If you follow the conventional wisdom for setting your chipbreaker, you will hate your handplane.
What’s the conventional wisdom? According to Charles Holtzapffel’s seminal work on the cutting action of tools, you should set your smooting plane’s chipbreaker .02” from the cutting edge of your iron (other respected sources say to set it even closer than that) and to have an extremely tight mouth. The illustration shown on page 478 of Vol. II of Holtzapffel’s “Construction, Action & Application of Cutting Tools” shows a plane with a mouth as tight as one could imagine.
This, Holtzapffel says, prevents tear-out.
This, says your neighborhood blogger, makes your plane choke like a starving man at the Chicken Bone Buffeteria.
Chipbreakers do more harm than good in a handplane. Whenever I’m having trouble with a plane (especially if the plane is choking or refuses to cut), the first place I look is the chipbreaker. Whenever I fettle a new or vintage handplane and the bugger won’t behave, the first thing I’ll do is swap out its chipbreaker with another plane that has a working chipbreaker. In almost all cases, this solves my problem.
So what is the purpose of the chipbreaker? My cynical view of the gizmo is that it became widely used so toolmakers could use a cheap, thin steel cutter and reinforce it with an inexpensive iron or soft-steel plate. This is supported by the odd names given to chipbreakers. Some early sources call them cap irons, double irons, break irons or top irons. In other words, not everyone agrees that they were designed to break chips.
Early planes had thick irons and didn’t have chipbreakers, even during the age of mahogany, which has irregular grain that tends to tear-out.
In my view, the chipbreaker’s only real purpose in a modern plane is to mate with the tool’s blade-adjustment mechanism and to aid in chip ejection. Oh, and it exists to frustrate you.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Professor Chutaro Kato at Yamagata University did an interesting study of chipbreakers and how their shape and their position on the iron reduces tear-out.
You can read the entire study here. But here’s the quick summary: The chipbreaker actually did its job when it was located .004” from the cutting edge. I have tried to set a chipbreaker on a smoothing plane to this position (using a feeler gauge as a guide), and it doesn’t work well if you have a tight mouth on the tool. My planes just clogged because there wasn’t enough room for the shaving to escape.
If you read Professor Kato’s study carefully, you’ll note that he had better luck with a chipbreaker that had a radical forward-leaning angle – 80°! This 80° breaker worked better even when positioned back a little on the cutting iron. I have yet to try this setup on a plane because the numbers don’t add up. Professor Kato is working with a bevel-down plane bedded at 40°. Do the math: Putting an 80° chipbreaker on an iron bedded at 45° with a tight mouthseems madness. (If anyone has tried this, let me know. I also used to think that $8 for a six pack of beer was madness.)
So in what position should you place your chipbreaker? I set mine back about 3/32” in a smoothing plane in most cases — sometimes even a little further back if the mouth is really tight. All I’m really trying to do is to prevent clogging.
Which begs the question: Why did I list a chipbreaker as one of the ways to reduce tear-out? Well, I did mention one use for the chipbreaker in a modern Bailey-style plane – it mates with the tool’s depth-adjustment mechanism. This mechanism allows you to easily set your tool to take the finest cut possible, which really will reduce tear-out.
— Christopher Schwarz