A good quality finger plane, like a pencil behind my ear, is almost indispensable to me when I am woodworking. It is small enough to carry in my pocket, and to those of us who have discovered them, it’s the most universally useful of cutting tools: you may reach for it a dozen times a day — every time a workpiece needs a chamfered corner or shaping or trimming — and if it doesn’t come easily to hand, I, for one, feel lost. Problem is, every store-bought finger plane I’ve seen is either cheaply made or outrageously expensive.
However, if you start with a high quality iron, some nice hardwood from your scrap bin and a bit of careful hand work, you can build a finger plane stylish enough to display on the mantelpiece and tough enough to plow its way through the most demanding job in your shop.
What You Need
Constructing this plane requires use of some tools and supplies commonly found in many home workshops:
• Band saw or table saw
• Masking tape
• Felt-tip marker and scratch awl
• Hammer and center punch
• Miter square
• Mill and rattail files
• 1/4″ and 5/16″ twist drills
• 9/16″ spade or Forstner bit
• Water-resistant glue
• 2″ x 8″ sharpening stone
• 120-, 220- and 400-grit sandpaper
Building the plane also requires a few not quite so common items:
• Two 3/8-16 x 1″ brass hex-head cap screws
• A 3/8-16NC tap
• A 13⁄4″ length of 1/4″ round brass rod
• A perfectly flat surface — for truing up the sole of the plane
Starting with the Iron
Cutting tools are like people: attractive is nice, but a stout heart is more useful. The heart of any plane is a blade — called the iron — which will take and hold a keen edge. Luckily, high quality pocket plane irons are plentiful and inexpensive. There was a time when the United States was the steel manufacturing center of the world. Nowadays, every secondhand store and almost every flea market vendor has a bucketful of made-in-U.S.A. chisels forged in that era, and they are easily converted into plane irons. The iron in this plane is fabricated from a 7/8″ “Red Devil” socket chisel of about WWII vintage, which cost one dollar at a flea market. Socket chisels usually make better irons than modern chisels, which may be too hard to drill and tap. I’ve found that any width from 9/16″ to 7/8″ makes an appropriate cutter width for a finger plane like this one.
To convert the blade of the socket chisel into a plane iron (piece 1), use a felt-tipped marker to paint the back side, then lay out the cutoff line and clamp screw hole location, using a square and scratch awl. Make the saw cut outside the line, so the finished length, after cleanup, is still at least 2-1⁄2″. Use a file to clean up the sawn edge and file chamfers on the corners. Centerpunch the hole location, so the drill tip doesn’t wander; then drill a 5/16″ hole, and tap it 3/8-16.
Most old tools are also rusty, so now is a good time to use file, sandpaper and sharpening stone to remove the rust and hone the edge. The frog the iron rides on will be cut at 45 degrees, so the edge bevel should be no steeper than 25 degrees: a cutting edge that addresses the wood at 70 degrees cuts well, but a steeper angle may cause problems.
A Little Metalworking
The clamp screw (piece 2), which holds the iron in the plane body, and the striker plate (piece 3), which the clamp screw tightens against, are fashioned from a pair of 3/8-16 x 1″ brass hexhead cap bolts. The finished clamp screw is actually only 1/2″ long, but the lower half-inch provides sacrificial material for clamping it in a vise while it is worked. To avoid distorting the upper section of threads while filing, wrap them with masking tape. To shape the screw, clamp it in a vise and use a rattail file to cut half-rounds into each face of the hex head. When that task is completed, saw the screw to 1/2″ finished length, cleaning up the rough edges with a file and sandpaper. To shape the striker plate — which is nothing more than the head of the second bolt with the faces cleaned up — saw off the head, then use a file to flatten and true the top and bottom faces.
While your metalworking tools are still at hand, cut the blade stay (piece 4) to size. This is a 1-3⁄4″ (1/16″ oversized) length of brass rod that bisects the plane’s body, against which the plane iron is tightened.