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Plane and Simple Woodworking: Planes and Scrapers

Block Planes, Jack Planes, Scrapers, Handplanes and Shaves are Explained

Not long ago, a novice woodworker told me that when he became interested in woodworking, he knew about hand planes, but thought, "Nobody does it that way anymore." As he learned more, he has realized that woodworkers do still rely on hand planes, but still does not know how or why he would choose one for a particular task. While this blog is not the right place for in-depth instructions in hand planes, it is a great place to address his basic question, so let's begin with the most common category, Block Planes.



Block Planes, Jack Planes, Scrapers, Handplanes and Shaves are Explained

Not long ago, a novice woodworker told me that when he became interested in woodworking, he knew about hand planes, but thought, "Nobody does it that way anymore." As he learned more, he has realized that woodworkers do still rely on hand planes, but still does not know how or why he would choose one for a particular task. While this blog is not the right place for in-depth instructions in hand planes, it is a great place to address his basic question, so let's begin with the most common category, Block Planes.


Block Planes

Block planes are small planes, often used one-handed. They feature low angle blades and are designed for light duty tasks. The block plane is my go-to for many tasks around the shop. It is small enough to fit in any tool box and even a work apron pocket.


In most woodworking projects, measuring and marking linear dimensions is the first crucial step, and depending on the project, it can make for some exacting work. In projects that involve intricate joinery and small, close-fitting parts, measuring and marking errors as small as a few 100ths of an inch can turn up later as gaps in joints, misaligned parts and a host of other less-than-appealing results.


My first block plane was this simple antique Stanley 102 from the 1800's (below, left). It does not even have an adjuster, the cut depth is set by tapping the sole or toe with a mallet. This Lie-Neilson skew angle block plane (below, right) is the opposite end of the scale. It features a removable side for cutting rabbets, and a knicker for clean cross grain cuts.


Now that you have your block plane what can you do with it? Well, one important task is "easing" sharp edges and corners. A few light strokes with your block plane can quickly soften a sharp line before you can even select the proper router bit. A few more passes, and the edge is chamfered. Roll the plane as to pass it down the edge to make a light round over.


Block planes, with their low angled cutters, are excellent for end grain work. A slightly long tenon can be rapidly trimmed, and a tight mortise can be eased with a few strokes along the tenon shoulder.


From treating edges to adjusting joinery to leveling glue joints, the block plane is the perfect introduction to hand planes for the first time user.


Jack Planes

After the Block Plane, the Jack Plane should be your next pick. Hand planes are designated by number, the higher the number, the longer the sole of the plane. Jack planes are typically #4 or #5, and are excellent general use planes. The Jack plane can perform most planing chores. It is commonly used for shaving doors that stick, leveling high spots on glued-up panels and a host of other tasks.


One of the best uses for these mid-sized hand planes is jointing edges for gluing. Set a light cut, and let the long base of the plane ride over the edge, taking down the high spots. Now, the astute reader will wonder how to ensure that the edge being planed is perfectly square to the face. The answer is... you don't!


Since it is virtually impossible to ensure a dead-square edge with a hand plane, don't try. The secret to a good glue joint is to joint the mating edges at the same time. Lay out your boards, then "fold" them as if they are hinged with the glue edge up and clamp them together in your vice. Use the plane to pare down both edges until you get a full shaving all along both board edges. By doing both in this manner, any angle you happen to plane in will be matched by the second board, canceling any variation. To demonstrate, I purposefully planed these edges with a noticeable angle. As you can see, the angles cancel, resulting in a flat panel.


A good quality jack plane will be an invaluable addition to your tool kit, both around the shop and home. A few swipes across the top of that sticking door, and it will swing free again.


Why Scrapers?

For many woodworkers, a sander was among the first power tools we bought, but sanding is a messy, odious job. There IS an old-fashioned alternative: scrapers.


A scraper is a piece of mild steel that is used to smooth a wood surface. The edge is filed smooth and square, then a "hook" is burnished into the edge that effectively forms a very small cutting edge. When burnished and used properly, a scraper should create tiny curls that look like miniature plane shavings.


Scrapers come in many sizes, thicknesses and shapes. The basic form is the card scraper, a rectangle of steel with a burnished edge.


Note that the center is bowed inward slightly to stiffen the cutting edge and keep it from vibrating. Also note the fine shavings at the cutting edge. In time, the card will get hot, so there are card holders that improve your grip and keep the blade flexed. To maintain the proper angle, scrapers can also be mounted in a plane-like body that helps prevent scraping hollows.


Scraping instead of sanding gives a number of advantages. It is quieter and far less dusty than sanding, and the finished surface is cleaner. Fine sanding dust tends to become clogged in the pores of the wood, causing a dulling of the final appearance. Scraping avoids this, and burnishes the surface of the wood. You'll be surprised at the difference between a sanded and a scraped finish, especially in figured woods or with inlays.


A well tuned scraper is just as pleasing to use as a fine hand plane, and all sorts of shapes and sizes exist to smooth nearly any surface. Once you get the feel for it, you'll be hooked!


Handplane Stock Prep

In the first few installments of this "Plane and Simple" blog series, I introduced you to the basic planes you should have in your shop and some tasks they can perform. This time, let's see why having a good plane on hand can be very important. Not that many home woodshops have a jointer larger than 8" wide, and many have no jointer at all. Not to worry - a handplane can flatten the widest board, and safely plane a part too small to safely mill with power tools.


The process begins by planing diagonal to the grain working along the length of the board in both directions. This is called "scrub planing". Set the blade to take a deeper cut than normal, and as you see the high spots disappear, work the blade back to a finer cut (much like sanding to finer grits).


"Winding Sticks" can be used to insure that the entire surface is flat. They are two thin straight edge sticks of the same width. One is used to check for flatness along the length and width of your part, and together they check for twist.


Note that one stick has two black marks on the ends. Set one stick on each end of your part and sight across the top from front to back. The black marks should be evenly exposed, if one is more visible, then that corner needs to be planed down.


Once the part is properly flattened, you can send it through a power planer to make the faces parallel. Or, if you want the challenge, the entire part can be prepped by hand.


A marking gauge lays out a line on all four edges at the final thickness (below, left), and the second face can be pared down and smoothed just like the first (below, center). Work the face down until you reach the thickness mark all the way round, and check for dips using the straight edge of the winding sticks. Lastly, one edge can be planed smooth and square to the first face (below, right).


This process might seem slow and laborious, but really goes quite quickly once you get the hang of it. You may not often need or want to prep stock this way, but it is a handy skill to have for over- or under-sized parts.


Close Shaves

The family of tools that is generically known as planes is pretty extensive; the next on our list is spoke shaves. A spoke shave is essentially a small plane blade affixed to a small plane body. As the name suggests, they are used for cutting round profiles and smoothing curves.


Many designs exist, mostly flat bottomed, but there are also soles that curve from front to back, and even some that are concave from side to side for small diameter parts like wheel spokes!


A spoke shave is a fast and safe tool for rounding a square blank into a rounded shape. With practice it is faster and easier then using the router table to make oval profiles or thin, tapered spindles.


Spoke shaves are the ideal tool for shaping irregular shapes like cabriole legs. A blank can be roughed out on the bandsaw and then the spoke shave is used to round the corners and smooth the faces.


One issue with shaping curved parts is that the grain direction can change along the length or from side to side. The small sole of the spoke shave allows it to be used at different angles and pushed or pulled as needed. Only the very tight curve of the foot cannot be quickly shaped by the spoke shave.


One or two styles of spoke shaves should find a place in your shop. You'll be surprised how often you reach for this versatile tool.


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