Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tech Tip Tuesday

I've said it before, and I'll say it again:

It's not the clothes that make the man, it's the tools. 


In this case, we're talking about planes.  There is a great variety out there, the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly.  For the type of small boat building that I do, I find a pretty large variety of planes to be pretty useful.  For most novice boat-builders, it can be challenging to learn the skills you need, and this is even worse when you've got bad tools.  Selecting good tools can be hit-or-miss, even if you are careful.  The best way to select a good tool is to try one out.  This can sometimes be done at woodworking trade shows.  If that's not possible, see if you can find someone who has the tool that you're interested in so that you can try it out.  Usually, this helps weed out the really bad ones.

Let me mention at the outset that you can go and buy some great planes right off the shelf from makers like Lie-Nielsen Toolworks and Lee Valley Tools.   For slightly less money, I've also been hearing some good things about the re-worked Stanley Sweetheart line of planes, too. Then again, you can get into some seriously rarified air with infill planes from the likes of Karl Hotley.   Beautiful, but certainly out of the reach of most of us.

These are some of the planes that I use and I'll point out some of the good and bad.

My first go-to plane tends to be a block plane.  I do prefer a low-angle plane for working soft cedar.  These planes are used for shaping stems, fairing the hull and smoothing the sheer.  Handy as all get-out.  From the bottom up we have a Stanley #102, a Stanley 12-247, two Stanley 60 1/2 low-angle, and a Borg brand plane.

The first plane I ever bought was the 12-247 at the top of the image below.  It's really a carpenter's tool and lacks some sophistication.  It and the #102 (at the bottom of the image below - purchased last year.) are very similar in that they don't have adjustable throats (you can't limit the chip you're taking off), the blade is set at a high angle, which is fine for many operations, but to adjust them is very difficult for a beginner as there is no skew adjustment lever on the blade and no threaded adjustment.  I usually stack the plane's sole on a piece of paper to get the proper cut depth.  Simple trick, but makes these planes relatively easy to adjust. 

The second plane I bought was one of the 60 1/2's in the early '90's.  It's a workhorse and has been made for some time.   It was a world of difference from the 12-247 for what I do - and it was reasonable.  It did need a bit of tweaking out of the box, but it wasn't long before it became a trusted and reliable tool.  It has a skew adjustment for the blade, the throat opening can be adjusted and the blade adjustment can be done with a knob that moves a fine screw thread.  I needed another one about five years later and figured I'd buy the exact same model.  It was not the same.  The differences are subtle, but represent manufacturing changes made to lower the cost.

First is the locking lever for the cap.  On the left in the image below is the older unit and on the right is the newer one.  The old locking lever and cam was cast - a robust and effective thing.  The new locking lever is stamped steel and doesn't stay locked.  It's horrible.

While not a disaster, you can see the difference in the quality of the knobs on these planes - can you guess which is which?

If you guessed that the plane on the left with the nice crisp looking knob is the older one, you'd be right.  There are other subtle and not-so subtle differences.  The opening for the throat plate was not well machined and required a file to clean it up before it moved smoothly.  Then, the cam that is underneath the knob in the picture above, doesn't appear to have been either properly designed or cut as it wouldn't let the throat open and close the way it should.  (i.e. the opening was limited and too small.)  The quality of the grinding of the castings was also not as good on the newer unit.  Quite frankly, I have retired it - it's not fit for use.

I then got a Borg brand low angle block plane from our friends up at the WoodenBoat Store.  Sadly, they no longer carry this plane.  It is very similar to some older Stanley designs, is almost exactly like one of the Lie Neilsen planes and is very nice for the price.  It is very comfortable to hold and use, has an adjustable throat, a nice threaded blade adjustment and a secure locking wheel to hold the blade in position.  Oh, and the fit and finish were excellent and the tool was ready to go out of the box.  

One big difference between the Borg and the Stanley 60 1/2 planes is the blade thickness (and probably the material (Borg on the left, Stanley on the right - note the shear mark on the Stanley's edge versus the nicely ground Borg) :

That's a significant difference in thickness.  Thicker blades tend to chatter less and cut better.  You can upgrade tools by purchasing new blades (irons) from Ron Hock at Hock Tools or one of his distributors.  They offer drop-in replacements for common planes that are thicker than the originals and made from high quality tool steels that are properly heat-treated.  A better quality iron can make a big difference in the performance of the tool.  That's worth repeating.  A better quality iron can make a big difference in the performance of the tool.

This is another plane purchased from the WoodenBoat Store and is unfortunately a bit of a disappointment.  It is an Anant brand rabbet (or rebate) plane that is a copy of a - you guessed it - Stanley product.  The tool's fit and finish is questionable as is the perpendicularity of the side of the casting to the sole.  No matter what I do, I can't seem to get the blade to hold an edge - I should probably spend some time tuning this up and getting a replacement blade, but I can't seem to get myself to do it.  Rabbet planes are very helpful in establishing a rolling bevel on a cedar strip canoe that doesn't use cove-and-bead strips because the blade runs the full width of the tool.

 The next planes that I use a lot are spokeshaves.  Very useful in shaping stems or fairing the hull.  I find the flat-soled spokeshave best for stems and the round-soled spokeshave good for getting into some of the hollow shapes on the outside of canoe hulls during fairing.  The two blue-handled planes are Record A151's in both round and flat soles.  (Model 151 is a Stanley number - surprised?)  The 151's are easy to use and adjust and have a nice set of double adjusters at the top to allow depth and skew of the iron to be adjusted.  The green handled spokeshave with the axial curve is a Groz brand plane.  I'm planning to use it on paddle shafts after going from rectangle to octagon cross-section.   It just has the single screw to adjust the blade.  It is definitely not ready for use yet and will need sharpening and clean up of the sole before I can use it.  Adjustment of the blade looks to be difficult.  Groz also makes a 151 model today with similar adjustments to the Record in both flat and round soles and looks to be a better quality tool than the one I'm showing.

The Record spokeshaves need some Hock blades, methinks.

The planes below are from Lee Valley - I tend to have one or the other in my shop apron for tasks that I just can't do with a larger block plane.  They are tiny.  The top plane is a reproduction of the famous Leonard Bailey #51 plane.  My father has an original that I've tuned up and sharpened up for him, but he would never part with it so I had to get my own.  The bottom plane is a copy of a Stanley #100 Squirrel-tail plane.  Both are fantastic tools for lots of odd jobs - the quality was outstanding and they were producing shavings right out of the box.  The soles and blades are lapped (a sharpening method that produces excellent finish and flat parts.)

These planes see less use, but are still handy.  One is a Sargent smooth plane (on the left) and the other is a Stanley 5-1/2 bench plane.  I use them both for truing up edges on boards before I put them on the jointer. (power, jointer, that is, not jointer plane)  Usually this involves taking off a high spot.  I also find these useful for trimming the centerline of the hull's "football".  Both of these planes were given to me by a co-worker in return for a table top.  When the arrived, they were both covered in rust and looked horrid.  A little careful cleaning, flattening and sharpening has returned them to good working order.  I'd love to know what the steel is in the Sargent's iron, as it is very, very hard and holds an incredible edge.

These planes - and ones like them at the school where I teach will be instrumental in the shaping of paddle blades for the canoe paddles.

Older tools are often available from used tool vendors, at flea markets, tag sales, on eBay, or Craigslist.  Very often, older tools can be had for a good price.  You should, however do your homework to make sure that it is a good tool and is in good physical shape (i.e. is the casting cracked?  are all the parts there?  is it damaged in some way?)  Also, not all older tools were good or successful - which is why they are available.  A quick trip to Patrick's Blood and Gore (yes, that's the name!)  pages will provide some good information on Stanley tools, and there are many others with information on Record, Sargent and others.  Learn about the tools you're planning to buy and what a fair price might be - sometimes they can be had quite cheaply!

One other thought is to learn to make your own wood-bodied planes - there are several books and web pages on the subject.  I'd try it myself, but I'm worried that it would become rather addictive.

All of this is useless, however, if you don't know how to sharpen, adjust, and maintain these tools.  A dull plane is useless - even a $4000 Hotley!

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