Woodworking Myths Demystified #1 – Low Angle Planes For End Grain

I’m kind of in a lull in terms of new work going on in the shop. I’ve been working on the final surface prep and painting of the chimney cupboard before I stage it for the opening photograph for the magazine article (that should be interesting…any professional photographers near Logan Township, NJ want to help out a fellow woodworker :)). In the mean time, since I’m not really working on anything in the shop worth blogging about, I thought I’d start a series of posts that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.

The premise for the series is myths of woodworking that have been propagated for so long they have practically become gospel. Some posts will be text and photo only, and some might have short videos attached. In the process, perhaps we’ll uncover some additional myths that we can put to the test as well. Think of it as a woodworking version of Mythbusters :). Got a myth you want to test out? My hope is to dispel some of these myths and maybe help out some struggling soul who has bought into the madness. More importantly, I hope you’ll begin to think outside of “common” knowledge and try some of these things for yourself. Then maybe you can come back and teach the rest of us something.

So for my first myth, I’m going to tackle the belief that one needs a low angle plane in order to effectively tackle end grain. I’m not sure where this one originated, but the explosion of low angle plane models from folks like Lee Valley and Lie Nielsen have certainly helped to propagate it. I’m not coming down on these planes. On the contrary, I think they’re fine tools and I see no reason not to use them if they work for you. However, when it comes to needing them to plane end grain, I say “Hogwash”.

planing-end-grain

Let’s talk about the cutting angle for a minute and what it means in the hand plane world. The cutting angle is the acute angle between the wood’s surface and the cutting edge of the blade. This angle is determined by the angle of the bedding surface of the plane and the angle of the cutting face of the blade. In a traditional bevel down plane, the cutting face of the iron is the flat face side. Since the flat face of the blade is parallel to the bed of the plane, the cutting angle is equal to the bed angle of the plane (unless the blade is back beveled, but that’s the subject of another post). So a traditional bevel down plane with a 45° bed angle would also have a 45° cutting angle, regardless of what angle the bevel of the blade is sharpened at. In a bevel up style plane, the cutting face is the bevel of the blade, therefore, the cutting angle is the sum of the bed angle of the plane and the bevel angle of the plane. So a bevel up plane with a 20° bed angle and a 25° bevel angle would also have a 45° cutting angle.

Traditionally, hand planes came in a range of cutting angles or “pitches”. “Common Pitch” was used to describe the most common cutting angle. In American made planes, common pitch was traditionally 45°. In English made planes, common pitch was typically 47½°. “York Pitch” was a slightly higher cutting angle, usually around 50°. Slightly higher than York pitch, at 55°, is “Middle Pitch”. Higher still is “Half Pitch” or “Half Upright Pitch” (meaning half way between common pitch and upright pitch) at 60°. Pitches higher than 60° are rare and are sometimes called upright pitch. Anything above 70° is basically a scraper.

In the 18th century, the closest thing to what we would call a low angle plane today was the strike block. These were typically bevel down planes bedded less than 45°. Because all planes were made of wood at that time, it was extremely rare to find a bevel up version with a very low bed angle like we see today because they just weren’t strong enough to handle the wedging forces across the grain that would be required to secure the blade. Bevel up configurations with very low bed angles in wooden planes make the cheeks very fragile and subject to splitting. It’s not until very late in the 18th and mostly into the 19th centuries that bevel up style planes begin to become more popular with the advent of iron bodies. These planes were often called miter planes.

Today, we more or less refer to any plane that has a cutting angle less than 45° a low angle plane (with the exception of Japanese style planes which typically have a 40 degree bed angle, but like Western planes can be bedded at various angles for different work). Most low angle iron planes, like those sold by Lee Valley and Lie Nielsen, have bed angles in the neighborhood of 15°. This allows them to have cutting angles less than 45° by using blades with bevel angles less than 30°. This low angle is said to make planing end grain easier.

Here’s where things start to get into the realm of myth though. Somewhere along the way, as these lower bed angle planes became more popular, “low angle planes make planing end grain easier” became “you need a low angle plane to shoot end grain”.

This later statement, however, is completely untrue. While I will not argue that planes with lower bed angles are easier to push through end grain, I will not agree that they are necessary. I have been using a plain old common pitch (47½°) English smooth plane to plane end grain for years and have never had an issue using it. I use it on the ends of glued up panels and even on a shooting board (and the sole is not even square to the sides – oh the horror!). I’ve planed the end grain of everything from pine to ash without any problem. The end grain comes out perfectly smooth as any low angle plane. The secret to planing end grain isn’t the cutting angle of the plane, it’s simply a sharp blade. The size of the mouth is irrelevant. The chipbreaker position matters not. The cutting angle actually doesn’t matter at all (to a point – I do use a card scraper on end grain all the time though). What matters is that the blade is sharp.

So what’s the point? I don’t know, I guess there isn’t a point really. Use whatever planes you want. But if you’re on a limited budget, you shouldn’t feel like you have to get yourself a low angle plane in order to be able to use a shooting board or plane the ends of boards or panels. Just use whatever you have, the sides don’t even need to be square to the sole (that’s a myth for another day). Just make sure the iron is sharp. Really sharp.

Advertisements

27 thoughts on “Woodworking Myths Demystified #1 – Low Angle Planes For End Grain

  1. Ah! I love these myth-busters! As a hobbyist, I have to constantly ask myself if I need a super-expensive tool (be it a powered or manual). I bought various tools in the beginning of my woodworking hobby only to realize that I don’t need all those tools. Even when it comes to hand tools, it seems a lot of people seem to think you need a lot of hand tools to get anything done when it’s not the case at all. I have seen many woodworkers with just a handful of tools but yet make some beautiful work. Of course, this is in poorer countries. Here in the most bountiful nation of earth, if your chisel didn’t cost at least 80 dollars a piece, you ain’t worthy!

    Thanks for this posting and I look forward to more postings along these lines.

    And I totally get what you mean by sharp irons.

    PhilM

  2. Bob,

    I agree totally with you on this. I’ve wondered about end grain treatment for some time, particularly in the 17 th and 18 th centuries. How did all those Masters manage to get smooth end grain?, especially when contouring an edge, like a table edge.
    Bob, do you use old molding planes on end grain? This is something I’m working with now on a project, and want to ensure it comes out nice.
    Thanks

  3. Bob,

    Your thesis that you don’t need a bevel-up plane for end grain is certainly correct. The question is whether it is easier with a bevel-up plane and I think the answer is, maybe.

    Leonard Lee, an extremely knowledgeable man on this subject, addressed cutting end grain in his book on sharpening. He says there are four things you can do to make cutting end grain easier:
    1)maintain a very sharp blade
    2)take lighter cuts
    3)keep the cutting angle as low as possible
    4)skew the cut

    He has a pretty good explanation of the physics of why this is true which convinces me anyway. A bevel up plane is only relevant to 3) because it can lower the cutting angle. However, you can also lower the cutting angle by skewing the plane. That, keeping a sharp blade and taking light cuts are all equally possible with a bevel down plane and likely sufficient.

    That said, I have a bevel up plane and like it. The thing I like about it is that you can have multiple blades, all sharpened to different cutting angles that can be quickly interchanged. I have felt that this is an advantage in avoiding tearout for example but, here again, I once saw Graham Blackburn plane figured hard maple beautifully and easily with a cheap 50s era Sears bevel down plane, so it clearly isn’t a necessity.

    The myth I’m waiting anxiously for you to address, though, is “chisel backs need to be flat,” which I have often thought about since you first raised it.

      • Yes, I have read that post several times and find it quite persuasive. I think it deserves further discussion, however. The core issue seems to be paring. How does not having a flat back on your chisel affect paring? I think that the answer is that you have to “steer” and I would like Bob to talk about/demonstrate this further. Perhaps the answer is that you have a paring chisel with a flat back and don’t worry about the others.

        I have been meaning to use the ruler trick on a chisel and then use it to see how I like it, but I can’t quite bring myself to do it.

        • I started using the ruler trick this year – if you’ve already flattened the backs of your blades you probably don’t want to do this. However, for new blades, it gets them right to work!

    • I’m actually thinking of selling my LV bevel up jointer. It is a wonderful tool, but I find it easier and more predictable to sharpen not having to worry about the angle. Besides that, I prefer a three fingered grip.

      My strategy regarding planing end grain is to avoid it if at all possible. If I have to, I get right to it though and get tear out, and then wish I had started by sharpening. Wetting it a bit with any kind of oil, mineral spirits, or whatever can help though.

  4. You don’t have to do anything in this world, except die and pay taxes. The things you really need are certainly miniscule compared to what you may want.

    However, if you want a plane that will cut the best dealing with end grain and don’t mind paying for an extra plane, why not get a low angle plane? I say this from personal experience. Thousands of shavings later the results are in(for me): Low angle planes trump standard bench planes. It’s no myth that they do. It’s only a myth that you need them to work end grain.

    • Low angle planes trump standard bench planes. It’s no myth that they do.

      I have to respectfully disagree. I can think of plenty of situations where a bevel down plane is the better choice for a task, but that’s a post for another day. Are BU planes different? Yes. Are BU planes very good tools (at least the well made ones)? Absolutely. Are they inherently better than a traditional bevel down version? Absolutely not. One might prefer one version over another, but that does not make them better for everyone. I’ve used them, I’ve owned them, I’ve sold them. I’m not a fan personally. But they are fine tools, just like plenty of bevel down planes are fine tools as well. It’s simply a matter of personal preference. Use one style or the other or both. It’s all about the user.

  5. Do you need a sharper blade than you do with a bevel up plane? If you have to spend more time sharpening a bevel down plane because it needs to be closer to the peak of sharpness that would still be a win (more time planing, less time sharpening).

    Cheers,
    Brian

  6. Bob,
    I think the idea of a series of posts/videos about “Myth-Busters” is an excellent idea. I would also like to see a podcast demonstrating the use of your bevel-down plane on end grain before you move to your next topic. SEEING does help make BELIEVERS out of most woodworkers. Keep up the good work. Thanks! Mark Hays

    • I’ll see if I can get a video demonstration done. I need to keep the dust down in the shop right now because I’m painting the chimney cupboard. So it won’t be until after that’s done.

  7. Could not agree with you more Bob. I use an LV LA block and LV LA Jack for my end grain work, but I’ve never really thought the the lower angle makes THAT big of a difference. In fact, for me, the biggest advantage of these planes for end grain isn’t the low angle, but simply that they are easier to hold onto on a shooting board then Bailey style plane. I actually ended up raising the angle on my LA Jack to put the included angle at 45 degrees, because it worked better on hardwood long grain that way (less likely to tearout) and did not decrease its ability on endgrain by any substantial amount – this is preferable to me then switching different angled blades in and out to go between end grain and long grain.

    Like you I’m not in any way saying that a low angle makes no difference, it most certainly does. In something like a low angle shave, that has a really low angle of attack the difference becomes quite apparent on end grain. BUT does one NEED a low angle for end grain? No way! 45 or even 50 degrees works fine. Sharp blade is no 1, regardless of angle of attack. Heck, the HNT Gordon shoulder planes are bedded at something like 60 degrees and by all accounts they cut end grain beautifully. Good post Bob!

  8. This sounds like a great series — do you have a list of “Myths” that you’re going to be tackling? It seems that the list of hand tool myths are going to be shorter than the list of the power tools – just because marketing excesses hasn’t been as active in the hand tool world .

  9. I put great stock in what my friend Bob has to say and have come to greatly respect his philosophy. So, today I decided to do a test. I took out my best vintage smoother, a Millers Falls No. 9 in their scheme, and my LV bevel up smoother with a 25 degree blade, giving a 37 degree cutting angle. I sharpened them both to the same degree of sharpness. I then used them alternately on the endgrain of a piece of cherry. My first reaction was that the LV plane was superior; it cut more easily and I was getting continuous end grain shavings. When I looked into it more closely, however, I realized that the difference is mostly attributable to the plane and not the body. There is quite a bit of lash in the adjustment of the MF plane which makes it harder to adjust precisely. When I took the time to adjust it carefully, it cut just a little bit harder than the LV plane, but there was no discernible difference in the quality of the surface. I still did not get continuous shavings with the MF, probably because LV fettles their planes better than I did the MF. 😦

    I’d say that my results confirm what Bob says: you don’t need a bevel up plane. However, I think its nice to be able to quickly and easily change from a 25 to a 38 to a 50 degree blade and I do think it works a little nicer on a shooting board. Of course, I’ve never used a wooden plane. For me, the conclusion is: not necessary, but nice.

  10. I own no low angle planes. I make all my furniture by hand. This includes planing end grain with my No. 4-8. I can use all of them just as easily as another. Every time I think of maybe buying a bevel up plane, I stop myself and ask why, I can do everything with what I have, a bevel up would not be an improvement, it would just be one more tool that I would own.
    I will say I have tried bevel up planes , and like Bob have found them to have no real advantage.

    Currently I am building a shaker style coffee table and I planed all the end grain with my No. 8, didn’t even think anything of it.

    Keep up the good work Bob. Can’t wait for your new article in PW.

  11. Bob,
    I totally agree. I use my old $60 blue Record #5 with a very sharp blade and a little wax on the sole to work end grain. I get full width and length transparent shavings from Cherry and Elm with almost no effort, it cuts like butter.

  12. I’m just a little confused.
    “In a traditional bevel down plane, the cutting face of the iron is the flat face side. Since the flat face of the blade is parallel to the bed of the plane, the cutting angle is equal to the bed angle of the plane.” i can’t make any sense of that statement… I am only a beginner but how can the flat face be parallel to the bed? The bevelled side is surely parallel?

    • Yep. Sounds like it. To clarify though, the bevel in a bevel down plane is still not parallel to the sole. There is a 15-20 clearance angle between the wood’s surface and the bevel. If the bevel were to be parallel to the sole & wood surface, the plane would not cut.

  13. Hi Bob

    I’m very late to the party .. and would have let it pass, but feel it is relevant to correct a basic error running through this thread.

    When you talk about “low angle planes”, you should be talking about a plane with a “low cutting angle”. It is the cutting angle that is relevant …. a plane is a plane is a plane ..

    A common BU plane used for shooting is the LV LA Jack (or the LN #62). The bed of these planes ia 12 degrees. Thus a 25 degree bevel will result in a 37 degree cutting angle. So now you are comparing a 37 degree cutting angle versus the 45 degree cutting angle of a BD plane.

    You can cut end grain with just about anything as long as the blade is sharp. I used to use a HNT Gordon Trying Plane, a woodie with a 60 degree BD bed. It worked. However the LV LA Jack with 37 degrees works better!

    For reference, I use a LN #51 in a Stanley #52 and it is best of all. But this is not apples vs apples as the #51 is also skewed at 20 degrees. When you through a LN #9 (which is 45 degrees) into the mix, the LV comes in second and the #9 comes in after it.

    Link: http://www.inthewoodshop.com/Furniture/ShootingPlanesCompared.html

    Regards from Perth

    Derek

    • Hi Derek,

      Thanks for chiming in. Always glad to see you here. I was sorry to hear that I missed you when you were stateside. Found out you were in the area from Wilbur, who is just an hour away from me. It would have been nice to meet you in person.

      With all due respect, I don’t think there is any basic error in the thread at all. What I am referring to is a low cutting angle vs. a standard cutting angle. I stand by my original statement that a low cuting angle is not required to plane end grain. I won’t argue that a plane with a lower cutting angle can be easier to push through the end grain of very hard species. However, as you well know, skewing a plane with a standard or high cutting angle has the same effect. I’ve proven to myself and others many times over that a plane with a standard cutting angle works just fine for planing end grain with or without a shooting board.

      In fact, you are indirectly stating the same thing yourself by claiming that the #51 is the best of all. The Stanley #51, and the LN copy, are bedded at a standard angle of 45 degrees. They are not low cutting angle planes. What makes them push through the end grain easier is not a low cutting angle but the 20 degree skew. The same effect can be gained with a standard bench plane by skewing it in the cut. I rarely use a shooting board these days, and regularly plane the end grain of anything from pine to ash with a 50 degree smooth plane held at a slight skew. Cuts just as well as a #51 or a bench plane with a low cutting angle.

      The whole point of this post was not to argue the merits of low cutting angles vs. standard cutting angles, though. I know both have their advantages and disadvantages. I don’t get involved in such debates because ultimately it doesn’t matter what kind of tool one chooses to do their work, as long as they enjoy what they are doing.

      My intent with this post was merely to assure new woodworkers and new hand tool users that they don’t need an entire cabinet full of tools to build stuff. Whatever type of tools a person chooses to work with is just fine with me. I just wanted to assure people that if all they have is a #3 or a #5 standard angle plane, they can plane end grain and use it in a shooting board just fine. I’ve done it myself for years.

      If a person has the budget and desire for a plane with a low cutting angle, or if they are looking for their very first plane, low angle versions are definitely worth considering. They do have their advantages as I mentioned. For folks who already have a full regiment of standard and/or high angle bench planes, though, I don’t see the need to add one unless they just want one, which is plenty reason enough.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts Derek! Hope we can meet up next time you are in the area!

      • Hi Bob

        I had no idea that you were close to Wilbur (well .. one hour away!). It would have been a great lunch … and we would never have left Wilbur’s shop afterwards! 🙂 Hopefully there will be another time.

        With regard shooting end grain, I was not arguing the merits of low vs standard, but that the “low” mentioned early in the piece was standard (20 degrees) and not low (12 degrees). As to actual use in the shop, the sharpness of the blade can make more of a difference.

        I will pop buy again!

        Warm regards

        Derek

Comments are closed.