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Newsletter Article: Planing Wood Smooth

Handtool woodworkers know that a hand plane can leave the surface of wood smooth, flat, and vastly superior as compared to wood prepared with machine tools and sandpaper.  I love seeing people’s faces when they feel a piece of freshly planed wood and see the mirror reflection hand planing leaves on the wood’s surface.   



One of my favorite trick questions to ask when demonstrating hand planing is, “What is more accurate power tools or hand tools?”  Most folks will answer power tools.  Then I plane off a feathery half-a-thousand of an inch shaving from a piece of wood and blow it into the air and say, “Do that with a table saw!” 


For woodworkers not trained in the craft of traditional hand tools, planing wood surfaces to this level of perfection seems like magic and they want to learn more.   Many will purchase a nice hand plane and try to replicate what they saw; however, without some basic training and practice frustration soon sets in.  Even students in my Training the Hand Workshops, initially have difficulty achieving a glass smooth wood surface on their first go. 


The three requirements to achieving the outstanding planed surface that hand planes are capable of producing are: a sharp blade, a properly set-up plane, and proper planing technique.


The biggest secret to handtool woodworking is sharpening.  To plane off a half-a-thou shaving and get a mirror finish, you must master how to sharpen your blade to a razor finish.  There are numerous sharpening methods out there and of course I prefer mine.  It’s taken me a lifetime of refinement to develop what I think is the best possible sharpening method, using the best value in sharpening gear.  I won’t go into all the details of how to execute my sharpening method here, but if want to learn watch this VIDEO.


The second task you must master to get a silky-smooth wood surface, is setting up your plane properly.  I could talk about several things here, but I will focus on the most important – setting the blade parallel to the sole of the plane.  Once the blade is sharp, mate it to its chip breaker so the edge of the breaker is about 1/32nd of an inch from the edge of the blade.  Then mate the pair onto the frog of the plane and lock it down gently with the lever cap.  Advance the blade so that it protrudes past the sole of the plane about a 1/32th of an inch or so.  Holding the plane sole side up, sight down the sole against a light- colored background.  The protruding blade will appear as a thin black line.  Using the lateral adjustment lever, position the blade so the black line appears uniform across its length, thus getting it as parallel to the sole as you can by eye.



Now you need to verify that the blade is absolutely parallel to the sole by taking a test cut. Once you think the blade is parallel, retract the blade into the plane so it will not cut.  Wax up the sole with a piece of paraffin and then plane a piece of wood.  As you plane, slowly advance the blade until it starts to cut a thin shaving.  You want to “read” the shaving.   You want the blade to cut a full width shaving but this rarely happens on the first couple of cuts.  Typically, the blade cuts more wood on one side than the other, meaning the blade is protruding more on that side than the other.  Assuming this is the case, use the lateral adjustment lever and slightly move the lever toward the side of the plane that is cutting the most.  Once adjusted, plane again, “read” the shaving again, adjust again.  Keep doing this process until you have the plane cutting a shaving the full width of the blade and the shavings thickness appears even along the blade’s edge.  The blade is now parallel to the sole.



The final requirement for a smooth, perfect surface is planing technique.  Using your body and legs (not your arms) push the plane smoothly down the length of the wood while keeping downward pressure focused in the area of the blade.  At first you want to be taking about a .003 of an inch-thick shaving, a little less than the thickness of a piece of notebook paper.  Plane straight down the long axis of the board from one end to the other.  When you complete that pass, return the plane back to the start point but move the plane over to the section you have not planed yet.  Keep about ⅓ of the blade on the section you just planed so your strokes will overlap.  Again, plane straight down the long axis of the board from one end to the other.  Continue this pattern until you have completely planed from one side of the board to the other and are taking nearly full width shavings on all passes (the 1/3 overlapping prevents a "full width" shaving).


 Once you are getting full width shavings, your plane is telling you that you are removing an even thickness of wood across the board and the surface of the board is pretty flat (no humps or shallows larger than your blade projection). There are ways to test for flatness (e.g. winding sticks, the edge of the plane…but that is for another article).  Now you want to improve the wood surface by taking finer and more controlled cuts.  Before your next series of passes, retract the blade slightly (about a thousandth of an inch).  Because you moved the blade, make sure you read the shaving again on the next pass and adjust the blade with the lever, if necessary, to keep the blade parallel to the sole.  Before planing again, hold the plane body at a skewed angle (20 to 35 degrees) across the board so that the sole of the plane is registering across all or a large swath of the width of the board.  This help bring down the wood surface evenly.



After you planed across the width of the board, use your hand and feel the surface of the board for any ridges left by the blade (plane tracks).  Keep planing on a skewed angle, retracting the blade, and taking finer and finer shavings.  Through the feel of your hand, you should detect those plane tracks getting smaller and smaller, until they are gone.  



By this time the wood surface should be smooth to the touch, you should be pulling off a wispy shavings so thin that you can read writing through the shaving, and the surface should have a slightly mirrored reflection to it (kind of depends on the wood species).



This takes some practice.  Probably the hardest part is removing those final plane tracks.  The secret here is to keep retracting the blade until you get those super thin shavings.  Also, when you use my sharpening method you will slightly feather off the blade corners which helps.  With just a little practice you can easily achieve a wood surface that will amaze. 


I also highly recommend that you invest in yourself and take a hand planing course.  There is nothing like getting feedback from an experienced instructor.  There are so many nuances to planing that it is difficult to learn them all from a book, a DVD, or this article.  Do yourself a favor, take a class and learn all the nuances of hand planing.  Once you know them they will become second nature, your frustration level will be lower, and it will kick off your handtool woodworking skills.