Plane Handling—Squaring the Edge

I think it’s true that when you first start to handle a plane you might feel more a bit like a juggling klutz than someone fully controlled and conversant with its idiosyncrasies to smooth and refine wood with. Jerks, jams, stammers and stutters usually trip up our intent on straightening, smoothing and squaring wood. So many things to think about, to engage with—what pressure where, what tilt, where to transfer from and to with regards to keeping things level. It’s more a modern day problem I think, there is no software or computer to correct the errors this thing is capable of developing: no delete button; no way to copy and paste the work of another to replace our own lack. This entry into realness displaces the invasion of the digitised and virtual world where instant results yet inside us have this desire to make wood straight and smooth and square and unmachined. I get it!

Planing is not easy at first but if you take project making out of the equation somehow the drive to get this or that element right can be removed from the equation. Add the project in and suddenly fear is introduced—fear of failure, fear of wasting wood, wasting time and effort and then too doubting ourselves develops to prevent us moving forward. There are times even now when I just do not get it right first time. I think it is also  true that sometimes we set ourselves up to fail because we expect too much in the short term. Planing must be set up. It’s not for the lazy. By that I mean you cannot sit (and I do not mean people who are incapacitated by health, strength age or ability to stand and brace and use their legs, stomach or whatever), you cannot not sharpen and keep sharpening, you cannot be lethargic. Planing is total body, mine, emotion experience and demands that all of the 9 to 21 senses neurologists identify as part of  several somatic senses, including that which gauges things such as pressure, heat discomfort in the form of pain. Additionally, what about the interoceptive senses that  analyse and interpret information originating from within the body. Do we actually respond as we should or is this ability as yet undeveloped or underdeveloped. Think about it. If we have yet to have our bodies discover these influences over our work then our expectations are truly unrealistic. The chemistry in the brain, having never had the opportunity to work on our behalf through lack of experience, is still lying dormant. When we start working the plane we release that chemistry drop by drop to do its work in us and we begin to feel with different receptors and the experience can indeed be  by degrees more euphoric than we might ever imagine.

If interoceptive senses include our balance, where we sense our upper body’s positioning in alignment to task and such, then working actively with all of our body components working together to control a two handled piece of steel with a blade in it is not like lifting a sledge hammer to drive a stake. There is a dynamic working we may never have checked out before. Though macro-slamming with a sledge takes accurate alignment, finessing with a fine and narrow edge suspended between two handles at a precise angle becomes even more demanding because one slice at the wrong position can ruin the refinement we strive for. There is organic sensing within us even when we are working where we subconsciously discern what our internal conditioning provides to us that enables us to relate fully to our surrounding work; for instance smell and taste in relation to satiating thirst and hunger. Elements in the brain’s knowledge constantly make us subconsciously stimulated to make us aware of all the relative positions of the parts of our body. This proprioception comes into play as we work our bodies reliant on micro-adjustments we really know nothing of because they are deeply seated inside us and never ever discussed in normal circumstances. Some times individuals have limited access to this proprioception which can result in a general lack of coordination. Ever been in an unusual situation where you are doing something you never did before and you feel completely uncoordinated to the point where the mind seems unable to coordinate the particular task you have at hand? Even simple things like digging with a spade?

I think it comes up as a question all too often. “I cannot get a square edge to adjoining boards for a tabletop using my hand plane.” For some this is as problematic as squaring the circle which can indeed mean trying to tackle the impossible. A video is on its way that should help you to achieve square edges every time you make a correction to an unsquare edge, but I want to preface it here with a couple of very erroneous pieces of advice tat people often give that I have often come across.

Planing square edges is not necessary if you are in fact cojoining two adjoining edges as you might generally for say a panel or a tabletop. Usually two adjacent edges are planed jointly alongside one another along the length at the same time. Once planed, even if out of square, each side compensates for the other because once raised to final position they are exact opposite angles. As long as the inaccuracy is not too great (so as to slide when under pressure from the clamps with wet glue between the meeting surfaces) the glued edges can be clamped, left to dry and when scraped and planed the outer faces will be perfectly in line and level. This is not generally what people are talking about. They are talking about simply squaring one edge face to an adjacent wide face—where the edge is very narrow rather than wide as in a square section of wood such as a chair or table leg. A good instance would be a 3/4″ edge adjacent to a 6″ wide surface.

So, that lateral adjuster that cants the blade by pivoting left to right is not to cant the blade over to one side with an aim to taking off a thicker shaving on side of the stroke and at the same time a thinner one on the opposite other. It is purely to enable compensating for a blade that has been sharpened a slight amount out of square so that the blade can be readily aligned parallel to the sole and then, further, it allows alignment when the cutting iron assembly has been jolted from alignment if the plane hits some king of a protrusion or the assembly engages some kind of difficult grain, perhaps surrounding a knot or a knot itself.  Another erroneous concept is that the lateral canting of the blade is to put a beveled edge on the edge of a board. Not the case at all. Now having said that, you can actually do both that way but it takes much more skill to deliver a square edge this way and I do not in any way suggest you try it (except to see how impossible it is). It’s much easier to cant the plane over to achieve a beveled edge. In my experience it is much easier to position the plane off centre with the right hand side of the plane on the left side of the wood where the high is and vice versa as shown here. Avoid full fist grips on the fore end tote. I often use the finger position in the bottom pic.

Now, there are some quick video bits I am putting together to help you. Follow it on practice wood, something like clear pine should work well. Knot free means you can focus on plane handling.

27 comments on “Plane Handling—Squaring the Edge

  1. I had somewhat the same thoughts when I observed my kids using a hammer and trying to hit a nail. There is so much involved…sensing, thinking, feeling, body and mind…

  2. Hopefully the future videos will also will help with evening the edges length wise also. I tend to end up with two board that meet at the ends but have a huge gap in the middle.

  3. Also that there are times with fiddly little pieces that don’t clamp easily when you can clamp the plane upside down or sideways and pull the workpiece back across it (CAREFULLY) also.

  4. Hurrah! Boy do I need this video! Planing is a great joy but not so much the interaction between my body and the plane :-(. I also realize that part of the journey is thinking things through, and figuring out why after planing one end is tilted one way and the other the opposite way but some tips and exercises would sure help! THX.

    I trained as a neuroscientist (before there was such a discipline) and your description of the number of interacting senses is dead on! Very cool. One of my favorite description of brain function came from Karl Lashley who suggested this analogy. Consider the surface of a lake. The height and location of waves indicate which muscles and how much force is applied. Waves are caused by factors like wind, animals, pebbles which can be thought of as our sensory inputs. But they are also shaped by the shape of the shore, logs in the water, rocks and under-surface topology. These represent the underlying “shape” of the brain. The stimuli interact with the topology resulting in behavior, continuously and beautifully. Don’t know why I shared this except to say that once again truth lies in the harmony. Thanks for consistently reminding me of that.

  5. When cojoining two adjoining edges, e.g. for a table top, presumably we should make sure the two intended table top faces are either facing towards each other, or away from each other in the vice when planing the edges?

  6. I agree with the article. Planing is one of those skills that requires “doing” to learn. Great instructors like Paul are invaluable, but in the end, it is one of those skills you can’t only tackle via abstract learning. Early on in my adventures with hand planes, I made a set of unit blocks for my kid. I wasn’t in a rush to get the project done so I did all the work with a handsaw and hand planes. I can tell you two things I learned. First, transmforning a nine foot long plank of 8/4 maple into a lot of 3” thick and 6” wide blocks involves some time and sweat. Second, I think this one project did wonders for my abilities to saw and plane. It didn’t turn me into a superstar, but without question sawing and planing were noticeably easier in projects after that one.

    • Yes, it is so true. What a difference it is to convert from a “Video_Woodworker” to a real one. Thought easy tasks become a challenge. A knot in the wood at the place you want to make a tenon and a plane or hand saw, just a 90 degree angle etc. etc.. A plane and any tool needs like handwriting as a kid practice, practice …This is what we have forgotten…

  7. This go back into the 80’s and Fine Woodworking. Seems to me that Tage Frid said that a good glue joint can be stronger than the wood itself and that dowels and now I suppose biscuits will just weaken the joint because the wood to wood contact with glue holding together will be stronger the the small hollows created by the dowels or biscuits.
    That said, the slight out of square, like Paul said, so long as it is not too great that the boards slip when the clamps are applied, will crate a greater gluing area and even stronger joint. So having the edges of two boards somewhat out of square should give a stronger joint.
    Scratching my head . . .
    Is what I just wrote comprehendable?

  8. I get lines in wood when I plane. I’ve worked hard to ensure the iron is level and well set (I think) but the lines still appear and are related to the sides of the plane iron. Any ideas on what I’m doing wrong please?

    • Have you eased the corners of your plane iron? I have this issue as well when I haven’t rounded off the two corners of my plane iron’s cutting edge. There are videos about this on Woodworkingmasterclasses.

  9. Hi Paul,
    I think one of your best videos showing how much effort is needed to plane a rough board square and smooth and ready for use is this one in real time – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m231_HKCOWs

    It really shows the amount of effort that needs to be put in and some of the typical issues that arise (although there weren’t any knots in the board that would have been even more problematic).

    It was heartening to watch, especially for someone who is struggling with the time it takes to prepare boards. But I still might be tempted to use a bandsaw and a planer/thicknesser for roughing out – if I had the space!

    Thanks for all your demonstrations,
    – Richard

  10. Paul, I really admire and wonder at you ability to put yourself in the position that so many of are in, forget your long-earned skills, and advise us on how to get over elementary problems in tool use. You seem to be almost always able to envisage the problems we struggle with and suggest some way of overcoming or minimising them. I have been helped to better results so many times by your commentary, and I love the feelings I have when I gain some small success!

  11. I’ve known about and used that technique for putting two boards together and planing them as a bookmatched pair, but the problem I have is that I can’t get the length flat and true. I have slight hollows when I put the pair together. Usually clamps can overcome that, unless it’s severe (and with practice I am getting better). It is annoying though to think that I’ve planed a perfect edge and hold a straight-edge up to it, and nope–nice try.

  12. There are two aspects that really helped me with my planing to the point that I don’t really think about it much any more, one a subjective feel type of concept and the other a practical objective concept.

    Subjectively I view planing as ‘brushing’ wood off the surface with the side of my right hand almost like sweeping grain out of a bin to make it level rather than something to be dug out of the wood like a scoop.

    Objectively I bear in mind that it’s essentially impossible to create a hollow with a plane, a hump yes. So getting rid of humps is a function of trying to make a hollow, the closest you can get is dead flat.

    Once those two ideas more or less clicked all that’s left is picturing the grain, any twist I’m removing and just let a rhythm take over.

  13. I originally found it impossible to accurately square an edge, but I have gotten better and can do a decent job most of the time. There was a transitional point. I read that a slightly crowned plane blade makes it easier. A number of websites describe this. You crown the blade just a hair and then when squaring the edge of a board, you just shift the plane in the direction of the high point. The plane is flat on the edge but the crown takes off a bit more on the high edge and brings that high edge down. As it comes down, you shift back to center your plane on the edge. However, I no longer bother with that crowned plane. Somehow that experience gave me the feel for what is required to square the edge. The next time I tried to square with a plane without a crown. I did basically what Paul described above and got a good square edge. There are still problems. The biggest is keeping wobble out of the plane — sometimes I take a final stroke on that edge and discover I put more pressure on one side at the start of the stroke and more on the other side at the end of the stroke. I end with an edge high on one side at the start and high on the other at the end. Still, progress has been made.

  14. Hi Paul,
    Speaking of squaring the edge. I have a few planes that I do NOT want to camber the blade. I just want to round off the corner edges so I don’t have plane tracks.

    To round off the edges, is it just a matter of tilting up the blade so it’s on the corner and maybe doing 50 circular motions on all three grits of diamond stones?

    Many thanks for your help.

    Sincerely,
    Joe

  15. What I’ve noticed in my own experience is that the more I work with the plane and aim for a square edge, the better my eye has become at judging what is square, and the better my mind’s eye at picturing how to compensate for it’s out-of-squareness and communicating that with my hands.

  16. Paul,
    I teach basic woodworking 1 day a week at a drug and alcohol rehab centre, many of these men have never touched a hand tool in their life and many from a trade back ground seek perfection using machinery like jointers.
    I share your blogs with them as well as some of your videos, usually their skills increase with practice as do mine and they thoroughly enjoy the intimate contact with the wood, sights, smells and feel as well as a project well done.

    Thank you from all of us for your inspiration.
    Stephen

  17. If you simply want a squared edge , one way is to follow the marked line on one side first . Use a small block plane at a tilted angle if you want. Then as close to the marked line put a pencil mark on the planing edge . Do the same on the opposite edge and then you have two lines facing upwards as you plane . It`s not being able to see the other side that creates the problem . Or just use a mirror set at the correct angle .

  18. Looking forward to this – I suffer from this on a regular basis. I have a nice jointer machine, but I hate having to use it for small projects when I want to work with my hand plane and would love to get better at squaring my stock by hand!

  19. Or just make a Shooting Board. You can use a smaller plane then without any scooping in the centre . Plenty of shooting board tips on youtube . Just have a straight edge on your plane blade .

  20. Wow, talk about being corrected by a great article like this. Lesson learned, leave that lateral adjuster alone except when correcting for out of square blade. Paul, I have played with that lateral adjuster to much since starting woodworking about 2 years ago thinking I was being smart about fixing out of square edges. This article has set me free. OK…maybe a little over stated, but I have played with it enough to prove your point “to see how impossible it is”.

    Thank you,
    John

  21. Paul, thanks so much for this! I’m pretty old and restricted in some ways by disability, and have set my mind to doing a good job of building myself a practice violin. That’s basically a solid wood violin, rather than the box that regular violins are. The box is where the sound waves vibrate and are amplified. The solid wood construction damps the sound, enabling one to practice without bothering others. Making any violin typically involves a ton of planing. Many different sizes and configurations of hand planes and finger planes are usual, and from seeing videos of luthiers carving violins–well, of course it looked easy, they make their livings making instruments that sell for exceptionally big bucks! I had the fantastic fortune of finding you shortly after discovering there was going to be a significant learning curve when it comes to using hand and finger planes. Thanks to you, my plans for making my own gorgeous practice violin are still in play.

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