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
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
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.
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.