My First Plane

September 3, 2011 Comments Off on My First Plane

Years ago before I was doing any real woodworking, I was in the middle of some small home repair project and decided that I needed a hand plane. Or something that could just shave a little bit of wood faster and more evenly than a sander. I was sure I had seen them at the home center or Ace Hardware, and I recall at one point Norm might have even used one? So I sauntered on down to Home Depot, figuring they would have any kind of woodworking tool I would need. I picked up the little gem in the photo above – a Buck Brothers “block plane”. It was my first hand plane. Great, now I could trim that little piece of wood I need (I’ve long since forgotten what the project was). I took it out of the box, extended the blade a little, and…it dug in and went nowhere. I retracted the blade a little and…it didn’t cut. After repeating this back and forth exercise several times, the best I could muster was a slightly controlled chatter across the wood that left splintery ridges everywhere. Maybe the blade isn’t sharp? No, that can’t be – why would they sell something with a dull blade? That would be like selling a dull razor blade. Disgusted, I flung the thing in a box of random junk and figured I’d wasted my money (I believe it was less than $20). A year or so later I pulled it out again and had the same results. I was even more irritated because I let myself be duped a second time. And I remember throwing it away, or so I thought.

When we moved to the Pacific Northwest, certain material possessions didn’t make the trip. We had a yard sale, multiple drop-offs to thrift stores, and trash and recycling cans were filled with all manners of things that made us wonder why we bought so much junk in the first place. My tools were pared down to only the ones that I thought I really needed. Some less expensive power tools were forsaken, along with some random wrenches, screwdrivers, and such. After moving, we were in a small apartment for a few years. If I wanted to do some woodworking, I would need some tools that were portable enough to use on our back porch, and small enough to store in a little drawer in the hallway. Realizing my cache of tools at the time was light, I went to our storage unit and dug out a couple of boxes that simply read “Tools and Stuff”. And somehow, through some miraculous chain of events, that little block plane I so loathed was still there. How it survived the great purge before we moved I have no idea. Had I not taken a class at the Northwest Woodworking Studio I probably would have pitched it right then and there. But in the class I had learned the power of sharpening hand tools, as well as how to tune up a plane. More than once in the class it was drilled into us, “A dull hand tool is a useless tool.”

I set aside my deep skepticism and attempted to make this homely little thing useful. With such a low price point, it should come as no surprise that a lot of care doesn’t go into the manufacturing of these planes. It took a good amount of time to get the sole reasonably flat. The mouth had sharp edges and caked on paint splotches that needed to be filed down. And the blade was about as sharp as a butter knife. I’m not sure what type of steel the blade is, probably chrome-vanadium or something equivalent (after years of less than ideal storage it’s never developed any rust). After flattening the back and sharpening the bevel, the plane was ready for a spin. And it worked just like a plane should, creating thin shavings in wood with each pass. In fairness to the plane, this is how it should have been treated the day I brought it home from the Borg all those years ago. In the future I’ll probably convert it into a dedicated chamfer plane, using the plans from here. And for that I predict it will work just fine.

Would I recommend you go out and buy one of these planes? No. And if you brought it to something like Woodworking in America you might get laughed out of the place. You would be much better off getting an old Stanley block plane in good shape from a reputable dealer. There would probably be less preparation time and the blade will almost certainly be better. Or you could save your pennies and just get a Lie Nielsen or Veritas, where preparation time would be reduced to almost nothing, and the blades are always superb. But if you already have one of these cheapo planes, dig it out and find a use for it. A sharp blade turns almost any hand tool into an effective tool.

More:

If you do buy an older Stanley, consider a blade and/or cap iron upgrade from Hock Tools, Lie-Nielsen, or Lee Valley.

Derek Cohen has a similar story in his hilarious review of The Orange Block Plane.

Two books that cover about everything when it comes to the hand plane are Hand Plane Essentials, by Christopher Schwarz, Popular Woodworking Press, 2010; and The Handplane Book, by Garrett Hack, The Taunton Press, 2003.

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