To become efficient in anything I find it’s much better to specialise rather than use one size fits all.
So how can a minimal hand tool kit become anything other than a set up for getting you started?
The answer is in understanding your cutting edge. We can use various cutting angles and shapes to optimise for specific jobs, and when it comes to hand planes the iron camber plays a huge role.
Cambers are the key to turning one hand plane in to a complete set up.
The Importance Of Sharpening
Obviously learning to sharpen your irons is essential, don’t underestimate this.
An expensive hand plane will be useless if it’s blunt, so if you can’t get a sharp edge, work on that first.
But to turn that one plane in to ‘specialist’ tool you need to think beyond simply sharpening and start to understand exactly what you’re asking the iron to do.
Iron Cambers – Different Curves, Different Jobs.
The edge of a plane iron is rarely straight.
Even for taking smoothing shavings you’ll want to nick the corners off to prevent tracks in your work.
A larger curve is used to help us take thicker shavings. The more curve, the heavier the shaving.
These curves are known as cambers, and this can be a confusing area for anyone new to hand tool woodworking.
The good news is creating a camber is simple.
Don’t faff trying to get perfect symmetry or even a smooth curve.
But do be mindful that one of the biggest problems I see people having with cambers is they’re using a curve that’s just too big.
Why Camber Your Irons?
For heavy material removal we want to rip away as much timber as quickly as possible.
But this shouldn’t simply be a race or test of power.
Optimising an edge means sacrificing the stuff that we don’t need.
When removing material this often means forgetting about the surface quality.
Clever hand thicknessing is all about lowering resistance. A hand plane that’s properly set for thicknessing will make it easier to remove thick shavings, than it is to remove wafer thin ones with a smoothing set up.
Lowering resistance when hand planing:
- Sharpen the iron at a lower angle to ease cutting (although a steeper angle may be required if you’ve got to plane through some tough stuff).
- Keep a wide mouth and retracted cap iron to allow shavings to clear without friction.
- Be sure to wax up the sole.
- And most importantly, set up with the right camber.
You need to think of it like this, the purpose of cambers is to make our life easier.
Cambers are great when it comes to heavy shavings because they make the impact progressive when the plane engages with the wood.
At first its just the front of the iron that digs in, then gradually more and more of that cutting edge will get to work as we push.
This is hugely important, because there’s so much impact at the start of a deep cut that without the camber everything’s going to buckle, yourself included.
Of course technique is also important, and the aim is to take as few shavings as possible rather than hogging off wood in a random manner. This is particularly true when using a hand plane to flatten your boards.
The Problem With Big Cambers.
An iron is held in to a plane at an angle, so the amount of camber is directly related to the type of shaving that can be taken.
A large curve will make life difficult in one of two ways:
– You’ll take skinny shavings down the centre of the blade and have to take many, many more shavings than necessary.
– Or you’ll set for a full width shaving, and the depth of cut will be extreme, you’ll be burnt out after one pass.
The optimum camber gives us a manageable depth whilst producing a shaving that’s close but not quite the full width of the iron.
(We don’t aim at full width because the curve increases the length of the cutting edge, so full width would make a lot of resistance.)
Setting For An Optimum Depth Of Cut.
That manageable depth of cut depends on your circumstance.
If you’re inexperienced than start small and work upwards.
Softwood will allow a greater depth of cut than hardwood, and be mindful not to over do it if you’re got a marathon planing session ahead.
Remember, the camber is there to help us remove material faster, not wear us out, so match the resistance of each stroke to the workload.
Thin & Soft Plane Irons For A Progressive Camber.
All of this means there’s no perfect camber or set of cambers you can prepare.
A tiny variation in the curve makes a large difference to the shaving, and your depth of cut is pretty much dictated by that edge.
This is why I’ll only use thin irons made from softer steel for anything other than smoothing jobs. (And why I have a dislike for sharpening thick plane blades made from modern steels.)
The thin softer irons work quickly at the sharpening stones, and provide the ability for what I call a ‘progressive’ sharpening habit. Your cutting edge can be altered on the fly, optimising for every task.
This rapid alteration also becomes a great learning tool, quickly giving you a feel for how the different levels of camber respond.
It’s worth noting that if you have a bevel up plane, then you’re dealing with a different animal. The irons are not only thick, but require a more dramatic camber for the same effect.
Personally I don’t see a place for bevel up planes when it comes to anything heavier than smoothing shavings – you’ll find more on that when I discussed my thoughts on my Veritas bevel up plane.
Two Irons, One Hand Plane.
There’s no reason to stick with the one plane set up, but if you do then all needs can be covered by using two irons.
With the first iron I can adjust the camber to take anything from super fine to medium shavings.
The second will go from a medium camber through to coarse.
And I can change either of the irons to either of their extremes in just one sharpen if needed.
I’m not going to provide radiuses to work to. If you want to become fluent at hand planing then forget the numbers and start having a play.
If you’re looking to set up a tool kit then you’ll want to spend wisely, ensuring that you have quality where you need it but no excess. It’s probably much more simple than you think, and we have it all covered in our guide to the complete (yet minimal) hand tools for woodworking.