Block plane uses
Block planes are used to plane the end grain, to remove the milling marks from lumber made by machines, to trim small or tiny pieces to size, to bevel or round corners, to trim doors and stiles to fit into a frame and even sharpen your pencils with. Trim carpenters find it handy to trim miters of trim in situ instead of walking back to the miter saw. In this article, I dig deeper into the use of block planes.
A block plane is a versatile little tool for every woodworking workshop. A woodworker finds a myriad of uses for it. Its size makes it handy to carry it in your apron pocket around the workshop for countless little tasks.
Block planes were originally made for planing across the grain, particularly the end of the boards. It is good for paring the end grain. It is made possible by lower bed angle, allowing efficient slicing action for hard end grain fibers. Block planes are also made with a higher, normal bed angle, for more general tasks.
Woodworkers have found block plane useful for removing mill marks from the lumber. Saw marks are cleaned in a breeze and undulations from planer are no match for a mighty block plane.
When working with small wooden parts too small for power jointer or planer, or even bigger hand planes, block plane comes in handy. You can trim the small pieces easily with a small block plane. You can even clamp the block plane upside down in your vise and plane tiniest parts with ease.
Beveling or rounding the edges is one task where the block plane really shines. Compared to a router, block plane is usually as fast or faster when cutting the bevels. Setting the router takes usually so much time that block plane wins. It is also quiet and doesn’t need any dust collection or safety equipment.
Doors, drawers and other parts need often little trimming here and there. Freshly installed door binds lightly, no problem, mark the spot and trim it down a bit with a block plane, no need to take the door off. Every part that needs to be shaved just a tad narrower or shorter, the block plane comes to help.
Planing to the line. Many woodworker use block plane with a hand saw. They saw parts lightly outside the marked line and plane it to the line with a block plane resulting beautiful surface with a crisp edge.
Carpenters doing finishing work and the trim use block plane to fine tune the miters. With block plane, you can trim the miters on the go without the need to carry the wood back to outside to trim with a miter saw. Just a couple passes with a sharp block plane and you are set.
You can sharpen your pencils with it!
You can sharpen your pencils with it! Sharpening flat carpenters pencil is faster and easier with block plane than with a knife. You just need to brush off the graphite before planing wood.
Definition of a block plane
A block plane is a small and compact woodworking plane which can be used with one hand. Its blade is usually bedded at a lower pitch than its bigger bench plane brothers. The Blade is also set into a plane body bevel side up, hence it belongs to the group of the bevel-up planes.
It is claimed that block plane got its name from its traditional use to level and smooth end grain top butcher blocks.
How to adjust a block plane
Start by backing up the blade completely by screwing the depth adjustment screw counterclockwise. When completely retracted, move the block plane across a flat piece of wood, advancing the blade by turning the wheel adjuster clockwise. Stop when the blade makes contact with the wood. Check where the blade is cutting. If the blade cuts on one corner only you have to adjust the lateral alignment of the blade. Depending on the block plane type this is done by hand, Norris type adjuster or lateral adjustment lever. Adjust the blade so that shavings are coming evenly from the mouth.
Block plane techniques
How to hold the block plane
Block plane is usually meant to be held in one hand, with the palm over the curved rear part of cap-iron and the forefinger on the front knob. However, for precisely controlled cuts, block plane can also be used with two hands, your dominant hand on the rear and another hand on the front.
Begin the cut by placing more pressure on the front of the plane, and end the cut shifting the pressure toward the heel. This will ensure a flat surface along the entire surface.
Planing the end grain with a block plane
Start by checking your blade sharpness and sharpen it if necessary. The Blade needs to be sharp, not kind of sharp but really sharp! With a dull blade, you won’t have any success and potentially end up damaging your work or yourself!
Adjust the depth of the cut to whisper thin shavings. For successful end grain planing thick shavings are no go!
You could also wet the end grain with water or denatured alcohol. It makes the wood softer and reduces the cutting resistance and the power needed.
The long grain at the edge of the board is prone to tear out if left unsupported. There are three common ways to deal with this:
- Clamp a piece of scrap wood onto the edges of the board to support the long grain at the end of the cut.
- Plane from both ends toward the middle but not over the opposite edge. The drawback of this method is the difference in the finish of the end grain when planed from both directions.
- Plane small chamfer onto the end of the board and plane down to meet it.
Trimming the proud dovetail pins flush with a block plane
Use the low angle block plane. Ensure that the blade is truly sharp. Adjust the blade to take very fine shaving. Cut towards the inside of the box or drawer with a heavily skewed cut.
Beveling the edges with a block plane
Check the blade for sharpness and sharpen if necessary. Adjust the depth of the cut, aim or the little thicker cut.
Depending on the chamfer wanted you could mark the bevel with a ruler and pencil before the cut. With markings, it is easy to plane the bevels true. For small bevels, you could gauge the results by eye and plane accordingly. When chamfering the end grain skew the plane downwards for better results.
Upside down with a vice
Sometimes it is easier to turn things on its head. When planing small and/or awkward sized parts I find it useful to clamp the block plane upside down on the workbench and use it as a miniature power jointer. The only thing to note is to keep the fingertips away from the blade!
Tuning a block plane
Check my article about restoring and tuning an old block plane!
Block plane maintenance
Well cared block plane continues to work well for decades. Store your planes in a dry climate controlled room to prevent rust and corrosion. Disassemble and clean the parts periodically. Do not plane freshly glued parts as the uncured glue will harm and prevent the proper operation of the plane. Keep the blade sharp at all times and retract the blade when not in use.
If the sole wears or gets marked from nails or other foreign metal items then lap and clean the sole to prevent the plane from marking a workpiece when planing.
Block plane sharpening – how to sharpen the blade
Sharpening is one of the first basic techniques to learn when starting to use planes. Blade fresh from the factory is almost never sharp enough. Sharpness or lack of effects the way the block plane cuts. It affects how easy the plane is to work with and how safe it is to use. Sharpening consist of couple steps.
The first step – Grind the bevel
The first step is to grind a consistent bevel angle. The fastest method is to use a motor-driven grinding wheel, belt sander or water cooled grinding system like Tormek. Coarse water or oil stone can be used also. For a consistent grind, you should use a suitable jig to hold the blade at a constant angle. Jig could be shop-made or bought. The shape of the blade is almost always straight with block planes. If you plan to use block plane as a small smoothing plane, then consider shaping the edge profile gently rounded. Relieve the corners about 0.001 in.
What is a block plane bevel angle?
The suitable block plane bevel angle is from 20 to 30 degrees. Lower 20 degrees for softwood end grain and higher angle for hardwoods and planing along the grain
The second step – Flatten the back
The second step is to flatten the back of the blade. This is usually a lot of work, at least with cheaper planes. You need flat water, oil or diamond sharpening stone for the work. Thick glass plate with wet&dry sandpaper works also. The area behind the cutting edge should be polished to mirror smooth. Start with the coarse stone or grit and progress to finer stones/grits. Be really careful not to round the corners and the cutting edge by constantly keeping the blade flat.
The third step – Honing the blade
In this step, you will refine the bevel and bring the blade to near the final sharpness. This is done by honing with progressively finer water, oil or diamond stones or wet&dry papers with a glass plate.
I like to do honing freehand without any jigs. I use Ohishi Toishi water stones in 1000 and 3000 grits. My method is to form a micro bevel. This is done by pressing the bevel on the stone with my left-hand index finger and feeling when the bevel “clicks” or “snaps” to the surface, then with my right hand I raise the angle just a little bit. Then I lock my hand to keep the angle of blade constant and start to move the blade up and down in small figure eights. After 10 to 20 figure eights I change to finer stone and do another 10-20 figures.
Fourth and final step – polishing the blade
The blade is almost ready. In this step, the blade is polished and refined with very fine grit stone or leather strop. Ohishi Toishi 10000 grit water stone is my choice. Do exactly same moves as in honing step, 10-20 figure eights and the bevel is ready.
Finally, you must polish the back. I use the ruler trick devised by David Charlesworth. It speeds up the process greatly:
Place the steel ruler on one long edge of the stone, move it back and forth couple times so the friction with water will suck it into a place. Place the blade on the stone with the cutting edge overhanging slightly. With a light pressure pull the blade about 5⁄8″ onto the stone. This short stroke is enough to remove the wire edge and polish the back of the blade.
Clean the blade and insert it into the plane and set it up. Enjoy the sharp tool.
The best block plane for the beginner?
My opinion is that a beginner should invest in a best quality block plane they could afford. And the reason for this is: Block planes, and all the other planes too, are quite complex tools to adjust and use. A complete noob with hand planes will be overwhelmed if the plane is not working well. There are so many variables to tinker with if something is wrong. High-quality planes tend to work well out of the box, just a little bit of honing for the blade is required for superb performance, whereas cheaper planes require more tuning to get them working. So for a beginner, I recommend high-quality block planes such as Lee Valley, Lie Nielsen or Clifton. The tool, although higher priced, won’t disappoint you and will see major, trouble-free use in your workshop for many decades.
When the woodworker have gained more experience with planes in general, he or she could look for vintage or cheaper tools which, with a little tuning, could be good tools also.
Read more about choosing the best block plane from my recent article: Block plane – the best tool for many trades
Block plane manufacturers
The classic brand that started it all is Stanley. Stanley has been making planes since the 19th century. In the past, Stanley made good quality planes that were used in almost every workshop. However modern versions of Stanley planes lack the quality and finesse of its predecessors. New Stanley planes need lots of tinkering and tuning and I don’t recommend them for beginners. After thorough set-up, they work well though. A vintage Stanley plane is a good buy if in a good shape.
Lie-Nielsen is a famous American manufacturer of good quality woodworking tools. Lie-Nielsen planes are the benchmark to which every other plane is compared. Planes are made with a ductile iron and manganese bronze. Strong recommendation if looking for the best quality.
Another North American tool manufacturer, proudly made in Canada. High-quality tools, with a modern thinking, qualitywise in par with Lie-Nielsen. As an owner of many Veritas tools, I recommend them highly.
Clifton is a British maker of premium quality bench planes. Clifton planes are made in Sheffield (England)
Kunz is a German manufacturer know historically from its green colored planes. Currently makes two product lines; cheaper “green” line and premium Kunz Plus line.
Quangshen or Qiangshen is a Chinese maker of hand planes. Qiangshen is a contract manufacturer which produces planes under many brands. Brands originated from it are at least: Luban, Dakota, Woodcraft, Juuma, Dictum and Alex. Quality depends on buyers contract requirements and range from mediocre to high quality. Good quality and value for the money is possible.
Anant is an old Indian manufacturer of carpentry tools. It makes iron bodied bench planes under its Anant brand. They are generally lower quality compared to western makers. Substantial set-up and tuning is required to make planes work well.