I promised my Pine Croft students last weekend an online lesson on leveling their pins and tails (the glue hadn’t set up enough to stress the joints before it was time to clean up). So I’m sharing it with the rest of you, too.
Even if you set your marking gauge/cutting gauge to the exact thickness of the mating board when you mark your through-dovetail baselines, odds are excellent that you’ll still have to level the pins and tails to the project surface, before you can smooth plane the outside to clean up shop rash etc. before finishing.
But end grain can be a bear to plane (though cherry isn’t usually too bad), and you have to be careful to not break out the cross grain. So here’s how I do it.
1. Mix up some Magic Strazza Elixer (we “stole” the formula from Frank Strazza) and always have it handy. It’s 1/2 alcohol (we use 190 proof Everclear, though isopropyl works too) and 1/2 water.
2. Make sure your woobie is well saturated with oil
2. Sharpen your block plane (and if it has an adjustable mouth, set it for a tight mouth)
Clamp the tray/box to your bench, sleeve it over the end of the bench if it fits, or support it as I have above, on a piece of scrap wide enough to allow you to plane without the workpiece tipping.
Spray the end grain with the alcohol/water mixture and let it soak in for a few seconds. (The long grain will also get wet, and that’s no problem.)
Set your plane for a fine cut. Plane into the piece, concentrating on the proud pins/tails, to level them to the work. You’ll know you’re there when you start to get shavings from the side of the piece instead of just the end grain of the proud joint. Skewing the blade (shown above) as you come onto the work can help.
Once your joints are flush with the work, you may find you’ve left a plane track on the side of the piece. Back off your iron and take a few super-fine stop cuts (that is, plane only a few inches into the piece, not the whole side), lifting up the back of the plane slightly as you come out of the cut. It sounds counterintuitive, but lifting the back will keep you from leaving a hard line at the cut terminus.
Then turn the box/tray and plane the pins/tails on the next surface, using the spray as needed to soften the wood and make the cut slightly easier.
After you have all the joints level, you’ll likely want to smooth plane before applying a finish. You can plane into the work from both ends, using the “lift the back end” method above to keep from leaving plane tracks at the end of the cut, or you can put a chamfer on the corners of your work, and carefully plane right off that edge. The chamfer removes the corner of the cross-grain pins/tails and protects them from breaking off as you plane across them. Usually. And that’s why I say to plane “carefully.” Take very light cut and keep and eye on that chamfer – once it’s gone, so is its protection. I typically cut a relatively large chamfer – you need to break the edges anyway before finishing, so yay. On the corners, the remaining chamfer after smooth planing means I’ve already done that.
And now it’s time to clean your block plane before moving onto smoothing. Water and steel are not friends – so make sure you get into the mouth of your block plane with a brush to remove all shavings, then wipe it down with your oily rag.
After smooth planing, break the rest of the edges – for that, I usually use #180-grit abrasive. Or #120 if that’s closer to hand.
Then apply a finish. On this one I used “Soft Wax 2.0,” made by Chris’s daughter Katherine. She’s sold out right now, but I trust there will be more available soon, and we’ll announce it here. Or you can make your own.