Skill Builder: Tuning Planes and Chisels

Skill Builder: Tuning Planes and Chisels

As mentioned in my previous article, Understanding Basic Woodworking Tools, it’s a rare thing to buy a new plane or chisel and find it sharp and ready to use right out of the box. Even the expensive hand-made ones require some final honing before you can use them. These are the basic steps to setting them up.

The Plane:

I selected a Stanley No. 60 1/2 low angle block plane because its small size and ease of use. They are versatile, common and a good starting point for learning to use planes.

Flatten the Sole:
The bottom of the plane or sole is what registers the depth of the blade. So if the sole is twisted or rocks, the blade will do the same, leaving your surface jagged and uneven. A flat sole means that you will be able to leave behind a glassy smooth surface instead of one that looks like it still needs sanding. The bottom of this plane was very rough and left scratches when I pushed it over a smooth board.

What you’ll need:

6 to 8 sheets of wet/dry sandpaper in grits from 100 up to 220. The grits aren’t critical, but you’ll want more low grit than high.
Lubricant Light machine oil or WD40 This keeps the paper from loading or clogging up and reduces the build up of heat.
Masking tape
A reliably flat surface A one foot square piece of 1/4″ or thicker glass or granite counter scrap work well. The top of a table saw or jointer are good as well.
Paper towels
Patience, lots of patience

Leave the blade in, but back it out until it’s no longer visible from the bottom. This keeps the plane body in the same tension that it will be in use. Tape down a piece of the lowest grit paper and spray it with lubricant. Set the plane on the paper and move it around. Move it in circles, figure eights, side to side, and up and down, making sure you rub it over all of the paper. Use medium downward pressure. Pressing too hard won’t get you where you’re going any faster, it will just wear out your arm and the paper.

After a minute or two, wipe off the sole and inspect the wear. You will see smooth shiny spots appearing amongst the rough. The above picture was after about 20 minutes.

Continue this process, checking the sole and occasionally the paper to make sure it is still has grit. Switch paper when it feels like it’s no longer cutting, and add a little more lubricant if it looks dry. When the sole finally looks even and smooth, switch to the 220 paper, oil it up, and make a few long straight stokes to finish it off. If you’re still feeling sassy, you can turn the plane on its sides and do it all again. Lastly, drag the edges sideways over the paper to soften the corners. This process can be tedious but you only have to do it once so be patient and stick with it to the end. At this point, you can pull the plane apart and wipe everything down. Make sure to get into every corner because even a little sandpaper grit can wreak havoc with the adjusters and the edge of your blade. Rub a little paste wax onto the sole to finish it off.

Last step for the plane body is to flatten the edge of the cap iron. This edge is often rough and thick with paint, making it hard to make good contact with the blade. Simply place it on the 220 sandpaper and move it perpendicular to its length until the edge is smooth.

Sharpening the blade:
Asking a group of woodworkers how best to sharpen a blade is akin to asking them who makes the best pizza. You are likely to get varied and passionate answers. Oil stones, water stones, natural stones, diamond stones, sand paper, lapping compound, by hand, jigs, using machines… The list goes on and on. In the end though, it’s not important how you do it, what’s important is sharp. Or at least sharp enough for what you’re doing. What I’ll outline here are the most basic steps for sharpening a fresh plane iron. There are many books and videos that can take you deeper into the subject, quite often deeper than most want to go. For some, sharpening is a calming and meditative ritual, for others, simply a necessary evil. To be honest, I count myself among the latter. But wherever you fall on this spectrum, once you experience a truly sharp tool, it will be difficult to work with any other kind. Ultimately the goal in sharpening is to create a wedge of steel so fine that it is, to quote Gizmodo’s Joel Johnson ” just a few molecules wide at its edge, persuading the molecules it meets that it would be easier to decouple from their mates and let the razor pass through the space where they once twisted and wound together.”

I primarily use man-made water stones. The grits I use are 500, 1000, 2000, 4000, 8000. The 500 is mostly for chipped and brand new blades. It cuts pretty fast so it has to be used carefully. 1000 to 4000 are more for standard sharpening and they see the most use. I only use the 8000 for finishing plane blades that will be used for finish planing. Blades polished on that stone leave a surface that is as smooth as glass.

Just like the sole of the plane, the back of the blade needs to be flat. If left as it is, it will be very difficult to get and keep sharp and the machining marks on the back cause the edge to have serrations.

Place the blade on the stone, bevel side up, and with moderate downward pressure just behind the bevel, move the blade back and forth, parallel to its edge. After a few strokes, examine the back. Just like the plane, you should be seeing shiny spots forming. Return the blade to the stone and continue this process until the back has an even sheen for at least 1/4″ behind the edge and from side to side.

Once this has been achieved, we switch to the bevel side. While I typically sharpen by hand, when I started out, I used a honing guide. If you’re new to sharpening, these guides can be a great way to get a feel for the process while minimizing frustration. Place the bevel down on the stone and tip it back and forth a little until you feel its flat on the stone. Using long, even strokes with moderate pressure, move it back and forth. Use the whole surface and concentrate on maintaining the angle. Try to avoid rocking the blade by keeping the bevel flat the whole time.

After about twenty strokes, take a look at the bevel. Again, you should be seeing the factory marks wearing away, being replaced with an even sheen. Repeat this process until the entire bevel has the same sheen from side to side.

At this point, if you feel along the edge, you should be able to feel a fine curl of steel. This is called the burr. As you move through the stones, it will become finer and finer until eventually it’s gone and then you are done. But for now, we switch to the next higher grit stone, turn the blade over and work the back. Using the same motion as before, repeat until the area behind the edge has the same sheen from side to side. When that’s done switch back to the bevel. Repeat all of the steps until you have used the highest grit. At this point, the entire bevel and the area on the back should look like a mirror and you shouldn’t feel the burr. You can test the edge by very carefully shaving a small spot on your arm. If you’re an arm model and fear a bald spot might effect your career, you can try lightly shaving some paint from a pencil. But the real test is to plane with it.

You can now mount the blade back in the plane and attach the cap iron. With a light colored background beyond, sight down the sole and adjust the blade depth until it looks like a piece of hair on the surface. Now push it over a piece of wood. With a little adjusting and practice you should be taking shavings you can read though and leaving an incredibly smooth surface behind.

Whenever you feel or see that the blade isn’t cutting well, don’t wait, take it out and touch up the edge. A few strokes on the higher grit stones (20 on the bevel, 5 on the back, repeat) should have it singing in no time.


The chisel and plane iron follow the same course. Flatten the back and then switch to the bevel. Repeat through the grits.

Chisel: Before

Chisel: After

Bio: Len Cullum is a woodworker living in Seattle, WA. He specializes in building Japanese-style garden structures and architectural elements. It was a picture of a wooden kayak in the summer of 1992 that set him on the path he remains on today. The desire to build one, and the fear of it sinking, are what drove him to learn finer woodworking skills. After eighteen years of brushing up on those skills, and building lots of other things, he still hasn’t attempted that kayak.

Skill Builder: Understanding Basic Woodworking Tools

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Len Cullum

Len Cullum is a woodworker living in Seattle, where he specializes in building Japanese-style garden structures and architectural elements. When not woodworking, he teaches at Pratt Fine Arts Center, writes, and dreams of a robot that would sharpen his chisels.

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