Block Plane Basics | Popular Woodworking Magazine
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This versatile hand tool should be any carpenter’s first purchase of an aircraft.
As a “professional carpenter” I am often asked what the best bang-for-the-buck tool is by the people who enter the craft. My answer is always to ask if they have a good quality block plane. I know, it’s not the big, awesome carrier-like jointer plane. Nor is it the smoothing plane that makes the shavings sexy and soft. But in the end, it feels like you get the most miles from a block plane, so that’s where I suggest you start.
Before we get into why it seems to me that a monoblock plane is the most versatile plane in your store, let’s talk about the physical traits of a monoblock plane. In general terms, a block plane is a small plane (less than 7“Long) with a low blade angle and the cutter is tilted upward. Usually, they will be in 11/2“ to 2“ wide. These can be coined as apron plans, standard corner blocks, English corner plans, low angle block plans, pocket plans, or anything in between.
Now, I say this in general terms because it is debated whether the design, use or application makes it a block plane. But for the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on the smaller, blunt tops. (I have a plane that is technically not a block plane, but identifies as a block plane – more on that later).
In photo 1, you will see some characteristics of a quality block plane. It consists of a body, a blade (usually positioned between 12 and 20 °) and a lever cap. The high-end models will have other features, such as an adjustable mouth, depth adjuster, and other add-ons. My first monobloc plane was a vintage Stanley 110 shown in image 2. It’s just as essential as block planes. After using it for years, I can say this: get one with a depth adjuster.
Because they work well
There are some aspects of block plans that make them work well where other floors may struggle. One is the ability to have a lower cutting angle which allows a block plane to effectively plan the final grain. On a low angle plane, the blade is positioned at 12 °. When a 25 ° cut bevel is added, an effective cut angle of 37 ° is achieved. Standard angle planes and most bench planes have a cutting angle of approximately 45 °.
Another thing that helps all planes work better is a narrow mouth (excluding rubbing planes). On a standard bench top, the mouth is controlled by adjusting the frog. On a block plane, there are no frogs. This design allows the blade to be supported all the way to the cutting edge (less vibration and a smoother cut). However, you can’t adjust a frog that isn’t there to make a tighter mouth. Instead, some block tops will have an adjustable mouth. This allows you to squeeze the mouth for fine grinding or open it for heavier cuts.
The last thing that makes block planes work well is the fact that they are small and fit in one hand. This means they are agile and can reach confined areas and are excellent for tasks such as grain planing, joint leveling, small spot sanding, door fitting and the like.
New or used
Now that we’ve talked about what makes a block plane, let’s talk versus vintage again. Two of my favorite producers are Lie-Nielsen and Veritas. Both produce new block planes, based more or less on old Stanley patents. Vintage planes are, as a general rule, of quality. They may need a bit of a hassle to get them in tip-top shape, but they’re usually available for a song and dance.
Preparing a ready-to-use block plane follows the same tactics as any plane. The sole must be flat. This can be achieved by smoothing it on sandpaper on a flat surface. Next, the blade needs to be razor sharp. Personally, I’ve sharpened freehand on an Arkansas oilstone set, but you’ll probably get the best results using a sharpening guide.
The final key is to make sure the lever cap is free from paint, dust, nicks, etc. This will ensure firm pressure on the blade without vibrations.
Most modern block aircraft (from reputable manufacturers) will be ready to use out of the box. Some new “budget” planes will still need some work.
Block plans in use
Now that you have a ready-to-use plane in your hand, let’s talk about how to use it. There are some areas where I really enjoy using my block plane and it’s my first choice: fine grit, bevel, woodwork finishing and spot sanding.
End of grain
End grain matching and cutting is best done with the lowest angle block plane you have. I use two different approaches here.
For smaller tasks, like cleaning the end of a rail or a step, I like to use my shooting board with my plane on it. You can see this in image 3. It only works with planes that have parallel sides.
For a wider kick, I’ll secure it in my leg grip. The key is to maintain firm pressure on the tip while gliding. I find that tilting the plane helps with hard grain. In both cases (shooting board or vise), I always add a slight rear bevel to the stock to avoid chipping the far side.
Beveling is probably my number one chore on the block plane. It’s so convenient to get into my apron, pull the plane out, and quickly apply a bevel to the parts (get out, dusty, noisy router tables!). I usually do a 45 ° eyeball and go through a couple of passes until the bevel is as wide as I need. Alternatively, if it is a critical bevel, I will bend my fingers around the plane and use them as a “fence” to steer the plane. Start by smoothing out the fine grain first, then the long grain. This way, any chips outside the final grain cuts will be removed with the long grain chamfer.
Tackling woodworking is probably the widest use of a plane, at least in my shop. I have a grooving block plane that I use for everything from fine adjustment grooves to finishing tenons and everything in between.
My little low-angle plane is also my go-to joint wash. For example, when I level a rail and a post or the top edge of a drawer, I face the joint from a 45 ° angle (photo 6). This cutting angle avoids the cross cutting of the fiber on one of the pieces. While I’m talking about doors, there is no other tool more suitable (in my opinion) for assembling doors and drawers. By holding a door in the front vise, I can quickly make a couple of trimming cuts to bring the drawers to the perfect size (or to shape if something is out of square).
Finally, the block plane is a perfect (miniature) sander. With a couple of passes, smooth the milling marks from the edges of the boards without breaking the number 7.
There are also instances where a block plane might be the best plan for sanding. In particular, when working on curved pieces, such as a cabriole leg or sanding a spoon. The small sole of a block plane allows you to follow the curve very well and is a great tool halfway between shaping and finishing. Unconventional? Sure, but it works fine.
Some manufacturers, such as Veritas, make toothed blades (photo 7) for block planes. Equipped as such, they can quickly tackle any rip from wild wheat, leaving only a few tooth marks that require a scraper or two passes.
These smoothing operations, in particular, are where I like to take my little plane to Bill Carter’s (photo 8). Yes. Technically it is a smoothing plane and not a block plane. But in my shop, it identifies as a block plane because I use it for all my block plane tasks (except cutting the final grain). It fits in your hand or apron pocket and is agile enough to reach hard-to-reach areas. So, block plane.
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