thinking we see the whole

I have a few thoughts about tools like planes. We often think that we see the whole and when we do we can fail to continue searching for answers and often miss the point. Planes are the troublesome entity in the tools of woodworkers that often seem too unpredictable and awkward to use in the early days. In fact, I will go further, they seem always to many to create more problems than they resolve and new woodworkers using a plane for the very first time can be forgiven for their enthusiasm and their over expectations. To them it is no more than a gamble — too many variables to take in and work to accordingly.

New or vintage, secondhand or whatever, unless a plane is correctly set, adjusted and sharpened, those opening strokes with a plane can be highly discouraging or encouraging, refining or damaging. In the hands of an experienced hand tool woodworker, any plane ever made will give those premium, calculable shavings according to the twist of an adjustment wheel or the shift of a lever. Getting the plane to be predictably productive every time is the challenge of every new woodworker. New planes may well seem the better choice and especially is this so if the makers take the time to align and set everything ready to go, out of the box. This ingredient alone may seem well worth having. At least it proves what the plane is capable of right from the first stroke. I must say this though, it doesn’t usually last. Planes dull in the first few minutes of use and there comes a point when you must do something about it. Herein lies the reality.

Any modern maker producing planes will tell you that the plane’s sole has a guaranteed flatness to within plus or minus of one-thousandth of an inch. That this trued flatness goes from side to side and full length. Do we woodworkers need such a thing? I suggest not. If anything will get me shot it is this statement alone. Plane soles do not need to be dead flat but they do need to be near to it. More later.

The second espousal is that the planes when built heavier are better for planing. Well, you know how I feel about that. It’s just not true. But many might suggest that because I use a plane for many hours in a week that that is a good reason for me to prefer a lighter weight plane. Whereas this is true, I actually prefer a lighter-weight plane regardless of how much I use a plane for. Lightweights do everything a woodworker needs. I am not opposed to new, heavier planes, but it’s the equations I look at. For two decades I used a # 4 and a #4 1/2 bench plane without ever checking the soles for flatness. These two planes flattened my wood and leveled adjacent surfaces around joints every day, and whereas I agree that the soles of planes can be too distorted to achieve good results without some serious flattening, the reality is that we can become too obsessive about flatness and we might be better if we can adjust our attitude just a little. I like the thought that one such a maker might one day give us a 10mm bevel going from .5mm on the outer edge to the sole surface. Do this all the way around and I would be very happy. I actually don’t really need it because my planes are indeed worn on these outer reaches. It means that the plane surfs up onto the highs and reduces those levels down to the lows with successive, unimpaired strokes.

And of tight thread tolerances for adjusters I might say great, except that it is something I just like in engineering rather than see the benefit of in the field. My plane adjusters spin for take-up with a single-finger propulsion. I am perfectly content with this. The lever for lateral adjustment can be as loose as can be too. Whereas it is better tight but not too tight, I have had them as loose as can be and they have worked perfectly well for years. I say all of this to say the sales spin is often not altogether relevant to the functionality of a basic plane.

I have always encouraged woodworkers to spend a little time flattening their plane soles through the years. It’s as good a place to start fettling your eBay finds as it is establishing a 25-degree bevel to your cutting iron, setting the frog and making sure that the cap iron (chip breaker USA) fits tightly to the back (upper) face of the cutting iron when cinching the setscrew tight. In reality, if the primary bevel of your plane is ground anywhere between say 20-degrees and 30-degrees, you will not be able to tell any difference because, usually, we try to hone somewhere around 30-degrees anyway. That being the case, the primary bevel is just to get the bulk of the steel out of the way so that we can establish a nearish-thirty-degree cutting edge because that seems to be the strongest practical cutting edge. Because I very rarely if ever grind my bevels (nor establish two bevels anyway) it’s ultra-quick to go through my three-stone system to a polished bevel in a matter of a minute or less. Legalists insisting on twin bevels at precise angles, on the other hand, make this insistence as a sort of legal requirement yet throughout an expanse of 300 years, woodworkers working daily in the craft did exactly as I do. You see, the 25-degree-30-degree scenario was only ever a guideline. I never check with an angle protractor to see what bevel angle I have, I just hone. Using a honing guide is a great idea if you simply haven’t yet practiced and established the skill, there is nothing wrong if that’s the case or indeed you use one forever. But here is what I want to say, what if, as I did and have for 56 years to date, you can free yourself from certain misconceptions that speed up your woodworking and become highly efficient with your time?

And here’s another. If the frog of your plane is set at 44-45-degrees, then theoretically you could grind your plane iron bevel at 45-degrees and it would not alter the cutting dynamic because the bevel is on the underside of the presentation. In other words, because the bevel is down under and out of the way, it does not offer any difference when it comes to cutting the surface. In reality, however, we discover that a bevel on the underside of the cutting iron that is level and coplanar with the sole will not cut well or even cut at all. Why? For two reasons. One, for the cutter to cut, there must be a relief to the underside and two, edge fracture occurs in minute degrees right along the cutting edge as soon as the iron cuts the wood. The more you plane, and the more knots you hit, the more the plane iron dulls. The angled relief allows the cutting edge to engage in the wood.

Take any plane type, the router plane, the side rebate plane, bevel-up planes of every type and even spokeshaves, there will always be a relief angle. It is also important to note that many such tools, where the bevel is uppermost, are usually found with a bed angle of around 12-degrees and if, as with the router plane, it doesn’t, then there will be an angle of presentation that holds and suspends the blade so that the underside of the cutting iron is indeed angled up.

Flattening plane soles needs to take place now and again. We all have biases and biases always affect our attitude. When we humans present our planes to the wood we usually do it according to how we align our whole body. This is a body bias. Our plane soles do wear unevenly albeit by minute and indiscernible amounts. The accumulative effect can create twists and hollows in our plane soles. I may be one of the very few people who have had to flatten their plane soles more than once in using the same plane for 56 years simply because fo wear. For a long time working in shop fitting from 21-25 years old I planed a lot of plastic laminate attached to plywood and skinned both sides. After a few years of edge planing and planing narrow edges anyway, I had worn a very definitive hollow along the length of my #5 jack plane. In the general scheme of things, it made very little difference to the functionality of the plane but sometimes it did make a difference. Some woods can do the same, teak, for instance, and mesquite. Using these woods for any length of time will reflect your bodily biases in the soles of the planes you use. It is easy therefore to ultimately create a twist in the sole of your plane. This twist will then create twist in the wood you plane. How about that!

So we see that an occasional, periodic flattening can become necessary, though I believe it may be more the rarity if you only use your planes for an hour or so a week, even over the long term. This is, of course, following any initialisation that you did in preparing the plane for use after purchase or acquisition. Plane soles can change according to temperature. I have never really found this to be a problem. It is a mistake to flatten a sole when the temperature is unseasonably high because when the temperature drops it will most likely alter again and having flattened the sole after a new change you might find yourself with a hollow instead of a round. Minor discrepancies will only marginally affect performance and you will learn the idiosyncrasies surrounding your own plane as you use it over time. Shorter soled planes like a #4 smoother distort very little. Experience tells me that allowing the plane to adjust to its new environment for a week or two is best before flattening and keeping the plane cool without raising the heat in the casting is best. This is why a belt sander is not too good an idea as it will take the temperature up.

What is truly flat or good enough is where I want to drive us to. Because of the amount I use my plane, I actually accept tolerances within certain, immeasurable parameters and other realities that others might not. In my view, it’s not a good thing to obsess over flatness. By this, I mean taking the flatness across full-width corner edge to corner edge and then too full length from half moon to curved fore-end. I think it is actually better if the outer reaches, say up to half an inch in from all the outer edges, allows us to feather-ease the plane over the rises of undulation and joint lines and thus prevent the inevitable jarring associated with premium planes that often occur when the plane is dead flat corner to corner and edge to edge.

41 thoughts on “thinking we see the whole”

  1. Vidar Fagerjord Harboe

    Thank you for this post, Paul. Your insight builds up and supports my thoughts about the obsession of accuracy and flatness / squareness or what have you, that many hobby woodworkers seems to be very preoccupied with. The most vocal ones gives the impression that the bevel angle is an art that must be mastered when the more advanced techniques are on the bench. That the sole must be dead flat and the sides dead square.
    I think the main reason is that winfluencers (wood influencers, you saw that term here first and I made it up just now – I heard about finfluencers the other day. Finance influencers. What a time to be alive…) toot our ears full of marketing hogswallop all the time. This or that shiny product anodized in red, blue, gold colors that is more accurate than ever before. A ruler with holes for the pencil so that you can make dead straight lines. So much for the finger along the side, Paul. Who knew you’ve been doing THAT wrong all these years…

    Another woodworker I follow, mentioned the fact that you really do not need to have the underside of a dining table dead flat and parallell to the top surface. An internal surface of a chest of drawers will never be seen, so it isn’t really necessary to do anything at all to it other than maybe take a shaving or two off said face just because of reasons. But with machines, we are able to make everything dead square and parallell (and are to a great extent required to do so in order to use the machines). But that “perfection” is (mainly) for the sake of the machine, not the product itself.

    Mark my words, one day we will hear about the next generation of sliced bread; the hollow-grind on the side faces of mortise chisels so that they won’t bind in the mortise and at the same time will clean the mortise walls because of a micro-bevel. Who knows, perhaps that day is here already. Some obscure artisan in a country far away has probably done this for years for all I know. And the winfluencers are going to have a ball with it..

    You are a lucky man, Paul – you were able to make a living using hand tools before social media and winfluencers came along to tell us that what you have been doing is wrong. So, so wrong…

    1. One of the wonderful things about woodworking is that there are a great many ways to do it. There are the ways Paul Sellers does it, there are the ways that Richard Mcguire does it, the ways that Rob Cosman does it and many more. I don’t think any of them are wrong. And many of them are the same. But they all work. Like anything it is up to the observer/ student to take the techniques that work well for themselves and apply them and practice them to their own woodworking satisfaction. I do love the winfluenser term though.

      1. I watch both Paul, and Rob. I respect both of them and never discount what advice they are giving. When I watch Paul I leave feeling empowered to work with what tools and budget I have. And, even though I enjoy watching Rob, I come away with the feeling that I am lacking the proper tools. So, I watch another one of Paul’s videos and gain back my confidence :). I would love to have all new tools and the best sharpening equipment, but I woodwork to release stress so if I blow my budget on all new high end tools it increases stress…..

        1. And why do I own so-called premium maker planes yet never use them? I rely wholly, solely and completely on the Stanley planes bought or made over 50 years ago because they do everything I ever need a plane to do and work so perfectly well! I definitely would never hanker after a new plane to replace any one of mine, that’s for sure. Why not just enjoy those broken in and softened for use by a previous user. Just my two pence worth.

          1. I found a Stanley no 4 from around WW2 at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore for 10.00. It was covered in paint and grime but mechanically it look great. After a clean up and flattening, and removing the paint from the knob and tote, I have a beautiful tool. And, it works far better than I imagined it would. It is mine for life now and hopefully my sons after that.

          2. Hi Paul. I found an old Bailey No.5 at a flea market for $15. It was pretty rusty and needed a lot of attention to return to working order, but I love it! Now that it is all fixed up and properly sharpened it holds an edge very well. The metal is pitted from the rust but the plane still operates fine. Note the brass strips brazed onto the sides in the photo linked to below. Looks like this plane once broke in half and someone brazed the 2 pieces back together. I took my chances on it and whoever did the repair was a real craftsman. The sole is still nice and flat and just needed a bit or truing and polishing. Just can’t use it in a squaring jig as it can’t lay on its side but would make a nice scrub place. So for $15 and some elbow grease I have a nice antique plane that works as well as my newish Stanley No.4. I’ll be on the look out for more bargains like this again, for sure.

            https://forums.audioholics.com/forums/threads/kef-103-2-rebuild.122816/#lg=attachment49255&slide=0

          3. David Dunnison

            Well said Rob Pierce.

            I love Rob Cosman. Bought my first Lie-Nielsen plane from him decades ago. That LN later accompanied by a Tite-Mark gauge and all sorts of ‘Cosmanized’ tools.

            Fast forward to the present, and that LN has a place of honor in my shop as it sits proudly on a shelf supported by Paul’s wall brackets all constructed with my collection of Stanley No. 4’s, router planes while utilizing all manner of knife-walls.

        2. I also watch Rob and admire greatly what he dose for combat wounded Vets. To date all I’ve watched are his U-Tube videos so cannot comment on what his on-line classes are like. What I have to keep in mind is, he is a tool maker , naturally he is promoting new tools. As you have said some of his more affordable options are more expensive that I can justify spending for the time I have to woodwork. Mostly I would like to have more time over more tools.

    1. Amen.

      And demanding perfection from yourself will drive you crazy; for me that usually took the form of becoming an excuse to procrastinate and not move forward with the rest of the project.

      1. John Besharian

        LOL! Yes, it’s what I call the Procrastinator’s Credo: “Never put off until tomorrow what you can put off indefinitely”.

  2. Speaking of the details of the plane, I did not realize how much of the corners of the iron at the bevel are removed during sharpening until I saw the post, TWEAKING LIFE AT THE WORKBENCH, 6th photo down. Thanks for sharing the photo details.

  3. “And here’s another. If the frog of your plane is set at 44-45-degrees, then theoretically you could grind your plane iron bevel at 45-degrees and it would not alter the cutting dynamic because the bevel is on the underside of the presentation.”

    Nope.

    Cutting tool theory covers clearance angles but your comment suggests that zero or even negative clearance (44 frog, 45 bevel) will work. It won’t.

  4. Some people seem to get an obsession with flatness. If absolute flatness of a plane sole was essential, how did craftsman manage to produce such quality work with wooden planes?

    1. Surprisingly, wooden planes were kept flat as easily as cast iron ones and they were remarkably resistant to both distortion and wear. Plus, remember that many long-term crafting artisans moved and worked their plains intuitively because they more ‘sensed‘ what was happening in the task whereas many woodworkers actually rarely if ever establish this level of sensitivity simply because they are only exposed to woodworking minimally and that is because it is rarely someone’s ‘daytime‘ job anymore. I have been fortunate.

      1. It’s a pity that wooden plane making is on the Heritage Craft associations ‘Critically endangered’ list so may disappear from the UK though they are still made by people such as Pinie Planes in the Czech Republic however you need to get used to the handles that are rather unusual compared to English wooden planes.

        1. I like that there are a couple of planemakers here there and indeed here and in the USA. I don’t know about Europe too well but craft culture seems governed by charitable contributions rather than the need of the craft. This is the sad part but the Industrial Revolution had many stepping stones we see as positive when the stones were eventually removed so that no one could turn back.

    2. I have no experience with Japanese planes but from what I read on various blogs, their soles are intentionally not flat.
      That makes us wander about the flatness necessity.
      Although, on the Japanese planes the concavities are controlled ones.

  5. Paul,
    A few years ago you did a blog post on some cheap planes… here;

    https://paulsellers.com/2016/02/import-planes-part-iv/

    At the end, in the last paragraph, you said “In the long term we will see how well they do.”
    As far as I recall, (and I was looking out for it!), you never did report any follow up opinion on any of these. I wonder if you are in a position to do so… or did they never actually get used “in anger” for any length of time?

    For what it’s worth, I had, shortly before the blog, bought a Silverline one… at about £12 I thought it worth the risk. I have to say I was impressed by how flat it was, and I still use it all the time. It’s only failing was the fact that the blade never held an edge very well, so it holds an old Stanley iron now.

    Look forward to your response,

    Regards,
    Matt

    1. Hello Matt, Thanks for this. I must have got a good iron because I did use it and others over an expanse of time totalling about a month of daily use and I felt likewise that the Silverline was a good starter plane for those who didn’t feel they could shell out £45 for a Stanley or a Record. In my view, the planes I tried out worked as well as both the Stanley and Record planes because Stanley and Record had so reduced their standards of manufacturing.

        1. Actually, I would like to add here. It’s often difficult for me because I am not endorsing these planes because the threads in the castings could fail as they could with any plane. Also, whereas I have tested, trialed and used dozens of Stanleys and Records over the years, I haven’t done that with Silverline and others. the real tests come through long-term use.

          1. John Besharian

            On the bright side, Mr. Sellers, since most of those who are delving in to hand work with “Old Fashioned” tools, we also probably tend to write letters with pen and ink, etc. One could view it as an opportunity to having just acquired another interesting paperweight.

  6. Hi Paul, I’d like to comment on new woodworkers using a hand plane for the first time. My initial attempts were less than satisfying, but seeing you using hand planes kept me trying. In my case, it wasn’t so much what the plane could do at that moment, but what I knew it could do with some attention and practice. Thanks for that!

  7. I like to approach my tools as what they are…tools.

    A plane has a defined job for me. If it does that job without hindering me, then it’s a good plane. I don’t obsess about brand, age, weight, material, flatness, etc. If it planes comfortably and the results are smooth, flat wood, then it’s doing its job.

    Apart from one big-box store plane that I bought several years ago, I’ve been able to make every plane that’s passed through my hands work as a plane…and work well. People have told me that the Handyman planes are not worth the effort. I don’t get it. I spend a little time cleaning them up and honing them and they work as planes.

    Everything else is personal preference. If you like using old planes, use them. If only new planes are fine for you, use them. When someone (usually online) says that this plane is the best and everyone should use them, I read that as “I like this plane and you should try it too.” I don’t get into flame wars with them because I use something else that I prefer. Different strokes, and all that.

    Tools are tools; use what works for you and enjoy the building and creating. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the whole point of this endeavour….not the tools themselves.

    1. I’m not too sure what you are saying that’s different than has been said here over the years. The Handyman planes weren’t that good but of course, as I said in this blog post, you can get just about any plane to work well enough. What matters most is whether a particular brand of plane lives up to being worth the effort or questioning whether one should go for a more well-proven version if possible and if it costs only a few bob more? Also, it sounds as though you have spent much of your time restoring different plane types and enjoyed it. That’s well and good, but I am not sure that the majority want to do that, are able to do that (cost, geographical location, etc) and may well want to find a plane that will serve them through the years and so name brands are really very helpful for the new person starting out.
      The list of reasons you give should not be merely dismissed as you suggest,just because a plane can be made to work, they are the reasons for choosing one plane over another. I would not suggest a #4 1/2 Stanley to a person of low weight/strength and small stature nor a modern-day premium maker plane because they are generally too heavy. So many reasons to seriously consider the points you seem to perhaps dismiss.
      I guess that you are of medium to well built, 5′ 11″, in excellent health and mental and physical form all around. Of course, I am wrong to make these assumptions about you as I don’t know who you are or anything about you but perhaps this validates the reasons I give in my suggestions and want that to be the case because not all people are the same shape, size, age, condition, etc, otherwise, everyone will feel in ignorance that they need to follow the advice given by the tool catalog gurus selling online and so feel the answer to all of their needs is to buy premium, heavyweight planes.

      1. Paul – Actually, my intention was to agree with most or all of what you said in your blog post (and previous posts). There’s a reason I follow your videos and posts – I know that you’re not trying to sell me this or that tool, and that you’re not hawking for any sponsors. Your advice reflects your experience both as a woodworker and a teacher.

        I guess that my post did not read that way, and that’s unfortunate.

        My point was directed at newer, less experienced woodworkers and was mostly that they shouldn’t let the search for the perfect tool stop them from woodworking. Get something decent, make it work well and build stuff. This is obviously not directed at you, Paul, but rather at someone who might be distracted by the mystique of tool buying over woodworking.

        Your advice here and elsewhere helps people narrow down what they’re looking for, and that super-helpful. I know it helped me.

        And you’re right about your description of my physique etc. That was impressive! 🙂

      2. Thanks very much for your comment on the strength and body size required to easily use a no. 4 1/2. The corollary of this is also true — in planing particularly difficult woods, it may be easier to turn to a no. 3. I recommend the no. 3 for children and smaller adults starting out. I am slightly surprised we don’t hear more about this valuable plane. Is it in your repertoire? Thanks again for your invaluable instruction to a league of amateurs.

  8. Hi Paul. Thank you for the post. Would you put the slight edge bevel on the sole of a wooden plane too? I’m thinking of a wooden try plane in particular.

    1. Probably not. This corner will readily wear away and end up rounded just fine by the abrasive work of planing. Steel corner don’t, and the silly little bevel the engineers put to their planes reflects engineering not woodworking.

  9. Thanks for sharing your years of experience with a well-built plane. That’s the real lesson here. Well done, sir.

  10. Don’t have much to say.. Except
    Keep going Paul. Even tho I’m not woodworking still.. I look to these posts for encouragement.
    And I’m very happy with my eBay plane. Number 4’s rock!

  11. To be radical there are only two parts of a plane that are in contact with the wood – just in front of the mouth and the very rear of the sole.

    Since a plane removes a shaving and therefore is lower behind the blade than in front of the blade a flat sole cannot be in contact with the work piece along it’s whole length. You can argue that you press down on the front of the plane hard enough so the entire rear of the plane is in the air in which case it is doing nothing else you can argue the plane drops and adopts a ‘nose up’ attitude with the contact points being in front of the blade and the rear of the sole. This is evidenced by the way that plane soles wear with a hollow forming in front of the mouth (Thanks to John Lloyd for pointing the wear pattern when I was on a course ).

    You can test how likley you are to hold the rear of the plane up by putting a thin piece of plywood under the part of the sole in front of the blade and seeing just how much force is required to hold the rear of the plane up.

    This does not apply of course when the plane is on the work piece before it starts cutting or after the blade has left the far end of the work piece but in neither of these situations is the blade cutting wood.
    If you want additional evidence look at how a hand held power planer works. The cutter is set level with the rear of the sole and the front of the sole is raised to vary the depth of the cut. Thus on a power planer the front and back of the sole are at different heights and the whole of the sole is in contact with the work piece.

    Thus my argument is that sole flatness has no impact on the flatness of the work piece.

    1. This is another theoretically true probability but seldom true. On expansive surfaces like wide and long boards, tabletops, panels, the plane is positioned somewhere away from the end and pushed towards the facing end. This then means that both sides of the throat have fullish contact with the surface. The person planing moves to either side in swathes until the width is lowered and then moves back a plane’s length or more and so moves the cuts into the previously powered surface and so on until, at the rear end of the board, only the toe has contact. Now of course the assumption will be that the area behind the cutting iron when planing at this end has zero contact but we all know that it does. Secondly, there are always assumptions that the wood stays, but, in many woods according to types, density, etc, the wood both compresses under planing pressure and weight of plane/hand/arm pressure. Wood also stretches under the angle of blade presentation with each forward thrust that takes place, so we see and consider, albeit by an indiscernible amount, that the wood is pulled upwards into the mouth of the plane until the surface fibres are severed as a shaving is removed.

  12. In my often greenwood focused workshop the only truly flat surface is the top of the cup of tea standing forgotten because I got too absorbed in what I was doing! (again)

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