When I had hoards of school children come to visit me in my workshop, 7-10 year-olds, several days a week, I developed many ways to show how tools worked on wood to true and trim, smooth and shape. We counted saw strokes together and felt the wood fibres before and after planing and sawing. If I tell you I had 1,000 children come into my workplace to watch and listen to my woodworking tools in the spring and early summer it would not be an exaggeration. For ten years I did this between 10 AM and noon four days a week. They were mesmerised when I wrote their names on strips of pine and planed the surface to find the names gone. Picking the shavings up from the workbench with their names clearly marked on them and taking them home was a priceless gift I never knew would be so valued. One child came back ten year’s later with her name on a shaving and said, “I did this with you when I was ten!” She kept and used it as a bookmark.
I hear more and more of teachers suddenly taking on the added tasks of teaching woodcraft to children i class. Ask most teachers about woodworking and they tell you it’s mostly about nailing wood with a hammer and nail and that we use it for construction work. Most carpenters I know would have little if any knowledge of actually planing wood and chiselling recesses to fit door locks and hinges by hand. Why would they? Clamp the router guide on the door, slide in the plunge router and hey presto the lock slides in and the door is hinged, hung and done. I am sure the US influence of stick-frame building has influenced the image of the carpenter with a claw hammer held mid air symbolises the carpenter. In my world, I would most likely never use the term carpenter as it is used in different cultures today. I would never allow my own use of the word to describe myself anymore because of its diminished meaning. No, it is not snobbism: culture has the dynamic to change meaning and the meanings of words we once could use freely and in inclusive ways might have a completely different meaning now. In the past 30 years, I have yet to see any carpenter with wide shavings from a hand plane around his ankles or actually hear a handsaw ripping through wood. Here in my workshop, I hear Hannah, Jack and John sawing all the time throughout the day, doing work that power equipment could just not do as efficiently. It’s nice. I feel success. They have and are developing skills and these three as well as others will replace me when I am indeed too old.
So a few days ago I started to think about wood shavings and the setting of planes. I realised that for the main part planes are set to a setting that enables us to remove material with some measure of agreement to our effort. Set a plane with too deep a cut and the plane resists and falters in the stroke to leave a step or two and more where it should feel smooth and level. I have strategies that work exceptionally well in the removing of wood quickly. To that end, my various methods equip me and save me a lot of work. Different tools provide us with options. Would `I use a drawknife in my work? Usually not. Drawknives work really well with green wood on shaving horses but not too well at the workbench and with dry and seasoned wood. Some will argue with that but no matter. That’s their world and not mine.
It’s most helpful to see that the plane setting on the bench planes is extremely important to our sanity and especially when we first start planing and using hand planes. I personally think you should at first keep the number of planes you buy to a minimum. You will find that in the bench plane group you will actually reach for the #4 and the #5 planes, use them for a while and get used to them, and then decide you do not need anything longer. So many fall into the trap of thinking they need every bench plane made in the series to get the wood just right. I mean what about the #8 Stanley or Record? The #7, the #6? Do you actually need any more length in a plane than a #5 or #5 1/2? Well, no, you don’t really. But of course, I am not selling tools and neither am I a collector. My long planes stay at the back of the others. Do I use them for ‘special‘ work, special projects? Well, I doubt that most of us can actually wield such lengthy planes and keep them true to the wood for truing. They are extremely awkward and heavy, so absolutely not. More than that, I actually think that they are a waste of space.
In some ways, it would be wonderful to dial in the depth of cut of a plane. A plane that self-levels and automatically aligns the cutting-edge parallel to the sole would be tremendous too. Were it possible, it would have been engineered by now, but Leonard Bailey did more than any plane maker/designer to get us close to the perfect plane and left us with a perfect level of involvement in the setting of the plane. We negotiate our settings according to what we feel in the pushing of the plane. Sometimes we can be too late and the strong stroke has failed us. I am glad we have to engage exactly as we do. There is just something about finding the sweet spot in any hand tool action that we can never achieve in any other way or by any other method of working wood.
I did some measuring recently. I measured the thicknesses of shavings to better know what thickness shavings are when the plane is set to match my skill and strength and to see what turns achieve what in terms of depth of cut per par-rotation. It’s one thing guessing this or that and another thing knowing a thickness even if it is only arbitrary. I found that a shaving of 0.14mm in oak was doable strength-wise according to that depth of cut when I wanted to take a heavy shaving but not one I would want to repeat for too long on a wide section of wood. Heavier shavings than that can be taken on narrow edges far more readily than on something a full plane width.
In planing this oak full width, I found that reducing the set to take thinner shavings produced a considerably better finish to the wood. I also felt that I ‘felt‘ the wood more sensitively and its refinement better through a less aggressive depth of cut; 0.07mm was an ideal thickness and on up to 0.12 came within the zone of comfortable but less so at the top end. Just how do you know how much of a rotation or partial rotation of the adjustment wheel will deliver at the cutting edge? You can simply measure it. A full rotation on any Bailey-pattern bench plane regardless of length or width will always be far too much if you have the set readied to already take off around 0.07. Rotating the wheel is a steady and ready delivery once the wheel has engaged the yoke and presses on the cutting iron assembly. You soon get used to gauging how much to rotate the wheel for a practical amount to take off. Generally, the best cuts are between 0.01mm, almost nothing, and 0.07. I am always conscious that the thicker shavings take so much more effort when you’d think a fraction more shouldn’t really make much difference. But I think it a good idea to see for yourself how much wheel rotation it takes to establish a different setting. You can do that by marking the adjustment wheel with a pencil line when the shaving is close to zero thickness. The vernier shows 0.01mm. For practical reasons I don’t need to get much closer to zero than this, an onion skin, so this is a good starting point:
I take up any slack on my adjustment wheel to set this as the starting point and mark a line on the adjustment wheel. I can use this visual to register the start of the rotation so that when I rotate the wheel for a deeper cut and measure the thickness of the new shaving I can see exactly what the difference is.
Turning it clockwise just one-eighth of a turn clockwise increased my depth of cut . . .
. . . and my new shaving measured an increase to 0.03–still paper thin.
By the time I had rotated a full half turn the thickness had reached 0.13. Still easy enough to take a shaving but in this case, my material is only half an inch. On three-quarter to one-inch thick stock, planing the edge would be twice as hard and this must be considered minute-by-minute when changes are made to the setting.
By now you will see that a full rotation almost always delivers a prohibitive cut and one of little value for surface planing but for removing the arris this full rotation might just be exactly right.
Every wood type you plane will give different impressions as no two woods will ever be just the same. Surprisingly, woods considered hard woods, woods like oak, ash and elm will plane more easily than softer woods and when you look at the shavings you can see why. Coarse-grained woods like this have much more openness to the fibres, those with more open pores throughout the grain plane much more easily. It becomes evident in the shaving when you lift it to the light.
The gaps in the shaving above are the open pores characteristic of oak. The plane strokes easily work through grain like this as the pores may well represent 25% less actual wood. Other woods will be far more resistant to the plane, even many soft-grained woods.
Thickness may well not be consistent along the length of a continuous stoke. This varies slightly but we should be aware that pushing the plane effectively pulls the wood up at the point of cut and a shaving can be the minutest of a fraction thicker here and there. Here the thickness of the shaving showed 0.08mm.
I stack up four shavings from the same stroke having cut the length into four sections and measured the overall thickness of what was an individual shaving 0.08 thick. The cumulative effect showed 0.36 so an average of 0.09.
So, what am I saying? If you set your plane up correctly with the plane setting to a thin shaving, it’s quite informative to know just what your plane is doing at the cutting edge in terms of shaving thickness. the thread on your adjustment screw governs the depth of cut and then too the retraction of the cutting iron to take thinner shavings means consistent need for resetting the forward set for deeper cuts throughout a given day. Doing this just once will set the knowledge in your brain and you will know just what your favourite plane is doing.