Melvin Vockler's Museum of The Transmundane
presents
Adventures in Planemaking in The Land of Misfit Tools
Building a Parallel-sided bronze smoothing plane

In Early 1998 I decided to try my hand at some serious plane making.  Since I had just had my birthday (and some of my relatives had given me money because they could not find any of the rusty old tools I had requested) and I had also just received my income tax refund, I splurged for the machined casting from the St. James Bay Tool Co.  When I ordered the plane, I chose a 50 degree bedding angle, because I would be using this mostly on hardwoods.

I bought a thick short chunk of walnut for the infill (an offcut the lumber store was glad to be able to get rid of...), and a piece of 3/16" O1 tool steel for the iron.  I also picked up a scrap of 1/8" mild steel for the cap iron.

The rough machining had been done, and the mouth was 'mostly' cut.  I lapped out the sides and sole on some 1/2" plate glass with 120 grit sandpaper glued down.  I didn't go any further than 100 grit because I figured that I would follow the construction phase with the final lapping & polishing.  Thus, any marks I inadvertently put in the casting during construction (read 'hamfisted oaf') would be eliminated afterwards.  The mouth just needed finishing off on the corners, and I had to use needle files to get right out to where I wanted the mouth.  The front, back and top edges of the casting were still rough, so I used files and SiC paper to smooth and finish them.

Here's a picture of the raw parts as I received them.

The lever cap had the holes drilled and tapped, but was otherwise rough.  Again, I used the files & SiC to smooth it and polish the surface.

We had a few big basswood trees that came down in The Great Ice Storm, and I saved some chunks of wood from them.  I used a few pieces to build test infill parts.  It was a very useful exercise, in that I learned which order of cuts & holes was most effective in producing the shapes I wanted (without wasting 'good' stock!).  Interestingly, though I have small hands, I found that the most comfortable tote shape was way larger than the standard plane tote (from Stanley et al).  So my infill has a big beefy handle.

Once I had the last of the major work completed on the infill and the main casting, I lapped and polished the sides & sole to 400 grit.  I actually went as far as 600 grit, but I didn't like how the plane looked after 5 minutes of handling the polished casting.  So I went back to the 400 grit, and now the fingerprints don't show up quite so badly.  I guess I got a lot of acid in my sweat.

This photo shows the parts prior to assembly.  The only thing missing was the cap iron and lever cap screws.

I (unwisely) chose to epoxy the infill into the casting.  I scuffed up and cleaned the insides of the casting and went nuts with some good (24 hr) epoxy.  Looks great, and works fine.

The cap iron was troublesome at first.  I had a hard time getting a good even bend on the end.  But I kept picking it up about once a week, smashing it flat, and trying again.  Eventually I managed to bash out a pretty good cap iron.  I put a bevel along the top edges like on the vintage ones, but not quite as pronounced.  That's something to work on later.

The iron was an adventure in itself.  Rather than cough up the bucks for an iron from SJBT or The Good Rev Ron Hock (not that I don't like his irons; I have at least a half dozen of them <shill shill>)  I wanted to do it myself.  Which may have been a mistake in some ways, but considering how much I learned I think it was a worthwhile exercise.  I couldn't easily purchase the exact width of tool steel I wanted, so I got some wider stock and just ripped the part I needed out of it.  Ripping 3/16" tool steel with a hacksaw is a tough chore.  With a fresh blade in the hacksaw, it takes about 20 minutes to cut off a chunk of steel and rip it to width.  I drilled out the slot and finished it off with files.  Then I cut the back corners off the iron and ground a rough bevel.  I didn't bother cutting a big hole at one end of the slot for the cap-iron screw, as it's only a matter of two seconds to take the screw out.  Now for the fun part.  Heat treating the iron.  One of the local Galoots (Rob Stevens) is an amateur blacksmith, and he arranged to use a forge one Saturday afternoon.  So we got the fire going, and got the iron in, and all the while Rob's chatting away explaining to all and sundry the myriad details of handling a coal fired forge.  We watched the iron carefully, and when it looked the right colour, Rob pulled it out and we gaped in astonishment at the white droplets of molten tool steel dripping off the business end of my iron.  "Yikes!"  Seems there was a hot spot in there.

OK so back to the shop, the hacksaw, and the drill press.  This time I managed to ruin both a drill bit and a good file.  The tip of a cutting edge flaked off of the drill bit and embedded itself in the soft tool steel, and when I was trying to file out the slot the chip of hard metal cut some nasty grooves in my new file (which I had just unwrapped).  Get out a junker 3-corner file and undercut the chip and excised it, and then continued with the rest of the job.  The second heat treating, this time in Gil's back yard, was successful, and I tempered the cutter in the kitchen oven.

Then I opened up the mouth ever so carefully, until the iron would come through.  The mouth was about .002" when I did this.  Then I started some test cuts.  Not good.  I tried a few things to get the performance up to par, and finally discovered that I had a minor bedding problem.  Once I cleaned up the bed, the plane worked wonderfully!  Except of course that the mouth is now .010" (drat!).  I shimmed the back of the iron with a piece of brass shim stock and the plane is even better now!

I used this plane on & off for a while, and one day the bun fell out.   I grumbled mightily, cursing the recalcitrance of certain inanimate objects, and expoxied the bun back in place.  A few months later the rear infill came out.  Good thing I had ahold of the plane with both hands at the time.  "Right" I says, "This time I'm gonna do it PROPERLY".  I spent $1 on some 3/16 brass rod and $0.25 on some 3/16 ID brass tubing.  Then I laid out and drilled through the casting with the infill clamped in place.  The clamping strategy was my biggest concern at this point.  Once I had the through holes done, I removed the infill block and bored out the holes to receive the tubes.  I cleaned up the holes in the casting (why oh why did I let that handsome box of Greenfield Tool & Die Co expanding reamers get away?!  Never pass up a good tool at a good price, even if you have absolutely no use for it...) and countersunk the holes.  Way too much countersink I might add.  You really don't need much to hold a pin in place.  Then I peened everything together, filed the ends of the pins flush and it was a plane again!  Next time the bun falls out, it gets riveted in too.

Then there was that FWW article on smoothing planes (early 2000?).  Paraphrasing one of the author's comments: "take each of your planes and use it exclusively every day for a week, so that you get used to exactly how the tool performs under varied use".  A good point, I thought.  So I tried it.  I used my infill for an hour or so every day for a week, until we got used to each other.  And I found out how to hold the plane, how hard to push, when to push, when to skew, and most importantly when to hone.  With a finishing smoother, sharp is everything, and you have to know when the iron isn't sharp anymore.  If you spend enough time with your plane, it will tell you when it needs to be sharpened.

One really interesting thing I learned at this time was that the sound a plane makes is a really good indicator of how it is performing.  My wife was running a R*nd*m *rb*t S*nd*r over some poor misbegotten piece of wood (what that wood had done to deserve that kind of treatment I'll never know...) and I was trying to plane some cherry.  When I could hear the plane (during grit changes) I could tell exactly when the grain was changing based solely on the sound the plane was making, and I could change my tactics  (skew the plane, or change direction).  When the sander was running I had to look closely at the surface to see if there was a problem area.  The Planing Gurus write that the feedback through your hands is important but I find that aural feedback is also important.  But I digress.

And here is the finished plane...

This plane is just about the coolest thing I have ever made, and now I can sign my name like this:

Darrell LaRue, FOYBIPO