I own three but it seems now that the one I always reach for has become my favourite and that’s the Veritas from Lee Valley version. I like the way it’s designed and made and the presets with Allen keys to set the cutter laterally in relation to the long axis of the plane body. But no matter the make, shoulder planes have become one of the lesser-used planes in our arsenal. Mostly that’s because they were predominantly used by craftsmen making fine work in frame construction. There are two woodworking categories that have suffered the demise of fine woodworking relying on shoulder planes in the last eight or so decades — furniture making and shopfitting. Shopfitting seems always to shift with technology at a fast rate of knots. Plastics, laminates and metal-faced composites generally replaced wood but not because of cost so much as creating materials that are stable, machinable and dare I say, even skilless. We transferred from the more unpredictable solid wood that changed with the weather to use various engineered boards pulverised and pulped to produce a wide range of man-made substitutes. These materials were dimensionally stable and for the ever-changing world of shopfitting where the lifespan might change with each new shop/store owner, these materials were ideal. Add colour, a variety of grain prints, textures of choice and the outcome is often remarkably modern-looking and often amazing. Many surfaces have me not knowing if it’s real wood or laminate these days, and working such materials can only really be done using machine processes.
Go back 200 years and more or then less and you would see shoulder planes lying with bench planes on workbenches, shop and office floors under construction and also on temporary trestles set up as transitional workstations. Real wood was being worked to install 10″ deep mahogany or oak skirting boards, architraves, countertops and glass cases framed with moulding just run on the edges of boards using nothing more than moulding planes. Shoulder lines tested the metal of makers, qualifying their abilities to others on the job. Any flaw here would result in comments from the older men in control of the project: “Drive a horse and cart through that shoulder!“
Doors and panelled walls with glass as partitionings were always made on the bench in the workshop. In the 1960s and before, this type of work was all but gone. Very few specialist companies survived to take up the slack but the work pretty well dried up with the quest for the ever-new and brighter. Fasteners for plastic, metal and man-made engineered materials in sheet goods became ever more sophisticated as did the facings for such materials. It’s no real surprise therefore that there was no need for the joinery and no need for the hand tools they used either. The shop joinery became a fitter and so the question is do we need shoulder planes in our limited capacity in woodworking at home? Well, I think it is a matter of personal preference. I enjoy alternative tools and also those developed specifically for a particular application. I also like the idea of adapting tools to other applications beyond their intended design. The shoulder plane does that.
Whenever I make for woodworking masterclasses I always use what my audience is likely to use or have access to. I do not like sending anyone out for £300 plane — I think that that is important for me and for you. Of course, our work is 99% handwork so the shoulders for our tenons are always hand-sawn and pare-cut with saws and chisels to the knifewalls we first establish. Our aims are entirely different. We’re non-competitive and do not need to come in at the lowest price point. We have no need to rush our work as we enjoy the processes as much as the completion of it and that is because we are pursuing the development of skills. We are high self-demanding woodworkers. Rushing denies us the feelings we get from achieving good results working with our hands and bodies. We want hard work be that for mental and physical challenges or the unique physical workout this gives us.
I have enjoyed using my shoulder planes through many decades. I own Record versions, both narrow and wide ones and then too a Veritas one whose blade is 1 1/4″ (31mm) wide. They all work well provides the blades are sharp and square-ended. That said, in the first two decades of my woodworking life `i never used one. Even though we mainly use the knifewall to saw and pare cut to, we can indeed use the shoulder plane to finalise the cut to the knifewall line too. With practice, you can feather into a cut if the saw cut was slightly off at one side. It’s a technique you develop by applying different points of pressure through the plane body in the same way we do with bench planes like smoothing planes and Jacks. We can rely on the weightier body to counter any and all resistance and most knots are barely discernible when push and follow through the cut without faltering. the best way to use the plane is with a shallow set and many strokes rather than heavy cuts.
The end result of that final stroke is a dead square shoulder that’s square both across and vertically and of equal importance, straight. The length of the sole fore and aft, combined with the weightiness of the plane steadies the plane with each thrusting stroke. Once registered, quick successive strokes without removing the plane from its ever-forming platform are practical and positive. I prefer the knife wall all around to guide my strokes as it gives me the exactness I need to establish both shoulders in perfect square-across alignment. It’s also good to note that plane strokes rarely result in equal thickness from the start to the end of the stroke though in theory that would make sense to us. Compression of the wood, applied pressures and then other resistance factors, wood types, grain types affect plane functionality stoke on stoke. This plane starts at the edge of the shoulder with the blade engaging the face of the shoulder at the depth setting of the cutting iron. Inevitably the plane rises as the plane passes from one end of the shoulder to the other. It’s so small an amount it’s almost inconsequential but the plane dulls with every stroke and this rising in the cut will inevitably mean you are taking more off at one end of the shoulder than the other. This, of course, happens in all planing with all planes. To correct this we have options; we can plane from the opposite side into the previous cuts or we can sharpen repeatedly with short distances between sharpenings. It’s up to us. Keeping sharp is my choice.
The shoulder plane can be used lying on its side and vertically according to preference, comfort visibility of cut and more. Depending on the presenter, you might think this or that are the only options but mostly I find it depends on the pulling or pushing power as the blade engages the wood. Both standard ways work perfectly well and you will gain confidence going either way according to your own feelings in the zone. The thing is this though, the tenon is upright in the vise for that vertical trim you want to a shoulder. Pushing the plane into the cut seems good on one side and pulling on the same side can feel more awkward. Flipping the plane end for end might resolve the conflict and when you focus on the opposite shoulder you might find everything completely different. It’s important to practice different options so that you become more conversant with the tool. This gives you options and versatility.
Softwoods with their characteristic variability in grain density between the two side-by-side aspects or sections of every growth ring can be highly problematic with end-grain planing and especially with shoulder planes. The hard aspect to the growth ring with its denser grain doesn’t collapse under the force of the plane but the plane’s push forces the hard ring into the soft ring aspect next to it and this causes a degree of collapse. At this point, the soft ring becomes compressed until the opposite force equals the pressure applied by the plane which is when the fibres sever. Compression against each adjacent hard growth ring and the knock-on effect results in clean-cut hard aspects and tear-out and compression retention in the softer aspects of the grain. This results in tiny gaps in the softer wood areas. This will usually show on the face grain right by the shoulder corner. The only way to minimise harm is a truly sharp cutting edge combined with a cross-grain knifewall. The below images show the result of shoulder planing end-grain rebates.
Remember that soft woods are not the same as softwoods and hard woods are not the same as hardwoods; quite confusing terms. There are dozens of soft-grain hardwoods. One of the softest least dense woods is balsa wood which is a hardwood and not a softwood. Such woods compress under end-grain planing until the build-up of resistance equals the applied pressure and fights back to result in cut fibres.
Try planing shoulder lines in available softwoods and soft-grained woods. Spruce, pine, fir all plane quite differently and you will see which ones have grain collapse and which ones resist it. Switch to other woods like cherry, walnut, oak, maple just to see the differences.
Often woodworkers don’t realise that shoulder planes can be used on the cheeks or faces of tenons and the interiors of cross-grain step-downs like dadoes. The strokes are side by side and barely overlapping. Use the hand router to establish a level surface all across and then follow on with the shoulder plane for a super-smooth surface.
You can also use the shoulder plane for the first pass up tight by the shoulder and then use a #4 smoothing plane on the outer reaches. This is especially useful on long and wide tenons. You can work to the gauge lines or do as I often do and use the router plane as the marking gauge to mark the cheeks of the tenon before any cutting takes place and then, after cutting by whatever means you choose, cut with the first pass of the shoulder plane to the line and then follow on using the #4 to finalise the tenon surface.
Below is how your tenon can look using this method
If you look on the shoulders of old shop doors and such you might see on the extreme corner of the shoulder line a bevelled back ending (see below). It’s done so that the shoulder plane can pass through in successive passes and when done it is scarcely noticed.
If you look on some shoulder lines you might see the end near the outcut is fractured . . . this almost always happens when the cut is too deep and that is with or without the back bevel.
Adding a sacrificial piece (below) is mostly awkward and inconvenient but it does result in guarantees at the end of the cut. I often find it more practical to push the plane almost through and leave a quarter inch or so at the end which I pare cut level with the shoulder line. I think I do this as much as anything but some years ago, using the knifewall method at its fullest potential, I pare-cut the last inch with a one-inch chisel and just ran my plane into it. It was perfect.
Lastly, and it might get missed, it might seem to make sense to put the cutting edge corner of the blade flush with the outside face of the plane that is up against the cheek of the tenon but it cuts better with a slight relief by allowing the cutting edge to overhang a fraction of a millimetre. When it’s flush, that inside corner doesn’t cut except for the first few opening cuts. Overhanging slightly really improves the cut. The cutting iron on shoulder planes can be shunted left or right to the long axis of the plane to allow for an overhang on one side or the other or, if centred, slightly to both sides so that if you change direction there is no need to readjust the cutting iron.