Thoughts on planes from a newbie


I've been on-and-off working with tools of different caliber for most of my adult life. I used to consider myself an amateur carpenter, and had to learn mostly by doing when I was building a recording studio. Dad taught me quite a few little things but I had to learn most of it by trial and error. Acoustics and electronics were part of the deal, so I had to go through the engineering route to learn all of that.
Now that I am (slightly) older, I no longer consider myself an amateur carpenter, but a novice woodworker. I no longer feel that simply fastening wood together using metal, then slathering on some kind of varnish is sufficient. I have decided to "learn by doing", building jigs and fixtures and shop stuff first. The latest project is an old-style workbench (heavy) using wedged mortise-tenon joinery, face-glued, doweled laminated wood for both the base and the top etc.
I had a plane years ago. It was a cheapo Stanley. I'm not sure which number it was, and I am also pretty sure that I had no idea how to set it up, and as a result, it did very little other than put all kinds of gouges into the door-edges I was trying to fix. I don't know what happened to it. Now, years later, I bought another Stanley. This one has some strange new designation but it's really a number 4. It doesn't have all the parts of a real "Bailey" version. My assumption is that it is made for very occasional use, and not for any serious finishing work. After studying as much information as I could possibly find on handplaning, I realized that it was an art in itself, requiring something like the dedication of a musician (which I am).
Of course, out of the box, it was worse than useless. It was a device that had one purpose, to ruin wood surfaces. I learned to sharpen it first. I discovered the Scary Sharp method and fiddled with it for a while until I could consistently shave arm-hairs off. I have even figured out how to impart a slight camber to the blade corners, which is useful. Putting a sharply honed blade into this plane only made it a more efficient ruiner of wood however, so it was back to the drawing board.
I realized that the plane was capable of taking a full shaving on a 3/4 edge so I tried jointing an edge of a small board. With the depth of cut set nice and thin, and the lateral adjust used to even out the blade, it will make a lovely smooth 3/4" edge, but it was causing a curve to be imparted on the wood. I placed the sole on a tablesaw table and shone a light behind it. It was so cupped that I think I might have even been able to slip some thin paper under there.
So the next job was tough, flattening the sole. After quite a bit of working out with plate glass and rough sandpaper (and quite a few paper changes) I had a pretty nice flat lapped sole to deal with. Now the plane would smooth a 3/4" edge nicely. I tried a face. It was awful! Gouges, chattering, skittering, everything that it did before, it did again.
I removed the frog and discovered that the races on both frog and plane body were covered with the same paint that covers the rest of the plane. this was unacceptable so out came the hand file and lots of filing to grind them to a flat iron surface. Actually I was never able to get it to be "really" precise fit, but it ended up better than it was. I am frankly not sure if I can do it with a hand file. Maybe there is some better way of doing it that I don't know about.
This made it possible to move the frog forward, closing the mouth a bit, and I think it also cut down on vibrations and frog-slop. Now I can (sorta) make a 1.5" edge smooth with this plane. I fear that I will never be able to smooth a face with it though. I may try more cambered edges and see it that gets it to stop skipping.
Not willing to believe that it was all a "technique" issue, I began to fall victim to the "buy more planes" disease. I bought an ancient 24" Fulton transitional jointer. Even with no fettling whatsoever it worked better than the new Stanley, but it was still pretty rough. I sharpened the blade, did the best I could to get the floppy cap-iron mated to the iron, and flattened the sole. I tried to move the frog forward but that was a skipping nightmare due to the unsupported iron. I think this plane is going to have to be used for edges too, or rough stuff, unless I can figure out how to close the mouth, maybe gluing in a piece of wood against the mouth now would do it, but I am not conviced that this plane is worth the trouble. It still works better than the new Stanley though, and joints a fine edge on a long board, although I think I will make a bolt-on fence for it.
So, at that point I was beginning to think that I would never have an easy time of hand-planing. I bought a flea-market Stanley #5, from the 60s I think. Big difference! all I had to do was sharpen the iron and zwick! zwick! zwick! fluffy shavings and smooth face on both pine and ash wood. The feel of it was much smoother than the other two planes, leading me to this: Aha! Not all planes are created equal....
At this point I might have stopped there but I had a suspicion that I still needed to go further into planedom. I decided that I wanted to buy something that was going to show me what a real plane can do, without me having to figure out how to set it up just right. This way, I can learn just what to expect from a good plane. I bought a Lee Valley low-angle block plane.
I was impressed from the start. The delivery arrived on Saturday via Fedex (wow!) and when I unpacked the plane and looked it over, I recognized the look of a finely constructed machine. (I may be a plane-newbie but I have a good eye for this kind of thing) I was also taken by the non-Bailey design. It made more sense to me somehow. I expect however that if I had bought a Lie-Neilsen, which is a Bailey type, I would have been equally impressed too.
It needed honing, but not much, in order to shave arm-hairs off. This took all of a few minutes. I then followed the directions on setting the plane up and tried my first shaving.
Wow!
All I can say is: It is true that a good plane that is set up properly and sharpened correctly will go through the wood with minimal effort and leave a surface that is much nicer than even very fine sandpaper. My experiment revealed this to me:
You need to know about all of the workings of the plane as machine in order to use it properly. All of those workings must be in the best possible condition. All engineered machines have a theoretical "best state" which we try to achieve by tweaking and adjusting. some require almost no tweaking to reach full potential. Some may never get there, even after many hours. I now firmly believe that I can get good results with a "Made in USA" Stanley (even post WWII) after some time spent fixing it up. I also believe that some more modern technology, such as thicker plane irons of A2, or possibly a design which does not need a cap-iron (maybe a Knight smoother with be my next plane), may help to reduce flexing and vibration, leading to even better results.
I am still a beginner in this and am curious as to how this story is recieved by some of the experienced plane people here.
Also, I wrote this long story in the hopes that other frustrated plane newbies might benefit from the related experience.
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Andrew Williams wrote: (much snipage)

Thanks for sharing! I'm very impressed with your "I can do it" attitude, and your determination to just try it until it works. I'd guess, for that reason, that your story will be well-received here. It seems like a lot of people post simplistic questions before they try anything at all, including a basic google search. I could definitely identify with your story. I consider myself a plane newbie also. I started with an old, but not old enough to be nice, maybe-craftsman-or-maybe-generic block plane. Before I really knew how to fettle it much at all, it was total junk. I too knew there was more to plane-dom, and started right out with a Steve Knight razee jack - now that's a great plane. Still probably the best I own. I've since gotten slightly more adept at fettling, and aquired a Knight pocket plane, LV shoulder plane, and a 1931-1932 Stanley #4 smoother from an auction. With an LV blade and LN chipbreaker, and a bunch of sanding and lapping, that old stanley is pretty nice, but I think I'm still most impressed with the sheer solid-ness of the Knight woodies' 1/4" blades and adjustable mouths. The old junky block plane has gotten slightly better with fettling, but as you mentioned, I can just tell it's not a real quality insturment. The LV LABP is next on my list... Looking forward to it... Thanks again, keep it up, and welcome to the slippery slope, Andy
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Andrew Williams wrote: ...

Depending on what type of wood(s) you're using, you may want to investigate the use of scrapers and scraper planes for surfacing.
I, as did another responder, commend you for taking the time and effort to investigate and learn what you could. If you haven't found it, there was an excellent article in FWW not _too_ long ago on tuning handplanes of the Stanley/Bailey varieties.
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