How to choose and use hand planes

Get back to woodworking basics with this traditional hand tool

By Adrian Jones

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When building a piece of furniture, you might want to put a small chamfer around something like a drawer front. A low-angle block plane does the best job on the end-grain areas, while a regular-angle block plane should be used on the long-grain areas at the top and bottom.





Advanced techniques

Trimming the protruding tails and pins on a dovetail joint, or the fingers of a finger joint, is tricky business. Sanding never works well, as end-grain is much harder than long-grain. So, sanding not only takes longer but results in a more uneven surface. What makes this operation tricky is that end-grain requires a low-angle block plane with an effective cutting angle of about 37°. But when you finally make the end-grain areas flush to the surrounding surface, you’re likely to take off at least a couple of thin shavings from the long-grain too.



If the grain direction is against you here, the low-angle block plane will cause tearout. My solution is to use the low-angle block plane until I’m just 0.001″ or so away from hitting the long-grain. This technique takes experience and a fine sensitivity in your fingertips to feel the surface. Then, I switch to a regular-angle block plane, which doesn’t like end-grain and will turn it to a whiter colour because it actually dulls the surface. Yet, I feel I have to switch to the regular-angle because tearout on the long-grain is impossible to repair. After getting everything flush, I can switch to sandpaper and polish up those end-grain areas as much as I want when I sand the surfaces prior to finishing.




Another, more advanced technique involves trimming the cheeks of a tenon to fit its mortise well. While you will be tempted to use your tablesaw and tenoning jig to trim just a few 0.001″ off the cheeks, the blade will flex and the tenon will become thinner at its tip. So, you need to trim the tenon to fit properly with a shoulder plane, working cross grain. If you don’t have a shoulder plane, both a regular- or low-angle block plane will work (both angles work cross grain), but these planes can’t trim wood right to the shoulder of the tenon. You’ll have to finish off with a wide chisel in order to trim the wood closer to the shoulder. However, both methods work well once you have developed the skills.





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