A Hacker's Guide to Hand Planes

A snap-in blade mechanism transforms a basic block into a super smoother. 

Many woodworkers love using wedged-blade, wooden-bodied hand planes. But for me, the aggravation of tapping a blade into adjustment outweighs any romance. The Veritas plane hardware kit rekindled my interest by introducing a modern twist. The Norris-style mechanism makes adjusting the blade of a wooden plane as easy as any metal-bodied plane.

Mid-way through building my first Krenov-style body (top), I stumbled on this kit’s real (and surprisingly, yet unsung) benefit: the potential for major modifications. The adjustment mechanism, with its rare-earth magnet core, offers an easy means to play around with different sizes, shapes, and even plane bed angles. In theory, you can try out multiple designs for the cost of few steel cups and a metal rod (to make additional cross pins).

“Hacking” a plane isn’t as hard as it sounds. Using Veritas’ directions as a starting point, I did a short production run and came up with a few jigs and tricks to save time and ensure precision. 

Departing from the manufacturer’s basic body design, I added a tote and scalloped the rear end in the style of razee planes. Many old tool users think that razees feel and perform better than their square-bodied counterparts. They claim that lowering the tote aligns the force that’s being applied so that it’s right behind the blade.

Note: The manner in which the blade attaches to the kit’s mechanism allows it to be used bevel down or bevel up. “Flipping” the blade so that the bevel faces up transforms a standard bench plane into a high-angle (70°) smoother. At this angle, the plane requires more effort to push, but it’s better able to smooth figured woods without tearout.

Order of Work

  • Prepare your stock.
  • Cut the front and rear core blocks.
  • Rout and drill a slot for the adjustment mechanism.
  • Assemble the body and add a tote.
  • Fine tune, finish, and start shaving.

One plane, many possibilities

Wooden-bodied planes are commonly made of dense, stable hardwoods, such as beech, apple, or boxwood. (I used pecan because my supplier had thick stock available.) Whatever you choose, make sure that the stock is kiln-dried.

If you think that you might like to make additional planes, I suggest that you listen to that little voice and mill extra stock now.

3 cuts make the core

In order for the plane to work properly, the ramp on which the blade rests must be dead flat and square to the sides. Achieving such perfection is much easier with a mitersaw than with hand tools. All the same, check the mitersawn ramp with a square before proceeding. (If you miscut, you can recut the same block.)

To finish the core, lay out the escapement on the front block and cut the curve on the bandsaw.

Two cuts for the core. A well-tuned mitersaw makes this step easy. Pay attention to grain direction. Cut the core so that the grain runs downhill from the front of the plane.

Make space for the shavings. Cut out a template, then lay out the escapement on the front block. Use a bandsaw to remove this section, and then sand smooth.

Make room for the mechanism

The Norris-style mechanism may be the star of this project, but in order for it to deliver a winning performance, it must be properly seated. After chiselling out the slot on my first plane, I decided to find a better way to get the job done. Routing is faster and easier, and produces cleaner results. The keys to success are making sure that your layout lines are precisely centered (tape is great for old eyes), and making test cuts before routing into the ramp.

The kit’s instructions for drilling the hole for the steel cup suggest balancing the core block on the scrap that’s produced when making the core. I decided to take things up a notch. My jig’s sandpaper-faced ramp and clamp-friendly holes and ledges kept the rear blocks in my run from shifting or slipping.

Scribe a centered slot. Set your marking gauge and then run it along both faces of your block. To make the scribed lines easier to see, I applied a few strips of painter’s tape. If the remaining strip of tape isn’t exactly 7⁄8" wide, peel it off and try again.
Rout the stopped slot. Use the back end of the rear core block to fine-tune the fence (inset). Then, flip the block over and rout the slot using a 7⁄8"-dia. straight bit. A triangular offcut serves as a perfect stop.

This jig earns its keep. Drilling a 7⁄8"-dia. hole in a 7⁄8"-wide slot is easier said than done. This jig can help. The long base and ramped face provide a means to attach clamps so that the core doesn’t move when drilling into end grain. Use the slot to position the bit, then adjust the drilling depth so that the cup sits a hair below the slot.

Assemble in stages for precise alignment

Ordinarily, gluing four pieces together isn’t a big deal, but here, a minor twist or shift could affect the plane’s performance. To avoid problems, I attached each core block separately, and used a straight edge to ensure that the bottom edges remained in perfect alignment.

The three-step glue up also offers an unobstructed view of the plane’s interior. After attaching the core blocks to one side, install the blade and lay out the hole for the cross pin from the inside. After attaching the remaining side, use the first hole to drill the second.

Start with the back. To prevent the pieces from shifting as you apply clamp pressure, set the bottom edges of your side and rear core block against a reliable straight edge. The plane’s top and ends are trimmed flush after assembly. 

Bump the block against the blade, and then clamp. To ensure a tight mouth, install the blade (bevel down), then slide the front core block so its back end touches the edge. As you cinch the clamps, check the bottom edge to make sure that the block hasn’t shifted.

Drill the crosspin holes from the inside out. Position the blade against the ramp to locate the crosspin hole, then drill as shown (left). After attaching the second side, use the drilled hole to guide the bit (below) for the mating hole.

A little off the top. Sawing the rear section transforms a rectilinear plane into a razee plane shape. To ensure a smooth curve, I drilled out the corner with a 1"-dia. Forstner bit and sawed up to the hole. 

Take your time with the tote

Compared to the sole, a well-shaped tote might seem more about form than function, but the time you spend getting this detail right will mean the difference between a go-to tool and a pretty paperweight.

I made a pattern using the tote of my favorite Stanley, but I didn’t stop there. After sawing and routing the basic profile, I used a handle maker’s rasp to customize the curves, and then hand-sanded the tote through 400 grit.

Forstners make the fairest curves. After creating a 1⁄2"-thick tenon by cutting opposing rabbets, drill out the inside curves. Extra totes allow experimental shaping for perfect comfort.
Shaping safe and simple. A 3⁄8"-radius roundover bit makes short work of initial shaping. Note that the tote’s top is left long to guide the bearing.

No substitute for hand work. Use a rasp to remove blade and bit marks and refine the shape. Foam blocks offer good backup for sandpaper. 

Aim for a tight tote. The short tenon needs to fit tightly in order for the tote to stay put. I used a Forstner bit to rough out the mortise, and then pared the sides to fit the tenon.

Note: To mount a tote on a shorter plane, simply shorten the tenon.

Assemble, tune the mouth, and start shaving!

Insert the cross pin, then drop in the mechanism and blade, and make the lever cap. (You may need to shave the cap down to fit between the blade and cross pin.) When fully assembled, the blade should bump against the front of the mouth.

To remedy this, sand the sole until the blade just slips through the mouth. 

Oil the body, hone the blade, and put your new plane to work. 

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