When I teach classes about handplanes, the climax is a contest where we see who can plane a 3/4” x 6” x 12” board to perfection – both to the try square and to the eye.
Last year at one of the classes, one of the young students in the front row took the contest to heart. When he brought his board up to me to evaluate he was out of breath and as wet as a Louisiana underarm.
I thought he had dunked his head in the toilet and was playing a joke on me. Or perhaps he was having a coronary event.
Neither turned out to be true. He was ragged out from planing. It’s a common complaint among readers: Planing is hard work. However, I can generally work all day in the shop without increasing my heart rate beyond what it is during a horror movie. You might think it’s my age (I’m 40), but I think it’s more than that. Over the years I’ve developed some habits that allow me to work steadily all day. Here are a few:
1. Make sure your bench is low enough. A high bench requires you to use the shorter muscles in your arms that tire rapidly. A lower bench allows you to use your legs and abdomen more. When I finally lowered my bench to 34″ it made a huge difference in my work.
2. Step forward during your planing stroke. When planing a longer board (36″ or more), I begin the stroke with one foot in the air and step forward. The act of dropping my foot begins the stroke. This puts gravity on your side. It looks funny (like a Monty Python Silly Walk). But boy does it work.
3. Traverse as much as possible. Planing across the grain allows you to remove more material with less effort. I’ll traverse with my fore plane and my jointer plane. Then a few diagonal strokes with the jointer plane and I’m off to the smoother. The longer I can traverse, the longer I can work.
4. Plan your work around fatigue. One of the great things about hand-tool woodworking is that you can work in short bursts at different tasks and use different muscle groups. For example, I’m building web frames this week. I’ll jointer plane the components. Then cut the tenons. Then the mortises. Then I might smooth plane them and assemble them. Then I’ll move onto the next web frame.
5. Wax your tools. Paraffin wax on the sole of your tool (or a wipe with a non-drying vegetable oil such as jojoba oil) can do wonders. It reduces the effort to push the tool. And – if you apply it to your tools between each board you plane – you also get a short, breather.
6. Sharpen. I’m always amazed at how a sharp tool is easier to push than one that is approaching dull. Sharpening is also a break that can allow you to recover.
7. Pick different secondary woods. For the internal guts of your project, consider using Eastern white pine or basswood instead of using poplar or lower-grade boards of your project’s primary wood (i.e. don’t use rock maple for your drawer bottoms).
8. Don’t smooth plane the inside components. When I plane a carcase side or some internal components, I typically stop with the jointer plane. Sometimes I’ll stop with the fore plane (such as on the underside of a large tabletop). Only the surfaces that show will be smooth-planed. This can cut your planing time dramatically.
9. Always use the coarsest tool possible and take the thickest cut that does not cause tear-out. One 6-thou-thick shaving saves time and effort compared to 12 half-thou shavings. If your wood is mild, take a thick shaving.
So how about you? Any suggestions (besides indenturing an apprentice or buying crystal meth) for increasing your working time?
— Christopher Schwarz
17 thoughts on “9 Ways to Plane for Longer Periods”
You mention stopping with the fore plane on the bottom of a table. I have thought about this as well and have seen examples of it in antiques by feeling and seeing the scallops on the bottom. What about at the joinery sections. Would you plane only the spots right around where the table meets the aprons? Or to use another example, like a drawer. Would you plane only the edge where the dovetails would be cut? I seem to remember Adam Cherubini talking about this once.
Thanks for the tips, my Roubo is wearing me out this will help.
On the underside of a tabletop, I fore plane the entire surface with traversing. Then I take the top the entire way and attach the base. The scallops don’t really interfere with the joint between the base and top.
Drawers are different. I foresquare the sides, front and back because you can see (almost all of) the surfaces. And the joinery has to be better than than when you connect the table base.
However, the drawer bottom is a special case. I fore plane the underside of the bottom only, but I take the top the entire way.
Hope this makes sense. Bottom line: If there’s critical joinery involved, use a jointer plane. If there’s not, use a fore plane.
I would add "use a narrower and more crowned blade, the rougher the work".
green red oak…if that makes any sense. Freshly-cut riven quartered red oak. there, that’s more specific.
Jeremy, I can relate, I have a rediculous fondness for my scrub plane – seriously. This is a tool that knows nothing about finesse though – the blade on mine has a truly wicked camber. Even if I’m tapering a delicate set of legs, I rip into them with that scrub plane until the very last minute before I bring out the more gentle giants. Although I’m not sure it’s the least physical/tiring option, but the fast pace seems to generate it’s own momentum and it get things done in a hurry when you have lots of wood to remove. Finesse is nice too of course 🙂
I saw something a while back about how the Japanese planes are used backwards allowing for use of the stronger back muscles. I think this guy was planing on a beam that was tilted and had stops. (which meant gravity helped also)
One thing that will without a doubt reduce the effort of dimensioning stock, especially larger pieces, is to use wooden planes to start with. I use a jack plane with a 2&1/8" blade that has the iron cambered, then a 22" fore plane with a 2 & 1/2 inch iron. They are less work for 2 reasons: One is that they are lighter than a metal plane. Two is that the wood soles will glide over a board with much less effort than a metal plane, no matter how much paraffin is used on the bottom. If you use an antique plane, I firmly believe there is a third reason – that the old tapered irons will stay sharper much longer than a metal plane blade, new or old. (and then the fight began!) And as Chris said, a sharp iron means much less effort than one that isn’t. I suppose a fourth reason, if you use antique woodies, is that they can be had so cheaply that it sure will take less time and effort at work to make the $$ to buy them instead of good metal planes.
That said, I use infilled planes after the woodies to remove and prevent tearout, and I know through much use that these heavy planes require much less effort than a Bailey-type metal plane on hard and figured wood.
For projects that sit on the floor, vs. sit on top of something else, I generally do the gross dimensioning and flattening of hardwoods with large stationary tools. For example, rough dimensioning on the bandsaw, then to the jointer and then the thickness planer. Then I remove all the mill marks and smooth the surfaces with planes and scrapers. This works out fine as I seldom encounter usable sections of hardwood boards wider than my 8" jointer. This also gives me the best of both the Normite and Neander worlds and allows me to actually get projects done in the face of a busy schedule.
As an aside, an evil thought occurred to me… "This week’s team challenge on the Biggest Loser is to 4 square 2,000 bf of white oak with hand planes and 5 minutes of coaching!" I suspect all the wrongs in Chris’s list would be in evidence with big losses for the week! LOL
I would echo John W.’s comments regarding wooden planes. Also, for certain tasks, wood can be hogged off more quickly and with less effort using tools such as a drawknife or a large chisel before finishing with a plane. For example, I recently needed to put a large chamfer (about 3/4" x 1 1/2") on the underside of a cherry table top. Once I had marked my lines, I was able to hog off wood very quickly close to the lines, then finish with a few passes with a plane. A good drawknife, sharpened well, is a great asset.
Really funny timing for this article. My left arm is killing me from hand planing down some rough stock for a project that I am working on. I knew (having read your workbench book) that the table I am working on is too high, but you work with what you have some days.
I’m only 23, but getting a 40"x9"x1" rough piece to length had me worn out. Next time I think I’ll just make that my workout for the day.
Here’s an important safety tip, campers! I’ve just got a batch of 4/4 red oak in for a cabinet job, so I grabbed an extra No.-4 (oldie) and reground the thrashed-out blade for scrub. Works great, BUT… economics still has me working on my ghetto-bench that wanders around. A good, solid, 4-ton bench at the right height will be your best fatigue fighting tool (next to your brain, that is!)
Chris, was it Opposite Day in your shop or is there some other reason that you are traversing from the "wrong" side of your bench in the picture?
It made it easier to take the photo. Sorry if it confused you or anyone else.
We do have opposite day sometimes with the kids. But not today!
"Chris, was it Opposite Day in your shop or is there some other reason that you are traversing from the "wrong" side of your bench in the picture?"
"It made it easier to take the photo"
So, in one or two hundred years, will woodworkers be wondering and debating the photo much like they are now debating Moxon’s drawings?
History in the making!
<I>So, in one or two hundred years, will woodworkers be wondering and debating the photo much like they are now debating Moxon’s drawings?</I>
They’ll be sifting through ancient blog archives for an explanation. hehehe
I too prefer wooden planes and for the reasons John offered above. But I could add one more reason: I find metal planes restrictive in the way you hold them. Wooden planes offer my hands more places to grip the tool. I offten hold my jack plane’s body, hooking my thumb around the tote. I also pull my planes, especially smoothers, hooking my fingers inside the escapement. I think this staves off fatigue by subtly changing which muscles I’m using.
I’ve heard the physical fitness benefit of working with hand tools made fun of. If you want a wok out, some say, go to a gym. Some say physical fitness is the wrong reason to select a woodworking tool. I disagree. You take the stairs for a bit of exercise. They take longer. Though I understand why some cannot go that route. I actually look at it the other way around. I try to stay in shape so I can work wood the way I want to. If you only work for a few hours per month, consider supplementing your woodworking in the gym or tennis court. Upper body strength is certainly helpful for a woodworker. But not as helpful as "core" strength, the strength of the muscles arond your spine (including you stomach). Many athletes are focusing on "core" strength and many exercises and activities are "in" right now for core strengthening.
Maybe the best thing you can do to stave off fatigue is work, or work out, more. Look at it this way: You’re not just completing projects faster, you may be saving your life.
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