Coarse, medium, and fine

The following is based on an article I originally wrote for issue 252 of Furniture & Cabinet Making Magazine.

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Have you selected your bench planes? In Curing Plane Addiction I made the case that you only need three bench planes, chosen on their function rather than the size number assigned to them; a smoothing plane, a jack or fore plane, and a jointer plane. For me, that set consists of a No.3 smoother, No.5 jack, and a No.8 jointer plane, although each maker will have their own preferences.

Having selected your trio of bench planes, the next question is how do you use them? Now, hand planes are incredibly versatile tools and a complete guide on all that can be achieved with them is would be ambitious for a book, let alone a single article. So here I will focus on the fundamental principles of using hand planes, which can be summed up as coarse, medium, and fine.

Some historical guidance

The same historic woodworkers and writers that helped narrow down the choice for a set of bench planes in my previous article also had plenty to say about how to use them, especially Joseph Moxon – the author of Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works (1703, and re-printed by Lost Art Press 2013). Moxon gives two tips for planing work, which despite being incredibly useful, often get overlooked: always use the coarsest tool possible for most of the work, and traverse boards. I will come back to traversing later on, but for now let’s think about Moxon’s first tip.

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Full width shavings from a jointer plane tell you that the work is flat

Moxon helpfully explains that the jack, or fore, plane is the first plane to touch the work, and that the purpose of this plane is to prepare the work piece for smoothing or jointing with the other bench planes. The focus when using the jack is therefore to remove the worst of any saw mill marks and other irregularities, and to quickly remove material when bringing stock down to thickness. For Moxon the other important aspect of this is that it is not necessary to use all three planes in sequence on every element of a project. He also indicates that moving straight from the jack to the smoothing is perfectly acceptable when the component needs to be smooth but not perfectly flat. Similarly, if an element of a build needs to be flat but not smoothed (because for instance, it is not going to be seen once the build is finished) then stop work after jointing, and don’t move to the smoothing plane.

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From left to right, the thick shaving from a traversing cut with a jack plane, a full width thin shaving from a jointer plane, and the wispy shaving of a smoothing plane.

But what are the benefits in working this way? Well, an efficient workflow is essential in all workshops, and a large part of efficiency is using the right tool for the job. This can sometimes be forgotten in the pursuit of those beautiful gossamer thin smoothing plane shavings. You can flatten a board with only a smoothing plane, but it would take an awfully long time. Instead use the jack to get most of the way there, and then reach for the jointer for the final truing of the work. The smoothing plane is then only needed for a couple of passes on show surfaces.

Processing stock by hand

Although seemingly quite a basic task, processing rough sawn stock by hand is an excellent opportunity to learn, and practise, your key hand plane skills. I recently built a pair of saw benches out of The Anarchist’s Design Book (2016, Lost Art Press), and this seemed like the perfect moment to re-visit Moxon and those all-important hand plane fundamentals.

Removing Twist and Cupping

Before you first reach for your plane it is necessary to check the work piece for cupping and twist. Cupping can easily be checked by holding a straight edge across the width, while twist can be checked first by placing a straight edge diagonally from corner to corner, and by using winding sticks. The top of my saw benches was fortunately free from twist, but had become severely cupped.

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The yellow poplar for my saw bench top was free of twist, but was significantly cupped

Planing work that rocks or moves about is frustrating and time consuming, so with cupped boards I tend to work the domed side first, as the cupped side will rest securely on the workbench. If you are dealing with a twisted board, then address this before tackling the cupping. Work the two high corners until they are level with the two lowest corners, by working diagonally across the board with the jack plane, from the low spots to the high corners. Once the problem corners are level with the rest of the board join them up by working both along the grain and diagonally corner to corner.

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Work the peak of the dome by working along the grain with your jack plane

Different techniques are needed for each side of a cupped board, and for the domed face you are essentially forced into working along the length of the board – it is all too easy to plane a convex curve into the work piece when working across the grain of a domed board. A jack plane set to a heavy cut will remove the worst of the dome by planing the peak of the dome along the length of the board. As the dome is reduced, work an increasingly wide section of the board, until the board is close to flat. Now is the time to move to the jointer, working along the length of the board until that face is flattened – full width shavings off a jointer plane will tell you when your work piece is flat. Depending on the project now might be the time to introduce the smoothing plane to the work piece, although for casework I tend to wait until the carcase has been assembled before smoothing.

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Chamfer the far edge of the work with your block plane to avoid spelching when using a traversing cut

With one face of the work piece flattened you can now work the cupped face. First, take your block plane and chamfer the far edge of the board – a few swipes should do it. Now you are ready to traverse the grain as suggested by Moxon. Starting at one end of the board plane across the width of the work piece and perpendicular to the grain, using a jack plane with a cambered blade, taking overlapping cuts until you reach the opposite end of the board. The chamfer left by the block plane will stop spelching, and as the jack plane removes the chamfer a few swipes with the block plane will renew it. Traversing the work piece in this way will remove the cupping while leaving the low middle of the board untouched, and because wood is relatively weak across its grain you can take deeper cuts than would be possible when working along the grain. Don’t worry that the surface is a little woolly; this will be removed by the subsequent planes. Just keep traversing and checking the progress with a straight edge – I tend to use the sole of the plane as this is plenty straight enough for this type of work, and is already to hand. Once your jack plane starts to remove material from the very middle of the board you know that the cupping has been removed. If the work piece is at the correct thickness then you can move directly to the jointer or smoothing plane depending on whether you need a perfectly flat, or smooth, surface.

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Traversing with a jack plane quickly flattens a cupped board

Thicknessing

In all likelihood, having removed any twist and cupping the work piece may need further planing to bring it down to the correct thickness. For this, you can exploit wood’s weakness to working across the grain, while adopting a technique that is a little less aggressive than traversing. As always, start with the jack plane. This time, work diagonally across the board, planing at 45 degrees to the grain, from one corner to the opposite corner. Then change direction and work back towards the original corner. One direction will leave a cleaner surface than the other, but do not worry about tear out or leaving a woolly surface at this point – the focus is on getting close to the finished thickness and on removing as much material as possible in a quick and controlled manner. As you creep up on the final thickness you can move to the jointer plane, working diagonally to start with, before finishing with shavings taken along the grain to clean up the surface. Once final thickness has been reached, you can break out the smoothing plane if necessary.

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By working diagonally across the grain you can remove very thick shavings with minimal effort, perfect when there is a lot of material to remove.

Conclusion

Processing rough sawn stock by hand is an excellent way to develop fundamental hand plane skills. It may seem that this article has been a guide on how to use your jack plane rather than all three essential bench planes, but really that is because a jack plane should spend more time on your bench than either of the other two. In my workshop the smoothing plane sees the least use of all my bench planes, not because I don’t smooth my work, but because I make my jack plane do all of the heavy lifting, with the jointer and smoother just finishing up the work. Even if you decide to rely more heavily on your jointer and smoother planes, knowing when to use them is essential to an efficient workflow. Similarly, although it may seem counter-intuitive to plane across rather than along the grain, this technique saves an extraordinary amount of time and has been used by craftsmen for centuries.

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The distinctive feathery edged shavings from a heavy traversing cut

6 thoughts on “Coarse, medium, and fine

  1. What you describe is so familiar. I work using hand tools with the occasional trip to a friend’s shop to use his band saw when the manual sawing is just too much.
    My approach is pretty much the same, the only difference is that I will nearly always start off with the scrub plane instead of the jack, unless the stock is already pretty flat and free of twist and cupping. I don’t have the jack sharpened to a radius, so I use it more like a jointer. This will of course depend on stock size, sometimes it is the 5 1/2 I turn to. In other occasions it is the 8 I reach for. I will however set the scrub plane to a very light cut and plane with the fibers once the stock is flat before proceeding with jack/jointer.

  2. Great article! Do you suggest having two different blades for the jack? A heavily cambered and a lightly cambered/dog-eared blade for the finer thicknessing work?

    • Glad you found the article useful! I know some people keep a range of blades for their jack plane. I find that a heavily cambered blade is enough for the jack, and once I need a more lightly cambered blade I reach for the No8 or No3 as appropriate.

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