Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Used Hand Planes part 2: what you're looking for

In this part, I'm going to cover what's good and bad in bench planes. Some things can be fixed, and some things should be avoided. Some parts are easily (and often should be) replaced, and some parts are really important to get right when buying your used plane. First, I'm posting a nice diagram (on the left) showing the parts of a bench plane so you understand what I'm talking about. It was an illustration from an Ian Kirby article in Fine Woodworking.

#1: the Frog

I'm putting the frog as numero uno here because I think it is the most important thing that makes a bench plane work well AND is the most difficult to replace. Every used plane I've looked at has included the frog and the main casting. it might be missing any one or more of the other parts, but always the frog and main casting. The pairing of the two is something specific to the plane itself, and most often the only way to interchange parts is to find another used plane of the same make and model (and year as well). Many changes that a company like Stanley would make over the years included how the frog attached to the bottom casting. Looking back through the type history of Stanleys in particular, some of the main differences were in the receiving area for the frog in the base. Of most importance is that the frog seats solidly to the base and has lots of support. If there is too much play between the frog base and the casting, this will contribute to plane chatter and poor performance. There are steps you can take to help flatten this junction, but a weak connection between the frog and base is hard to fix. So, make sure that the frog fits properly to the base casting.
The second thing to look for is the surface area on the face of the frog. The more solid surface for the blade to rest on, the less flex in your blade and the better your plane will perform. Check the next pic. Notice how the frogs on the right and in the middle has some casted detentes across their faces? that made it easier for the manufacturer to mill the faces flat, but it sacrifices surface area. Combine that with a thin blade and poor frog to base connection and your plane will likely chatter across the wood like a jack hammer.
And lastly, pay attention to what the frog is made of. My stepfather picked up a #5 for me one time that had a stamped steel frog. It was flimsy and offered no support to the blade, nor was it "tunable" to any degree. run awayyyyy........

#2: the Base Casting

This one is number two, because if the casting is bad then there is little you can do with the plane. When shopping for a used plane, take along a reliable straight edge and check the sole with it front to back, side to side, and diagonal from each corner. Any twisted or severely warped castings, just walk away from. You might need to flatten your sole a bit in the tuning process, but if you have 1/16 - 3/32 inch of dish across the sole bottom then you can find one in better shape. Now, as long as the heel, toe, and areas immediately forward and behind the mouth are level with each other, then your plane is serviceable. Just remember that the used plane market is saturated with tons of offerings and you shouldn't have to settle for a bad tool.
Also, look for cracks in the casting. These can be hard to find because the opposing sides often fit back together like a puzzle piece. They can be barely noticeable unless you slightly twist the casting. Places to look for are at the mouth and along the broadest side areas (cheeks) in particular. They can be repaired, but great care must be taken. I have read and talked to guys that have braised them to stabilize the crack with good results. Having no experience in welding, I didn't want to attempt it. I have read that the only way to properly fix a crack in cast iron is arc welding. check the third and fourth pic above. That is a type 9 Stanley #7 with just such a crack. I entrusted it to a friend of a friend that does artistic metal work, and he arc welded it for me. The casting is solid, but pretty ugly. With that kind of fix, it is doubtful the side would ever be square enough to use in a shooting board. Still, it is solid with a flat sole and should hold up to my occasional use over the years.

#3: Lever Cap and assorted parts

The lever cap is important, but is usually very interchangeable with other planes. Sometimes you run into a longer than usual lever cap or one that is hinged (see pic 5), but many of the lever caps from the same company and even different companies can be used as replacements. the other parts like the depth adjuster knob, the tote and knob mounting hardware, the lever cap screw can all be replaced if need be. Granted, it's much easier when your plane has everything to begin with, but if you MUST have a particular plane that is missing parts, then replacements can be had pretty easily. I will post some sites to get replacement parts at the end.

#4: the Tote and Knob

The tote (or handle) and front knob are easy to replace. In fact, I would think if someone actually did a statistic on what is the most common part of a used bench plane that is broken it would be the tote. One advantage to having the original tote and knob is - for Stanley Planes in particular - it helps type date the plane. But, replacements are easy to find and sometimes more desirable. In fact, if you don't have a serious collector's plane you might WANT to make new ones from cocobolo, walnut, bubinga, curly maple, or other nice woods to personalize the plane. I plan to do this in the future for some of my planes, and naturally plan to post a blog entry about it.

some links about tote and knob repair:


#5: the blade and chip breaker

Yup - I listed them last, and for good reason. After market blades and chip breakers are readily available from Hock, as well as Lee Valley and Lie Neilson to name a few (I'll leave links to their sites at the end of this post). In fact, unless your cutting iron (or blade) and cap iron (or chip breaker) are in very good shape and nice and thick, I would suggest replacing them eventually (or immediately if the old ones are in poor shape). The performance difference is significant with such after market blade sets, by virtue of their thickness alone. Some manufacturers of economy planes used lesser quality blade steel for their blades, and as a result have a difficult time holding an edge well. A new Hock blade will sharpen up and hold an edge much better than many original blades sets, and the extra thick blade will help compensate for a weak frog as well.

Obviously, if the plane is broken in some way or is missing parts, it's best to just look for another one. If you really have to have a particular one or someone buys one for you that is missing parts, than many parts are very replaceable. Some things - like a missing lateral adjustment lever - can be compensated for (I do this for my #7 - just use a lightweight tool to tap it into position). But, I hope I stressed the more important things to look for. Inspect the frog well, and the casting too. Finding a quality plane at a good price is not hard, once you know what you're looking for. Hopefully I got you on the right track, but I welcome any questions or input from you guys. I'm sure you all have stories to tell about your hand plane purchases and what you've learned along the way.

Here are some links to new and used bench plane parts:


Next up, I'm going to renovate one of my new planes and go over the whole process for you. Let's hope that one won't take as long as these other two :) If you can't wait, and want much more on hand planes, check this site out:


This is one of the best hand plane sites I've ever found for restoring, tuning, and dating a used plane.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Used Hand Planes part 1: The Stanley "Rule"

So, ebay hand plane purchases have been all the rage over the last couple of weeks in the Woodwhisperer chat room! Even I got on the bandwagon and bought 3 more smoothers. At around $23 a piece with shipping, how could I resist? When it comes to planes, I'm talking about bench planes. Block planes are pretty user friendly in both use and function, but bench plane use seems to come about as a turning point in your woodworking. There's something about buying, tuning, and using your first bench plane that is both excitingly new and nostalgic, simultaneously. Now, I'm not sure how I became a hand plane data base overnight and granted I'm not always right (thinking about a certain Sargent jointer, right Vic?), but I have acquired a bit of knowledge that I thought would be helpful to all of you who are just starting out with bench planes in particular. This is the first in a three post series about choosing, buying, and tuning a used bench plane.

When it comes to iron bench planes, the standard is Stanley. This is ironic, because Stanley has ended up near the bottom of the barrel when it comes to the new hand plane makers of today. However, rewind 60 to 100 years, and now we are in the Stanley era. Many of you probably already know that Leonard Bailey developed the iron bench plane design that has become the industry standard back in 186 0's. After a decade or so as the story goes, Stanley Rule and Level Co. hired Bailey and acquire d the patents to his bench plane design. Bailey left not too long after but continued to produce bench planes under the names Bailey, Victor, and Defiant (here's a link to the detailed story: http ://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/bailey.html ). Unfortunately, Stanley Rule and Level Co. eventually ran him out of business. They were the king of bench planes and a load of companies tried to keep up. Sargent, Miller's Falls, Union, Ohio, Keen Kutter, and others produced very good quality planes using the Bailey design. Then came World War Two. Many manufacturing plants had to do double duty, producing tools and parts fo r the war effort as well as try to continue to make the products they had been making all along. You will find a bit of confusion trying to date a Stanley plane from this era, mainly because there was a lot of mixing and matching parts from different years just to put bench planes on the shelves. After the war, Stanley looked to the future, and saw more mass production as the answer. The problem with this mentality was that the quality of their planes started to suffer. You can see it in the first picture of pre and post WW2 Stanley Bailey plane frogs. The pre WW2 frog is almost solid across its face, yet the post war Bailey has cast detentes in it. This allowed for quicker milling of the frog to speed production, but gives the cutter less over all support. In the second pic, you can see how less attention is payed to making the base of the frog solid. A slippery slope...

(bailey type 9; post WW2 bailey; 1950s Defiance)

bailey type 9, post WW2 bailey, 50's defiance)

(Stanley Bailey, Sargent VBM, Miller's Falls)
So here's where the tides changed. Looking at the post WW2 examples to the left, you can see that the Miller's Falls and Sargent frogs have a pre-war Bailey design compared to the Stanley of the same era. Much better design, obviously, and consistent with today's high quality bench planes from makers like Lie-Neilson.

(Miller's Falls #900; Stanley Defiance)

And here's yet another example where Stanley cut corners. The frog on the right is from a Stanley Defiance model - one of their post-war economy models. The frog face surface area is even less than the post-war Bailey. The plane on the left is a post-war Miller's Falls #900 - their economy model offering into the 1950's. Notice any glaring difference? Which one would you think will chatter the most?

(Miller's Falls #900; Miller's Falls #9C)

Here's two Miller's Falls planes side by side - their premium #9 and their economy #900. Now you get why I'm a fanatical Miller's Falls fan, right? You can clearly see that their frogs are almost identical. in fact, the only differences I can find are purely cosmetic. I happen to now own two of each...after a good week of ebay auctions, that is. I think this illustrates the point that while Stanley was cutting corners in vital areas of their design, other companies cut costs with cosmetics while maintaining quality.

So, don't be afraid to look at something other than a Stanley. You might just find something better, ultimately. My next post will cover bench plane parts, design features, usual damage areas, and potential pit falls to avoid when buying a used bench plane.


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Book report: "Hand Tool essentials" by Popular Woodworking

Ok , I know I'm on a roll. I promise to try to keep this post a little shorter then the last one :)

So, I'd like to do a book report periodically. My learning has been MOSTLY from books, DVDs, magazines, web sites, and - without question - podcasts. I've listed some of my favorite woodworking web sites, blogs, and podcasts in the sidebar for you to explore, but I understand books are a different story....um, literally and figuratively. So, if I come accross a book that I think is easy and enjoyable to read as well as extremely informative, I don't hesitate to reccomend it.

Disclaimer: I understand that everyone learns differently, is at different levels in their woodworking, and might not find what I find as entertaining. That doesn't mean that I will refund your costs for a book that you didn't find as helpful as I did. Just thought I should make that clear. ;)

"Hand Tool essentials: refine your power tool projects with hand tool techniques" by Popular Woodworking
So I was drawn to this book mainly because of the title...ok, and because "The Schwarz" wrote a third of the book alongside such greats as Lonnie Bird, David Charlesworth, Frank Klausz, and well, the list goes on. In fact, there were fourteen writers and editors from Popular Woodworking Magazine that contributed chapters to this book. It's the phlilosophy of the book that I love the most. The book starts with chapters about how hand tools fit in a power tool shop, how to shop for used tools, and considerations about how to set up your workbench area to use hand tools. Then on to the sharpening. And more sharpening. Nine chapters on sharpening covering everything from waterstones to sand paper and plane irons to drawknives. The theory being that the biggest obstacle to hand tool proficiency is not learning to sharpen them properly. I was inclined to agree. I think back to using dull tools and all the frustration that goes with them (no wonder why it's so easy to embrace power tools and their replaceable bits and blades).
Then comes ten chapters on hand planes, starting with Chris Schwarz's run down of "Coarse, Medium, & Fine" - his well known take on how to approach milling boards with hand planes and/or power tools. The hand plane-fest continues with plane type explinations, restoring used planes, wooden planes, metal planes, infill planes, smoothing planes, block planes, shoulder planes, and how to edge joint by hand. Part 4 takes you to saws - west vs. east, techniques to sawing properly, a chapter on hand cut dovetails, and one on bench hooks. Part 5 is five chapters on chisel use, restoration, and modification. Part 6 includes chapters on awls, striking and marking knives, try squares, rasps, spokeshaves, and drawboarding. Finally - and if that isn't enough - you get chapters on making a Roubo-Style workbench, a wall hung tool cabinet, traditional sawbenches, and a chapter on a shooting board. Phew.....
I have re-read it three times and still use it as a reference. The illustrations and pictures were excellent. At the end of many chapters were references for supply costs and where to find the supplies needed for the tools and techniques mentioned in that chapter. Although some of the info was a bit basic for me, I thought it was necessary for the content. If you have years of fine woodworking experience then you might not find it as informative as I did. But if you're new to woodworking or have limited hand tool knowlege then I think you might find this book very helpful. Check out the book listing below on Amazon - they have a nice preview of the table of contents and some of the introduction.
I hate to say that Popular Woodworking offers this book on their site for $25, but Amazon offeres it for $16.50 with free shipping. Sorry Pop WWing, but a deal is a deal ;)
If yougot any specific questions about content details, feel free to post them.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hand tools: and the fear they strike in the heart of the modern day woodworker...

While in the Woodwhisperer chat room today the topic got on to hand planes. Clint and Meister had just bought a few each on ebay, and Jeff was salivating over the new Veritas Skew Rabbet Planes. I, of course, was egging them all on (especially Jeff - he needs to redirect his frustration with Lie-Neilson's impending price increases anyway). We talked about hand plane choices, what you need compared to what you want, and rehabilitating the used ones. As the topic rolled along I got into a side chat with Dave about hand tool skills, our lack of confidence in their use, and good web sites to learn from. Naturally, all that talk about hand tools got me a-ponderin'. Why all the apprehension? I mean, really - why do we get so anxious and fanatical about using hand tools? Hell, I know so many fellow woodworkers that feel more comfortable mortising a hinge with a roto-zip then with a chisel. How come we feel so unworthy - as if using a non-powered tool is somehow harder and requires more skill then a powered one?

The more I thought about it, the more hungry I got so I ordered some lunch. Thank God for delivery. And it was a really good burger, too.

After lunch my thoughts turned once more to the hand tool thing, but this time I had an epiphany. I started thinking about my childhood, and the woodworking I did with my grandfather. And the woodworking I did in shop class. And all the lame projects that followed. And I realized that it came down to a matter of trusting myself. Now, I don't know how many of you started woodworking at an early age, but I can truly say that I sucked as a woodworker when I was young. It started with grandpa, but it wasn't his fault. Since I was 5 years old, who could blame him for his hesitation in letting me use the table saw? Still, my shop teachers probably could've spent some time helping us kids build up our confidence with hand tools. The only project that I can remember early on was a candle stick holder made with wood and wraught iron. I think we spent more time bending the iron then we did cutting wood.

Then came 9th grade. Mom and I moved down to Dallas from Syracuse and I was a lost, little yankee among all those good 'ole boys. Thankfully, I managed to find a couple of Texans who didn't want to run me out of town - one of which was my shop teacher. Finally, real projects on big power tools! I made a table top writing desk and got to turn some cool things on the lathe for extra credit. I even won the "Most Improved in Shop" award for the 1982-83 school year (you can look it up). But the desk and the lathe projects and the award weren't the biggest thing I took away from that school year. It was the realization that only the best projects are made with big, expensive power tools. This notion was unfortunately confirmed by such shows as The New Yankee Workshop. I would watch in awe as Norm managed to pull out special power tool after special power tool. I came to the obvious conclusion that those beautiful projects were way out of my reach to build. How could they be? I didn't have the space or money to build such a shop nor the time or freedom to study under such a master. So, I abandoned the dream of making guitars and grandfather clocks, and resigned myself to a life of DiY projects.

Now, I'm not blaming my shop teachers, Norm, or certainly not my grandfather for my lack of confidence with hand tools over the years. But I think I can see how it happened. My examples of how to make nice things were from guys that learned on hand tools when they were young and graduated up to power tools in their life times. Marc (the Wood Whisperer)once mentioned that he thought most of our generation learned it backwards, and I couldn't agree more. Our fathers and grandfathers and shop teachers were just going with the most efficient tools of the trade, but they had a firm rooting in the basics already. By the time we came along, all we saw were power tools being the tools of choice. they were the most accurate and efficient, right? But I must've screwed up plenty of circular saw cuts in my day. And I didn't pick up a router and rout a perfect dado right off the bat. And I don't think I've ever cut a straight line with a jig saw. And I don't think I've drilled more than a couple dozen holes perfectly straight in my lifetime. Yet, why should I be so nervious to pick up a chisel and cut a mortise by hand? Why can't I cut that tenon with a hand saw? I know why. Because some where in the back of my mind is a gnawing thought that my hands can't do the job as well as a power tool can. That's what I learned, after all these years. That principle has imprinted so deep for many of us, that the measure of quality is directly associated with the amount of hand tool use employed in a given project. To a great extent it's true. But where we handicap ourselves as woodworkers is in thinking that such skills are barely obtainable, when they take just as much practice (or as little, for that matter) as you spent learning to use that router.

There was a great post in the Wood Whisperer Town Square Forum the other day about being a "galoot" - a.k.a. hand tool lover. I added a post about a very recent encounter I had over remortising a door catch that wouldn't latch properly for my father. I had a number of power tools at my disposal (including two Dremmels and a Roto-zip with all the fixings). But when it came time to do the job, I grabbed the chisel, sharpened it right there with some sand paper, and refit the catch in a minute or two with just that chisel. A warmth of satisfaction came over me. It felt comfortable. I felt comfortable with that chisel. Confident. It wasn't just a feeling of trust in the tool... I finally trusted myself.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

the pilot episode...of sorts

So, here goes. I've always been outspoken, and those who know me would not be surprised that I would finally start a blog. Now, it may be a bit narcissistic of me starting a wood working blog when I really don't have a vast amount of training in fine wood working - my experience has been primarily utilitarian projects through the years. Still, I have a deep love of wood working and am finally at a point in my life where financial and spacial resources have converged, opening the door for me to explore a hobby that I've been interested in since pre-school. Ironically, at the same time there has been a monumental surge in wood working blogs, sites, podcasts, books, and DVDs that has brought years of experience to the inexperienced who thirst for the knowledge that was previously unobtainable to most. We, the lost galoots. We look to conjure, create, and form the sculptures we always knew we could produce. Oh, and make a few things for our families, too.

My intention for this blog is simply a channel to share my journey with all of you. I have a few shop phases to develop, a few hand planes and saws to tune up, and a few projects to toil over. So, let the blogging begin.....