When I travel with some of my old-school workbenches, it looks a bit like a 19th-century British caravan to India. Since 2005, I’ve strapped my French Workbench into the bed of a tiny Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. I’ve driven it across town with its hinder hanging out the back of a Honda. And I’ve crammed the English Workbench into two too many mini-vans.
These workbenches don’t knock down flat for shipping and weren’t designed to. Society was a lot less mobile when these benches were in favor. And while I prefer these workbenches the way they are – built as one monolithic structure – sometimes you need to build your workbench so it knocks flat.
So I’ve written an additional 10-page chapter that covers bench bolts and other systems of making your benches knock down flat into five pieces. Anyone can download this chapter here, for free, whether you’ve purchased the book or not. (The chapter is about 3.5 mb, so you will have an easier time if you do this on a computer with a broadband connection.)
The chapter discusses the pros and cons of the various ways to make your workbench’s base knock-down, including:
1. Solid-wood tusks driven into through-tenons that pass through mortises in the legs.
2. Drawbore pins
3. Lap joints secured with screws or lag bolts
4. Hex-head bolts, bench bolts or threaded rod.
Then I detail how to install the two tricky bits of hardware: hex-head bolts and the Veritas Special Bench Bolts, which I quite like. In addition to discussing knockdown workbench bases, I also discuss some of the different strategies for attaching the top to the base so you can easily remove it.
There might be a little surprise in here for you if you’ve read my book. All of benches feature very stout joinery, yet, I think it’s quite possible to really overdue it when it comes to attaching the top to the base. Most people focus on controlling racking forces when they attach the top. In a well-designed bench, you really should be more concerned about shear forces instead – and those are much easier to manage.
Dec. 20 update: Typos have been fixed in the new file below.
After taking a recent course in handwork, Rick Gayle, a reader and professional painter, visited our shop at the magazine this fall and looked over some of the planes in my wall-hung toolbox. He reached up to one of the cubbyholes and pulled out the Veritas Bevel-Up Smoother Plane.
“This plane,” Rick said, “has made all other planes obsolete. Well, that’s what my instructor said.”
It’s a strong statement to say that hundreds of years of handplane manufacturing have now been eclipsed by one tool, but I know what Rick’s instructor was getting at. When it comes to reducing tear-out, one of the most important weapons you have is the angle of the tool’s cutter – aka the “angle of attack.” And no other tool gets you to that optimal planing angle as easily as that style of tool.
The higher the angle of attack, the less likely the wood fibers will lift up and tear out. Sounds good, right? So what’s the catch?
The only practical downside to a high angle of attack is that the tool is harder to push. And that’s not much of a factor when your shavings are so teeny (see the No. 3 way to reduce tear-out for details on teeny shavings). Plus, the high angle of attack works great with well-behaved hardwoods, too.
In basic terms, this is why card scrapers, cabinet scrapers and scraper planes are the last word in battling tear-out. Scrapers cut at a very high angle – in fact the angle is so high that they actually cut the wood in a different manner and the resulting surface of the wood looks a bit different.
So what does the Veritas plane have to do with the angle of attack? After all, its cutter seems slung a lot lower than the cutter on a traditional plane. Well, the difference is that the Veritas (and some other block-plane-like tools such as the Lie-Nielsen No. 164) work with the cutter’s bevel facing up, while traditional planes cut with the bevel facing down.
This makes a huge difference.
In a traditional plane with the bevel facing down, the angle of attack is almost always set by the frog (the casting that holds the cutter). In almost all vintage metal planes, this angle is 45° (new planes by Lie-Nielsen let you pick a 50° or 55° frog, however).
When you flip the cutter over, the angle the bevel is sharpened at comes into the equation when figuring out the angle of attack. Here’s how: The cutter in a bevel-up plane is usually bedded at 12° or 20° to the sole of the plane. Let’s use 12° for our example. So if you sharpen the cutter so it has a 30° microbevel on it, then you add the angle of the bed (12°) to the angle sharpened on your cutter (30°) to get the angle of attack (42°).
So this configuration would make a bevel-up plane behave much like a traditional bevel-down plane – or perhaps even a bit worse.
But if you sharpen the cutter at 45°, instead of 30°, then the world changes. You add the 45° to the 12° and suddenly you have an angle of attack that is 57° – that’s fairly steep. And you can achieve it (and remove it) with just one quick sharpening.
So what’s the best angle of attack for gnarly woods? I’ve found that with almost all woods, tear-out tends to disappear with a 62° angle of attack – that means sharpening a 50° bevel on your cutter and putting it on a 12° bed in our example.
So is Rick’s teacher correct? Should I melt down all my other planes?
Back Bevels: Easier than You Think
Before you fire up the smelter in your basement, consider this: You can achieve high planing angles with a traditional plane (old or new) by sharpening a shallow bevel on the unbeveled face of the cutter. This, in essence, turns the bevel-down tool into a bevel-up tool.
The math is the same: Say your iron is bedded at 45°. If you sharpen a shallow 12° bevel on the usually unbeveled face, then you will have achieved the same 57° angle of attack as you did with a bevel-up smoothing plane.
Back bevels scare many woodworkers. But once you do it, you’ll wonder what the big deal was. To hone a back bevel, I use the same cheap honing guide I use for the primary bevel. First I sharpen the primary bevel as per usual. Then I flip the iron over and set it back in the jig as shown in the photo.
I have a piece of wood with some shallow angles drawn on it: 10°, 15° and 20°. I line the iron up with the desired angle and then take the tool to the sharpening stones and hone a small bevel using my #1,000-, #4,000- and #8,000-grit stones. You don’t need much, less than 10 strokes on each waterstone does the trick for me. (Don’t forget to put a little pressure on the corners of the iron as you sharpen so that the cutting edge keeps its curved shape.)
Then I set the cutter in the plane as per usual and go to work. With a sharp iron, thin shaving and high angle of attack, tear-out usually recedes quickly – like Joseph Biden’s hairline.
But when it doesn’t, I turn to the strategy I’ll detail next week. Here’s a hint for the “Wives Against Schwarz:” None of the strategies in this series will be “Buy a Holtey.”
A couple readers have pointed out a problem with page 81 of “Workbenches: From Design & Theory to Construction & Use” (Popular Woodworking Books).
The two columns of text on that page were transposed during the layout process, and I didn’t catch the mistake before we went to the printer. All the text is there, and the story will make sense if you read the right column of text first and then the left.
Of course, that’s not a good solution in my book (pun intended).
So I’ve prepared a corrected page that you can download, print out and stick in the book if you like. The page is in pdf format. If anyone else has any errors they have spotted, please e-mail them to me and I’ll see that they are corrected in future editions (assuming that there are future editions).
Most handplane geeks know that across the Pacific Ocean there is an entire culture of people who are even more obsessed with the mechanics of cutting wood with a plane than we are.
I’m speaking, of course, about the Japanese, who are prone to holding handplaning contests where participants compete to see who can make the longest and thinnest full-width shaving.
They measure the thickness of these champion shavings in microns. And the results are often affected by the weather. A wet day will swell the shavings by a few microns.
Sadly, Western woodworkers have become obsessed by creating ultra-thin shavings, which requires planes to be tuned to a very high note. What’s wrong with this philosophy is that it focuses on the garbage instead of the good stuff. The shavings get thrown away, remember? It’s the resulting work surface that we keep – unless we handplane that all away in some handplaning bliss-fest.
You want to be able to take the thickest shaving you can without tear-out, chatter or requiring you to bulk up like Thundarr the Barbarian. A thick shaving will get you done with fewer passes of the smoothing plane over your workpiece. Not only does this get the job done faster, but it also helps increase your accuracy.
Huh? Think about it. If you make 20 passes over a board with a smoothing plane, you are much more likely to plane that sucker out of true than if you used only four passes.
So how thick should your shaving be? Good question. Most people talk about getting shavings that are less than 2 thousandths of an inch thick. Or they talk about “sub-thou” shavings. Yes, it’s all very empirical, except for the fact that few woodworkers know how to really measure shaving thickness. Squeeze a dial caliper hard enough and you can make almost any shaving into a “sub-thou” shaving. Wood compresses. Metal bends.
So I go for visual cues instead.
If the wood is well-behaved, I go for an opaque shaving – that is, as long as the curvature of the cutting edge of my iron is significant enough to keep the corners of my iron from digging into my work. I’ve included a photo above of what this shaving looks like. This shaving gets the work done fast. If the surface has been flattened by a jointer plane, a shaving like this will get the work done in one or two passes.
If I get tear-out using a beefy shaving, I’ll retract the iron fully into the mouth of the handplane and extend it until the shaving looks like the photo above. Here you can see the shaving is thinner, but it is still intact except for one area.
That split in the shaving is probably caused by a small defect in the iron. The edge is probably getting dull and is ready for a touch-up. This shaving will clean up my surfaces in three of four passes. It usually eliminates tear-out more than the shaving above. But sometimes I need to get a little nuttier.
And that’s when I push my tool to get a shaving like the one above. This thing is about to fall apart. In fact, it sometimes will fall apart when you remove it from the mouth of the tool. Usually, this sort of shaving requires some persnickety set-up to achieve. I can’t get this shaving with an Anant, new Stanley or Groz plane. They are just too coarse to allow this type of shaving to pass. This is what you are paying your money for when you buy a premium tool. Premium tools will do this with little fettling. My vintage planes that I’ve fussed over will do this as well. A sharp iron always helps, as well.
The downside to this shaving is that you will be making a lot of them to remove the tear-out on the board. About 10 cycles or more is typical for some small tear-out. It is a lot like working.
Can you get nuttier? Sure. If all else fails, I can set my plane to remove something between a shaving and dust. These “shavings” don’t really look like much. How do you get them? That’s easy. When I get my thinnest smoothing plane shaving possible, I’ll rub some paraffin on the sole of the tool. This actually reduces the depth of cut just enough to get the furry, dusty stuff. Beware: Taking a shaving that small will force you into a lot of work. Lots of passes. Lots of sharpening.
The best sharpener of hand tools I know is – hands down – Harrelson Stanley of JapaneseTools.com.
The last time I worked a woodworking show with Stanley we were in Ontario, Calif., a few years ago as he was preparing to launch the U.S. line of Shapton GlassStones. As he was showing off the stones he stopped for a moment and looked me in the eye.
“Do you think,” he asked, “if sharpening could ever become a hobby unto itself. Like golf? Where people sharpened merely for the pleasure of getting a perfect edge?”
Stanley was serious, so I paused and gave it some thought.
No, I said, I don’t think it could be a hobby for more than a few people. For me, sharpening is like changing the oil in my cars. It’s messy and time-consuming, but you must do it regularly or disaster will befall you eventually.
And besides, if sharpening alone were a hobby that would seriously downsize my job responsibilities (half of my time is showing people how to make their tools sharp; the other half is showing people how to make them dull). Dulling the tools is more fun than sharpening them.
So I’m not a sharpening fascist. I’m a good sharpener, but I don’t take more than five to 10 minutes to renew a micro-bevel (grinding a new primary bevel adds another 10 to 15 minutes to the process). But I firmly believe that a sharp iron is the second best way to reduce tear-out when handplaning a board.
This belief guides me when I sharpen my tools and regulates the attention I pay to each tool’s edge. Here is what my typical sharpening chores look like in my shop at work and home.
For me, sharpening begins at the end of a project.
With the piece of furniture complete and the deadline pressure off, I take a few hours to sharpen my tools. I always sharpen the iron of my jointer, smoothing and block planes. Then I move through any chisels that I used during the project. If I used them for more than a quick pare, I hone them as well. Then I move through the rest of the tool box. Any joinery planes (such as router, shoulder, fillister, plow and dado planes) and moulding planes that I used get sharpened. I’ll also take a look at my marking knives, jack plane, auger bits and marking gauges. If they’re dull, I’ll touch them up.
I do this at the end of the project so that when I start a new piece of furniture, everything is set up and ready to go. Anal-retentive? Perhaps. But as I build the next project I don’t sharpen my tools as I’m working unless one of two things happen: I damage a tool by dropping it or hitting a nail, or my smoothing plane leaves tear-out.
If the other tools give me tear-out, I can usually wait it out. But tear-out at the smoothing stage of a project is one of the most frustrating battles to fight. You can try a bunch of different strategies to eliminate the tear-out, but the first one should be to hone up your smoothing plane’s iron and try again.
About half the time, this break in the action fixes the problem. If it doesn’t help, it’s time to try strategy No. 3 (next week’s topic).