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”.
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.