The Only Bench Plane You Need?

The following is based on an article originally published in Furniture & Cabinetmaking Issue 280.

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The Lie-Nielsen No62

When it was first unveiled in 1905, Stanley’s No62 bench plane must have caused quite a commotion. Looking like nothing else in production, the No62 married the bevel-up blade orientation of a block or mitre plane to a bench plane sized body, measuring 14” long by 2” wide. While Stanley ceased manufacturing the No.62 in 1942, bevel-up bench planes have enjoyed something of a modern revival, thanks in large part to Karl Holtey’s revolutionary No98 smoothing plane, which prompted a reconsideration of bevel-up designs as being highly practical instead of an evolutionary dead end. So popular has the bevel-up concept become that premium plane manufacturers Veritas and Lie-Nielsen now manufacture a whole range of bevel-up smoothing, jack, and jointer planes. Returning to the plane that started it all, there are woodworkers who claim that the No62 is so versatile that it can replace the full set of traditional bevel-down planes. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I decided to test this claim by putting away my usual set of planes and spend several months using just a No62.

An Introduction to Blade Geometry

Before we delve into the test, it is worth explaining blade geometry, and the claimed benefits of a bevel-up bench plane. Traditional bench planes orientate the iron so that the bevel is facing downwards towards the bed of the plane, and the back surface of the iron is facing to the front of the plane. In this arrangement the cutting angle of the iron is determined by the angle of the frog of the plane, rather than the angle of the bevel honed on the iron. In contrast, a bevel-up orientation places the back of the iron against the bed of the plane, and the cutting angle is derived from adding the bed angle to the angle of the bevel.

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Jointing oak

Blade orientation itself does not affect the performance of the plane – the wood does not care whether your plane is bevel-up or down, all it sees is the cutting angle. But different cutting angles will have different effects on the planed surface, and this is where the benefits of a bevel-up plane become apparent. A low cutting angle of 37 degrees is effective for cutting end grain, while a high cutting angle of 62 degrees will help to smooth difficult interlocked or figured grain. Because the cutting angle of bevel-down planes is determined by the frog angle, changing the cutting angle requires fitting a new frog, or honing a back-bevel to the plane’s iron. In contrast, the cutting angle of a bevel-up plane can be adjusted by honing a different bevel angle to the iron, or keeping a set of irons with different bevels for different tasks. Woodworkers enamoured with bevel-up planes suggest that having a single plane and collection of irons to achieve different cutting angles saves both space and cost when compared to a set of traditional bench planes, and by swapping out the irons, can achieve the same level of utility as a set of three bevel-down planes.

The Challenge

My usual stable of planes consists of a No.3 smoother, No5 jack, and No8 jointer – see “Curing Plane Addiction” for a detailed explanation of how to select a set of bench planes, and the purposes each one fulfils. Replacing those planes was a Lie-Nielsen No62 kindly loaned to me by Classic Hand Tools. The Lie-Nielsen plane is of comparable dimensions to the Stanley plane on which it is based, and the same size as a No5 bench plane – 14” long with a 2” wide iron. The mouth aperture is easily adjustable by twisting the front knob to allow the front plate to be slide forward or back for a tighter or more open mouth. The bed angle is 12 degrees, which means that honing a 35 degree bevel (as I do for most of my planes and chisels) achieves a 47 degree cutting angle very close to the “common pitch” cutting angle of most bevel down planes 45 degree. This low bed angle also explains why bevel-up planes are also commonly referred to as “low-angle planes”. Honing a primary bevel of 25 degrees results in a cutting angle of 37 degrees, which gives excellent results on end grain, and a 50 degree bevel results in a 62 degree angle for smoothing tasks. A 90 degree bevel effectively converts the plane into a large scraper.

So much for the theory, but what I wanted to know was would the No62 be able to discharge all of the tasks I used my familiar set of planes for?

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The No62 works well as a jack plane, although you need to hone a significant camber into the iron to get it performing sweetly in this role

In Use

Broadly speaking, bench plane work falls into three categories – coarse, medium, and fine work such as flattening rough stock, jointing edges for gluing, and smoothing surfaces for finishing (see “Coarse Medium & Fine” ). In order to give the plane a thorough test I needed to press it into service on all three categories of work. Fortunately, I was about to start building a child sized stick chair in hard maple, as well as preparing larger sized stock for the Back to the Bootbench project, and a bookcase in maple. Between these projects, and working on an oak chair I was finishing off, the No62 would get plenty of use across a number of different operations.

First up were the coarse operations – flattening hard maple for the seat blank, and the larger pine and maple boards. Opening the mouth wide and setting the iron (honed with a 35 degree bevel) to a rank cut, I found that the No62 works as a respectable jack plane to hog off material and flatten rough stock. As with a bevel-down jack plane, a cambered blade makes processing rough stock a more efficient experience. The toothed blade definitely helps tame difficult grain at a “common pitch” cutting angle, and would be invaluable if rosewoods or heavily figured maple were part of your daily workflow. As it was, flattening stock was a straight forward process for both maple and pine, and I didn’t miss my usual Clifton No5 jack plane in the slightest.

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Italso functions well as a shooting board plane

Next came the “medium” work. Jointing the maple seat blank was also straight forward, closing the mouth and using the same “common pitch” cutting angle iron made short work of getting a square and straight joint on 2” wide, 17” long boards. At 14” long, I found the No62 a bit too short to use as a dedicated jointer plane on larger stock – the bookcase required 42” long edge joints to blue up panels, and while it is certainly possible to do this with a shorter plane, I did long for my 24” long No8 jointer for this work. One advantage of the No62 over my usual planes was the centre of gravity. The lower angle of the iron together with the lack of frog, means that the centre of gravity of the No62 is lower than for a bevel-down plane. While not critical for many operations, this lower centre of gravity was a real boon when planing 45 degree chamfers around the perimeter of the chair seat – a task I find can be awkward with a bevel-down jack plane.

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The low centre of gravity is an excellent attribute when planing chamfers

Finally was the “fine” work, and it was when shaping the chair seat and legs that the No62 really came into its own. The seat is trapezoidal in shape, with nearly 12” of end grain on each side to plane. I smoothed the top of the seat with an iron honed to 50 degrees, and quickly achieved that familiar glassy surface that can only be the product of a really sharp smoother on hard maple. Switching to a 25 degree bevel angle rapidly cleaned up the large expanse of end grain and left a very clean surface behind. The lower centre of gravity was also really beneficial when shaping the legs into tapered octagons, as it was easier to balance the plane on the narrow faces of the workpiece and plane at a consistent angle. Smoothing the larger pine and maple panels was an equally satisfying experience, and the No62 worked really well as a large smoother.

The Only Bench Plane You Need?

So, is the No62 truly the only plane you need? To be honest, given the variety of approaches to woodwork, this is an almost impossible question to answer. But here is what I found during my two months spent using only the No62. It performs well as a jack plane, and excels at planing end grain and working as a large smoother. The ability to swap out blades to make an immediate change to cutting angle is very effective, and certainly represents a cost-effective way of adding smoothing and jack planes to your tool chest. The No62 does handle a little differently to bevel-down planes, particularly the tote angle and the location of the adjuster (which I found less intuitive). If unsure which you prefer, I would recommend testing a No.62 before purchasing. Once I had got used to the feel of the plane compared to my regular jack plane, I enjoyed working with it and found it very easy to use.

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Levelling a chair leg with the plane held in the vice. This is a trick I picked up from chair makers Peter Galbert and Bern Chandley

At 14” long the No62 is larger than I would really want for a smoother to follow my hand planed surfaces, and a bit too short to serve as a dedicated jointer for furniture casework. Ideally a smoother should be small enough to reach any subtle hollows in a hand planed surface, and a long smoothing plane will remove the top of any undulations, requiring more passes before it can reach the low spots. This is less of an issue for stock that has been machined straight and flat, but makes the No.62 a little less efficient as a smoothing plane for a woodworker who wants to do all of their own planing. The toothed blade was very helpful for dealing with truculent interlocked grain, and would be invaluable if working difficult exotics was a daily part of your workflow (I have a toothed blade for my No5 for exactly this purpose).

In short, if I had a machine shop to flatten, thickness and joint rough stock, then I could easily see the No62 being my most used plane. Similarly, if most of my work was building chairs or musical instruments, then the No62’s ability to handle both end and difficult grain would make it a key tool. I would not want to be without a full-sized jointer plane for jointing long pieces, but again, if you had access to a jointer machine this would be less of a drawback.

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The low centre of gravity is also helpful when planing tapered chair legs

As it is, the No.62 has definitely earned a place in my tool chest (particularly for chair making where it really excelled) but wouldn’t tempt me to sell my existing smoothing, jack or jointer planes. For the machine-based woodworker who is looking to add a quality hand plane to their set up, a No62 would be just the ticket.

First article of 2019

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Over the autumn I put my regular bench planes away, and put a Lie-Nielsen No.62 through its paces to test whether a low angle jack really is the only plane you need. Issue 280 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking is now in print, and contains a four page article about that test, and my conclusions. So if you were wondering about the utility of low angle planes, it might just be worth a read.

Sharp Fixes Everything

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Writing about sharpening has always felt pretty redundant to me, simply because everything that needs to be written about how to sharpen has already been written – read “The Perfect Edge” by Ron Hock, the “Sharpen This” series by Chris Schwarz, and then get back to making your nicely sharpened edge tools blunt again (that’s the fun part!). So, over the five years of the blog I’ve always resisted writing about sharpening.

But this year a number of factors caused me to re-examine my sharpening routine and to change my system. So after getting acquainted with my new approach to sharpening, I thought a brief blog post was in order. I want to be clear though, there are many sharpening systems out  in the world, and all work providing you spend enough time to understand them. I”m not saying my current system is “best” (whatever that means), just that right now, it satisfies my needs. At Totness we used a Tormek followed by a fine water stone, finishing with a leather strop. After Totness I used oil stones for quite a while, because that’s what my Grandfather used. And for the past six years I’ve used Scary Sharp film on a sheet of 10mm thick float glass, lubricated with Liberon honing oil. All of those systems achieved a razor sharp edge, and I put in enough hours on each system to understand how to get my edge tools sharp. Each sharpening medium has different foibles, and there is always a period of familiarisation, which is why flitting between different systems is a recipe for blunt tools and frustration.

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Shapton Pro water stones – 1,000, 2,000 and 5,000 grits (top to bottom)

Scary Sharp worked really well, and the cost of admission is very low (£20 for an A4 sized piece of float glass, and a couple of pounds for the film itself). For those on a tight budget, or who are just starting out, it is an excellent system. So why did I make the switch? Parly because the Apprentice is starting to come into the ‘shop with me, and shows an interest in doing some basic tasks. It’s going to be a good few years before she’s sharpening edge tools, but with her being in the workshop I wanted to reduce the number of unpleasant chemicals splashing around. So honing oil was out.

The other factor that started to grate on my with Scary Sharp was the need to replenish the film every so often. Peeling off the old film, scrubbing away the residue and dried swarf with a meths soaked rag, and then applying the new film, all of this takes time. No one sharpens as often as they should, and anything which presents even a minor barrier to sharpening is less than ideal. Added to this is the fact that the film sharpens very nicely when new, but then cuts slower and slower as the abrasive is worn away. Which is not to knock Scary Sharp as a medium – if you have the patience and discipline to change films often, and if this doesn’t interrupt your workflow, then it is an excellent system.

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Setting the correct amount of projection to hone a 35 degree bevel, thanks to the angle block by Derek Jones

So a sharpening medium that can be lubricated without oil, and has a sustainable and fast cutting action? My solution was a set of Shapton Pro water stones (available in the UK from Knives and Tools). This isn’t a cheap option by any means, even using a minimal set of 1,000 grit (Orange), 5,000 grit (Pink) and 8,000 (Green). Adding a flattening solution to keep the stones true (I went with a DMT Dia-Flat plate) also adds to the cost. But after 6 weeks or so of using this system in the shop, I’m very pleased. Using a gentle spritz of tap water from a plant spray meets my criteria of having a non-harmful lubricant. And the Shapton stones cut very quickly, helping to achieve a keen edge in very little time. The faster it is to sharpen, the more often I sharpen. Flattening the stones with the Dia Flat is also a very quick process – the stones don’t dish particularly quickly, which means that minimal flattening is needed after each use. So right now this system works for me, and I am staying sharp.

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Honing the bevel

The rest of my sharpening kit is very simple. Honing guides are a whole other topic (and one I want to write about even less than I want to write about shaprning). After using a couple of different guides over the past six years, I’ve spent the past 3 being monogamouse to the Lie Nielsen honing guide, which holds blades firmly and allows a consistent bevel to be honed with ease. Again, it’s not better than the others, but it works for me. Derek Jones makes a very nice angle block for use with the Lie Nielsen guide, and that has been my go to for over 18 months now. I also keep a small engineer’s square in my sharpeng kit to check for square cross the width of the blade. The only thing I need to get now is a tray to hold the stones on in use.

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My simple, but effective, sharpening kit

Adding a little family heritage to the tool chest

Over the past couple of years visiting my parent’s house has become an opportunity to learn more family history, and connect with the lives of long-gone relatives I never got the opportunity to meet. While the Apprentice rampages around their beautiful garden with her Nana (my Mother) in tow, my Father will often weave more threads to the family tapestry. Some of these threads relate to relatives who had skilled trades, and occasionally the insights into our family history will be accompanied by surviving tools. There are several wooden planes now sitting on my bookcase which previously belonged to my great-great Uncle Bill, who was a pattern maker by trade.

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The Starrett catalogue entry for the No.900 Set for Students and Apprentices (screen grabbed from Instagram)

We last visited in August, and while the BBQ was cooling we got to talking some more about family history. During the Second World War my paternal grandmother worked at Lucas – a major electrical and engineering firm in Birmingham whose name is still present on some impressive buildings in the city centre. Dad disappeared into his workshop to find the micrometer his mother had made at the start of her time at Lucas, and while he couldn’t find that, he did unearth a wonderful boxed measuring tool set by Starrett.

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Great-great Uncle Bill’s set

This set belonged to another great-great-Uncle Bill (not the paternmaker) who worked as a scales engineer repairing and recalibrating shop and industrial scales. Specialist industries in the Midlands have long been focused on specific towns, including chain making in Cradley Heath (including chains for the Titanic), lock making in Willenhall, nail manufacture in Dudley, and leatherware for horses in Walsall. The manufacture of springs, and measuring scales, focused in West Bromwich. Dad believes that great-great-Uncle Bill Phillips worked for Avery, rather than Salters (the other great West Bromwhich scale manufacturer).

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I’ve not seen a Starrett set like this before, but thanks to the help of the good folk of Instagram in piecing the puzzle together, it appears to be an example of the No.900 set for students and apprentices. The fabric case marks it out as having been manufactured in the 1930s and 40s, following which Starrett switched to a wooden box. The lack of patent date on the dividers suggests that this is an early (1930s) example.

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The 6″ combination square moves sweetly and is still dead-nuts square

The tools themselves show some patina (as you’d expect from being part of a workingman’s tool kit) but the mechanisms move sweetly and the numbering is clearly legible. There are a couple of tools missing  (No.390 centre gauge, No.83 4″ divider, and the No.241 4″ caliper), and I am going to try and track down period authentic examples of each of those to complete the set.

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The set fills out a couple of gaps in my own toolkit, and thanks to the generosity of my Father in entrusting me with an item of family history, I’ve added the set to my Anarchist’s Tool Chest where I expect it will serve me well for many years (and likely outlast me – Starrett tools are both precise and built to last). So the Starrett set joins my Grandfather’s hammer and a number of other tools in my toolchest which have been passed down through the generations, adding a sense of family history and hand tool heritage. And the toolchest will preserve them until the time comes to pass them on again.

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Rising to the Occasion

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Furniture & Cabinetmaking issue 274 is now in stores, and features my in-depth review of the new panel raising plane by Philly Planes. Also included is Nancy Hiller’s article on the history and social significance of the Hoosier Cabinet, and part 3 of Steve Cashmore’s on-going series of WoodRat techniques, along with plenty of excellent content and inspiration.

Help Fund Auriou Tool Works

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Forge de Saint Juey, home to Auriou Tool Works

Last week a mailshot landed in my inbox from Classic Hand Tools about a crowdsourced funding drive Auriou Tool Works are undertaking. I was fortunate to visit Auriou back in 2016, and it is a truly special place steeped in over a century and a half of dedication to craftsmanship. Michel Auriou, the 4th generation of his family to work at the forge, has an encyclopedic knowledge of his craft, and a real passion for building on the Auriou legacy. It would be a real tragedy if Auriou were unable to continue trading

The crowdfunding site can be found here, and the newsletter from Classic Hand Tools is reproduced below (with kind permission of CHT). If you want to invest in a woodworking institution, and help ensure the survival of an incredibly important family business, then click through to read more.

Auriou Toolworks is just 162 years old. It survived the 2008 financial crash through assistance from 2 altruistically inclined investors who worked hard to keep this historic forge going when the proverbial hit the pan several years ago.
The order book for Auriou tools has always been full this last decade with great demand from North America and the UK in particular. However,  retiring skilled workers, worn out spring hammers, tooling and other essential equipment plus lack of credible government funded training schemes for apprentices have always constantly undermined the drive to get the forge on an even keel.
Funds are now needed for capital investment to keep the company going.
The ownership fully returned to Michel Auriou last summer and he is seeking help through crowd funding to help secure the future of toolmaking at Forge de Saint Juery (home of Auriou Toolworks).
We are happy to direct potential funders to this cause as at Classic Hand Tools, we do believe that Forge de Saint Juery is alone in its forging and rasp/riffler techniques which makes them appreciated by hobbyist and professional woodworkers worldwide.
Commercially, as their UK retailer, we would like to see them continue for decades to come.  Of greater concern to the wider woodworking world would be the loss to the hand tool making fraternity should Auriou tools disappear from the marketplace for ever despite their healthy order book.
As a matter of disclosure Classic Hand Tools Ltd does not (since September 2017) have any share capital in Forge de Saint Juery – home of Auriou Toolworks. Consequently we cannot comment on the financial well being of the company but can confirm we have recently received 2 large stock orders and have large orders placed with Forge de St Juery for delivery this year.
Michel Auriou is unaware of the posting of this newsletter. We feel his crowd funding initiative deserves as wider audience as possible. Any correspondence can be directed to Michel at michel-auriou-fsj@orange.fr
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A stitcher uses the barley corn pick and hammer to cut each tooth individually

Karl Holtey profile in Handplane Essentials

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Over the past 5 years I’ve found the first edition of Chris’ book Handplane Essentials to be an invaluable reference, so when he announced last year that he was working on a revised second edition I knew I would have to pick up a copy. What I didn’t realise, until an eagle-eyed reader at EWS 2017 told me, was that along with a lot of new content by Chris the 2nd edition of Handplane Essentials also contains my profile on Karl Holtey.

My copy arrived last week, and although I have only had a brief opportunity to flick through it so far, my first impressions are that the second edition builds on what was already an excellent body of reference material. To have one of my articles included in this collection is a real thrill, and I’m looking forward to stealing some time to read the new edition in depth. Handplane Essentials can be found in the Popular Woodworking store here.

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