Molding Plane Basics

Over the past couple of months I have received several emails from customers and readers of my blog interested in getting started with molding planes. Specifically, folks want to know what planes are used for which woodworking tasks, how to choose a plane, and what would be considered a good starter kit. This article is an attempt to answer these basic questions and provide a framework for more detailed articles in the future. I am going to try to provide some basic information on the basic types of molding planes along with some basic things to look for when shopping for a plane and how these planes are used.

Some background: I have been interested in hand tools and wooden planes in particular for about 10 years. I enjoy collecting molding planes and using them in my woodworking whenever possible. I also like making molding planes, something that has helped me to understand how they work and how to tweak and tune them. I am by no means an expert. I welcome your thoughts, comments, questions, and criticisms. I intend to be a article to be a work in progress, something that is updated and revised based on your feedback.

Some Basics

A molding plane is a very simple tool- it is a chunk of wood, almost always beech, that holds a  blade (the iron). The blade is inserted into a mortise cut through the body at an angle and held in place with a wooden wedge. The front of the plane is the toe- this is where the maker’s mark is normally stamped. The rear is the heel. The bottom, where the blade projects is the sole. The slot in the side where the shavings are ejected is the escapement.

A molding plane blade is generally bedded at 45 degrees to the sole of the plane, though British planes commonly used 50 degrees (York pitch) or higher. As the bedding angle increased, the action of the plane iron becomes more of a scraping action, and less of a shearing action. This is the same effect as increasing the effective cutting angle of a bench plane. The benefit to a higher pitch is that the plane will perform better on hardwoods with difficult grain. The cost is a plane that is harder to push and has a reduced usable edge life.

Why Use Molding Planes?

Molding planes are extremely effective tools- quick to setup and easy to use. Molding planes can take the place of most router bits and leave a much cleaner surface than any router can. Plane irons shear wood fibers, leaving a perfectly smooth surface ready for finishing. A router bit, no matter how sharp, leaves a scalloped surface behind. Now, if you are running 1,000 linear feet of crown molding, a router/shaper is the way to go. If you want to quickly add a bead detail to a door or table apron, tweak a rabbet, or cut a few dados, you can grab a molder and have it done in seconds. It’s also much easier to quickly wreck a piece using a power tool than with a molding plane. Not to mention the dust, noise, and danger inherent in power tools. But, if you are a Galoot woodworker, or heading down that slope, I hardly need to make that argument to you.

Collectabiltiy vs.Usability

There are several factors that determine the value of a wooden plane- the maker, the condition, and the type of plane. There is a high demand from collectors for early American wooden planes, especially those from the 18th century, and those by well-documented plane makers. There are some makers whose mark on an ordinary looking plane make it worth thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars. While these marks are rare, it’s usually best to research a plane’s maker before trying to put it to use. It’s probably not a good idea to try to use, and potentially ruin, an early American plane which could be worth the cost of an entire fleet of more ordinary molding planes. I have listed some books in the resources section at the end of this article that can help identify a plane’s maker.  The type of plane also has an impact on its value. In general, the more complex or scarce a profile the plane cuts, the more it is worth. The common profiles and plane types discussed below are usually fairly inexpensive in comparison to more complex planes. As with any collectible, condition is key. A plane in excellent condition is worth more than a plane in poor condition. Chips cracks, checks, missing blades or boxing all detract from a plane’s value. However, just because a plane isn’t cosmetically perfect doesn’t mean it won’t make a good user. I have some ugly planes in my collection that work very well.

Some Basic Planes

Rabbet Planes

General Features: The rabbet plane is one of the simplest molding planes yet also one of the most versatile. They are very easy to setup and use. They are also incredibly common and are usually very inexpensive.  Rabbet planes have a flat sole that is square to the sides of the plane body.

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The two rabbet planes I use the most- a 7/8in. with nicker and a big 2in.

The blade is slightly wider than the sole of the plane and projects out both sides. The allows a rabbet plane to cut flush to an edge, just like its metallic counterparts. Most rabbet planes have skewed blades which makes them slightly easier to work in hard and difficult woods. Some rabbet planes have nickers mounted on the right hand side of the plane. The nicker can be lowered when working across the grain. It acts as a knife, slicing the wood fibers in front of the blade leaving a crisp shoulder. High-end rabbet planes had boxed soles, though these are fairly rare. You will often find rabbet planes with holes in the sole- remnants of a fence being temporarily secured to the sole.

Uses: Rabbet planes can cut rabbets, but ironically, they do not excel at this. Without a fence or depth stop they cannot cut the rabbet width or depth precisely.  Where rabbet planes excel is in tweaking other joints. It can be used upright or on its side to tweak the depth or width of a rabbet cut by a fillister plane. It can trip a tongue and groove joint for a perfect fit.  It can be used like a shoulder plane to adjust a tenon cheek or the lone edges of a panel for a frame and panel door. Rabbet planes are also key when making built-up moldings with hollows and rounds. The rabbet plane, which is much easier to sharpen, is used to hog off the waste between the molding profiles while the hollow and round molding plane is used as sparingly as possible. The rabbet plane is also capable of very coarse work. The skew-blade variety can remove a lot of material very fast. The sound they make as their skewed blades move through wood is quite unique- sounding almost like a huge zipper. You will often find these planes in rough shape, evidence of their being used for coarse work.

Things to look for: Make sure the blade is in good condition. The mouth should be fairly tight. The body should not be twisted (put it on a known flat surface like a jointer table or surface plate and check if it rocks) and the sole should be close to 90 degrees to the sides of the plane.

Most rabbet planes have skewed blades. Some have nickers to help work cross-grain.

Fillisters. General Features: The fillister plane comes in several varieties. The most common and the most useful in my opinion is the moving fillister. An adjustable fence and depth stop allows the plane to be set to cut a rabbet of a precise depth and width. The addition of a nicker in front of the blade helps it maintain a clean cut when working across the grain. The better planes will have the nicker blade bedded in a mortise in the side of a the plane, a wedge holding it tight. More commonly the wedge is dovetailed into the side of the plane. I’d suggest moving the wedge out of the way when cutting with the grain where it is not needed. The dovetailed nickers usually do not have the grip to hold the wedge up away from the sole. The only option in that case is to remove the nicker, risking that it could be lost. Judging by the number of planes I find with missing nickers, this happens a lot. Most planes have boxing on the right hand edge of the plane’s sole where most of the wear occurs.

Uses: This plane cuts a rabbet and can be used both with and across the grain. Useful when making ship-lap boards, raised and fielded panels, and complex moldings with hollows and rounds. Functionally equivalent (though a much better performer and easier on the hands) to a Stanley 78.

Things to look for: Make sure the blade is in good condition. The depth stop should move freely and stay put when set. Make sure that the screws that hold the fence in place have not stripped out. This is a common problem. Ensure that the nicker is present and has some life to it. If the nicker is loose in its dovetail this is not a deal-breaker- it can be easily fixed.  Most important- over time as the blade is sharpened and reduced in length the relief angle, the bevel on the side of the iron, must be updated and ground. Otherwise the plane will not cut square to the face of the board. See Larry Williams DVD for an excellent example of how to sharpen and tune this plane. The nicker should be sharp. NEVER sharpen or put a bevel on the outer face of the nicker. This is a sure way to prevent the plane from cutting a square rabbet. Nickers are often made of softer steel than the blade. Most nickers can be sharpened with just a mill file. Check the boxing to make sure it in good condition especially the leading corner in front of the blade- this is where the worst of the wear will occur.

Side Beads
General Features: The side bead cuts a bead at the edge of a board. It has an integral fence and depth stop. It is a simple plane to use- hold it upright against the edge of a board and plane until it stops cutting. Very simple. These planes are always boxed- at a minimum the “quirk” of the bead is boxed. Better planes are completely boxed.

Uses: A bead detail is useful anywhere you want to add interest to an edge- along a table skirt for example. It also serves to soften a sharp edge, protecting legs and the edge from splintering. A bead is also a good idea anywhere you want to distract the eye from a joint where two things meet- along a the vertical lines of a door, or along the edge of a ship-lap back of a case piece. The bead hides subtle variations in the edges from the viewer. The quirk of a bead is also a good place to hide a nail.

Things to look for: Again, make sure the blade has no major pitting. Re-grinding small side bead blades is a real pain. Also make sure that the plane hasn’t twisted- sight down the sole of the plane along the boxed quirk and make sure there is no deviation. If there is the plane will get bound up in use. They are common so make sure you find a good one.

Dados

General Features: Dado planes are unmistakable. They have a main blade much like a rabbet plane. The blade is skewed and the escapement is almost always conical. Dados are equipped with a double-pointed nicker that sits in front of the blade. The nicker’s knife edges score the wood fibres before the blade comes by and scoops them out. Some form of depth stop is also present. This may be a thumbscrew-adjusted brass or steel plate, a brass shoe held in place with a screw, or a wooden peg or tombstone shaped depth stop that relies on friction alone to hold it in place.

Uses: A dado plane cuts a dado- a groove away from the edge of a board across the grain of the wood. It is commonly used in case pieces to secure shelves, dividers, cabinet tops and bottoms, etc. A dado plane does not have a fence so it must be guided with some sort of baton either nailed or clamped to the board being used. Dados are just about the coolest molding plane out there. They are incredibly fast and leave a perfect dado with crisp sides and a smooth bottom.

Things to look for- It is very important that the body is not twisted. If it is the plane will bind in the groove. Sight down the sole to try to detect any twist. The body of the dado plane will be somewhat thinner than the actual width of cut- this is correct. The depth stop should move freely and lock securely. The nicker iron should have some life left in it. If the points are short that’s OK- most nickers were left soft so they can be sharpened with a file. DO NOT attempt to sharpen or mess about with the outside faces of the nicker.  Only sharpen the inside bevel.

Hollows and Rounds

General Features- Hollows and rounds are pretty straight forward- planes that have a concave or convex sole and cut either a hollow or round profile. Unlike almost every other plane, H&Rs are named by the shape of the plane’s sole, not the profile it creates. So a hollow has a concave sole, a round has a convex sole. Don’t ask me why. Some hollows and rounds have skewed irons to help with difficult wood- picture skewing your bench plane when you tackle a tough board and you’ll see what I mean. The British planes are commonly found with skewed irons, the American planes less so. Most hollows and rounds cut a 60 degree arc of a circle. Planemakers used a variety of numbering schemes, the most common of which is to assign the plane a number based on the radius of the arc it cuts in 16ths. Using this scale a No. 12 plane would cut an arc with a 3/4in. radius.

Uses: Hollows and rounds are frequently used together to create complex moldings. Together with a moving fillister and rabbet plane you can make almost any shape.

Things to look for:  Look for a good iron and a fairly tight mouth. I prefer British planes with a York pitch iron, slightly skewed. Matched pairs of hollows and rounds are nice to have, but not frequently found and not entirely necessary. You can do a lot with a few planes in the common sizes

Complex and specialized planes

There are an almost infinite variety of molding planes. Complex molding planes are found in just about every size and profile combination. Many trades, such as sashmakers, casemakers, stair builders, and coopers used highly specialized planes in their work. Some of these planes are useful in a modern workshop, others aren’t use today. In the future I hope to put together an article on complex molding planes as well as specialized planes like sashmaker’s planes.

Resources

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