Learning To Set Wooden Planes

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When I decided to start woodworking I chose do it with wooden planes. Perhaps this was heavily influenced by what Richard felt would be a good route to take, but also because I’ve always felt a great attraction towards them.

Setting up a wooden hand plane is not intuitive. Not for me and not for the many people who I’ve seen pick one up off our bench at a woodworking show and attempt to get it to do anything (without any joy). Many times Richard has told me where to hit to release the blade and where to hit to deepen the cut, and many more times I’ve asked him to tell me again.

 

Hit on the front to deepen the cut,
Hit on the back to lessen the cut, hit harder to release the blade.

Tap the wedge lightly after any adjusting.

You can also go deeper by tapping the top of the blade itself (that bit can be remembered easily.)

Using a wooden smoothing plane

Knowing those basic points don’t make you an expert plane setter. You can watch it being done over and over again but it doesn’t make you any good yourself. The only way to figure this out is to do it.
Every part of hand tool woodworking is about using all of your senses and never is this more true than when adjusting a wooden plane.

Being taught by Richard helps me to appreciate just how attuned these senses can become over many years of using them. He felt ridges in the wood, and heard the plane adjust when I perceived next to nothing. And that’s surprising coming from a man with little sense (& skin calluses).

The important thing at first is not getting results, but becoming attuned to what the plane is telling you. If you set it up right straight away then you will learn nothing so don’t get disheartened. Even Richard has to spend a few minutes getting to know a new plane he hasn’t used before, as they all respond fractionally differently.

wooden hand planes are adjusted with a plane hammer (use a nice small one if you can)

Set the iron in place seated on the work surface, and insert the wedge. Tap the wedge in to place to secure. Listen carefully, once the wedge is seated the tone will deaden – I spent a long time trying to adjust a plane without any joy only for Richard to inform me that I had the wedge far too tight for my adjustments to be affective.

Sighting doen a wooden plane to check if the iron is protruding

Sight down the bottom of the plane to see where the cutting edge is sitting. Is it protruding more at one edge than the other? Feel carefully to confirm this. 

To begin I was shown how to use a thin piece of wood to help read this – taking a shaving by pulling the wood across the blade at the two edges shows how well it is set. If the shaving is too deep at both then the blade needs retracting – you will cause tracks in your work. If there’s no shaving then you need to deepen the cut. And if the shaving is uneven then you need to tip the blade over by hitting it on the side, low down with a small metal hammer.

After making any adjustments, the wedge will need a light tap to ensure everything stays locked.

After adjusting the iron, you can check if the cut will be even by pulling a scrap of wood along each side of the blade

The smoothing plane is the most difficult to set up just right. It has the slightest of camber and you want to ensure that you get a full width shaving that fades out at both edges so that you leave no tracks, leaving a beautifully smooth finish.
In an odd sort of sense it was the most difficult plane which Richard instructed me to perfect first of all. The idea being that if I’m going to get to grips with these things then this one is the greatest teacher.

A well set wooden hand plane, taking an even, full width shaving

Practice and patience are the key, and I continue to keep this just little and often because it’s surprising how much you progress when taking a break. I’m by no means an expert, but I have developed a much stronger understanding of how to correct things when they’re not right. And knowing which end to hit when is almost becoming second nature.

Want To Learn More About Wooden Hand Planes:

– Get Started With Wooden Planes – Different Types & How Best To Buy

– Hand Plane Restoration – Bringing Life To My Old Wooden Smoothing Plane

– Jack Plane Review – Why ECE’s Wooden Planes Are The Best Choice When Buying New

39 Responses

  1. Ken Haygarth

    Thanks Helen, some nice shavings. This could be a new series, Beauty in the workshop

    Reply
  2. Justin Starr

    Thanks Helen! It’s great to hear you describe the learning process.

    I love the idea of using wooden hand planes, but with no experience using them it is rather intimidating. What would you or Richard recommend in tackling the steep learning curve of wooden plane set-up? My gut instinct is to just get in the shop and start using it…but that seems to simple….lol

    Cheers
    Justin

    P.S. The production quality, from the videos to photos to content itself is second to known….its shocking how good it is….well done!

    Reply
    • Helen

      Many thanks Justin,
      Often the learning process is stunted by the plane itself, as a poorly fitted wedge for example can make you feel like you’re doing it all wrong or at least it did me. If you know your plane’s good then I suppose it is just a case of getting a feel for it, everyday you come back to it you will be that little bit better.

      Reply
  3. Glen C

    It became intuitive for me once I understood the physics of it. The key to it is that when you tap the body of the plane, the body moves but the iron doesn’t, because of its own inertia.

    Tap the toe and he body moves backward. The iron stays where it is (more or less), and thus because it’s at an angle, it ends up protruding a little bit more from the bottom of the plane – the cut deepens.

    Tap the heel and the reverse happens. The body moves forward, but again the iron doesn’t move. Because of the bedding angle, it appears to suck up a little bit back into the plane. So, the cut lessens.

    Reply
  4. Robert Stoakley

    Spot on Helen. It’s also the way you set Japanese planes, except fitting the iron to the body of the plane (dai) is a lot more convoluted than a traditional European plane. I’d suggest also that a much smaller tapometer, rather than one of Richard’s forge hammers would give you a lot more control over what’s happening to the cutter.

    Reply
  5. Len Aspell

    Very helpful explanation Helen – thank you. I need more practise now I have a number of different size wooden planes handed down to me. Following on from Richard’s explanations on cambers I need to ensure the irons are set up properly too.

    Some homework then while the rain still comes down. I have had enough of paperwork for this week.

    Len

    Reply
  6. George

    If you truly appreciate using wooden planes then you should only hit the wooden parts of the plane with a wooden mallet and the metal iron with a metal peen.

    That is why they make a plane hammer.

    Using steel hammers to do all this tapping. Steel mushrooms blades and destroys bodies over time. A plane hammer solves both problems. The brass end of the head will not deform steel and the wooden insert end is kind to the body. It is the perfect tool for wooden plane owners.

    Reply
  7. Walter

    Helen,

    You are an inspiration on how to bring some class back to the workbench.

    Keep up the good work.

    ps: you may want to search out a slightly smaller hammer for adjusting your planes. Just an idea.

    Reply
  8. John Verreault

    Spot on Helen. If you don’t actually do it to get the muscle memory (not to mention the auditory memory) then knowing all the theory, plus some other naff, will not get one decent shaving off for you.

    Reply
  9. Polly Becton

    Nice, Helen. Very clear, very concise, very accurate, very effective for those who practice according to your instructions.

    Leave the physics out: too many people are “physics impaired” to make that very productive for the majority. Those who are “physics enabled” don’t really need the explanation.

    One of the great – but often unrecognized – benefits of working wood is the need for patience and concentration on the now, the immediate, the present, the tool, the wood. They tell you all you need to know, once you shut out the outside world and listen to the music you make with your tools. If it’s dissonant, stop and sharpen, adjust and try again, again, again until it’s right and then you will enjoy the tune. Then, because you’re paying attention, you’ll find it easier and faster next time.

    It’s a lot like the old joke here in the U.S.A.: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!”

    Reply
  10. RoBanJo

    Thanks Helen. You and Richard are doing a wonderful job. The instruction is clear and helpful. Plus the lack of an accent on Richard’s part is delightful to these ears.

    I lived in England from 1983-87 on RAF Chicksands, near Shefford in [I believe] Hertfordshire. I remember it fondly and oh so nostagically. The scent of coal in the air while driving through the villages on a cold evening still pleasantly wafts through the corridors of my mind.

    Bucket list Item: go to England on holiday.

    Reply
    • Len Aspell

      Hi RoBanJo

      Chicksands is in fact in Bedfordshire not its neighbour Hertfordshire. I used to visit Chicksands and Henlow for open days back in the late 50s early 60s on Birch Bros buses from Luton. By all means visit these parts again but you will rarely come across the scent of coal in the air nowadays. But do visit nonetheless – you’ll be very welcome.

      I agree that Helen and Richard are doing a wonderful job in reinforcing and encouraging woodwork using hand-tools and passing on tips to those of us that are hungry to learn or to re-visit skills long since forgotten.

      Len

      Reply
    • Helen

      Thanks RoBanJo, coal is still the smell of winter for us in Lincolnshire, still a bit backwards here 🙂

      Reply
  11. Nick

    Hi Robanjo
    By all means visit us on your forthcoming trip to England. We live in a small hamlet and continue to burn coal on our open fire!

    Reply
  12. David Clark

    I have two wood planes and fight with them all the time. The fine adjustments are almost impossible to make and must require lots and lots of practice. I have one metal block plane that is simply a dream to use. Fine adjustments take only a moment or two and work every time. Your post had motivated me to try some more but that metal plane sure looks good when I get frustrated.

    Reply
    • Walter

      After 44 years of woodworking, I notice Planes are like people.
      Some behave well and others do not and need some coaching.
      Wood planes react well if their Irons and wedge are fitted properly.
      They only require moderate pressure to stay in position and with a slight tap in the appropriate place will advance or retract in micro amounts.
      If you are haing to hit a wood plane too hard, then some adjustment to the fitting is needed.
      With an Iron body plane there are similar issues which can be frustrating.
      Once understood and the plane fitted properly, these tools are a joy to use.
      Remember, temperature and humidity affect all wood and can affect Iron a bit as well.
      Put your tools away in cupboards or cases at the end of each work session.

      Reply
      • David Clark

        Thanks for the reply. I have dedicated myself to learning the wooden plane but there is something I forgot to mention. My two wooden planes are German made and have a piece of metal on the end which is struck by a hammer to loosen the wedge and, I just leaned, to back the blade up a tad.

        Again, thanks.

        Reply
        • Walter

          Yes, those are the designated hammer tap locations.
          We Germans are like that, it is basically saying HIT HERE!.
          But it was also done so you can use a steel hammer without damaging the plane.

          Reply
          • David Clark

            Thanks for the input. With a German plane does one tap the front to deepen the cut or tap on the end of the blade?

            Also, do you know how far forward the chip breaker should be set?

          • Walter

            Chip Breakers or Cap Irons can be set in a variety of ways.
            I personally believe you can set them too fine and yet there are times you need to set them as fine as possible for the task at hand.
            Keep in mind that they must mate 100% if you do not want to get shavings under the cap and clog the plane.
            Generally, I have mine set back unless I need to deal with some challenging grain.
            Then the advice is to get as close as you dare (.0040″ or 0.10 mm) and take as light a cut as will tame that grain.
            My advice… Properly prepare your cutter and chip breaker so they are sharp and mate perfectly then take all sorts of test cuts and see how it feels to you.

          • Helen

            Some sound advice Walter, thanks. Your thoughts on the cap iron are very similar to Richard’s.

          • David Clark

            Walter, I am starting to get the hang of it now. Thanks for the advice. Now, another question and that is a wooden jointer plane over a metal jointer plane.

            What do you think?

          • Walter

            David,

            Iron body v Wood… the answer is: It depends.

            It depends on what you have available to you and what you actually need in regards to a Jointer or what is known as a Try Plane.

            For most, the large 24″ or longer planes are the least used in the shop unless you are doing work 48″ or longer all the time. In reality even a Jack plane can be a Jointer when used on smaller work.

            In a perfect shop one would choose to go all Iron or all wood body planes. Since many of us also have to make tool choices based on finances and actual tool availability, use whatever you have at hand to start. Tune them up and have at it. Remember, Long jointers are ground and honed straight across with ver little if any camber.

  13. Jasper

    Well written. Spot on.
    I’m starting to like the wooden planes.

    Learning to plane with a metal plane is not necessarily easier. Same difficulties. I remember my first lessons…
    In a full, noisy classroom, with a (modern, badly made) Stanley Bailey #4, right out of the box. Of course it was hopeless. It took us students quite a while to figure out that it really needed proper deburring and flattening. Let’s not forget to give the chipbreaker a nice edge!
    After that, it started making sense. The signals coming from the plane were much easier to read, and I could start sharpening the senses. Today, eleven years later, I can distinguish between bad tools and lack of skill. Or lack of patience 🙂
    It may seem like difficult learning, but using brute force instead is much harder.

    Reply
    • Helen

      Thanks Jasper, that’s a very important skill to learn – when the problem’s with the tool and when it’s with you. Well said.

      Reply
  14. Stefan

    Hello Helen,
    first thinks first. Thanks for this very clear description and advice.
    I’ve bought two wooden molding planes a few weeks ago and I’m still struggling with setting them.
    I’ll try what you wrote about setting a wooden plane.
    Secondly I would like two say something about your blog posts quality.
    From my point of view you are setting the new standard of tutorial blogs.
    Your production quality is amazing. If we are talking about the page design, the pictures and for sure your new videos.
    And last but not least picture number three on this side for me is Fine Art. Never seen such an elegant woman in the workshop.
    I think your are setting the new style guide. 😉

    Cheers,
    Stefan

    Reply
    • Helen

      Hi Stefan,
      Best of luck with you moulding planes, I’m sure you’ll get there. Thank you for your very kind words about the blog and videos, pleased to hear that you’re enjoying them 🙂

      Reply
  15. Randy

    Well written intro to wooden plans my dear; down to earth and practical. One thing I can offer you in return is that the males of our species can’t tell the difference between “sense” and “cents”. And that is why men are usually broke and clueless! Of course this phenomenon doesn’t apply to woodworking (unless one is gathering new tools)!!

    Reply
    • Len Aspell

      Randy

      haha – love the part “unless one is gathering new tools”. I confess to buying the odd tool or gadget that has rarely or not yet been used. An Eclipse drill sharpening jig comes immediately to mind. Used maybe twice and now lingers in a drawer.

      Len

      Reply
  16. Shannon

    When I was learning to use wooden planes (its was all we had at the living history museum where I was volunteering) I fell into a nasty habit that once I finally got it set up right I would work with the plane far too long and not stop to sharpen enough. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get it set up correctly again. That led to all kinds of problems. So in addition to just being able to set up the plane to work, you are building confidence to do it again and again so stopping to sharpen won’t become a chore.

    Reply
  17. Miriam

    Well explained Helen. It does take some time to become attuned to setting up tools and when you’ve not been using them for some time it again takes a little time to get back into it.
    The exact same methods that you’ve described so well also work for the wee metal planes with no adjuster on them – I’ve no idea what the planes are called, they tend to be about 4inches long, work well as polishing planes in my experience and I’ve a few that I’ve picked up from fairs or car boot sales.
    I’ve never actually used wooden planes at all however you might convince me. My experience with planes is mainly to do with carving wooden blades for Hugh Piggott style wind turbines, I teach the blade carving when we teach building wind turbine workshops in Ireland and Portugal, however we do have a kitchen to finish making so I will be making doors for the kitchen cabinets soon.

    Reply
  18. Pawel

    Thanks Helen! Great explanation. I have few wooden planes in my workshop myself that however I have never manage to use them properly because I simply didn’t know how to set them right.
    I was waiting for some kind of info that will inspire me to try and start using them as love wooden planes and would love to get them involved in my projects.
    By writing you story you’ve manage help me to understand basically how to set the wooden plane of course its only a theory at the moment but as soon as I get home form the middle of Atlantic ocean I will enter my workshop and practice following the steps and tips you’ve given us. Thank you 🙂

    Reply

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