Questions Answered – York Pitch Only Answers One Problem

Question:

Hello Mr Sellers,

I have followed your blogs recently on the bevel-up jack planes and have seen some people say that adding a 50-degree bevel iron instead of the 25-degree bevel iron allows the plane to take care of difficult grain. If this is so, why don’t you just add the blade as an accessory and just use the one plane?

Best regards,

JT

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Answer:

I’ve answered this in the recent past but it comes up often enough to give an answer again. The question makes sense in theory but in practice it’s a little disingenuous on the part of plane makers and salesmen and women to suggest that the bevel-up planes don’t have issues beyond just slipping in a different iron to take care of those issues. In the history of plane making, bevel up planes are not new or even especially innovative. DSC_0006Let’s face it, if you’re a tool making company you need to keep coming up with something new to sell, otherwise your company loses its edge in the competition. It’s no different for companies today and one company jumps through a hoop and you quickly see how all the others copy and follow up with something similar, hence the plethora of companies jockeying for their slice of the BU plane market. It’s not that there was a demand for this type of plane in answer to one of our woodworking life problems, more that someone somewhere found a niche market and others jumped in for their slice of the action. A few wood mags and writers got the same press release did their usual new product test and write up, and before you know it the same information is written up around the globe as if one man wrote them all. Fact is copy and paste took away a great deal of initiative and individualism entrepreneurs were once famed for and that’s why all the online stores look and smell the same.DSC_0065

It’s a fact that the bevel up planes and even jacks have been around for well beyond a century or two but were used for trimming wood fibres differently than is being espoused today. As a general smoothing plane or even a jack plane, bevel up planes never quite gave the guaranteed confidence craftsmen needed in the day to day of planing. DSC_0009In fact it’s as true today as it was two centuries ago that the only time a bevel up plane truly comes into its own is when the plane is used to cut across the long axis of the grain at an angle as in trimming mitres and planing end grain and then any angle in between say zero and 90-degrees. As soon as this plane hits grain at an angle that rises up towards the cutting iron the plane loses ground rapidly and when using any wood it’s inevitable that grain will, in any given surface, rise up somewhere to catch the cutting iron and lift before the iron can actually get to the wood itself and cut the surface. It’s in such cases that the grain surface tears as if wrenched and ripped from the surface and it’s this that so gives such dreaded nervousness to any and all woodworkers whether present or past.

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When it happens the surface is usually badly marred and the root of the problem is usually deep and often irreparable. Usually the fibres that are torn jam, turn and become sandwiched between the wood surface and the sole of the plane and the force of the plane stroke yanks the strands along and out of the wood being planed. This can happen also with bevel down planes but much, much less so for the reason associated with the cap iron mostly. I haven’t altogether understood why makers never came up with a combined lever cap/cap iron lever cap that could replace the cap iron and offer the same dynamic as the cap iron does to the bevel down planes.

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The addition of a few degrees to the cutting iron whether bevel down or bevel up does make a difference to the cut and to the wood in some very specific cases of grain configuration. What it does not take care of is the kind of grain that rips from the body of wood in the way I am talking about. Wild swirls of reverse and spirally grain, crotch grain and the like will indeed generally yield to a steeper angle of presentation and this is when we reach for a plane once made to offer an alternative to the general 42 to 45-degree bed. This is called the York pitch. The York pitch presents the blade to surface fibres in such a way as to more sheer-cut the conflicting arrangement of fibres misaligned in some areas of wild  and varied grain smoothly. DSC_0117 2Usually this grain is heavily compacted in grains such as crotch grain, burrs and burls, knots and surrounding knot areas or areas adjacent to knots and so on. We often call such areas of this type of grain ‘short’ grain, as the grain rises rapidly toward the surface and seems almost to be standing up in misalignment of fibres as if disconnected from the general long grain strands or cells we might more generally know wood to be. Curly grained wood such as is found in maple, oak and, perhaps generally to a lesser degree other hardwoods, is a mixture of staggered interruptions of short grain that rises up and falls away in quick succession. The steep York pitch takes care of grain like this quickly, but this is not the grain we know to tear out when we surface plane wide boards of wood.

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I suppose it might be good to realise few plane makers will be self critical of a problem as I have described and find it best not to mention the problem at all. It’s only natural when you think about it. It’s not after all really the plane that’s the problem but the wood itself. The problem is that the problem won’t just go away so we at the cutting edge and cusp have to make the planes we use work for every situation if possible. For those of us involved in real woodworking and making wood work at the business end we have a different view of things and we must balance out the planes we rely on, find out what they do best and understand where and when to rely on them. Whereas I occasionally hear from people who swear by the BU planes and how they never use anything else, for me, I have not found that at all to be the case. Usually those who make such statements use their planes on a very limited basis or within a very limited sphere of woodworking. Instrument making for instance or perhaps guitar making. I could indeed rely on a bevel up jack for 99.9% of guitar making. For furniture that would be the opposite. 99.9% of all of my work would come from a bevel-down bench plane alone. Thats said, I like owning both bevel down and bevel up jack planes and apply them to their best use. DSC_0629There can be no doubt that you can fine tune either plane to take pristine shavings off in adverse grain situations, but really, it’s unrealistic for me to earn my living making furniture were I to spend the time it would take to spend such time on a single plane. At the end of the day, the only tool that takes care of any and all grain configurations is the #80 cabinet scraper. When the grain rises up against me, it’s this tool alone that quells the foe.

10 comments on “Questions Answered – York Pitch Only Answers One Problem

  1. Paul,

    I’m having difficulty visualizing how the bevel-up tears the grain, and also yanks the torn grain. Is that something you wouldn’t mind illustrating?

    Thanks!
    Jason

  2. Ouote: I haven’t altogether understood why makers never came up with a combined lever cap/cap iron lever cap that could replace the cap iron and offer the same dynamic as the cap iron does to the bevel down planes.

    Paul,

    There have been attempts to find a solution like that, have a look at the Sargent “Auto Set” planes see for the equivalent of your favorite #4 here: http://www.sargent-planes.com/sargent-710-auto-set-smooth-plane/

    Thanks for your good advices, you showed me a new basic way to follow.

    Claus

  3. For pine and other softwoods, will you still reach for the #80 cabinet scraper to deal with difficult grain? Is there any tuning for the #80 (or tuning of how you use it) to increase its suitability for softwoods?

  4. It sounds to me that JT’s question is about the merits of having a single plane with multipal irons ground at different angles. A BU plane could do this, whereas a BD plane has a fixed angle presented to the wood. I think I would rather have multipal planes and switch between using them. I cannot imagine wanting fewer planes. I have the opposite problem.

    • My concern us that the BU planemakers and sellers present a point of view that seems so matter of factly right when that’s not the case at all. They don’t tell you that the damage is already done and can often be irreconcilable but say that having three irons is “like having the Swiss Army knife of planes” at your disposal. That’s so very silly. It’s also totally impractical to change plane irons out and reset planes when an issue comes up because there are no guarantees, but again they present things as though there are. It’s almost like a nursery rhyme sometimes.

  5. Hi Paul,

    I recently acquired the veritas BU jack and I totally agree that it excels at cutting across grain with the 25 degrees iron.
    It’s the perfect companion to a shooting board but I get tear out even with the 38 degrees iron planing on the tangential plane of ash.
    For flattening and joining wood, I only reach for my stanley no 4 with a cambered iron and my clifton no 7 whose 2 piece cap iron I particularly like.
    I think that if I had an extra iron for my clifton, I could get away with just this plane with the added benefit of some extra work out.
    There’s no reason not to believe that a BU jack plane can be a person’s main plane but that depends on the wood being used and the time spent on sharpening and changing irons of different bevel angles.

  6. Sorry, Paul, I did not at all understand what you were trying to say. Can you simplify things for me by commenting on below:

    – a BU plane with 12 deg bed and 25 deg blade makes a good plane for cross grain cutting (right angle or mitre shooting).
    – 50 deg York pitch BD plane tames cranky grain better than 45 deg Common pitch BD plane.
    – ignoring the cross grain situation, you *seem* to suggest that when planing against the grain a BD plane will outperform a BU plane if cutting angles are the same because of the benefit of the BD cap iron.

    I acknowledge your comment that you couldn’t make a living if you had to fiddle around swapping blades in a BU plane.

    But the unanswered question for me is whether you’d choose a BU plane with 12+50=62 cutting angle, or your York Pitch BD plane when faced with reversing grain, whilst prepping your timber?

    (There is also an implied question here: how much tearout can you accept at prep time, to be cleaned up later with a smoother/scraper, without potentially affected your timber dimensions or running flatness of a large surface).

    • I am the most unlikely fellow to rely on a bevel up plane for my stock preparation and it’s not that I am set in my ways and won’t change, try something new. That’s not it at all. In fact, I personally wouldn’t rely on one for any surface grain planing task generally, mostly because I’ve learned to achieve truly good work with the bevel down plane. Now then, I do like bevel up planes. I do not deny that they work especially well for end-grain working, mitres, such like that, where the fibres are always consistently the same because indeed the cut is generally perpendicular to the run of the grain and therefore uninterrupted by the awkward fibre twist that occur in almost all long axis strokes with the grain. It’s an unfortunate thing that when in the zone, on a particular wanted section of wood, the risk of loss by tear-out with all bevel ups is heightened to the point that it can all but destroy a man’s sanity. You see, to make it more guaranteed, I most close up the throat as tight as possible, sharpen up to perfection and take the stroke with a shallow set. This is time consuming and a luxury to a maker like myself feeding his family and paying the bills. The highly engineered planes have angular corners and seem to lack the kind of flexibility and flex I have come to rely on with Bailey pattern jacks and smoothers. Somehow they lose that nuance and it’s this idiosyncrasy that I always rely on second by second that allows me to flex, spin, twist and turn direction in the stroke as I interpret the grain beneath the sole. I have yet to find the BU that gives me this. Usually the damage is already done. I may not understand why, just that it happened and there was nothing I could do. I will say this though, my favourite BU smoothing plane is the small one made by Veritas. I use this more for small work like mitres and fine trimming rather than as a smoothing plane, though others I am sure will rely on it as a fine plane for smoothing work. It is a plane worthy of honourable mention as are other bevel up planes like the Veritas shoulder planes, bullnose planes and block planes too. I in no way want to dis such planes, just avoid the kind of tear-out that occurs when you least expect it or want it. This is especially so on wide planes meant for levelling and truing up surfces. Remember that people demoing such planes are usually good sales people intent on making them look good for a sale. At the workbench with woods already formed into frames and boxes, life is always more unpredictable. The same is true in the garage workshop when you have a half hour enjoyment fiddling with planes and wood. My audience is mostly looking for a guaranteed outcome in surfacing a project part level to another adjacent part. very different than playing and sales.
      With regard to surface tearout. It’s hard to give an example in words because the real danger is to do with the depth the torn fibres have gone to rather than the amount of surface area. A bevel down plane that’s set well and sharp will usually not tear deeply though indeed it can. Setting the plane to the shallowest setting on starting out gives you a tool to ‘feel‘ the fibres through so you can indeed interpret what is possible or probable. After that it is a question of choosing the right depth you feel gives you acceptable control over.

      • Thanks for your insight, Paul. So, let’s say you are preparing stock and are getting a bit of tearout with your regular 45 degree jack plane. How would your workflow proceed from there?

        Would you reach for (implying you have) a separate plane with a 50 or 55 degree frog, or perhaps a separate plane of standard pitch but a backbevelled blade yielding a similar cutting angle, or do neither and leave the surface as is (for the stock prep/dimensioning stage) and then use eg. a smoothing plane/scraper on it later. I know the obvious answer is it “depends” on the quantity and severity of tearout, so perhaps you can advise what normally tends to happen in your experience.

        In my job as a software engineer, things are very black and white for me with when creating software – it either works precisely or it’s wrong.

        Translated to woodworking, my brain has trouble reconciling this idea of preparing stock to final dimension, left with some tearout, then fixing it later with a smoothing plane or scraper. In my head that has immediately made the wood undersized and/or not “flat”, so my black-and-white logic implicitly says “wrong, error”.

        Do you have any words of advice in respect of this? I guess I’m basically asking what degree of variation in dimension is acceptable versus what isn’t, when we take these subsequent steps to remove localised tearout.

        • I do. Whereas anything computer is purely mathematical to the point of total and unforgiving, unyielding legalism, wood is not. That is why the industry standard was to create engineered materials like plywood, MDF and other types that move less and have veneered surfaces. Real wood is surprisingly forgiving and demands less tight tolerances than say metals. We can leave things fat and use the compressive qualities of the wood to our advantage. If wood looks as though it has grain that suggests or even hints at tear I will automatically reach for a scraper like the card- or number 80-scraper and not usually a York pitch plane unless absolutely necessary because even with interchange of planes there is no guarantee, but with the scraper it is guaranteed. I know that you might feel there is a compromise in exact straightness but I have peace of mind using this. It is often surprising to see how little we actually have to take off to remove a flawed surface.

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