressed.
Stanley Handle 067
This was a relatively clean break, so I simply glued it back in place after a firm cleaning with a wire brush on both surfaces. Any gaps at the edges can be filled with additional superglue and sanding dust.
Stanley Handle 069
The lower repair is invisible after sanding.
Stanley Handle 070
Finally, the whole tote gets sanded to 220-grit and oiled. When it dries, I’ll follow this up with a coat of shellac, which I’ll buff out to a nice polish.

Good to go for another century or so. Total elapsed time from start to finish? 30 minutes. Don’t be afraid of the broken totes, folks.

A few notes on the choice of glue for these repairs: I usually see people recommending epoxy for rosewood handle patches. I dislike epoxy for this purpose for two reasons: The slow setting time means that you must clamp the patch somehow, which is always awkward and prone to shift. Cyanoacrylate (superglue) sets up so fast that you can simply hold the piece in position until it hardens. Secondly, epoxy is basically impossible to remove, so if the repair ever fails, it’ll be more difficult than necessary to fix. Cyanoacrylate dissolves in acetone, so it is easily removable. Regarding the strength of superglue? In my opinion, the roughest handling this tote should ever face will be during the cutting, rasping, and sanding of the patches. If the glue holds up to that treatment, it should certainly hold up to normal use. I’ve had a Stanley No.4 with a repaired handle in constant use for the last decade with no signs of problems, so I’m quite confident in the longevity of this repair.

I Can Explain…

Last Friday, I posted a thoughtful essay on the adverse psychological effects of owning unnecessary accouterments. Then on Sunday, I drained my bank account to buy thousands of dollars worth of tools that I do not need.

Okay, so I’m a giant hypocrite. But I can explain, sort of. A woodworker friend has recently retired and transitioned into full-time RVing. Since he no longer has a shop, he is selling his extensive collection of premium tools – Lie-Nielsen, Blue Spruce, Veritas, Caleb James, Czech Edge, and many more – not to mention a huge assortment of books and videos. He wanted to sell the Lie-Nielsen planes as a single lot, to avoid hours of picture-taking, listing, emailing back and forth, fielding questions and offers, packaging, and shipping. I don’t blame him. And there is no woodworking tool that is more unwieldy to pack and ship than a plane. I’ve been there, and it’s a lot of work.

My immediate reaction should have been to back away slowly. But instead, I was intrigued. I’ve always been a bit of a cheapskate. Usually I piece together the tools I need as inexpensively as possible, through fleabay finds and antique store bargains and my own handiwork. I’ve never been one to shy away from rust or repairs, as long as the tool is solid. I had never even seen a Lie-Nielsen plane in person until I visited their manufacturing facility/storefront in Maine in 2014. So I thought to myself, “Self, wouldn’t it be nice to pick up a few of the planes that I’ve always coveted at a decent price? I’ll just sell the rest. It’s not like these planes will require hours of rehab like most of the tools I’ve sold in the past. It should be easy!” So against my better judgment, I made an offer.

I think I was halfway through photographing the planes when the enormity of the task fully sank in. And with that, the first twinge of buyer’s remorse bubbled into my consciousness. Well, what’s done is done. I am the proud temporary owner of a sprawling fleet of bronze, iron, and cherry.

More than being embarrassed at my hypocrisy, am reluctant to turn my blog into a commercial venture. But since it may be of interest to some of my readers, please feel free to visit the “Tools For Sale” tab at the top of the page. Bevel-up bench planes are currently listed. Much more to add in the following weeks.

By the Seat of My Chair

On Sunday, I got started on the seat for the Windsor Chair. I selected a 24″-wide poplar plank, 2″ thick. I needed every bit of the width, because there were some cracks on one side that I was just barely able to avoid and still get a 17″-wide seat blank. Unfortunately, this means that the grain won’t be centered, but at least I can avoid a glue-up.

Poplar Windsor Seat (1)

After sawing out the blank with the jigsaw, I took it to the bench to be flattened. I started out with my jack plane with a cambered iron, working across the grain to take out the cup. The poplar planes easily across the grain.

Poplar Windsor Seat (2)

Then I true it up with a short jointer (Stanley No. 6) working along the grain. Poplar is much tougher to plane with the grain than across.

Poplar Windsor Seat (5)

Once one side is flat and true, I use a marking gauge to mark a consistent depth of 1-13/16″ thickness all around the blank.

Poplar Windsor Seat (4)

Now, I just have to plane down to the gauge line, and I’ll have a true and consistently-thick seat blank. There are lots of complicated mortises to mark out and drill, so starting with a trued-up seat helps with the accuracy.

I start by using my pattern to establish the mortise locations. Each hole gets a nail, which will provide an unambiguous starting point for the auger bits.

Poplar Windsor Seat (8)

Here’s where it gets…tricky. I have to mark out the sightlines for each and every mortise in the seat. The sightline is basically just the direction that each piece that joins the seat is angled. I can’t tell you how many erasers I chewed up trying to get these things right. Four legs, two posts, and seven spindles will all be mortised into this seat, and all of them have unique sightlines that must be precisely laid out. I brought the blank into the kitchen and enjoyed a cold brew while I puzzled it out. No use rushing this part.

Poplar Windsor Seat (9)

Finally, it was time to start drilling. I used a 5/8″ auger bit for the legs. The bevel gauge must be set up perfectly parallel to the sightline. Every few turns, I stopped to make sure I was drilling at the proper angle.

Poplar Windsor Seat (10)

You can see here that I’m a bit off. I need to raise the brace just a bit to get to the proper angle. Once you’re halfway through, the angle had better be right, because there’s not much you can do to correct it at that point. Any slight imperfections can be adjusted when I ream the holes.

Poplar Windsor Seat (11)

Each pair of mortises requires a different angle. I used this angle gauge to set my bevel gauge, and the bevel gauge to align the brace and bit.

Poplar Windsor Seat (13)

The legs and the posts get through-mortises, but the spindles only go 1″ deep. I used my burnisher with a bit of tape wrapped around it as a depth gauge. I aim for 1″ on the shallow side; since the holes are angled, the backside will be a bit deeper.

Poplar Windsor Seat (15)

The work actually goes pretty quickly. Most people don’t realize how efficient a sharp auger bit is at boring through wood. Most of the time is spent setting the gauge and checking your progress. Soon, all of the mortises were drilled. Now the seat is ready to carve.

Poplar Windsor Seat (14)



Kitchen Table: Nearly Finished.

Last night I resolved to get the kitchen table out of my shop as soon as possible. I forget how unwieldy a 4′ x 4′ panel can be in a small shop like mine. Glad I don’t work with plywood in there. The last of the glue joints still needed to be leveled, and there isn’t a single surface anywhere in my shop (or home, for that matter) large enough to support a panel this size aside from the floor. So the floor is where I ended up – on my hands and knees with a jack plane and my smoother. It reminded me of the first furniture project I ever tackled – a cherry and maple coffee table. I sanded the fool out of that tabletop for hours on the floor of the side porch at my parents’ house. My knees regretted it for a week, so the second piece of furniture I built was my workbench (which now resides in my Dad’s shop).

table 001
Working on the floor. Just like old times.

This time it wasn’t so bad, though. It only took 5 minutes of work and the planing was done. If you’ve never used a well-tuned plane, it’s hard to imagine how much more efficient it is at leveling glue joints than a sander.

Next task was to lay out the circle. I didn’t have a paint can big enough so I grabbed an offcut from the scrap pile and rigged up a trammel with a nail, a pencil, and a small wedge. It took two minutes and worked perfectly, so I still feel no need to own a proper trammel.

table 006
Not every tool has to be built to last.

I cut out the circle with my jigsaw. Hope you didn’t think I was a complete Neanderthal. I have nothing against power tools – most of them have their proper place. I only get annoyed when I see power tools being inefficiently or as a substitute for basic skills. I do prefer to use hand tools when possible – they’re quieter and less dusty and they require actual exercise – so when a process can be done equally well with hand tools, that will always be my first choice. In this case, a jigsaw is the right tool for the job.

table 003
Notice the offcut is supported only by the 1/4″ glue joint at the top of the photo. That’s a good glue joint. Just sayin’.

I smoothed the edges with a spokeshave and some 180-grit sandpaper and propped it up on the legs to see how she looked. Not bad!

table 009

One of the shortcomings of the design for the base is that, unlike vertical legs, these legs will always be under tensile stress. Wood is far stronger under compression than tension. To help alleviate some of the stress, I decided it would be wise to affix the legs to the underside of the top to prevent them from bending.

I did this by boring a 1/2″ hole in the top of each leg and 3 matching holes in the underside of the top. I turned some 1/2″ dowel from Osage-orange and popped a short length into each leg. Now the base is fixed when the top is in place and can’t just keep squatting towards the floor as weight is applied.

table 007

All that’s left to do now is screw a couple of battens to the underside to hold the top flat, and put a finish on it. This grain is going to pop when I put the first coat of oil on – I can’t wait!

table 010

Gluing Up a Panel Requires More Words Than I Realized

Previously, I wrote about the dead-simple half-lap joinery for the legs. The top is nothing more than a round panel, 48″ in diameter. Easy enough, but I have a small shop, and the workbench is only two feet wide and integral to the wall. To make things easier, I started by gluing up two 24″ wide panels, each from three individual boards. I finish-planed both halves prior to the final glue-up. That’s a lot of edge joints, but if all goes well, I’ll just have a bit of cleanup right in the middle of the panel.

Gluing up a panel is one of the most basic skills in woodworking, but it’s also one that takes a fair amount of time and frustration to master. It doesn’t help that there’s metric buttload of nonsense on this topic that for some reason gets repeated ad nauseam by people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. I’ve fallen prey to pretty much every hare-brained theory at one point or another, so let’s get started by clearing the air:

  • You don’t need biscuits/dowels/Dominoes or any other silly crutches to make an edge joint that will outlast you.
  • It doesn’t matter how many Bessey bar clamps you own. Clamping pressure will not overcome a poorly executed joint.
  • Wide boards are not inherently prone to warping. Just make your lumber is dry and don’t do stupid things that are bound to cause problems, like leaving it out in the sun or laying on the wet grass.
  • You don’t need to alternate the direction of growth rings to prevent a wide panel from warping.
  • You don’t need to cut apart a wide boards so they can be flattened with your jointer and planer. You do need to learn how to use a hand plane.
Legend has it, the ghost of George Nakashima will butterfly your buttcheeks together while you sleep if you cut apart wide boards so they’ll fit your jointer and planer.

Okay, now that the unpleasant bits are out of the way, lets talk about what you really need to know to make a satisfying edge joint. First, forget about grain direction. I mean, not entirely. You still have to plane boards the right way. But since hand planes are still the ultimate tool for flattening and surfacing a wide board or panel, it’s trivial to turn the board around (or the tool – Western planes can be pulled quite nicely) to plane in the appropriate direction.

Just find a way to orient the boards so that the resulting panel is aesthetically pleasing. That usually means trying to match up the grain for a seamless joint. Or it may mean bookmatching consecutive boards, which creates a pleasant symmetry, but will always result in a panel with the grain going different directions (unless the grain is perfectly straight).

Now let’s discuss the tool you need to cut these joints. You need a jointer plane. Usually 22-24″ long, but most importantly with a well and truly flat sole. I struggled with a number of vintage planes over the years. At first, all I had was a Stanley No. 4 and a Craftsman No. 5. The 5 can do a short edge joint just fine, but not if the blade is cambered like it should be (if you’re using it primarily as a jack plane for rough surfacing). I was short on cash, so bit by bit I added tools to try to address this obvious shortcoming.

First I tried a cheap wooden jointer. The price was right, but the mouth was rank and the sole wasn’t flat. I inlaid a patch for the mouth and did a neat job of it, but unfortunately, I didn’t have a way to flatten the sole. Eventually I sold that plane and bought a Stanley No. 6. The 6 is one of my favorite planes. It’s always on my bench and it follows my 5 for face-planing. Unfortunately, the sole has a belly of a couple or a few thousandths (I haven’t measured it, I just know that it always planes a slightly concave surface). I finally realized my need for a real jointer and bought a Stanley No. 7. It was a beautiful plane. But it wasn’t flat. Not perfectly, anyway. So I bought another Stanley No. 7. And a Stanley No. 8. And a Millers Falls No. 22 (same size as a Stanley No. 7). All of them were lovely planes, and I spent a good bit of time fixing them up and sharpening the irons and tuning the chipbreakers. None of them were flat. And none of them could cut a seamless edge joint.

I really should have just bought a Veritas or Lie-Nielsen jointer from the beginning. No, they’re not cheap, but it would have saved me so much time and effort on all of those old planes. If there’s one thing that I learned from my experience, it’s this: You cannot cut a a perfect joint with a non-perfect plane. Yeah, you can get close, and I built a lot of furniture with joints that wouldn’t have closed without the help of clamps. They were close and I’m sure they will last, but I’m not happy about it. I was never happy about it.

Finally, I ended up with a vintage Stanley No. 7 that was precision-ground with a surface grinder. It’s as flat as any of my straightedges. I bought it from a old fellow at the Woodnet forums who goes by the handle “Tablesaw Tom”. I don’t know if he still hangs out over there – I haven’t been around there for a year or more. But his work is well-regarded, and for good reason.

The precision-ground No. 7 was a revelation. No more measuring, planing, re-measuring, re-planing, re-re-measuring, cursing under breath, re-re-planing, cursing out loud, throwing tools and clubbing baby seals to quell my frustration. A flat plane cuts a flat joint. The point is this: Buy the right damn plane from the beginning. Your jointer plane is absolutely one of the most important tools in your chest. It is more important that your smoothing plane and your dovetail saw and your marking gauge put together and multiplied by π. Please, I beseech you. Learn from my mistakes and not your own. Buy a good jointer plane.

Alright. You have a good jointer plane. It’s long. It’s flat. The iron is honed straight across What else? You need a try square. A straightedge. Some winding sticks. That should pretty much do it. You’re done when the try square, the straightedge, and the winding sticks all agree that it’s done.

A few tips on how I get to “done”:

    • I always clamp the two boards to be edge-glued together and plane them as a pair. It’s not hard to do, and it has a few benefits: The extra width makes it easier to hold the plane squarely on the joint. It also makes it easier to see when your joint is out of square. The most oft-repeated benefit is that, if your joint is not square, the errors will cancel each other out and you’ll still end up with a flat panel. I shoot for square anyway.
    • Set the plane to take a very fine shaving when dialing in a long joint. Almost like a smoothing plane. So it doesn’t take forever, I use my No. 6 to get the edge close, taking a fairly coarse shaving, then I true it with a finely set No. 7.
Finely set jointer
Plane both boards at once, folded like a book from the position that they will be glued in. The blade is set for a fine shaving to dial in a long joint.
  • I’ve read silly things about how when your jointer takes a full-width shaving along the length of your edge, that means it’s true. It’s not true. Well, your edge might be true, but the adage is not true. It’s very easy to plane a slightly convex edge without realizing it. Probably easier than planing a perfectly straight edge. So use your straightedge to see how far you are from straight, and plane the high spots. It’s often best to intentionally plane a very slight hollow, then take a couple of full-length strokes to get it straight.
Straightedge on a straight edge.
There should be no light peeking in from under your straightedge. Also, make sure your straightedge is actually straight!
  • Same thing applies to twist. You can take a full-length shaving from an edge that twists slightly from end to end. This is where your square and winding sticks come in handy. I don’t know that I’ve ever read about someone using winding sticks for edge jointing, but I’m sure I’m not the first person to do it. It’s a bit of a belt-and-suspenders approach. If both tools agree that the edge is square and free from twist, then it probably is.
Square on Edge
Check the edge for square frequently, and in several places. If your iron is just slightly misaligned with the sole, the edge will get more and more out of square with each stroke. If you’re taking more strokes in one area to remove a high spot, that’s a recipe for creating a twisted edge.
Winding sticks amplify twist
Your winding sticks amplify inaccuracies and make any twist apparent. Since they take a moment to set up, I use my square to check the edge frequently, then set up the winding sticks only when I think I have it close.

Damn, that’s a lot of words to spill and I feel like I’ve barely even scratched the surface. This opus obviously assumes that you’re already fluent with hand tool lingo and relatively experienced at hand planing. The reason I felt the need to put it into writing is because, even though I’ve been using hand planes for 8 or 9 years, it probably took 5 years before I felt like I could reliably create a good edge joint. Hopefully this message finds its way to someone who’s facing the same struggles that I did.

tl:dr? Fine, here’s a one-paragraph summary.

1) Don’t skimp on your jointer plane. Get a good one, and consider it an investment in frustration avoidance. And 2) Don’t trust. Verify. You have measuring tools. Use them to make sure that you’re planing accurately. 3) You’re done when the boards meet so seamlessly that you feel confident the joint would hold with glue alone, no clamps.

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And one more thing. I’m sure fancy bar clamps are nice to have, but I’ve never met a single panel that couldn’t be clamped with my $2 garage sale pipe clamps. Spend your money where it counts – on the plane.