A Handled Wooden Bench Plane

I learned a lot from building my first plane - a more traditionally made coffin smoother - and wanted to continue that education.  That plane was merely a prototype... made specifically to see what it takes to make one.  Now, it's time to try the real thing.  A word of warning - I'm going to be documenting (read - writing mind-boggling amounts of B.S. about) this plane pretty extensively - so this project will take up several pages.  If  that scares you (and it should...) then turn away now.  The rest of us will wait until you leave the room to continue...
As always - text presented in this format came later, with hindsight - or through other's prodding.  Usually, I'm pointing something out that I either missed, should have done differently (or want to on the next), or just want to make the reader aware of something.  I  may add more comments such as this later, when I've had more time to reflect on the project.
A lot of this stuff was covered in the other thing I did on the coffin smoother (and some that isn't in this one).  If you're really interested, you could read that one as a precursor to this one, but I'll try not to make this one too painful if you haven't.  If you have, my apologies.  It is, unfortunately, about 10 pages of rambling, so you have been warned!
Starting Out - Great Granddad's Plane

Here is the original inspiration for making a wooden plane, my great grandfather's plane - one of only two tools I have of his (the other being another plane - a wooden jointer missing the iron and wedge).  Salvaged from a fallen down barn, it's in pretty rough shape:

It was manufactured by the Auburn Tool Company - and I would date it from between 1885 and 1935.  That's as close as I can get, with what information I have on him - the years he was working back in North Dakota.  I know he was working up to  the mid-thirties, because Dad remember him using a power saw for the very first and last time in his life.  A circular saw powered off of a tractor to make cuts for rafters on a barn.

Designing the New Plane

 Since the iron is coming from an existing plane - it makes a bit of sense that I can use that plane for some of the dimensions of the mortise, and width of the plane.  I'm going to be diverging quite a bit from the design of the original, though I can still use the measurements for the throat.  The plane I have in mind will be laminated from several pieces - with a purpleheart "core" sandwiched on the outside by beech, with a beech tote set into a razee style heel.

This will accomplish a couple of things, hopefully.  First,  I won't have to find any thick wood (which is difficult at best, and expensive) - I can just use glued up 4/4 stock.  Second - I won't have to chop out all of the wood for the mortise - just cut it on the chop saw and glue it in between pieces of beech.  And third - it should present an opportunity for introducing a little bit of style.  We'll have to see on that, though.

The wood for great granddad's plane is a square chunk of beech, about 2-7/8" square, and the iron is 2-1/4" wide.  The final width  of the plane I'm making will be the same as the original, as it is determined by the width of the iron.  I won't be working to finished height at first, for reasons that will become clear when I get to them, so the initial height of the plane will  remain at 2-7/8" for now.  The final height of the plane will be 2-1/2", when I do get there.

 The width of the center piece of purple heart is going to be 1-3/4" - determined by the widthe between the shoulders that hold the wedge in place, as seen below:

This basically means all the cutting I'll be doing will be done in the beech sides.

The Design of the Throat

Before we get too deep into this discussion - Let's see just what it is that we are going to do, first by getting a good look at the original:

To help clear that up just a bit - here's the cutaway model I did for the previous plane, and I've added the names of the parts of the plane I'm going to be working on to help clarify what I'm talking about.

When referring to the throat, it is essentially referring to the opening itself - the terms above are referring to the adjacent surfaces within the mortised opening (throat).  The "toe" of the plane is the front of the plane, and the "heel" is the back.  

The basic shape of the throat is exactly the same as the first smoother, only the width (because the blade is wider) will change - and the angles will remain the same as with the last plane.  This is the classic throat design for a bench plane, using a "York" pitch of 50 degrees for the bed.  Other options include a Common Pitch (45 degrees) which is more suitable for softwoods, Cabinet or Half Pitch (60 degrees) which is generally only found on molding planes, and Middle Pitch (55 degrees) which is suited for curly or troublesome woods.

On that plane, it was essentially one block of wood, and I chopped the throat of the plane out with chisels - a pretty traditional approach for planes of the nineteenth century.  I thought that taking advantage of modern day glues and see if I could use a laminating process to my advantage, hopefully saving a bit of labor.

The "Core" of the New Plane

The first order of business is to glue up some of the "center" stock, in this case I'm using purpleheart.  The finished dimensions of this block is going to be about 12 inches long, 1-3/4" wide, and 3-1/4" tall (that is as tall as my table saw will cut - so is an effective limit to the height to remember), and use flat sawn stock.  I orient the grain so the "outside" of the log will be facing the bottom of the plane, and so the grain dives toward the back.  This is so the grain is working with the intended path of travel of the plane, and not adding any more resistance than necessary or pointing the grain in a direction that it could catch on something and chip out during use.

The diagram above tries to show the orientation properly - the grain is represented by the grey lines.  It isn't as important that the laminations above the sole are oriented in the same direction - but it's still a good idea, especially if you are using hand tools such as planes to smooth the sides out - it will insure the grain is running in the same direction with all of the pieces, and the plane won't have near as many fits, resulting in less tear out.

When gluing up, use lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of clamps.  Here's a shot of a glue up for another plane:

It isn't that an incredible amount of pressure is required, its that you need to distribute that pressure evenly.  Once you've got the blank glued up and cut to final dimensions, it's time to make the first cuts for the throat of the plane, which will define the bed, the wear, and the upper front throat.  Using the diagram laid out on a previous plane on the last page, I've laid out the angles that are used with a miter box, and cut the center piece of the plane:


Gluing the Sides Onto the Plane

Now, we can glue the sides of the plane to the core.  The grain layout should reflect the same orientation as previously, with one big difference - because the pieces are vertical, the optimum board would be as close to quartersawn as possible.  I didn't have a piece handy, so I used 2 pieces of flatsawn beech.  I'll have to see if that gets me into trouble or not.

When gluing the sides on, it's important to keep the body and the sides flush at the bottom, and the mouth at 1/4".  I accomplished this by gluing the pieces together on top of a piece of wax paper, and using a piece of 1/4" plywood as a spacer in the mouth, pulling it out as soon as the clamps were on tight enough (don't want to glue it to the plane, do we?).  A bunch of clamps are again necessary:

 Once the glue is leather hard, it's important to get in there and clean up any squeeze out that's made it's way into the throat.  I used narrow cut offs from the 4 hand saws I made - or a pair of skewed chisels are handy to.  If you don't get it clean now, you will pay for it later, especially any that gets on the bed of the plane.

Once out of the clamps, its time to re-square the block.  Using a jointer, I got the bottom squared to the side again, then it's over to the cut-off saw to square up the ends of the plane.  Use a very good cut-off blade, mine is a Freud 80 tooth, and leaves a better edge than I can get with any other method, sanding or planing included.

I then ran the whole affair through the table saw to get the body square again, taking very light cuts with a very good blade (a Freud 24 tooth ripping blade).  Even with that blade, I still get a little burning because of the depth of cut it has to make.  I remove this by taking a very light cut with the table saw - slowly approaching final dimension, with cuts of around 1/16' - or about half the width of the saw blade.

Once the stock is square to itself,  I run it a couple times through the table saw to get it close to the finished width of the plane (about 2-1/2") - taking care that the purpleheart core remains centered in the body of the plane.  So, with the 'core' measuring 1-3/4", that means the sides should end up at 3/8" on each side. It's still OK at this point to leave a little room for error - so 1/2" on each side it OK for now, and it can be thinned down later.   For height - I leave it at about 2-7/8" to 3", though the finished height will be only 2-1/2".  This is so I have a little room in case I screw up, and to clean up the top of the plane after the work on the throat that's coming up.

Final Layout of the Throat

Time to finish laying out the throat. Start by marking the location of back of the mouth and the top of the bed to the edge of the body of the plane, and connect those two lines on the side to show the bed location - the farthest right of the lines shown on the side of the plane body below:

These photos are a bit backwards, but the second line from the left is determined using the iron.  Line the bottom of the iron up along the bed line you just made, and using a ruler, transfer the thickness of the iron onto the side of the plane:

When that line is established, I use a cutout of a 12-1/2 degree angle to help me layout the furthest left line on the side of the plane above - the line for the shoulder.  I find it handy to have a printout of the pertinent angles handy for just such purposes,  for setting the bevel gauge, the miter saw, and just to have a piece of paper for jotting notes on:

 Now that I've located the shoulder line, I mark it on the top of the plane.  Using a marking gauge, I mark the left and right sides of the wedge pocket.  You should have 1/4" of bearing surface in the shoulder, and 1/4" of wood left on the outside of the shoulder.  The finished width of the wedge pocket will be about 1/16" wider than the iron being used.  This is the weakest part of the plane, and thinner than that risks breakage during heavy use.

Carrying the same line forward to the line of the upper throat front (the angled lines shown in the top photo), I also mark out the lines for the cheeks.  A marking knife is handy here, and darken the lines with a pencil so you can see them.

Forming the Wedge Pocket

Using the keyhole saw I made in another article I saw out the front and back lines of the wedge pocket, staying about 1/16" shy of going to the complete depth.  This is to help avoid tearout when chiseling it out, or at least give me enough depth that I can float it out if I get some:

I'm way happy with this saw - this is the express purpose I built it for, after the experiences I had with the original, where I used a Zona razor saw with less than stellar results.  It also shows that I didn't do chip carving on this side of the handle.  Why not you might ask?  That seems to be the question on everyone's mind, because everybody - and I mean everybody - asks me.  Well... I'm not telling.  It's one of those mysteries you all will have to live with!

 From there, it's over to the bench where I've got a clamping set up for chiseling out the throat:

I've found that these situations call for an old fashioned paring chisel.  Those are very long chisels, sharpened to a very fine point (like 20 degrees) and are intended for hand use only, no mallets (even though you do see one in the photo, it didn't get used with my precious paring chisel).  The length of the chisel give you an added amount of control not afforded by shorter chisels that I think is all the difference in the world.  You are really cheating yourself if you don't have at least one good paring chisel.

When it's as deep as I can get it, I work from the other side with a 1/8" chisel.  Someone asked once what such a small chisel is good for - this is one place where nothing else will work.  You do have to be careful that you don't either damage the mouth or chisel it out too deeply:

Like I said, I try to work to within 1/8" to 1/16" or so of finished depth.  The rest will be removed with floats (which to me have proven indispensable for these projects). The same is true for much of the plane - I'm working a bit over finished thickness, so I can joint/pare/sand/file/float it smooth when the work is done.

Floating Out the Wedge Pocket

Once the pocket is chiseled  out to around 1/16" or so shy of finished depth, it's over my machinist's vise to work them with the planemaker's floats I made in another treatise.  Here, I'm using the side float, but the bed float actually saw more use, because of it's triangular shape (which, of course, is the same 12 1/2 degrees as the pocket.  Gosh - it's like it was meant to be!).
I've been reconsidering that angle of 12-1/2 degrees... Most of the older planes I run into have a shallower angle, something closer to 8 or 10 degrees.  The end result, in my opinion, would be a tighter fit with the wedge.  I think for the next plane I make I will be experimenting with a shallower angle.

The end float is perfect for smoothing the shoulder, and along the bed.  I'm not worried yet about getting the bed perfect - and I don't want to take it too far, either.  Once I've mortised out the slot for the head of the chipbreaker's screw, I'll flatten the bed using the bed float. 


There will be a bit less surface to flatten then, making the task a bit easier.  Don't forget to check the sides of the pocket from the bottom of the plane, and watch for tearout.  I find it easier to work the very bottom of the pocket from this side of the plane:

In the end, the iron assembly should slide easily in and out of it's slot, but the mouth should be a bit too tight yet for the iron to fit through.  

The finished pocket should be straight for it's entire length along the wall, the shoulder, and the bed.  It's easy to get yourself into trouble here especially with 2 different types of wood.  I found the purpleheart quite a bit harder than the beech - and it needed more floating than the adjacent wood, but made it easy to overdo the beech.

Forming the Cheeks

It's time now to start forming the cheeks of the plane, starting with the lower cheek.  I found it just about impossible to take a good picture of it, so I'll just bring this cutaway back up:

Using the floats worked the easiest for removing material here - there isn't that much.  Just have to be careful with tearout at the bottom.  Tearout hasn't been a problem with the beech I used, but was an issue several times with the purpleheart.  One thing - I left a bit of wood for later when doing the final fit of the iron.

For the cheeks, I mounted the plane back into my clamping jig on my bench.  You can't see it in this photo, but there is a caul on the far side of the plane so the clamp doesn't dig into the wood.

You need your chisels to be *sharp* for working like this - it make the task go so much easier.  Once the cuts are started, a skew chisel is handy to clean up the corner.  Once within 1/16" - 1/8" or so, the bed float works to bring the thickness to final finish.  The purpose of the cheek isn't as much functional as it is for convenience for the user - it makes it easier for the user to clean the throat of shavings.

Mortising the Slot for the Chipbreaker Nut

The original plane used a 3/4" wide by 1/2" deep slot to give enough clearance for the irons nut.  I don't see any reason to change that here...  so, using an awl, I mark the deepest location that the drill will reach with a 3/4" forstner bit, and start drilling a series of 1/2" deep holes.

When finished with the forstner bits, I chisel out the remainder of the slot using my bench chisels.  Notice there's a bit of tearout at the top of the slot... that's because I was stupid and didn't continue the drilling above all the way to the top:

 Luckily, I've still got some playroom on the height of the plane, and I can joint the top down a bit to remove the tearout.  Once the slot is done, I assemble the iron and put it in the slot - sliding it up and down to make sure the nut has clearance for the entire length of the slot:


At this point, I take the iron back to the vise and do a proper fit of the iron, flattening the bed using the floats, and doing some general clean up, getting it ready so I can test fit the wedge properly, when it gets made.   I'm curious, though, so while I'm fitting the iron I stick the wedge from the original into to see how it fits.  It's close, but the angle of the original wedge is a bit shallower than the one I'll be making.  I can't resist the temptation, so I try the plane out:

It surprised me!  This iron hasn't been sharpened in probably 50 years (as you can see in the inset of the photo above) yet it was easily pulling shavings.  The last person to sharpen and use the old plane was probably my great grandfather - so it's a testamant to his ability that it would still work so well, even after sitting in the weather for so long.


Making the Wedge


Over at the bandsaw, I cut a blank for the wedge to the angle I'm using - 12-1/2 degrees.  The blank is about 5/8" thick and 6" long, and just a hair wider than the iron:

I clean up the bandsaw cuts with a block plane, first getting the width of the wedge so it fits snugly (but not binding - it should have just a little side play) into the wedge pocket, then checking that the angle is correct in the plane.  It's very important the angle be correct, and that the wedge fits snugly to the shoulder of the wedge pocket along it's entire length (it can be tuned better later, but the angle needs to be very close).  

When I've got the angle so it fits well, I mark out the edge of the shoulder onto the wedge with a sharp, sharp pencil:

Then, its back to the bandsaw to cut out about half of the material between where the shoulder meets with the wedge.  For the remainder of the parts between the shoulders, I use a series of rasps, files, and floats so it forms a steeper angle, as shown in the photo below.  I also "point" the ends of the wedge so it allows the shavings to be directed more to the center of the throat as they rise through the plane, and don't plug the mouth.  I leave them a bit long for now, so I can tune them into shape better when I fettle the plane later.

Much of the final shaping of the wedge is done later, when tuning the plane.  It's good not to take too much material off here, as it's always harder to put it on than it is to take more of it off.  Also - watch that you don't splinter the wood at the end of the wedge - this is the second wedge I made for this plane because the wood splintered right there at the end on the first.

Actually, I ended up making two more wedges for this plane, for a total of four before I got it right.  I made this one too short when fettling the plane later, and tossed it and made another.  That one I screwed up when carving the front of it.  The fourth one finally made it to the end.  EEK!!!  It's a good thing they are fairly easy to make, and removable from the main body of the plane!

Roughing Out the Handle and Forming the Razee

Using a handle off of the other of my great-great grandfathers planes (a jointer) as a pattern, I traced out a new handle for this plane - the only changes to the original were so it could be fit into the mortise of plane, and I lengthened the horn a bit because the one on the old handle was a bit too short to be comfortable, at least to me.  After roughing out the outside of the handle on the bandsaw, I use a couple of forstner bits to rough out the interior of the handle.


After cleaning up the shape of the inside of the handle with a couple rasps, I use it to determine the shape of the "razee" part of the back of the plane, then cut the body to the same shape on the band saw.  The razee should be the same shape as the front of the handle, so it fits all together in one piece.   The bottom of the handle should be about 1/2" above the bottom of the plane, and the mortise for the handle about a1/2" deep or so - don't worry, that confusing mess of sentences will become clear as the pictures progress... Here, you can see what I mean, I'm holding the handle up to the body of the plane after I've cut the body of the plane to match the curve of the handle.

Now that the razee is cut, I use a 3/4" forstner bit (the handle is about 13/16" thick) to rough out the mortise for the handle.  It's best to use a fence on the drill press to keep the holed drilled at the same distance from the edge, straight down, and to an even depth:

After all of the holes are drilled, I use a marking gauge to scribe the outer lines for for the handle and finish the holes up with a good, sharp paring chisel. 

Can't forget to smooth out the bottom and corners of the mortise as well.  I spent quite a bit of time, working from the heel of the plane and working forward, test-fitting the handle frequently.  I squared up the mortise at the farthest forward portion to match the squared cut of the handle, rather than try to round the front of the handle to fit a round mortise, which I think would be much more difficult.

The Strike Button, and Final Body Design

The Strike Button

One final element to add to the plane body is a strike button.   Because this plane has a handle on the back, there is no place to strike the plane to adjust it, or to loosen the blade once it's in place.  If you were to strike the top front of the plane, the side grain exposed would soon be beaten to death.  A strike button is a dowel placed into the top front of the plane, and exposes end grain on which to mallet blows can be applied without damaging the body of the plane. I find I prefer this style of adjustment, in any case, as it seems easier to me to gauge the force needed to strike the plane.

Since I don't have a beech dowel handy for the task, I turn one on the lathe, using a 5/8" wrench to gauge the dowels final size:

After cutting out the dowel I've turned, I use a forstner bit to drill a 1/2" deep hole in the front center of the plane, into which I glue the dowel.  I then take the plane over to the table saw and cut the dowel off to length by laying the plane on it's side and feeding it into the blade.  I didn't use any specific measurement, just eyeballed it.


Final Designs for the Body, Handle, and Wedge

Now that the majority of the plane is complete, I assemble it to see what I've got:

It still didn't look right to me, somehow.  I enlisted the help of some other woodworkers and take down some suggestions and combine them with my own ideas. Through the magic of Photoshop, I propose a few aesthetic changes (the shaded areas indicate areas of wood to be removed and the graphics are to be carved into the wood): 

The ideas are well received, but  someone points out that a celtic cross combine with wheat carvings is a bit disparate, and that I should try use all celtic-influenced carvings. I've done some celtic knot-work carving previously, but nothing this small.  I start looking up patterns until I run across this pendant:

This shape seems to fit what I want pretty well, so I use Photoshop to try it out on the plane, coming up with this:


I decide this is good enough for my purposes, and trace the outlines onto the plane using carbon paper and a slightly dulled pencil.  I changed the design for the handle slightly when I finally got around to carving it, but the idea was pretty much unchanged.

Photoshop came in really handy for this stage of the process, allowing me to preview several different final designs for the plane.

Final Details


Using back saws and rasps, most of the changes to the shape of the plane were pretty easy to accomplish, save for one - reducing the width at the back of the plane.  The front of the "taper" I wanted to be round and slanted slightly towards the toe of the plane.  I taped the cutoff from making the razee to bottom of the plane so it held the plane at the right angle, and cut off a big chunk of the waste at the band saw.


I then clean up the rest with a round file for the front, and files for the flat part leading from there towards the heel.

For the carving - I'm fairly new to carving at all, and had never attempted anything like what I wanted.  I did have some experience carving a wheat pattern into saw handles, and the center "stalks" of those carvings were a simple vee shape.  I decided to try a similar approach for these patterns, with just a couple small differences.

First, after tracing the pattern onto the wood that I wanted, I followed the tracing with my carving knife - slicing the wood straight down along the lines:

After making the straight downwards cut, I came back with the carving knife, and from the inside of the pattern, made a slicing diagonal cut back towards the initial straight down cut, pulling a sliver of wood out as I went:

 I had to be careful to make the second slice so it wasn't against the grain, otherwise it wanted to either pull the knife into it too far, or break out small sections of wood.  Afterwards, I used pretty much the same technique for the handle sides and the wedge.

The Final Product

Finally!  Sheesh, what a long winded geek!

After finishing the carving, I tuned the plane as well as I could - using the floats I'd made to smooth out the throat, sharpening the iron, and tuning up the chipbreaker so it didn't obstruct the shavings.  I probably spent the most time on the wedge, getting the bottom shaped so it wouldn't catch the shavings...  it took the longest time, because I didn't want to make it too short, so I would make a small change, re-mount the blade, make some shavings, and see where they caught in the mouth.  Then I would disassemble it, make another small change, re-assemble it, and start the whole process again.  I didn't want to remove too much material anywhere and have to remake something, especially at this stage of the game.

All of the shavings you see were made during that process, which probably took a couple of hours.

After I was satisfied with the performance of the plane, I gave it a couple of coats of boiled linseed oil (cut about 20% with mineral spirits - I normally cut it more than that, but it was in the 90's for temperature when I did this, so the oil didn't need it as much) which you can see in both of the final photos here (above and below - lighting is the only difference between the two photos).


Final Thoughts

Wow!  What a fun project!  I am not as satisfied with the final finish of the plane as I'd like - I found I was spending too much time on it and other projects were suffering (I was having way too much fun messing around with it), so had to finish it up.  My carving skills are still a bit crude, but I guess they're passable for now, anyway (it's not like this is for anyone other than me!).

As I learn more and more about the traditional throat design of these planes, I think I'm starting to see a few of the benefits of using a thicker single iron rather than an iron with a chipbreaker - I believe the next one I attempt will use a single 1/4" thick iron.  I can't really explain it well other than to say ucsing a chipbreaker seems to create more spots that can catch a shaving and plug the mouth up... I'll have to experiment with a single iron to see if my hunches are correct.

More than ever, I recommend tackling projects like this if you are interested in wooden planes at all - each time I do, I'm learning more and more on how they function.  It's fun too, and I like this plane!  I can tell already I like it better than a Bailey for smoothing.  I'll still use a Bailey to make some of the initial passes, but this fellow really shines in bringing the finish to finality.

Well - you made it all the way to the end (you didn't cheat and skip over pages, did you?!).  Thanks for reading!