Block Planes

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Restoring Planes: Metal and Wooden

  An Inexpensive 50-Degree Smoothing Plane by Bob Smalser 1 of 7  

When finishing highly figured wood, I generally prefer panel surfaces to be planed and not sanded.  There’s a crispness to a planed and scraped surface that brings out the best in the wood.  My power jointer and thickness planer are indispensable, but they are risky when used to surface wood with swirled and twisted grain because even with sharp blades and slow feeds, they like to take a chunk occasionally… usually on my most important piece. 

Well-entrenched in woodworking lore are the heavy Norris and Spiers smoothers of a generation ago… the thick blades, hand-lapped soles and some with 50-degree blade beds are said to be far superior to their less expensive Stanley competitors with thin, cap-ironed blades and 45-degree frogs… especially when used on highly figured wood.

Next winter I have a job that involves 30 or so cabinet panels of Birdseye maple currently stacked in the bolle in my drying yard, and this renews my interest in trying a 50-degree plane.  The old British smoothers are coveted collector items, many worth more than my work truck.  Lie Nielsen makes a lovely Bedrock-style 4 ½ in 50 degrees, but they are very expensive, and are still basically a Stanley design.  As I have some experience tuning old Stanley planes for comparable performance, I decide to convert a Stanley to 50 degrees and tune it for my purpose.

As in most of my articles, I’ll purposely use only tools readily accessible to beginners, foregoing milling machines and the like… and all the work done in a crude, temporary 12’ by 12’ shop.  My intent is to provide a model for you newcomers to the craft who will benefit greatly from acquiring older but high-quality tools in need of a hug for very little money… and putting them back into service without a lot of machines and fancy gizmos you don’t have yet. 

Moreover, with enough practice rehabbing old tools, making new ones like in other articles I’ve written, and practicing traditional joinery for your workbenches and other shop necessities… by the time you create for yourself a nice workshop and are ready for furniture, you may find you no longer feel a need for all the trendy doodads being marketed at you weekly.  I’m not saying that all those expensive tools and jigs aren’t useful or don’t have a place, I’m merely trying to provide you something to help set your acquisition priorities and encourage the practice of time-tested traditional joinery.

I’ve had a Stanley 4 ½C Type 11 parts plane for some time…. with missing tote and knob, a chipped lever cap and a hairline crack in one corner of its mouth.  I don’t remember what I paid for it, but it wasn’t much, and similar defective 4 ½’s can be had today for less than 40 dollars.  The crack turns out to be of no consequence, so I leave it, and turn my attention to how I will change the iron’s bed from 45 to 50 degrees.

Laying out the desired 50-degree blade angle against the 45-degree angle on the frog’s bed, I have three choices. 

I could build up and re-machine the entire blade-side face of the frog, I can re-machine the frog’s bed as shown by my drawn line, or I can make and install shims for both the frog’s bed and also the screw washers so as to keep the screws plumb when mounted. 

A large shim the size of the frog’s face would preclude the use of the blade adjustments without a lot of additional work.  Cast iron is soft and easily worked, but it also cracks easily and filing the frog’s bed to 50 degrees would encourage that by making the remaining web to the screw cutouts too thin.  I decide to make shims, which have the additional advantage of being reversible should I find I don’t like the 50-degree blade.

I measure the shim thickness I need with dividers, select a piece of mild steel strapping scrap to match in thickness and width…

… square one rolled edge, and scribe it in place for cutting.  I leave the stock over long because I will also take the screw washer shims from it.  I could have also used brass, but this was on hand and the thickness is perfect.

Learn how. Discover why. Build better.
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Preston Planes

Moulding Planes



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