How to choose and use woodworking’s most popular trimmer
It’s no secret that I love hand planes and own way too many of them–about 250 at last count. Many of them perform highly specialized tasks and don’t see use very often. But there’s one type of plane that’s a stand-out exception: the block plane. In fact, when I’m asked by beginning woodworkers what plane they should start out with, that’s the one that always tops the list.
The ubiquitous block plane is probably owned by more people than any other hand plane. Available in a variety of configurations (as shown above), it’s small, relatively inexpensive, and even kind of cute. But it’s definitely not a toy. Properly set up and tuned, a good quality block plane is adept at handling all sorts of shop chores and is likely to become one of your most used hand tools. I’ll discuss what to look for in a good block plane, how to set one up, and how to use it to your best advantage. Once you make friends with a block plane, you’ll wonder how you did without one.
Figure 2b: Low Angle Block Plane with 25° blade. Good for cutting end grain.
Figure 2c: Low Angle Block Plane with 38° blade. Good for planing difficult stock.
What to look for in a block plane
As shown in Figure 1 and Photo A, a block plane is a fairly basic tool. That said, for good performance, avoid cheap, rudimentary hardware store versions. The most important features to look for in a good block plane include a flat sole, a reliable and easy-to-use depth-of-cut adjustment, and an adjustable throat. You’ll also want the tool to feel comfortable in your hand.
Unlike most bench planes, the block plane blade is installed bevel up. In addition to supporting the blade at the cutting edge, this orientation makes it easy to adjust the cutting angle to match the job. As shown in Figure 2a, a standard block plane has a bedding angle of 20°. Adding the standard blade angle of 25° gives you a cutting angle of 45°, which is comparable to standard bench planes. While this angle is fine for planing long grain on most woods, it’s not very good for end grain or gnarly woods.
For a block plane to work well, its parts must be machined accurately so they fit together well and the mechanisms work smoothly.
The low-angle block plane at left is much better for cutting end grain than its standard-angle companion.
Some manufacturers offer a low-angle block plane with a bedding angle of 12°, as shown in Figure 2b. Coupling this with a standard blade angle of 25° yields a cutting angle of 37°, which is better suited for cleanly slicing end grain. On the downside, this lower cutting angle may produce tear-out on some harder woods, especially in areas of grain reversal.
Forced to choose between a standard or a low-angle block plane, I’d take the latter because it offers more working options. In addition to superior end-grain-cutting ability with a 25° blade angle, a low-angle plane can be outfitted with replacement blades ground to suit other work. For example, grind a replacement blade to 33°, and you have duplicated the 45° cutting angle of a standard-angle block plane for planing with the grain on most woods. Taking it a step further, a blade ground to 38° yields a 50° cutting angle, as shown in Figure 2c. This “York pitch” is great for working highly figured wood. For the nastiest stock, grind a blade at 50° to create a cutting angle of 62°, which virtually eliminates tear-out (although the plane will be much harder to push).
Of course, you can also outfit a standard block plane with a modified blade angle. For example, putting a blade with a 38° angle on a standard block plane produces a cutting angle of 58°, eliminating tear-out. Mix and match. You get the idea.
Above all else, a truly sharp blade is key to successful planing. For a quick, foolproof way to hone your blade to perfection, see the video at woodcraftmagazine.com by clicking on Videos.
Cleaning, tuning, and setting
Whether new or used, a block plane will likely need some cleaning and tune-up. Disassemble the plane, and clean all the parts with mineral spirits, scrubbing them if necessary with a brass brush or steel wool. If a straightedge indicates the sole isn’t flat, make it so by rubbing it on successively finer grits of carborundum paper adhered to plate glass or your jointer table with the blade installed and fully retracted. Use a fine file to remove any metal burrs, especially around the throat opening and body edges. Lubricate all mechanisms with a light oil, sharpen the blade, and reassemble the plane.
Set up to cut by first adjusting the blade laterally to project evenly across its width. To do this, tension the lever cap for a slightly snug fit by adjusting the lever cap screw. Then project the blade just enough to see its entire edge when sighting down the sole, and adjust it as shown in Photo C.
As a rough gauge, I check the projection at each end of the blade with my thumb as I tap. Re-sight and repeat if necessary. (Some block planes include a lateral adjustment mechanism, but I don’t consider them essential.)
Next, turn the blade-adjusting screw to set the depth of cut for the job at hand. For fine cuts, this may be only be a few thousandths of an inch. If your plane sports an adjustable throat, open it just enough to prevent clogging (Photo D). A wide gap is OK for heavy stock removal, but a tight throat is preferable because it keeps the wood fibers from lifting ahead of the blade and tearing out.
Always retract, and then advance, the blade to “sneak up” on the depth of cut. Don’t set the projection while retracting the blade, or else backlash in the adjustment mechanism will allow the blade to slide backward in use. Once your adjustments yield the desired depth of cut and a full-width shaving of uniform thickness, snug down the lever cap. It should be tight enough to stay in place while allowing further blade adjustments during the course of your work.
Using a block plane
A block plane is my go-to tool for all sorts of chores. For example, it’s much faster and cleaner than sanding when it comes to removing saw marks from end grain (Photo E). To avoid splitting away the fibers at the end of the cut, plane inward toward the center from each end.
Another very common block plane operation is flush-trimming solid wood edging on plywood panels (Photo F). Along the same lines, it’s great for leveling protruding dovetail pins and box joint fingers (Photo G).
The list goes on: the plane will clean up mill marks and break and bevel edges, including back-beveling the non-hinged edge of a door for swing clearance. Other uses include adjusting door and drawer front gaps, chamfering the edges of table tops, and shaping and smoothing convex surfaces. You can even set it up as a miniature shooting board plane for trimming the ends of small parts.
Although the natural inclination is to use a block plane one-handed, most precision operations demand two-handed control. Applying firm downward pressure at the front of the plane with one hand while powering the tool forward with your other hand provides better command over the tool.
About Our Author
Craig Bentzley has been restoring antiques and building furniture for nearly 40 years. In addition to writing, Craig also teaches at guilds, woodworking shows, and at Woodcraft stores.