Plane Questions–Another Answered

For more information on planes, see our beginner site Common Woodworking.


Mr. Sellers,

When using a plane, no. 4 or larger, I have a tendency to remove more stock at the end of my stroke than at the beginning. Is there a technique you can recommend to keep my stock removal level?

Thank you,



There are several reasons for this happening, some we can counter and some we can do nothing or little to counter. Sometimes it’s you and sometimes the plane and then other times it’s the wood itself. Most often we blame ourselves for things yet to be sensed, yet to be understood and yet to be mastered. Skill, sensitivity and understanding rarely happen straight of the bat and take time to develop. It’s best to make and master and allow flawed work to exist in projects we use to develop our skills than to pile shavings of wasted work, but that’s just my thinking. Saw horses and picnic tables, workbenches and carpentry projects work well for this. Often the issues surround the unseen physics of planes, planing, wood and so on and, in our ignorance, we press where shouldn’t and don’t press where we should and so we make things worse. This is where we need to understand what corrective work we should do to balance out any bias.

Most people do think that if the plane is perfectly set and sharpened that pressing the plane down to the surface is all they need to do. They believe that when they push the plane from one end of an edge to the other opposite end that the plane should logically, simply and automatically remove a perfectly parallel shaving. Unfortunately that’s not usually the case. Measuring a shaving after planing may well show that the thickness does indeed vary in thickness. Repeated shavings is exacerbated with each stroke. Experience tells you when to make adjustments and periodically take two shavings of compensation at one end. Variance happens all the time but with one or two shavings this is often not discernible but variance can depend on the following:

  1. The sharpness of the cutting iron.
  2. Plane type as in bevel-up bevel-down, width of iron, plane weight and more.
  3. Wood type.
  4. Grain type.
  5. Pressure applied.
  6. Speed of plane including variance thereof.
  7. Angle of presentation.
  8. Pull-stroke or pull-stroke.
  9. Use of cap iron or type of cap iron (or none).
  10. Type of cutting iron assembly retainment as in wedge or lever cam, screw pressure etc.
  11. There are many more considerations.

So, no small area to consider at the end of the day and of course most of these things we need not even give thought to. To us, as crafting artisans, it is our at-the-bench consideration we need to be most concerned with. Whereas the above considerations all affect the work, seeing beyond the physics is what really matters. Countering many of the above issues is mostly a matter of using minute by minute strategy at the bench, in the vise and with the plane in hand. I frequently flip my plane around and pull for two strokes to effect a cut and restore surface levels and parallelism, and that without thinking through the whys and wherefores. Strategy and methodologies often defy explaining because by simply flipping the plane end for end and pulling instead of pushing you may use three countering techniques in the process and at once and not know actually which one was the one that actually worked.

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What is rarely mentioned today is that when a plane is pushed into the wood the woodgrain in the shaving itself is compressed and consolidated by the rise at the fore end or hump of the cap iron. Two dynamics take place at the critical juncture where the sole meets the plane directly in front of the cutting iron. This actually follows physical laws of countering forces whereby one force be that push or pull, acts upon an object as a results of its interaction with another object. A combination of several interactive forces take place that cause various results. In our case with planes, The fore (and to a lesser degree rear) aspect of the plane’s sole presses downwards compressing the fibres down. This compression unites with the surface friction of the sole to then push the fibre that will form the shaving ahead of the plane and the cutting edge of the cutting iron which also pushes against the wood in the same way a damp finger pushes a piece of paper into a hump when the paper is held just ahead of the forces being applied. Adding a slight skew to the angle of presentation adds an additional dynamic and a combination of all of these things affects the thickness of the shaving and thereby the width of your wood by planing. The grain, in reaction, when sufficient force is applied, springs back from its friction-compressed state into the cutting edge and is severed from the main body of wood. The shaving compresses into itself as the stroke continues and so we see Newton’s law in action without necessarily knowing that that is what’s taking place. When I made the video on pulling the plane with a rope, to show how the plane pulls itself to task, I also measured the shaving length against the board to compare the shaving to the length of the wood being planed. The shaving was one inch shorter even though I stretched the shaving to the point of snapping. Here I took a shaving full length and then offered the unrolled length of the shaving to the wood I took it from. When I took a thicker shaving twice the thickness the consolidation was even greater and so the shaving was shorter. This is not at all scientific but it shows the influence the plane makes on the wood clearly. I learned this when a bet took place between a man 30 years my senior and an apprentice who didn’t believe the craftsman when he said taking a shaving would produce a shorter length. The bet was a pork pie from Blackwell’s pie shop.

In your case it can be that you are applying greater downward pressure through the plane and down onto the wood’s surface (I call this the bulldogging syndrome. An impression from graphics on carpenter’s vans and adverts around the world). This then increases resistance and friction and thereby compresses the surface fibres all the more if indeed that is what is happening. Lighter pressures reduce this. It is especially important to minimise pressure in softer-grained woods like pine where resistance anyway is often much less because of fibre softness but then increased all the more because of the higher resins in the wood. Remember that rosin for the bow strings of instrument bows is made from resin and that it is used to increase drag on the instrument strings to prevent slippage and increase vibration and pull on the strings of the instruments. Most people, when the start the cut, use lighter pressure as they land and position the plane on the start of the cut. As they move into the cut they worry that the plane will deviate and so apply more aggressive pressure when they are part way into the stroke and by the end they are really applying downward and forward power much more aggressively. Try to relax and even out the pressure and also practice to understand what is transmitted to you through the plane itself. This then means that the plane becomes as much an instrument of transmission as it is a planing tool. You can, every so many strokes, turn the board around and work from the other end, provided the grain is favourable.

I hope that this helps your understanding as a partial answer of possibilities.

16 thoughts on “Plane Questions–Another Answered”

  1. I had actually found that I was putting so much downward pressure on the front handle of the plane that I was essentially rounding over the end of the board as the front of the sole left the board and allowed the blade to be pushed deeper into the last few millimeters of wood. After a few strokes, it would progress down the length of the board and joined boards would have a noticeable gap at the far end. A lighter touch, especially on my front hand, really helped.

  2. Christopher mitchell

    I also use to have this same problem until asking Paul what I was doing wrong. Finally I realized that I needed to finess the plane into doing what I wanted it to do , on edge jointing that is. But also I had to keep checking my work as I went in order to know where I needed to take off more or less.
    Yes , it is time consuming but it was the only way that I could get it flat and square.

    So if I understand you correctly from your answer here Paul , is that because there are so many variables that can cause these issues is that you need to methodically pay attention to each pass to see what’s going on and then take the corrective measures to achieve your goal.
    Until the day you have practiced enough and developed the technics that it takes to become second nature . And no bulldogging !! Once you get one side flat and square then you mark the other side with a marking gauge so you have a reference line to work to. Right.
    Thanks for the question and the answer.

    1. Yep! To start with at least. After a while it becomes all the more intuitive and you do indeed find that you are sensing pressures as you work and then make more intuitive decisions based on a ‘feeling‘.

  3. Being aware of this rounding effect I have found myself to overcompensate by leaving the cut an inch or two short of the end resulting in a hump.

    I have found that sharpness and ) thinner cut is esential to a controlled stroke.

  4. Dear Mr. Sellers,

    For a number of reasons I believe that flat sole of the plane should be mentioned as important in avoiding taking off to much at the end of a piece.

    As it is possible to take very thin shavings, it is becomes tenable to accept that compreeion by the sole and in expansion in the mouth allow for planing with the blade actually not protruding out of the. A sole that is not sufficently flat will generate less compression or expansion prior to the mouth.

    Once the edge bites into the wood, the properties of the latter will strive to press the edge deeper into it. Your demonstration with the pulled plane is strong evidence for this. A flat sole will do better in preventing this lifting of the wood.

    To achieve shavings the cupped sole will demand more pressure to be applied (the blade will also have to be deeper set). This will enhance the risk for the plane to tip as its front passes over the edge.

    Finally, with a sole resting on its front and edge, the moment the front runs over the edge of the work piece, the blades dives down, something that a bit of experimenting has shown to be very contributing to too thick shavings at the end.

    Kind regards

    Sven-Olof Jansson

  5. Robert Wearing stated in his book (The Essential Woodworker) that “To plane a flat surface with a woodworker’s plane is theoretically impossible. It could only be done if the plane had a movable sole in front of the mouth (Fig 21) in the manner of a planing machine.”

    I don’t know if this statement is accurate or not, but the accompanying diagrams certainly helped me solve my problem.

    Reread several times what Paul has written, as it will help as you gain experience. I found that a wickedly sharp blade and light touch are invaluable.

    I had never touched a hand plane until last year and I am creeping away from the age of 69. If an old codger like me can learn, so can you.

    Hang in there. Best of luck.

  6. Nice description. If the plane is sharp, it is a little like stroking the string of an instrument with a bow, just enough pressure but not too much or the sound goes wrong. Listen . . .

  7. Wow, it’s great to see a clear explanation of the mechanics going on under the plane I’m gaining confidence with hand-planes all the time thanks to your insight and knowledge. As a novice I always try and be aware of my stance and the ergonomics of the work, when I see I’m cutting thicker at either end of the work piece I’ll take a step back and recentre myself before I go looking to the plane for problems.

  8. As someone who is doing a Usain Bolt away from 69, I had never picked up a plane until earlier this year. After 4 or 5 abortive attempts at edge planing some pine, I settled for scribing a target line with a marking guage, running a pencil along said line a-la Lord Sellers of Conway and then backing the blade off to a bare minimum, settling for taking a whisker off at each pass even if I’ve a quarter inch or so to remove. This ‘slowlee, slowlee catchee monkee’ works fine for my minimalistic standards as it gets me to within 1mm end to end over a 2ft length. More importantly for me it is quite effortless and time is not a factor.

    As for Blackwell’s pies…over a hundred years in business and still going strong. If it’s the one in Norton that is.

    Oh btw Paul, I nearly bought one of your Artisan books on Amazon today but as some loony American chap was asking £176 for a used copy I decided to pass.

  9. Andy in Germany

    “Skill, sensitivity and understanding rarely happen straight of the bat and take time to develop”

    I’m seeing more and more evidence for this as I develop my skill with a plane. I well remeber trving to point this out to y carpentry tutor when they insisted on grading us from our first dovetail join, when many of us hadn’t picked up a saw before.

    I pointed out that if I could make a decent dovetail straight off the bat, then I wouldn’t need to be an apprentice. This was met with a blank look and a coment of “Well, it doesn’t matter anyway, because you’ll only be using machines really…”

  10. Hang in there Andy. Once you have completed your servitude to the man you can do your own thing as a man, and probably develop far beyond what the current passing ‘standard’ is. Defaulting on skill sets by adhering to the ‘common methodology’ is a slippery slope if there is no presence of mind to look outside of it. You don’t need to be an anarchist, just aware of the value in what was learned through actual experience of the past. Bit like the quality of the Kristall Weissbeir I am currently imbibing. Bit of prior knowledge and application tends to result in a decent result.

  11. BC – your problem is about the most common one for people learning to plane. The answer is simple: when you start the cut, most of the pressure should be on the front of the plane. When you finish the cut, most of the pressure should be on the rear.

    Think of it as though you are trying to plane a hollow (convex) in the center of the wood. That will counteract the inherent problem that the plane (as someone pointed out from wearing) will always want to leave a convex surface.

  12. At this point I see in my mind’s eye Paul pulling the #4 along a piece of pine with the cord parallel to the wood, which tells me that basically just the weight of the plane is enough to take a shaving the whole length of the piece, as long as the plane is sharpened and set up correctly and you are planing down grain. Very little bearing down seems to me the way to go. But then I’m only a first year apprentice.

    I have also learned that there are many ‘experts’ in all manner of fields on the interweb who are completley shambolic and unfortunately lead novices or the more gullible up the garden path. If you have never seen Paul at work before, just watching him for a few minutes for the very first time you can see he is totally at one with his craft and all the tools required to pursue that craft.

    On the other side of the coin are those who have the gift of the gab but as soon as they put tool to wood you can see they are all mouth and trousers. They have all the gear but no idea. That sadly for the novice, becomes an issue, as sorting the wheat from the chaff is not easy to do when you are on the bottom rung of a new learning ladder.

    It also applies to forums, even this one. You have to bear in mind that what you read in posts is purely one person’s opinion. The question becomes just how valid is that person’s opinion. From what skill level is he speaking. If it’s from someone like Paul then you can take it as gospel but from anyone else I think you need to keep a pinch of salt by your side. It’s not easy being a novice wood butcher in 2015.

  13. deviating slightly from this thread, although I experience all the issues discussed above, my main difficulty when planing is that the iron shifts (cants over) after a number of passes so that even though I’m holding the plane level I’m planing out of square. This even though I’ve got the locking lever adjusted so tight that it’s actually quite difficult to lift into locking position. Should it be necessary to then have to pick up a screwdriver and add extra tightening to the screw holding the lever? The only plane I’ve got in which this doesn’t happen is my Veritas bevel-up, where I can adjust the two tiny set-screws that prevent any lateral iron movement. I sometimes wish I could do this with my Stanleys.

    1. Something is wrong with the plane or planes you have. The cutting iron never swivels on any of my planes whether they are low end or high end and they never have. The two set screws on the Veritas are necessary on their planes because of the short lever and the essentiality to loosen the cap iron to move the iron for depth of cut and lateral alignment. They built the problem into their planes by the short lever. Old style Norris planes had no need of such prevention because they were engineered for practical use. There is no other plane made that you have to loosen the lever cap to make the kind of instant adjustments we need minute by minute. This alone makes Veritas planes clunky in use when you are a practicing craftsman.

  14. This is priceless. Paul has always said “relax…a light touch…ease up…don’t bulldog your plane”. Now I know why. Understanding the dynamics of interaction between sole, wood and iron just now clicked for me. As a beginner (beginning beginner) this will really help. I will be reviewing this post many times. Thanks Paul.

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