The Answer is – Regrettably – Pliers


Planes with movable fences, such as plows and rabbets, have two major defects.

1. In wooden-bodied planes, the fence can be tricky to adjust parallel to the tool’s skate or sidewall. An out-of-square fence can create some horrific results on your wood.

2. In metal planes, it’s difficult to secure the fence so it doesn’t slip. Even if you apply all your strength to the thumbscrews or collets, the fence slips too easily for my taste.

Part of this problem is caused by the tool, and part is caused by the user. When plowing deep grooves, it’s all too easy to tip the tool slightly at the bottom of the groove. If you tip the plane, the leverage against the fence will make it slip. Almost nothing will stop it.

One solution to these two problems is simple: Don’t use fenced planes. Or use planes with fixed fences only – such as standing rabbet planes.

If you aren’t willing or financially able to go down that route, I’ll offer a different solution that I have encountered in several other shops.

It will make you cringe. But here goes: Tighten the fence on your metal planes with pliers. Yes, this will mung the collets or thumbscrews, but it works.

Case in point: Last week I forgot to tell students in my class in North Carolina to tighten the fence with pliers. About half of them had the fence slip. This week in Washington state, I remembered to mention the pliers. And none of the fences slipped.

Sadly, I also use pliers on the depth stop to prevent it from slipping.

I apologize in advance to anyone who puts the pliers to their plane. Your tool will be uglier for it. But your work will be prettier.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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31 Responses to The Answer is – Regrettably – Pliers

  1. Chris, Was you that suggested roughing up the rod with course sand paper so the collet will keep a firm grip? Or was that one of my Schwarz premonition dreams?

  2. Why not use a rubber strap wrench? It won’t mar the knurled surface and will allow you to apply a solid amount of pressure. I have a pair of them from Sears that has worked will in many applications over the years.

  3. Pliers with leather lined jaws should work and not mar up the finish.

  4. Julien Hardy says:

    The lasting beauty of the gnawed thumbscrew. Thanks to Terry for the leather pads idea.

  5. Bob Jones says:

    The real benefit is reducing theft. Who would steal such a mangled tool? 🙂

  6. Larger diameter knobs? Different kind of washer between brass and casting? Do these pliers make me look fat?

  7. In my previous life, I was a music major. I played the tuba and spent many years after college working in music stores. In the repair shops we would often have to remove stuck valve caps with pliers. It was the only way, but you couldn’t muck up the outside of the cap. This is where lots of painter’s tape came in handy.

    Wrap the jaws of the pliers with enough wraps of tape and you can clamp down on anything without even a scratch. Leather would be better, but tape is always in my toolbox.

  8. sablebadger says:

    That, getting rid of the front knob and learning how to hold it… I’ve had mine for a while, but this last week it finally worked well.

    Thanks Chris!

  9. jfwhite34 says:

    No more pliers! Get a set of nut drivers and aus them to adjust thumb screws here and on band saws, etc. Just find the driver that wil just fit over the thumb screw and turn,turn, turn.

  10. Marilyn says:

    Yeah, I learned this the hard way. No way my hands are strong enough to tighten them with out pliers. My thumb screws look worse than yours in spite of using all kinds of things to protect them. I’m going to check out the pliers/wrench with rubber on them.

  11. Brett Denner says:

    Maybe wing-nuts instead of round, knurled knobs.

  12. eeyoris21 says:

    They sell little plastics covers that fit over the jaws of pliers.
    You can find some at Sears. Item# 945446.

  13. Chris P. says:

    Just wrapped some electrical tape around the jaws, done deal.

  14. Electrical friction tape works too. Stronger and thicker than painters tape. You’ll still have to re-wrap the jaws every few uses

  15. If the collets on the plane in your image had a narrow (1/8″) hex section, and came with a small wrench, that would be awesome.

  16. Eric R says:

    Pliers on knurled thumb screws ?! (shudder)
    Sorry man, I listen to most of your advice but I gotta draw the line somewhere…lol

  17. I was at Port Townsend today when you/Chris gave this same bit of advice and though “Wow!, I’m not alone.” We woodworkers are often such loners that we don’t compare notes and not only your technique advice but the use of the pliers is information that would just come out if we all had more interaction. Thanks for the info!

  18. abtuser says:

    Yea, everyone beat me to it, I use either the rubber wrapped plumbing wrench on my fence collets, or wrap the knobs in leather. Leather’s real grippy and like the rubber, protects the knobs. I have both, just from trying both out. Either works great.

  19. abtuser says:

    I should add that electrician’s tape and cloth athletic tape, even duct tape can work in a pinch too.

  20. JMAW Works says:

    Another solution could be to file (or machine @ LV) a pair of flats on the collets and depth stop about 16mm or 5/8″ apart, similar to the flats on the rod, and then use a proper wrench.

  21. derekcohen says:

    Alternatives …

    1. I find that 120 grit sandpaper to take the smooth/shine off the rods is usually enough to enable the clamps to hold.
    2. Ensure that the rebate or plough plane is held upright to enable the blade to cut square. All fences that come with production planes are too shallow. Add a decent subfence …

    3. Is the blade ground and honed to be square? Is it square in the plane? In the case of the rebate plane, is there a hair of blade projecting at the side of the body to prevent a sloping wall being created?

    Regards from Perth


  22. Dean Morrell says:

    Hear that @LeeValley? Make an aftermarket hex head or pin spanner wrench! Of course, y’all could drill a small hole in the side of the nut and use a small pin spanner without manufacturer involvement.

  23. rljatl says:

    Why not thread the rods and add a threaded nut and lock washer/lock nut or better yet, replace the rods with a threaded rod, nut and lock washer/lock nut?

  24. derekcohen says:

    “Sadly, I also use pliers on the depth stop to prevent it from slipping.”

    Hi Chris

    On the LV depth stops I have added a slot to the knob. This enables them to be tightened with a screw driver. No pliers.

    Regards from Perth


  25. Sean Gordon says:

    I’ve seen plumber’s wrenches available with plastic lined jaws (normally used for delicate finishes like chrome) if you really care about not messing up the knurling on your nuts…

  26. lwllms says:

    The reality is that a well-designed collet type mounting system is incredibly secure and works well with polished shafts. What I want to know is why the design discussed here has taken four years to get any mention. We’ve had a number of these show up in workshops we’ve taught and the issue appears to be universal.

    It’s pretty obvious where the loyalties of buzz-marketers’ lie and it’s not with the readers of their so-called “reviews.”

  27. coolrtcharger says:

    Well it seems that an idea to deal with this problem for your own tools anyway would be to have some custom collects made that use a hex that you can use a standard wrench on

  28. Glad I’m not the only one who does this, the knobs on my Veritas rabbet plane are just as scuffed as the photo, if not more so! It feels kinda wrong munging up the pretty brass knurling on a shiny tool but not nearly as wrong as throwing said tool across the shop because the fence drifted in use and munged up your project. Since the only point of the knobs and they’re pretty knurling is to help me secure the moving parts of the tool I figure it doesn’t matter a bit if they get scuffed and scratched from pliers, so long as they secure what needs securing they are doing their job fine.

    I do have one fenced tool that has never needed the pliers, my vintage Record 050 plow plane (late 40s or early 50s, English made) the fence fits on the guide rods piston tight and the little thumbscrews that secure it hold it plenty tight with just thumb pressure. Wonderfully built little tool, even if it forces me to work right handed 😉

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