I was reading through my copies of Moxon and Nicholson over the weekend and I got to thinking (always dangerous) about planes. I’m not sure why as I’m not really infatuated with planes like a lot of folks get when it comes to hand tools. I don’t have dozens of them and I have no problem passing up a $5 user if I don’t have a need for it. I also don’t have any multiples. Call me crazy but I pretty much limit my tool kit to tools I actually use. Currently in my arsenal of bench planes I have an 8″ smoother, a 17″ fore plane, a 22″ try plane a 30″ jointer and a Stanley #5 jack plane that I use mostly for carpentry tasks.
What I really got to thinking about though was plane setup. The more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that thin shavings are over rated. Now this is not a new concept for me as I have never been a big advocate of thin shavings and I always chuckle quietly to myself when I read or hear mention of measuring plane shaving thickness with a dial caliper. I mean, does it really matter if your jack plane can take a 0.001″ thick shaving? Is it actually 0.001″ anyway? Wood is a fibrous cellular material and in a shaving that thin likely compresses under the pressure of caliper jaws so are you actually taking an acurate measurement anyway?
But the rediculous practice of measuring plane shaving thickness to thousandths of an inch isn’t really what this post is all about. What I really want to discuss is the application of shaving thickness. As I thought about my planes this weekend, I realized that most people spend way too much time futzing with planes trying to get every one they own to take a whisper thin shaving. I don’t know why it wasn’t so obvious to me before but for some reason, it made sense to me this weekend why planes historically were not made with the super tight mouths that seem to be expected today. Asside from the fact that highly figured fast growing timber wasn’t as commonly used as it is today, cabinetmakers of yore simply didn’t want planes with tight mouths because they were of limited use.
As a hand tool user, my most used bench planes are my fore plane and try plane, followed by the jointer. My fore and try planes are used on every single surface of every single board of every single thing I build. My jointer is used anywhere I need a long straight edge or a matched and glued joint (as in wide panels). By contrast, my smoother is used only as a final treatment on only the most important money surfaces, and even then, only for a couple of passes to make a show surface shine before applying a translucent finish. On a painted piece, I may not use the smoother at all.
The fore plane and try plane are used for probably 80% of the planing that is done in my shop. These planes are set up to bring rough stock to flat in fairly quick order so I want them to be able to hog off material or at least take a relatively thick shaving. I don’t want to spend all day planing these surfaces. For this reason, a thight mouth and a fine shaving is not necessary and actually isn’t even desired.
By contrast, in a mixed shop, one which employs power and hand skills, the most used planes are likely the try or jointer and smoother. In this case one may want a thinner shaving as they are only putting the final finish on the surfaces of stock that was prepared using a powered jointer and planer.
So for those of you who have stuck with my rant for this long, I guess my advice is this. Before purchasing and tuning your first (or next) plane, ask yourself a couple of questions. First, what is your intended use of the plane? When you have answered this question, then ask yourself if this task requires a tissue paper thin shaving. Really think about it too, don’t just nonchalantly say yes and move on. When you really think about it you may be surprised at the answer. Then move on and get some work done and forget about those cottony thin shavings. They may be impressive to some, but what is more impressive is the actual work you can get done with a tool properly set for the task at hand.
Thin shavings really are over rated ;)!