A New Life for Grandpa’s Plane
I had the extreme pleasure of interviewing Ron Hock, blade and tool maker, author of The Perfect Edge and the most widely respected authority on sharpening for Furniture & Cabinetmaking magazine. I first heard Ron Hock’s name in an article on replacement handplane blades, which I read on Christopher Schwarz’s blog nearly four years ago when I was just getting my start in handtool woodwork. My grandfather, the man who inspired my love of woodwork, left his Stanley planes to me when he passed away. The planes were in fairly good condition when I got them, but they needed a good cleaning, sharpening and tune-up before they were ready to be put back to work in my own ’shop. With Schwarz’s article on Hock blades fresh in my mind, I bought two of them, honed the new blades, tossed them in two of my grandfather’s planes and, in all honesty, took the immediate success I had with those planes for granted until several months later. The process of restoring my grandfather’s planes started me on a rabbit trail that dominated my woodworking pursuits for the next two years – buying, restoring and reselling antique tools. It was through tuning and restoring over 100 old tools that I came to really understand why I’d had such great initial success with the planes whose blades I’d replaced and the frustrations I had with so many of the tools that followed them in the restoration process. I began to learn the ins and outs of old handplanes. They were at their best at the turn of the century and they devolved as the industrial revolution changed the way our world operated, as the price of steel increased with World War I and II, and as general understanding about how handplanes ‘should’ work decreased with the popularisation of power tools. I think most woodworkers and toolmakers would agree on the things that make up a good handplane: a sturdy body, quality machining, enough heft so gravity can do its work, a flat sole, a properly mated frog and chipbreaker (where applicable), an appropriately sized mouth, comfortable handles and a sharp blade.
The devolution of the hand plane
By the end of World War II, and in the decades following, the major plane makers were making what Chris Schwarz has so aptly named ‘tool shaped objects’, and few people seemed to be the wiser as they continued to buy, use and cast aside these poor reflections of their mighty ancestors as their disillusionment with handtool woodwork grew. The devolution of the modern handplane was driven by a bottom line, by the desire to make as many planes as cheaply as possible. Shortcuts in the production process were constantly being adapted. Even the ‘standard’ frog angle of handplanes, 45°, did not become standard because absolute perfection had been reached, but rather, because it was a happy medium between an ideal angle of attack for shearing the grain on both hard and softwoods. Standardising the frog angle meant the production process could be further streamlined. Plane castings became increasingly slender as the price of carbon steel rose. The milling process, both in preparing mating surfaces and producing flat plane soles and blade backs became increasingly lax. Before all despair takes over, however, let me say that with a basic understanding of what makes up a good handplane and how it is meant to work, a bit of elbow grease and a sharp, quality blade, these old paperweights can be made to sing, severing your wood fibres as they never have before. The good news about the mass production of early cast-iron handplanes is that there are thousands upon thousands of them still floating around in our grandparents’ shops, in antique stores, garage sales and flea markets. That last bit about a sharp, quality blade is where Mr Hock comes in. His relationship with James Krenov led Ron to begin making blades for handmade wooden planes, which later evolved into making replacement blades for old cast-iron handplanes.
New blade, new life
Ron Hock’s plane blades offer fantastic solutions for three of the major issues that antique handplanes face. The first is chatter. Chatter is quite common in old planes due to their paper-thin blades and poorly machined parts. As the plane is pushed across the wood, especially when attempting to take a heavy shaving, the resistance of the fibres is greater than the thin blade can overcome and thus causes the blade to vibrate, or chatter, producing an uneven finish on the wood surface. The Hock blades I’ve purchased are a few thousandths of an inch thicker than those they replaced in my planes. Hock also offers chipbreakers that not only mate perfectly with their blades, they also add vital, chatter-resisting width to the plane blade.
Thick blades close up the mouth Vintage planes also often have a mouth so wide, it renders the plane less effective. The mouth of a plane should be just wider than the shaving taken. Too wide, and tear-out will occur. Too thin and shavings will get lodged in the mouth. Early planes had a fixed mouth, and it is often far too wide, especially on smoothing planes, for the plane to be effective. Later planes offer a moveable frog, but even that doesn’t always fix the problem. The added width of aftermarket blades is often an instant solution to this problem. Though some have found this added width to be problematic, closing the mouth opening entirely, a few strokes with a bastard mill file on the front of the mouth will alleviate that problem forever.
The last problem many vintage plane users encounter is a wonky blade back. Most old plane blades have blade backs that would not sit flat on a memory foam mattress – not to mention problems with pitting – if the blade has pitting near the cutting edge, forget about keeping it sharp. For a plane to be truly sharp, and to have an edge that will stand up to heavy use, the bevel and the back of the blade must come to a perfect intersection at the tip. Young handplane users struggle with this bit because they go through all the motions that should, in theory, produce a perfect edge – and indeed, their efforts certainly improve the cutting action of the plane, but they still cannot seem to get their plane to perform as it should. I myself struggled with this for a long time. I would spend hours lapping my blade backs flat, but, looking back at blades I sharpened early on, in my inexperience, I was not bringing an even polish on the back all the way to the tip of the blade where the bevel intersected. Quality aftermarket blades should come dead flat right out of the box.
Cleaning/tuning a plane
Cleaning and tuning a plane could be an article in and of itself, but there’s a difference between a well-cleaned, tuned, sharp and functional plane than a full restoration, so here are a few points that will hopefully get you on the path to success. First, the bottom of the plane needs to be flat. It doesn’t have to be perfectly flat across its whole length, but it does need to be making even contact with the wood in three vital places: at the front and back of the sole, and right in front of the mouth of the plane, ahead of the blade. If you’re not sure your plane is flat, with the plane fully assembled and the blade retracted, lap it on a strip of 220 grit sandpaper stuck to a piece of granite, plate glass or melamine. A few strokes back and forth will reveal whether the plane is ready to use at the outset or whether there are problem areas that need to be worked down. After the sole of the plane is tuned, 60 years of grit can be easily taken away with some citrus paste wax cleaner, some oven cleaner or even a few splashes of Coke and a Scotch-Brite pad. A few drips of oil on the moveable parts and a nice spritz of jojoba or camellia oil wiped on with a microfibre cloth will have the plane ready to be put back to use.
Sharpen a blade
Of course, without a sharp blade, a plane cannot work. Far be it from me to argue that this is the best sharpening method out there, but this one offers accurate, repeatable results with a minimal amount of instruction, and I like that. Woodworkers who never truly master a single sharpening method can spend thousands of dollars and many wasted hours, accruing much frustration over the course of their woodworking career buying various sharpening methods and materials thinking erroneously that they can bypass the knowledge and skill required to achieve a sharp blade. All the jigs in the world will never help you unless you have the basic understanding of what is required for a blade to be sharp and the willingness to practise and master that skill. Just like any other task in life, the more you sharpen, the more you practise a single method, the better you will get at it. Using a honing guide, a thin pocket ruler, a few strips of sandpaper and two diamond stones, I have taught a lot of woodworkers how to achieve accurate, repeatable results with five minutes of instruction. To make for even faster, more repeatable results, make yourself a jig to hold the stones in place while sharpening, and add a few stop blocks that will help you place the blade at the appropriate projection for your most used bevel angles. This can be as fancy or as easy and functional as you want. Mine has a piece of scrap from the floor affixed with a piece of double-sided tape at the proper distance to hone a 35° microbevel on my plane blades. If this is a new blade, it should have a nice, even primary bevel already ground. You can skip this step. If it’s an old blade or you’ve already mucked up your blade by sharpening it improperly, this is where you need to start.
Establish a primary bevel. This can be done with a bit of elbow grease with sandpaper and a honing guide. If the blade is badly out of shape and there is a lot of material to remove from the bevel, start with 100 grit sandpaper. Your honing guide will say how many millimetres your blade needs to project out to establish a 25° bevel. This is a good place to start. When you have an even bevel across the blade, you can move through the grits – 100-150-220-320-400. As you move up the grits, the time spent on each grit is lessened, because your whole goal is simply to remove the scratchmarks left behind by the last grit, not to change the shape of your blade at this point. When you have a nice, even bevel and have finished on the 400 grit stone, it’s time to move to your sharpening stones and add a microbevel. A good choice here is somewhere between 30 and 35°. The purpose of a microbevel is to save time and wear on your stones while sharpening, as you are removing less material at the tip of the blade.
This is where you will start for successive sharpenings – every 10 to 15 sharpenings, return to your primary bevel as described above. Position your blade in the honing guide so it will hold the blade at 30–35°. Lubricate the stone with oil or water, and present the blade in the guide to your 1,000 grit diamond stone. Water or oilstones are also perfectly acceptable choices here, just make sure you are keeping your stones flat – flattening after every 30 to 40 strokes on the stone. I like to teach beginners with diamond stones because they wear slowly, don’t dish and your blade can’t dive in on an edge and nick the stone. Stroke the bevel of the plane on your 1,000 grit stone until you can feel a burr raised across the full back of the plane. Some people have much better results only cutting on the pull stroke, some people have success when they pull and push, just being mindful that you are more apt to dig in left or right while on the push stroke. If there isn’t a burr raised across the whole back, the blade will not be evenly sharp across the edge. Once you can feel a burr across the whole edge, move to your 8,000 or 10,000 grit stone and polish the micro bevel. When you can see a clean, even reflection across the whole bevel of the blade, you are ready to remove the blade from the honing guide. Now, place your thin pocket rule on the edge of your stone. You will use the ruler as a guide to raise an almost imperceptible back bevel on your blade. This method was developed by David Charlesworth, and it negates the need to flatten a blade back. The slight microbevel formed in this manner assures even contact across the blade back to remove the burr formed during sharpening regardless of whether the blade back is or is not truly flat. Project the blade 25mm past the ruler, and with even pressure on both edges of the blade, take a few strokes back and forth to remove the burr caused by sharpening the bevel and to polish the very tip of the back of the blade. There should be a mirror reflection in the tip of the blade back and on the tip of the bevel when this process is completed, and the blade is now ready to use.
Set up the plane
Reattach the chipbreaker to the blade, being extremely careful not to let the chipbreaker slip past your freshly sharpened edge during the attachment process. This metal-to-metal contact would ruin your freshly honed edge. Place the blade and chipbreaker back into your plane, being mindful of setting it so the lateral adjuster lever engages. I like to tighten the lever cap of the plane slightly tighter than most people because I use a plane hammer, not the lateral adjuster to move my blade right and left. On these old planes, the lateral adjuster is often simply too sloppy of an adjustment for my taste, so a while back I got a plane hammer meant for adjusting wooden planes and have never looked back. A 25 x 25 x 6mm thick square scrap is about to become your best friend. If you don’t already have one lying on your floor, cut one now. Using a felt-tip pen, mark the direction of the grain. Now, tip your plane up so you can sight along the sole. Advance your blade until you can just see it peeking out the mouth. Retract it slightly and grab your little scrap. Starting at one corner, move the scrap back and forth across the mouth of the plane as you advance the blade and tap it with the hammer to adjust it left or right. If the piece starts sticking in the blade, your blade is too far advanced. Retract and start the process over. When you are taking a wispy, even shaving from the entire width of the blade, your plane is set up and ready to go. Grab a board and have a ball planing away wonderfully wispy shavings. As you take these first few strokes, listen to the sound the plane makes as it severs the wood fibres. If you listen carefully, you will notice that the sound dulls right alongside the blade. When this high pitched ‘swoosh’ sound starts to lower and sound more rough, it’s time to resharpen your blade.