Plane and Simple

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This article is from Issue 4 of Woodcraft Magazine.

There’s just nothing better than finding a bargain tool at a flea market or antique mall – unless it’s restoring that old piece of iron to perfect working condition. Using the classic Stanley No. 4 bench plane as an example, here are some easy steps to plane restoration that can be applied to almost any hand plane you find. 

By Kerry Pierce

WITH THE EXCEPTION OF ONE STANLEY BLOCK PLANE, every woodworking plane I own came from a flea market (or from eBay, the “digital flea market”). Most were rescued from a table or box piled high with moldering woodworking tools. Unfortunately, this is the fate for which many woodworking planes are destined. Not because they aren’t useful tools – on the contrary, planes are eminently useful, and when properly tuned offer some of the most sublimely satisfying workshop experiences. Instead, these tools are relegated to the discard bin because they can be difficult to use, even for otherwise accomplished craftsmen.

A hand saw, by contrast, can be made to work right out of the box, by even a beginning woodworker; the same is true of most typical shop tools. Experience always leads to better results, but most tools perform their designated tasks even in inexperienced and unskilled hands.

Woodworking planes, however, are more challenging for the uninitiated to operate. In order to make shavings, the plane iron must be sharp, correctly bedded, and set at the right depth. Further, the plane itself must be moved across the workpiece in the correct manner. If any of these conditions are not met, a plane simply doesn’t work properly.

The banishment of woodworking planes to the discard bin is, oddly enough, good news for any woodworker short on funds. As a result of the frustration experienced by many former owners, barely used planes of decent quality are often available at modest prices at flea markets, garage sales and antique malls.

THE STANLEY NO. 4 IN THE FOREGROUND, acquired on a recent shopping trip, had a fair amount of visible rust, flaking paint and a badly ground iron. The Bailey transitional plane in the background was in better shape, needing just a bit of fine-tuning. The restoration procedure in this article can apply to both types of planes.

How modest? Well, Lie-Nielsen Toolworks offers magnificent No. 4 smoothing planes at prices ranging from $250 to $325. By contrast, the used Stanley No. 4 pictured in this article cost me just $25 (and they often sell for less on eBay). I don’t claim that my used Stanley is comparable to the Lie-Nielsen No. 4. – a Lie-Nielsen plane is, after all, a meticulously crafted modern version of a top-of-the-line Stanley, not a consumer-grade plane like the one I restored. Nevertheless, my refurbished No. 4 can do almost everything that the much more expensive Lie-Nielsen No. 4 can do.

While many used planes are well worth the labor it takes to restore them, others aren’t. Sometimes they’re inferior tools to start with, but more often it’s because they were so badly abused by their previous owners that it would be almost impossible to return them to working order.

Avoid tools that were manufactured cheaply. The poorest planes are those with stamped metal frogs (the wedge-shaped piece against which the iron is bedded) and lever caps (this piece sits atop the blade/cap iron assembly and holds it tightly against the frog through the use of a cam-shaped lever). Even brand new, these tools wouldn’t have provided the smooth, chatter-free service you can get from a more substantially fabricated tool, one with a cast iron frog and a steel lever cap. You should also avoid tools that have an unfinished appearance, raw casting edges or coarsely sanded knobs and handles (also called “totes”). If the tool looks cheaply made, it probably is.

Then the decisions get tougher. Should you, for example, buy a plane with a slightly twisted sole? Maybe, particularly if it’s a type you’ve been unable to afford in better condition. It takes time to flatten the sole of a cast iron plane, but the truth is that almost every used plane will exhibit some degree of twist.

Then there’s rust. Some examples will have ground surfaces barely sprinkled with rust that can be removed quickly with no negative consequences for the tool’s performance. But I’ve also seen tools so badly rusted that adjustment screws are frozen in place.

Still, I’m attracted to tools with a fair amount of rust because it keeps the price low. Besides, I know I can remove the rust if I’m willing to invest a little sweat. And in our household, there’s always a greater supply of sweat than money.

STEP ONE: Parts inventory

Whatever shape your tired old plane is in, let’s bring it back to working condition. 

The first thing to do is disassemble the plane and verify that all the necessary parts are present and unbroken. I try to buy planes with all parts intact, but if a plane is in otherwise decent condition, I’ll sometimes get one that’s missing maybe a lever cap or an iron.

Many replacement parts are available through retailers, but there is another, less expensive source of parts. Whenever I can do it cheaply, I just buy junk planes to save for parts. Maybe the sole is cracked, but the cap iron, lever cap and the iron itself might be fine. In fact, by shopping carefully you can buy an entire junk plane for less than the price of a new replacement iron.

RUB THE SOLE OF THE PLANE BODY back and forth along sandpaper you’ve attached to your lapping table to achieve a truly flat sole.

THE TWO BOTTOM SOLES HAVE BEEN LAPPED enough with the 100-grit paper. The sole on top, however, still has a low corner, so it needs a few more passes on the 100-grit paper before shifting to 150.

STEP TWO: Flat and true

The actual restoration begins by flattening and straightening the sole. A good straightedge will tell you if the sole is flat along its length, and a pair of winding sticks (nothing more than a pair of thin, straight pieces of wood) will tell you if the sole has any significant twist.

To determine twist, turn the plane upside down and lay a winding stick on one end of the sole perpendicular to the plane’s length, and the other winding stick on the opposite side in the same manner. Then sight along the plane from front to back. If the sole is good, the tops of the winding sticks will be parallel with each other. If the sole is twisted, the sticks won’t be parallel.

Flattening and straightening the sole is most easily done on a lapping table of some sort. Any flat surface large enough to lap the sole of your plane will do, such as a sheet of plate glass or the surface of your table saw. (I use an old marble windowsill to which I’ve affixed strips of sandpaper with spray adhesive.)

Lap the plane’s sole on this flat abrasive surface, changing the sandpaper when it gets dull. When lapping a plane with a significant amount of twist, start with 100-grit paper, wearing the iron away until the sole is flat. Then switch to 150-grit, and finish with 220-grit to polish the sole.

If the sole is badly twisted, visualize the sole divided into four quarters – one and two on the front half of the plane, and quarters three and four on the back half. If, for example, the twist has caused quarters one and four to be high, I hold the plane so that only those quarters are reduced when lapping the sole.

This can be a little tricky, but if you don’t visualize the sole in this manner, you run the risk of repeating the twist with which you started.

THE UNFURBISHED IRON ON THE LEFT is the iron from the No. 4, and shows what you’ll find on the irons of most flea-market planes. First, the cutting edge is not straight and perpendicular to the sides of the iron. Second, the bevel is crowned, probably as a result of a honing at the hands of an inexperienced craftsman. It compares poorly to the pair of freshly furbished irons next to it.

TO FURBISH AN IRON, begin by lapping the back side on a honing stone, keeping it perfectly flat as you work it back and forth.

CHECK THE CUTTING EDGE WITH A SQUARE, and regrind it square if needed. Don’t worry about the bevel at this point, as you’ll redo it soon anyway.

STEP THREE: Furbish the iron

Begin work on the iron by lapping the back on a sharpening stone. I use a diamond stone for this process, although an oilstone works fine. The goal here is to attain a state of near-perfect flatness – this is important because the cutting edge of the iron is formed at the junction of the back of the iron and the microbevel on the front. (The back of the iron is actually the side that faces the front of the plane.)

Then grind the beveled end so that it’s both straight across its width and perpendicular to the sides of the iron. Don’t worry about maintaining the bevel at this point; that’s an issue you’ll deal with in the next step. This may take some time because many used planes have simply terrible bevels on their irons with dips and hills across their widths that are sometimes as much as five or six degrees out of perpendicular.

After you’ve squared up the business end of your iron and flattened the back, you’re ready to grind the bevel. There are two kinds of bevels to consider for your restored plane: hollow-ground and flat-ground. (Some craftsmen use a bevel that combines features of both styles.) A hollow-ground bevel is produced by grinding the bevel on the round edge of a grinding wheel. When viewed from the side, the hollow-ground bevel retains the radius imparted by the round grinding wheel. A flat-ground bevel is created by grinding on the flat side of a grinding wheel.

Both styles of bevels have their adherents, and either can be brought to a satisfactory level of sharpness when honed. I prefer a hollow-ground bevel, probably because that’s the type of bevel I first saw as a boy working in my dad’s shop. Plus, there’s no doubt that a hollow-ground bevel is easier to hone since there is a necessarily smaller surface to flatten.

To create a hollow-ground bevel, adjust the grinder’s tool rest so that when the iron is positioned flat on the rest, it’s positioned at the correct angle in relation to the grinding wheel. Slide the iron back and forth across the rest in slow, rhythmic strokes, keeping the front face of the iron flat on the rest and the beveled edge of the iron in light contact with the wheel to create a consistent bevel across the full width of the iron.

As you work, remember that the friction of the grinding wheel against the iron produces tremendous heat, so cool the iron by frequently dipping the beveled edge in water to minimize the risk of “burning” it.

If the iron is poorly ground – and it seems to me that almost all used planes have poorly ground irons – it may take a while to grind an entirely new bevel on the squared-up end, but don’t hurry. If you’re too aggressive at the grinding wheel, you could burn the iron and cause it to lose its temper (and perhaps you to lose yours). You’ll know you burned the iron when it changes color, flashing a sudden rainbow against the wheel of your grinder and leaving behind a sooty edge. A burnt iron can be retempered, but it’s much easier to avoid burning the iron in the first place.

Most of my bench planes are beveled in the 25-degree range, which I’ve found to be a good compromise between performance and durability. I also use a bevel in the 33-degree range for my scrub plane, achieved by putting a 5-degree second bevel on the back of the iron. This second bevel has the effect of changing the 45-degree attack angle to a steeper 50 degrees. I’ve also experimented a bit with this bevel in smoothing planes, and I’m beginning to think it’s a useful option for planes used on figured material.

Once you’ve created a primary bevel on your grinding wheel, you’re ready to hone a microbevel – a very narrow (less than 1/32 " in width) secondary bevel. Here, too, I’ve switched from the oilstones I used for many years, to a diamond stone.

To create the microbevel, grasp the iron in both hands to maximize your control. Hold the iron so only the tip of the bevel makes contact when you rub it against the stone. You can do this with straight strokes by pulling the iron from one end of the stone back toward your body. You can also rub the iron in a circular motion across the surface of the stone. Either method produces satisfactory results.

After a half-dozen strokes, test the back side of the iron at the tip by rubbing your thumb up toward the cutting edge. Don’t draw your thumb along the edge itself because, by this time, the iron could be quite sharp, and you could slice open your thumb with only the slightest pressure.

You should feel a small burr on the back side of the cutting edge. If there is no burr, take another half-dozen strokes on your stone and recheck. If there is still no burr, either you’re holding the iron at too shallow an angle when you rub it across your stone or you need to do more work on your primary bevel at the grinding wheel.

The burr itself would act as a cutting edge, but you can attain a much better edge by working the burr back and forth on your honing stone until it falls away, leaving behind a razor-sharp edge.

POSITION THE GRINDER’S TOOL REST to create the correct bevel angle when the front face of the iron is on the rest. Slowly move the iron back and forth across the rest, keeping the edge in contact with the wheel. Continue grinding until the bevel is no more than 1/32" from the iron’s cutting edge.

HOLDING THE IRON SECURELY in both hands, create your microbevel.

STEP FOUR: Fix the Japanning

I like to own, and work with, attractive tools – I like the way they look in my shop, and the way they look in my hand. So when I recondition a plane, I don’t stop after returning it to functionality; I also pretty it up a little.

When you buy a classic Stanley on eBay, the description will usually contain a phrase that reads something like this: “80 percent of Japanning remains.” This means that 80 percent of the black paint originally applied to the plane’s unmilled metal surfaces is still there. In other words, 20 percent of the paint is gone; sometimes, where the paint is gone, the metal surfaces show rust.

I don’t like to own rusty tools or tools with flaky paint, so before I reassemble a plane, I use steel wool and sandpaper to remove all loose paint and rust. I then wash the plane with warm, soapy water and blot it dry.

Next, I carefully mask all the milled surfaces and place tape over the tapped holes in the plane body to prevent the paint from fouling the threads. Then I spray-paint the body of the plane black. I’ve recently been using a product called Rust-Oleum Hammered that produces a thick, textured surface that I find indistinguishable from the original Japanning. I’m sure, however, that an experienced tool collector wouldn’t be fooled by my paint job.

Finally, after cleaning with a soft-brass wire brush and oiling all the adjustment screws, I complete the transformation by sanding and polishing all the milled surfaces.

STEP FIVE: Reassemble

Begin reassembly by attaching the tote and knob of the No. 4. The knob will probably snug up tightly against the iron plane body. The tote, however, might not due to cross-grain shrinkage occurring in the 50-100 years these planes have been around. You can compensate for this shrinkage by grinding a little length from the threaded rod that attaches the tote to the plane’s body. Go slowly at the grinder, checking the fit as you go.

Set the cap iron so that its leading edge is about 1/16" back from the leading edge of the iron. (The cap iron – also called a “chip breaker” – is attached to the unbeveled back side of the iron.) If you don’t get a good, tight fit between the cap iron and the back of the iron, touch up the cap iron’s tip on your honing stone. Otherwise, chips might get jammed in the gap.

The frog – the cast iron wedge against which the iron is bedded – is held in place by a pair of steel machine screws turned into the plane body. In the case of the cast iron No. 4, the threads for these screws are tapped into holes drilled directly into bosses cast as part of the plane body. These machine screws pass through elongated holes in the frogs, making it possible to slide the frog forward and backward to create various throat widths. The No. 4 has a throat-adjustment screw facing the back of the plane, located below the frog. To use this adjustment screw, loosen the two machine screws holding the frog and turn the adjustment screw until you’ve positioned the frog where you want it, then retighten the two machine screws.

The iron must be securely bedded against the milled surface of the frog. If it doesn’t appear to be laying flat against those milled surfaces, use a metal file to flatten any bumps on the frog.

Throat width can have a significant effect on the performance of the plane. To make fine, finishing cuts, position the frog so that the throat is open only the thickness of three or four sheets of paper. To make heavier cuts with, for example, a cambered scrub-plane iron, you may want to open the throat to near its maximum capacity.

Then place the cap iron on the frog iron-side-down so that the movable nub in the middle of the frog (this nub controls depth-of-cut via the depth adjustment wheel) pokes through the top slot in the cap iron, and the levercap screw (the machine screw that protrudes from the face of the frog) passes through the elongated hole in the center of the cap iron.

Place the lever cap in position atop the cap iron so that the lever cap screw passes through the kidney-shaped hole in the lever cap. Allow the lever cap to settle so that its screw ends up in the narrow, upper portion of the kidney-shaped hole. Press the lever atop the lever cap upward, engaging the cam under the lever cap. This locks the blade/cap iron assembly into place. If the assembly is loose, turn the lever cap screw down until the lever cap is snugged against the cap iron. If the lever atop the lever cap can’t be pushed into the upright position, loosen the screw and retighten it with the lever in the upright position.

Invert the plane and sight along the sole. The honed edge of the iron should be just barely visible. If not, turn the depth adjustment wheel until it is. Then, working the lateral adjustment lever from side to side, align the edge of the iron with the surface of the sole until parallel.

Your reconditioned plane is now ready to make some shavings.

Was this all worthwhile? The answer, I think, is a resounding yes, and your success can be measured not only in terms of the dollars you saved by not buying new, but also by the education you received as you went through the process of reconditioning your flea-market find.

Remember that even if you buy that Lie-Nielson plane that comes ready-to-go right out of the box, even it will someday fall out-of-tune and you’ll then need the skills you acquired by refurbishing your classic Stanley.

Also – and this is maybe the most important part of the whole process – there’s that little rush you feel when you step back and admire a plane you’ve restored to its original utility and beauty. You just can’t put a price on that.

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