St. James Bay Infill Block Plane Project
May 2002

Kathy gave me a rough casting set for a Saint James Bay Tool Co. block plane for Christmas (SWMBO Gloat).   Not too great a surprise, seeing as I left the SJBT catalogue out on the coffee table for a few weeks last autumn (with the block plane casting kit circled in red - hint hint).

The rough castings are exactly that. Straight from the sand. When I started working on it, I initially just roughly smoothed off the biggest bumps with a machette file (really big triangular file Lee Valley sells for a couple of bucks, which I highly recommend for rough filing work [shill shill]). Then I tried working on the bed for the iron. How am I supposed to make this flat!? The files don't want to cut into a blind corner very well, and the scrapers don't work well at all on the rough sand casting. I did't want to drill out the mouth, because this is a bevel-up plane and I want a less-than-gaping mouth.

So I wandered witless about the shop, looking speculatively at any tool that might provide promise or inspiration for my dilemma. Chisel rack... Hmmm, would some kind of chisel cut this stuff?  Nah. I'd just end up with dull chisels if I tried something like that.  Brace rack... nope.  Hammer rack, layout tools, screwdrivers, saws, planes... nothing here to help with a machining job.

And there was my post drill, with the big cross-slide vise clamped to the table.  Hmmm... this might have potential.  I wondered if I could mill the plane's bed with a bit in the post drill?  Maybe.  What kind of bit?  A r**t*r bit I supposed.  No, wait, a milling cutter would be better, right?  So I dug out my FIL's machinist handbook and started looking at the different kinds of cutters and how they worked.  This looked like a good place to use an end mill.  The next day I stopped by Atlas Machinery on Queen St (across the street from Sushi Bistro; soft shell crabs and salmon sashimi for lunch!) and picked up a 1/4 inch 4-flute end mill.

I chucked the cutter in my post drill, mounted the casting in the vice, and let 'er rip.  Hey, this works OK.  Sure, I can't hog off material, but the bed is flat now, and that's the bit I'm concerned with.  I can only imagine how well a real metalworking machine must work!  What with all the slop in the shaft on the post drill and the less-than-perfect far-east knock-off vise, it's a wonder I got the job done at all.

Next, it's time to finish cleaning up the sides and sole, before I get too close to opening up the mouth.  I hauled out the Scary-Sharp plate glass and stuck down some coarse sandpaper.  Started shoving the casting back and forth, back and forth.  Too slow.  Is impatience one of the Seven deadly Sins? It should be.  Anyways, back to the bench with the machette file. Still too slow.  Hey, how about a scraper?  Yah, them metalheads is always yakkin' about scrapers, and I just happened to have a nice big Moore & Wright scraper I picked up in a $2 box lot at auction last year.  I think it needs sharpening first.  Off to the WWW to see what I can find out about metal scrapers. I end up running the business end of the scraper straight into a grinding wheel.  Yes, yes, a *hand* cranked grinder, what else is there? ;^)  Try scraping again.  Much better.  I can take off nice curls of bronze with this thing!

Oh, yes!  This is SO much more satisfying than the file or sandpaper.  Still, it's a LOT of work, and my hands are not used to it, so I just do half an hour at a time.  And my posture is not the best, so my back was pretty sore for a coupla days.  No wonder Great Aunt Mary was always nagging us about sittin' up straight.

I was tempted to use a belt sander, but luckily I don't own one, so I am safe from this particular temptation.  I just have to try not to mention it to any neighbours or friends who might want to loan me a sander.  After scraping for a bit, I use the file to level things off, and take the casting back to the sandpaper for some lapping once in a while too.

It takes a few scraping/filing/lapping cycles to finish the sides.  There's one small flaw in the casting on the starboard side, down at the sole.  I can't get rid of this, so I'll just feather it out and use increasing grades of sandpaper by hand to smooth it.  Hey, maybe I should pretend it's a "handy grip" and dish the other side too.  The sole was pretty good to start with, but still takes a couple of scraping/filing/lapping cycles to get it the way I want. Once the sole was flat enough, I went back to workin' on the bed.  A few more passes with the post-drill-milling-machine and I figured it was as close to the sole as I wanted to get.  I don't really want to go all the way through because I fear that the feather-edge of the sole would be harder to deal with.

So, how do I open up the mouth? With a 1/16 drill bit, fear, a fretsaw, a lot of trepidation, and a needle file. Then I cleaned up the mouth opening a bit.  Note to self:  when working on the mouth of a plane, file from the sole side, otherwise you might inadvertantly mangle the leading edge of the mouth.  DAMHIKT.  One rather brutal lesson in metalworking has been well and truly learned.

Now I'm depressed.  Right, so let's go do something a bit less critical.  Like filing down all the rest of the visible parts of the casting and cleaning up the lever cap.  Easy stuff.  Hey, it's slow slow work trying to get the insides of that casting nice and smooth.  Might be time to go shopping for some new files.  Now the parts are 'smooth enough'.  Not near finished, but I still have to grab them with clamps and vises whilst drilling and tapping and peening, so I don't want to spend time getting it perfect until the work is done.  I called Bob at SJBT and asked him about the placement of the lever/screw cap.  Jim Kingshott tossed the original one and made his own, so I can't follow his measurements.  I took Vlad's advice and stopped messing with the bronze bits and started hacking out a blank for the iron.

Still have some of that 3/16 O1 from my SJBT infill smoother project, so I hacksawed off a chunk.  With Bob's measurments as a starting point, plus the blank for the iron, I was able to locate the holes.  Right.  Time to drill some holes.

First, the screw/lever cap.  Consult the tap/drill chart on the wall and dig out the number drills.  Pilot hole followed by the bigger bit, and then start the tap in the post drill.  I also had to chase the threads on the screw with the 1/4-20 die, as they were a bit messed up on the end.

Now the really tough one, the cross hole through the screw/lever cap.  I ran a 3/16 center drill in from both sides, and then finished the hole with a twist bit.  Then I ran a #10 bit through the hole to provide a wee bit of clearence for the 3/16 rod I was using.  The holes in the casting were easy, just the center drill followed by a #12 twist bit.  I really wish I had some reamers.  Why oh why did I pass up that spiffy set of Greenfield Tool & Die Co reamers?  Foolish Galoot I am.  Anyways, now it's starting to look like a plane!

Time for the wooden bits.  The rear infill will be invisible under the iron, so that will just be whatever I can find in the scrap bin (cherry as it turns out) but the front 'bun' will likely be something droolish, like ebony.  After digging around in the Cool/Exotic scrap bin I settled on some more of the same ebony my Hoosier Tools shoulder plane is filled with.  I spent the evening filing, scraping, sanding and polishing the wooden parts.  In order to hold the ebony I drilled and tapped a blind hole in the bottom of the block for a #10-32 machine screw, and then screwed the ebony to a chunk of scrap.  Worked great.

Now it's time to install that front infill block.  I figured that the 3/16 rod was too big for pinning the ebony.  I just used a 2 1/2 inch common nail instead.  Back to the post drill to make the hole through the plane & infill, a *slight* chamfer around the edges of the holes, and peen the nail in place.  Then I lapped and polished the sides and sole and waxed the ebony.  Very cool.

Back to the iron, which is just a rectangular lump of steel.  I scribed a nice round shape on the back end, hacksawed, filed and polished it.  The bevel was roughed out with a big file.  Got out my 'microforge' to do the heat treating.  Just an insulating firebrick with a hole drilled through it, and a cross hole for a propane torch.  After hardening, I tempered the iron to a straw colour, which might have been a bit too soft, but I made the iron so I can always just make it again, eh?

Back into the shop to clean up the iron, establish the bevel on the hand cranked grinder, and then hone and strop.  Galoot pattern baldness :^)  And then I test my new toy... start easy with some basswood.  Once I got the plane set I tried that chunk of cherry I keep around for planing games.  Works very nicely indeed.  Well, this screed has just about run it's course.  To anyone still reading, "Thanks for listening".

Ahhhhh... Trophy Shavings.

Darrell LaRue
Wood Hoarder, Blade Sharpener, and Occasional Tool User