A pair of planemaker's floats

I've always loved wood molding planes. Ever since I was a kid, I saw these things and immediately thought "those must be owned by somebody who is a real craftsman". Well, now I'm older and own a few planes myself (so much for the 'real craftsman' part of that fantasy) I've wanted to get a set of woodies together. I've had some luck in finding some hollows and rounds, but often these things are in poor shape. Living in Idaho, one doesn't find these too often at any local flea market, and besides, a complete set in good shape isn't cheap when you do find them - and I am a very cheap guy. What if fill in the missing planes from my set by building them myself? That's cheaper, right? Riiight...


Note - Lie Nielsen now sells both planemakers' and joiners' floats - if you are going to be making a number of planes for yourself the price is quite reasonable...  (woo-hoo!)

Plane Makers' floats

Joiners' floats

 The first floats you should get for planemaking, IMO, is the side float followed by the bed float.  at the time I wrote what's in this article, floats were difficult to find, if you could find them at all... filing teeth in the face of a bed or side float by hand is not an easy task, so for the $40-$50 LN charges for one it is well worth it. An edge float is easier to file, and can be made out of just about any flat steel stock that's 1/8" - 3/16" thick with a file, if you have it laying around... But really, the LN prices are quite reasonable for these things if you are going to be making a number of planes for yourself when you consider both cost of materials and time it takes to make your own floats. Krenov style planes are usually laminated though - so floats aren't as necessary for that style of plane...    However, if you want to make your own simply for the experience, or to save some money, I won't discourage you - read on!


In any case, I've decided to try building my own planes over the next year or two. I have to collect the wood I want to use (beech). First though, my investigations of plane making shows the need for a couple of specialized tools used for truing the bed in the plane, called floats. Planes can be made with pretty standard woodworking tools, save a pair of these floats. Even then, you could get by just using standard files, or even sandpaper on a stick - but all points to lead to these floats making life much easier if you are making more than one plane.

Thing is, they're harder to come by than a set of planes in good shape. Clark and Williams, wooden planemakers extraordinaire, have been known to make them, but the cost for them would be more than I want to spend on this hobby.  They sure are pretty though:

Floats made by plane-makers Clark and Williams - see www.planemaker.com for more info.
With the help of a few fellow wood workers, Todd Herrli's excellent video on making planes, and John Whelan's book "Making Traditional Wood Planes", I figured I could make these myself too.

I really need to have somebody stop and knock some sense into  me occasionally.  Alrighty then, before you go on to the next pages - I am not, nor ever will be, a machinist - some have called me a woodworker, I prefer the term Tree Killer or simply A Wood Butcher.  If you are a machinist, some of the following pages may horrify you.  This may be intended. 


First, I ordered an 1-1/2" x 18" x 3/16" thick piece of oil hardening tools steel (O1) from MSC (item #06112155) for about $12.41 plus shipping. I chose 3/16" because it will fit into the 1/4" mortise used in planes, 1-1/2" to make sure it was wide enough, and 18" because, well, it's the shortest they sell.  With 18" I figured I could get 4 different floats with little waste, but if I was doing it again, I'd just get 1" and not worry about the waste. I also bought some 1/8" O1 steel for the blades I'll eventually make at the same time (MSC item #06108153) to make shipping a bit more affordable.  I'm sure there's a local supplier I could find, too - but along with being cheap I'm lazy too.


Here's the layout for the four I chose on two 9" pieces of 1-1/2" steel:

There's a space between the two float blanks in each layout above to allow for the inevitable wandering of the blade while cutting.  Don't kid yourself, you'll need it if you're cutting these out by hand.

The top of the four shown is the side float - hence the different angle on the tang.  The next is the end float, and the bottom two will be skewed such as made by this gentleman on his web site, for making (what other than) skewed blade planes.  With these, I like the handle to be parallel to the cutting edge, so the angle used for the tang reflects it.  I used the factory edge for the teeth, so I wouldn't have to fret about getting the steel perfectly straight as much.  You'll see more on that later, too.

The angle of the blades as shown is 12 degrees.  I would have used less, now, as my Sandusky planes have a shallower angle than this (more like 8 degrees), but more on that later.  Also, I am using a 1-1/2" tang design, where you might prefer a bolt thru style such as Clark and Williams use. I used the tang design because I wouldn't have enough steel for the 4 floats if I used the other design.  More of my cheap self showing through.


Cutting Out the Blanks

Next was to coat the steel with some layout dye, and scribe in the cuts I wanted to make using a printout of the pattern above as a template and an awl to do the scribing.

Not much to tell here, its just sawing with a hack saw - helps a lot if to have a machinist's vise to hold the blank while cutting it.  One good tip is to use a good hacksaw, one that provides adequate tension on the blade - another is to use a good hacksaw blade.  You can really tell the difference between a good and a bad blade.  The Lawson brand has been suggested to me, but I couldn't find it locally,  Nicholson brand blades seems passable in quality - but I wasn't impressed with the Buck Brothers brand blades.  Get a coarse blade, between 16 and 20 tpi.  The ones I used were 18 tpi.

For cutting out the long angle, start the cut at about 90 degrees to the blank, then turn the saw to the proper angle as it gets started:

Then saw out the tang following the lines that were scribed into the layout dye:

The tangs taper a bit from back to front - at the end of the tang they are about 1/4", and taper to about 3/8" thick on the tool side.  This can be ground down later, if preferred, to a smaller tang to fit in a smaller handle, or left as is for use in a larger one.  Before I mount these permanently in a handle, I'll rough up the tang a bit so when I epoxy it into a handle the epoxy will have something to grab on to.  I plan on turning some handles for these out of hickory, and using ferrules for the handles like the ones available from Lee Valley for minimal cost.


After I got the blanks cut out, the edges were pretty rough, and needed to be trued.  First, I scribed a new line just below the angle I just cut to get a new reference line for the following step:

Then, using a grinder, I ground the edge of the blank back as close as I could to the line I just scribed (I apologize for the wonderful focus quality of the picture, but I think you get the idea):

A tip here - use a pair of gloves, and keep a jar of water handy next to the grinder to frequently dip the blank into, as it gets hot.  You don't want to 'blue' the steel here, same as with grinding any tool.  Another tip: don't use the same jar for the water that you previously used for thinner or alcohol - the thinner you left in the jar will dissolve the layout dye.  DAMHIKT.

Back at the vise, keep those gloves on, cuz it's time to finish truing the edge using a large mill file, like the one shown sitting on the right of the vise:

Another tip here - don't expect every file you pick up at the hardware store to be flat.  Since the files are usually near the straightedges, grab one of them and check the file you're thinking about buying to make sure it's dead flat.  

It's not critical this edge of the blank be perfectly true - I won't be cutting teeth into this edge.  But I still wanted it as close as possible.

When done with one, it's on to the next until all four blanks are ready for the next step:

Cutting the Teeth

Cutting the Teeth on the End Float

Now I'm ready to start cutting the teeth on the end float.  The profile I'm using is basically the same as a rip tooth saw, about 9 teeth per inch, with one 90 degree face on a 60 degree tooth - the profile is basically the same as the image below that shows a two teeth per inch profile (I 'borrowed' this image from www.vintagesaws.com - it's a great site, lots of info and some great stuff for sale too, I hope they don't mind me doing so):

Discussions with fellow woodworkers and other sources I've seen and read say that the number of teeth should vary a bit to prevent the float from chattering.  Perfectly evenly spaced teeth promote this problem.  This isn't a big issue here, because I'll be cutting these teeth by hand, which alone should provide enough randomness to avoid the problem.  At least with my work, anyway.  You might even say I was a bit overly deliberate in my randomness.  But then again, I'd say that too - but this isn't rocket science, is it?  Or is it?

First, if the dye has worn off, you should put another coat on here to help guide your cuts.  Something of help here that I've learned from re-toothing old handsaws when I don't have the existing teeth to re-cut the new teeth - I use a cad program and print out a set of lines at the proper teeth per inch and mount it into the vise along with the saw (or float blank in this case).  It also give me a set of lines to help guide the file perpendicular to the blank with.  Also, I start the cut by cutting a small groove with the hacksaw - its easier to line a hacksaw up to the line, and gives the file a small groove to ride in when you start your cut:

Then, its on to the big job: filing the teeth.  The object is to file until the blue of the dye just disappears and a sharp tooth is formed, just like sharpening a rip saw you've just jointed (I used a 6" slim taper saw file for all of the filing of the teeth):

For this job, I found it easiest to jam the ends of the file into 2 scraps of wood, giving me better control of the entire cut and allowing me to grab both ends of the file.

Here is a diagram of the stages of cutting the teeth, to see if I can make it a bit clearer about what I mean when I say "the dye just disappears":

Cutting the Teeth on the Side Float

Its just about the same process for the side float, with a few significant differences - especially because of the face being filed, you can't mount it in the vise, so you have to make your own 'holder'.  First, I printed out a page with markings similar to above, then drove some nails beside the float into a scrap piece of pine below the blank.  You need this scrap to hold the blank high enough above the bench to allow you to file it.  I used nails long enough to drive into the bench below to hold it in place, then bent the nails over to hold the blank.  When far enough along, the nails that are in the way of filing are pulled out and new ones placed where the work is finished.  Then a hacksaw is used in the same manner as above to start the cut of the teeth:

When that is complete, the really, really big job of filing begins, filing just until the last of the dye on the front of the tooth disappears from under your file.  I worked from the point towards the tang, as most of the cutting is done on the forward portion of the tooth, and it would be easy to file too far into the next tooth if I was going the other way, screwing up that tooth.  Your mileage may vary.

This one is more difficult than the previous filing job, obviously.  You need to file to an even depth across the width of the float, and this is more difficult as the float widens.  The good thing is you only need about 5-1/2" of teeth, as this is about as deep as you'll need for most planes.  I went 6" to be sure, but the last several teeth were getting quite testing on my patience.


There it is...

A final shot of the completed floats, ready for handles:

One showing where in a plane the float is to be used, mounted to a temporary handle:

One thing I would do differently is how to mount the handle, opting for a handle more like the floats pictured at the beginning of this odyssey rather than using a tang version.  I might yet make another set in that fashion.  I might also try 1/8" thickness steel, and  only use either 3/4" or 1" wide material rather than cut it out of 1-1/2".

Hardening the Steel

I have read from planemakers' texts in several instances that hardening of the steel isn't really necessary, and after making these, I would agree, at least at this stage.  I am going to see how these perform without hardening before I pursue that avenue.  If and when I do go down that road, here is what I would do, based on discussions with some fellow woodworkers who have metalworking experience.

Using a charcoal grill, a hair dryer, and a MAPP gas torch for an additional heat source, heat the steel up in a bed of hot charcoal to cherry red (or the point at which the steel is no longer magnetic if you are unsure of the color you are working to).  The charcoal helps to evenly heat the steel, and the hair dryer is needed for use as a "bellows" on the charcoal to raise the heat of the fire to a suitable temperature for hardening.  When the steel is hot enough, its dipped into a quenching oil to cool it quickly (this is what hardens the steel).  A can of peanut oil, or used motor oil will suffice for use as a quenching oil.  Lightly swish the tool in the oil until cooled.

The steel should be hard to the point of being too brittle now.  To soften (anneal) it somewhat, after it has fully cooled, place the tool in an oven at 350 - 400 degrees for about an hour.  This should soften the steel to where its useable again, about RC 50 - 55 or so, if all the above has been done properly.  My concerns with heat treating the steel at this point would be warping (I'm not too concerned with it, but it's a thought) and more importantly if the teeth I just spent so long filing would survive intact.  At the least I would expect a touch up would be required, and that would be a bit more difficult once the steel has been hardened.

Please keep in mind that I actually haven't done any of this hardening process to these tools, so the above advice is not tested, at least not by me.  I may give it a shot later this spring to see what happens.  I did happen across this site that goes through much the same processes, only he is making a plane iron out of a leaf spring, but he does makes use of the same basic process, and presents an intriguing source for plane irons.

Final Thoughts

I still have two blanks for skewed floats - I'll be getting back to those at a later date, when I have a better idea of what angles I'll need.  I'm going to try my hand at using these two first.  So far, they seem to work quite well.  I'll need more experience with them before I can give a more qualified answer than that.  I can see where these tools would be of use in other woodworking applications, especially in truing up through mortises.  I may also want some thinner versions of these for smaller planes, but I think the need for them will drive that decision.

Some have suggested to me using certain kinds of files as plane floats.  The only kind of files I might consider are aluminum files or Simonds "Vixen" files, which are used in the auto body trade for filing aluminum or fiberglass and are available in several different profiles.  I'm not sure how successful using these files would be, but it may be a thought to consider, especially if you need to deviate from the standard flat style.  They seem a bit fine for my tastes, though.

Another option was brought up by english plane maker Bill Carter, in an interview he comments:
Do you use floats or anything else for the beds?


Bill Carter.
I've got floats but I never use them. I mainly use a modified chisel.


On truing beds:

Although I don't use floats, I have a wonderful tip that i've never,ever seen mentioned in any book or magazine. Get a normal woodworking chisel - any width - and heat it up to cherry red, then quench it. The chisel then becomes exceptionally hard and it will even cut steel. If you then grind the end of it to make it ninety degrees it will scrape timber like nothing else. It won't dig in, but it will remove high spots like they weren't even there - it's fantastic.It's much easier to use than both a chisel or a float, and even though I have several floats I don't use them because I find these modified scraping chisels so useful.

It's an interesting thought, to say the least - and definitely worth giving it a try.

All in all, this has been a satisfying little project.  I spent about 5-6 hours time on it at a leisurely pace (and I do mean LEISURELY!).  I probably could cut that time easily in half if I pushed it, but where's the fun in that?  In any case, it raises my respect yet a bit more for the original craftsmen who made these over a century ago in their own workshops.

UPDATE:  some final Final thoughts:

I had a chance to use these in a plane I made recently:

It's not the molding plane I was going to do first, but a smoother, as you can see - used some hard maple and walnut scraps, and an iron and chipbreaker from an old Stanley Handyman plane.  I built this plane just for experimentation and experience, and I had great fun doing it, and learned tons.  Everyone interested in old planes should build one, along with the floats.  It has given me a greater appreciation for planemakers of old.

And I can tell you that the floats work great!  But, there are a few things that I should address here.  First off, I can see I'll be making a bed float that is 3/4" - 1" wide for it's entire length - and with no tangs and from 1/8" steel, and maybe a second from 3/16" steel.  The pointed float worked well in the side of the wedge pocket, but got me into trouble on the bed for the iron, where it ended up having just a bit of a hump in it that gave me headaches before I figured out what I had done wrong.  The plane now work excellently, I might say, after some extensive troubleshooting. 

 The comment made by Bill Carter above still intrigues me, and I might yet do one of those.  

Hardening won't be necessary for these floats, as I had thought it wouldn't be.  I haven't given up on the idea, though. It's easy to see that these will need sharpening after a 8-10 planes or so.  If I harden them, they probably never would need sharpening past the first time its done..

Thanks for reading!