Making the Best a Little Bit Better...
In my shop I have a wide selection of hand planes, from vintage Stanley's to the modern designed, and Canadian made Veritas. I'm the proud owner of a James Krenov smoothing plane and also have an assortment of vintage wooden bodied bench planes and special purpose tools. I've acquired all of these tools slowly over the years but have to say that the planes I reach for the most while working wood and find to be much higher quality than all of the others mentioned are my Lie Nielsen hand planes. A league all their own comes to mind...
Right out of the package these tools perform exceptionally well but I'm going to demonstrate a few simple procedures that will make these 'near perfect' tools even better. The tips and techniques I'm going to describe are all methods used by English cabinetmaker and wood working teacher David Charlesworth; his hand plane tuning and technique videos are worth every cent. It's funny to think that people go out and spend thousands of dollars on education but for the price of a handful of DVD's, three books and some time spent in the shop you can get a kind of private lesson from this woodworking master. I had David's books for the past while and finally got around to picking up his videos...better late than never, you're never to old to learn a few new skills. Although I've been working with hand tools for awhile now there are some great tips and techniques in these books and videos that every wood worker should see. I set up a small monitor at the end of my workbench and make my way through the videos...pausing and playing, stopping and re-watching. This is a great way to learn at your own pace and I honestly can't say enough about his videos....extremely informative!
Lie Nielsen bench planes come with a blade ground at a 25° bevel; this is where I'll start to make my adjustments. Following the advice of Charlesworth, I'll regrind the bevel closer to 23°. I use a JET slow speed wet sharpener for all of my grinding applications; it's a good tool that is reasonably priced, easy to set up and dependable. It came with a wide assortment of jigs for different sharpening applications but I tend to only use the one to hold my irons and chisels exclusively. The rest of them I don't bother much with.
After a few minutes on the grinder establishing the new bevel, it's back to my work bench to get set up to flatten the sole of the plane. 'Flatten the sole?' you may be asking yourself...Why should you bother if the tool was manufactured to such high standards?
Even with an exceptionally well made tool like the Lie Nielsen line, there is always a chance that when in use and the plane body is under tension with the cutting iron, chip breaker and lever cap installed in working position, the bottom of the plane could be slightly out of true. This simple process will insure accuracy and enable me to take the finest wood shavings. Starting with a dead flat surface, in my case a piece of safety glass I'll lay a piece of 220 grit sandpaper on it. From here I'll take a felt tip marker and draw out some grid lines over the bottom of the plane. A few passes and you'll quickly be able to see just how flat the plane really is...keep taking passes until the bottom is completely clean. I'll usually do a second round of lines just to make sure things are as flat as they should be. I follow this same procedure for all of my Lie Nielsen hand planes, fine tuning them all at once is a nice way to spend the day and will really pay off when I'm back in the shop next.
In the next shot you can clearly see what the sole of my 140, skew angle block plane while under tension of the iron and lever cap, looks like after a few passes on the 220 grit sandpaper...a bit more work and I'm there.Notice the area around and just behind the mouth in the first shot...these are the areas you want to make sure are dead flat. A fine shaving is impossible to achieve if these areas are not touching your surface to be planed.
Again I'll repeat these steps for my shoulder planes, side rabbet planes, block plane and bench planes.
When flattening the sole of my shoulder planes it's a good idea to use a small square to make sure you're keeping things square; the nature of the shoulder plane in use would not be good if you unintentionally sanded it out of square...something you could easily do with this technique...be careful!
Once I've flattened the soles on the 220 grit sandpaper I'll take some super fine steel wool and a bit of metal polish and give the soles a good going over. This will make all of the tiny scratches left behind by the sandpaper very minute and give the planes a slick sole that makes it a breeze to move across the surface being planed. Seeing as I'm doing this hand plane 'Spring Cleaning Session' I'll go over the sides and lever caps as well, making them shine like a new dime. Any small surface rust, tarnish and grim will be history. From here I'll focus again on the irons. With the newly ground bevels completed, I'll hone a second bevel on my water stones to approximately 33°. Then a third tiny bevel to finish at 35°. This again is a Charlesworth technique that will give you a razor sharp iron capable of taking the finest shavings. Before using the stones though, it's a good idea to use the safety glass and sandpaper method to flatten them as well. You'd be surprised at how easy it is to hollow them while honing.
Once the cutting bevel is prepared it's time to flatten the back of the iron...these planes have been with me for a few years now so they don't require much honing. I made sure when I first purchased them that I spent enough time on each iron insuring a flat back. The one thing I will do is perform "the ruler trick". Again a Charlesworth technique to create a tiny back-bevel on the irons flat side. This may sound strange at first but I promise you the edge created will scare you.
Again, here in this article I'm not getting into all of the details of the process but am trying to say that a few hours spent with some sandpaper on glass, a Charlesworth DVD or two and a few of the finest planes on the market today will indeed take your wood working to the next level...guaranteed!