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.



TJIC said...


Good info.

I bought Record planes from Lee Valley a few years ago, but if I had it to do over again, I'd go the used route (I've got a few other handtools that I've bought used and restored, and I'm happy with that approach).

On a different topic, can I ask you to drop me an email? I'd like to mention my firm (which rents out woodworking DVDs), but I don't like to leave links in blog comments - it seems kind of spammy and sleazy. Please drop me an email at TJIC (at) smartflix (dot) com.

Thanks, and keep up the great blogging!

Vic Hubbard said...

Wow Mike!! I'm glad you mentioned you'd been busy writing, over on the forum. I've been really busy and didn't realize I'd fallen so far behind. I'm glad I have a galoot source for my newest direction in wood.

Michael Marzullo said...

glad to help your addiction, Vic!