Something unusual happened twice in the past week- I got some time to do some actual woodworking. These days most of my free time is spent with our kids (my son just turned one year old yesterday!), or working on tool stuff for my business. It’s been more than a year since I had any real shop time. The last two Fridays I found myself with a few hours of unexpected free time and had some fun butchering some wood.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This morning Chris Schwarz was kind enough to mention my web site on his blog. Chris warned me ahead of time so I had some time to prepare, but I wasn’t expecting this level of response! I left the house this morning, right after Chris published his entry, headed to my daughter’s Pre-K “Thanksgiving Feast” at school. I returned, full of good food and with one tired kid, to find more than 50 email messages waiting for me. I’m just responding to them now, processing them in the order they were received. If you haven’t heard from me yet, you will. I appreciate your patience!
I usually attend auctions to find good tools to restore and resell. Once in a while I find a tool I just have to keep. Besides saws, I also have a “thing” for crisp molding planes, especially British planes. When I found this plane at a local auction I knew right away it was a keeper.
This is a J. Buck, London quirk ogee in a really uncommon small 3/8 in. size. Buck made some of the highest quality molding planes in my opinion. The overall execution and attention to detail on this plane is amazing. It’s also as crisp as the day it was made. Aside for the MAX OTT owner’s mark there is barely a scratch on it. It was clearly used very little, if at all.
In my last post I published some pictures of a Harvey Peace P-70 handsaw I recently found and had restored. Just before I crossed paths with that saw I found another fairly rare Harvey Peace saw to add to my collection- the No. 60. The 60 was the top-end of Peace’s line of traditional handsaws. It has a full size plate, traditional handle pattern (as opposed to the “Perfection” line which had let-in handles) and a nib at the saw’s toe. The 60 was unique in that it was made from the highest grade of London Spring Steel and featured a beautiful wheat-carved apple handle. The handle had the double loop similar to a Disston 12 and long, sweeping horns. It is a highly refined handle design.
The 60 is a very uncommon saw. In over 10 years of collecting Peace saws I’ve come across only one, a beat-up thumb-hole ripper. That drought let-up a few months back when a No. 60 appeared on eBay- properly identified and accompanied by nice photos. After a week of sweating I snatched it up at the last second for a price I was very happy with. The saw arrived a few days later in great shape.
I’m a huge fan, collector, and user of the saws made by Harvey W. Peace. Yes, I am a saw geek. I have been trying to gather at least one example of each saw Peace made in the 40 odd years Peace worked in Brooklyn. This has been a challenge because some of his saws were made for a short period of time and/or were made in limited numbers. One of the most elusive saws has been the P-70 which was the absolute top-end saw in the “Perfection” line of handsaws. I saw one example of this saw at a LFOD Auction in Nashua, New Hampshire back in 2003. At the time I didn’t realize what a rarity it was, and my tool funds were low, so I had to let it go. That is one of the few tools I truly regret not getting. For seven years I haven’t seen another example. That changed a few weeks ago when this arrived at my door-
I was sorting through my stash of molding planes, looking to pick out a few nice ones to put up for sale. I came across a nice deep but narrow roman ogee by A. Mathieson and Son. Mathieson was a prolific maker, and one of my favorites. Their planes are usually of very high quality and make excellent users. The plane I picked out was used, but well kept. A bit grungy, probably from tallow used to lubricate the sole. I could make out the marks where the former owner(s) hand rested in use. I like to find tools in this state- well used, but with visible signs of the former owner.
I thought it was a really nice looking plane, but I have a similar roman ogee. I hemmed and hawed but eventually put it in the “sell” pile. It was then that I noticed the owner’s mark, not at the heel or toe, but stamped in the side of the plane. “J. CLARK” Well, that clinched it! It’s not often you find your name stamped on a 100 year old molding plane! I’ve found planes with my last name stamped on them, and I have a couple of “W. CLARK” planes, but none like this.
I added a new Disston advertisement to my Old Tools Advertisements section of my site. This ad has a great picture of the Disston lumberyard. Specifically, it shows a portion of the apple logs waiting to be sawn into boards for saw handles.
This photo really puts the size and scope of the Disston operation into scale. There must be thousands of apple logs in this photo, and this is just a “portion” of their apple inventory at this particular point in time. It’s an amazing amount of wood. This is one reason I love old advertisements- they take us back in time to when these tools were being made and provide us with valuable insight.
Here’s an interesting tool I found at a recent auction:
This is a T-Square that serves two purposes. It has an eighteen inch blade with a Brazilian rosewood and brass body. It functions as a normal square but the body can be split to act as a bevel:
It is marked “John Wilson, Sheffield” on the end grain of the stock:
Goodman’s book on British Plane Makers describes Wilson as making “joiner’s tools” in Sheffield from 1868-1901. He later combined with Robert Sorby in 1901. The tool doesn’t have any way to lock in a particular angle, but the hinge is tight enough that it takes a decent amount of force to move it once it is set to a particular angle. As such, I’m inclined to believe that this layout tool was indeed intended for the draftsmans’ or architects’ desk and not the joiner’s bench or a job site. I think it’s a really neat layout tool- a keeper for sure.
I’ve asked around and haven’t found anyone yet who knows what this layout is called, or if they are common or now. Has anyone seen one before? Drop me a comment and let me know.
It functions as a normal square but the body can be split
to act as a bevel.
My first “real” blog entry is going to revisit a project I completed over two years ago. In December of 2008 my family was in the midst of a big change. My grandparents were moving out of the house they had lived in for almost 60 years into assisted living. Their house was on the market at about the worst possible time, the housing market being at about its lowest point in the past 10 years. One of the things we had to do in order to make the house more salable was to remove a large ornamental weeping cherry from the front yard. My Grandfather planted that tree not long after the house was built in the late-1940s. He and my Grandmother moved there from Brooklyn, taking advantage of the GI mortgage program offered to WWII vets. I recently found a couple of pictures from the very early 1950s of my mother and aunt with my Grandfather standing in front of a skinny little sapling of a tree.
The tree grew quickly, filling the small front lawn. It always put out beautiful blooms in the spring. It also grew some fantastic looking burls at the graft area. My uncle, a luthier, always lusted after the burls on that tree for instrument woods- he’s always looking for interesting burls. For years there was a running joke in our family involving my uncle, a chainsaw, and a night-time raid on that tree.
After almost 60 years, the tree had grown to over 20 inches diameter at breast height. The tree was not long for this earth, however, and was both a safety risk and an eyesore. The main branches were dead or dying and the trunk had begun to rot from the inside. I took down the tree in the summer of 2008, saving the two largest sections of trunk to try to use for projects. Unfortunately, the giant burls my uncle was waiting for turned out to be to badly rotten to save. I split and re-split my two chunks into quarters, removed the bark, and let it slowly dry for six months outdoors.
Before the holiday season I decided to make a gift for each member of my immediate family using the wood from my grandparent’s cherry tree. I brought the quarters inside and started turning on the lathe. I had some prior experience with turning but it was mostly spindle work- chisel handles and the like. Faceplate work was completely new to me. I wound up doing a lot of scraping. The first bowl took close to four hours to complete. I wasted the next three blanks, wrecking the bowls in progress in spectacular fashion. My fourth try was a success resulting in a small burl bowl that’s second from the right in the picture below.
After that I spent some time and money on a proper bowl gouge and watching some inline videos on bowl turning. The next bowl took less time, and the next less still. The last took only about 45 minutes from start to finish. Once I got the hang of the technique it was easy to see how some folks get hooked on turning bowls and do nothing but. I wound up with six respectable bowls that I gave to my parents, grandparents, sister, brother, wife, and aunt and uncle.Everyone seemed very pleased to have a piece of that tree that was a part of the background of their lives for so long.
I lost my Grandfather this past week. His death was not completely unexpected, but sudden and a shock to my family. I thought about this project a lot in the days afterward, especially my Grandfather’s reaction when I told him where the wood came from. He expressed interest for sure, and definitely liked it, but I felt like he thought it more curious than anything else. He was not overly impressed, that’s for sure. It wasn’t until his funeral that I thought of the perfect way to describe him, and his reaction. In her eulogy my aunt described him as “undemonstrative” which I think fits perfectly. He, like a lot of men of his generation, didn’t complain or make a big deal out of life’s events, he just did things. Want to learn to ride a bike? No problem- he took me to a parking lot, took off the training wheels, and gave me a push. No big deal. Fall off? No problem, get back on and try again. That undemonstrative nature shouldn’t be confused for a lack of interest or love for his family. On the contrary, he worked tirelessly spending most of his life and retirement years taking care of and providing for his family.
I learned a lot of good lessons from my Grandfather. He was passionate about building and creating things, especially woodworking and gardening. He taught me to always take good care of my tools, a lesson I learned the hard way when I was about 12 years old. He had lent me a pair of lopers to do some yard work. When I was done I left them outside. The next day he found them outside, on the ground, soaked with rain. I can remember only a handful of time I ever saw him get angry in his life. This was one of them. Needless to say, I haven’t left any tools outside at the end of the day again.