Friday, December 7, 2012

Essential Tools for Newbies: Part III - Jack Plane

You need a shooting board.

"Wait a minute, I thought this post was about jack planes?"

Don't worry, it is.  But, to use some tools effectively, you need some appliances.  A shooting board is a critical appliance to have and use.

What better tool to use on it than a jack plane?  The jack plane is the perfect tool to use on a shooting board, because if you are buying your tools in the order I suggest, this is the only one you have so far.  Don't get me wrong, I have a whole slew of planes for different things, but if a jack plane was the first one I got, I would have saved a lot of money.

Now that you know how to sharpen the blade on your new sharpening medium (you do, don't you?), you can do an awful lot.  Roughing, flattening, jointing, smoothing, and shooting can all be accomplished to some degree with the humble jack plane.

But, you need a plane with a flat side for shooting.  A hefty one is better, as it maintains momentum.  That means that while shooting with a block plane is possible, it is much more enjoyable with a jack plane.

Not long ago, my cousin Tony asked me to show him how to cut dovetails.  I just realized that "my cousin Tony" makes him sound like Italian Mafia.

Me 'n' Tony.  He's not Italian.
We started with some mahogany scrap I had laying around and made these boards six-square.  This took a little while, and it turns out that this is all we got done that day.  The dovetails will have to wait until next time.  But, he was really proud that he made two boards completely six square all by hand.  And, he only used a jack plane.

In a nutshell, you make a board six square by first flattening a face and then, one edge.  I like to then make the other edge flat, and parallel to the first edge.  Shoot the two ends by placing the reference edge against the fence of the shooting board.  Last, the second face is marked and planed flat, in the same plane as the reference face.

I think these boards we squared up look good enough that as long as they aren't scuffed up too much in the construction process, will need no further treatment before finish is applied.

By the way, you should make your own shooting board.  Appliances are a good opportunity to practice basic skills.  Google the term and you will find dozens of designs, and you are sure to find one you like.  I like simple.

Dirt-simple shooting board constructed with scrap.
Several years old.
Back to jack planes.  You only need one, but there are several different ways you can go:
  • Bevel up
  • Bevel down
  • Wooden
  • New
  • Vintage
  • Home-made
If you don't have a whole lot of experience with planes, or just don't have a bunch of planes yet, AND you have a couple hundred bucks you can blow on a new tool, I recommend getting a new bevel-up plane.  In fact, if you only have limited funds for all of your tools and can only afford one new tool, this is the one I would buy new.

When I bought mine, I did not have the benefit of being able to try one out, I just read a bunch on the internet.  I found out I wanted either the Lie Nielsen or the Veritas.  I settled on the Veritas because at the time it was a bit cheaper.  Since then, I have tried the Lie Nielsen, and it is a truly sweet tool.  It feels awesome in your hand.  The blade is a bit narrower, which can be better at times as it will be easier to push.

I have to say, however, that I'll not be getting rid of my Veritas in favor of the Lie Nielson anytime soon.  This is one of the finest tools I have ever used.  Over the last year or so I have been trying to do most of my planing (regardless of for what purpose) with this plane.  It works marvelously.  Want a heavy cut?  Open the mouth and screw out the blade some. For a finer cut, draw the blade in and close the mouth really tight.  It takes about 1.2 seconds.  An eternity for an android.

If you get this plane, order it with a standard 25 degree blade.  This makes it ideal for shooting.  I put a 5 degree secondary bevel on my blade, so the 30 degree blade with the 12.5 degree bed make for an effective angle of 42.5 degrees.  A bit low compared to other bench planes, but lower is better on end grain.  And it works surprisingly well for about 90% of other long grain tasks.

Now, the beauty of this set-up is that you can buy more blades.  I bought mine over a few years.  NOTE:  These blades are NOT required, but nice-to-haves.  I first added a 50 degree blade, which makes this thing a smoothing monster.  62,5 degrees effective angle will tame the wildest grain.  This blade in the Veritas bevel up jack is awesome.

I next bought the toothing blade.  It took me longer than I expected to figure out how best to use this blade.  Used with the grain it can be a very fine tool.  On wild grain that you can't avoid tear out with the 50 degree blade, use this to make some fine shavings.  Then plane the grooved surface flat, and VOILA!  no tear out.  But, lately I have found that it also works fantastic cross-grain to take super thick shavings.  I roughed my oak benchtop flat with this plane in about 15 minutes taking very heavy shavings.

Most recently, I bought the 38 degree blade to test out their new steel, PM-V11.  I wouldn't have bought it but a guy compared it to Gillette Fusion-ProGlide-Six-Blades-Battery-Powered-Special-Edition Razors on a blog at Lost Art Press, and I really like the battery powered razors so figured I needed one of these plane blades.  Thanks, Auguste, good tip!  I look forward to giving this blade a work out, and I'll let you all know what I think.

The point I'm trying to make about this plane is that it is extremely versatile.  But, I know, it isn't for everyone.

I had some good luck building a Krenov style jack plane.  This works really, really well, and is a really fun project.  The limitation I find with it is that with the fixed mouth it cuts only fine, not course.  I could set it up to cut course, but then that would be it.  It is not quite as versatile as the Veritas.  But what it does, it does extremely well.  I expect a vintage wooden jack would have similar limitations.

My home-made jack.  Madrone and Mahogany, 14 inches with a 45 degree bed.

Contrary to popular belief, the sides of a jack plane do not have to be perfectly perpendicular to the sole to shoot square.  Just make sure you check that the blade is square to the bed of the shooting board.

Lastly, you should consider a bevel-down jack like a Stanley number 5.  Vintage models are plentiful and cheap, although most probably need a little work.  Once tuned they should provide years of wonderful service.  

If you would like a new one, go with one of the premium versions like a Lie Nielsen.  If that is too rich for your blood, stick with a vintage model.  Stay away from the cheap brands made in India or communist China, as machining on these models tend not to be the highest quality.  You might spend more time rehabbing a new 49 dollar plane than on a vintage Stanley.  And then you still have to suffer with sloppy tolerances in the adjusting mechanisms. 

There you have it, you now know jack!  This series hopefully will influence you to not go out and buy fifty million new tools as a beginner, but to get a few really great tools which you should learn to use effectively.  

Next up, hand saws.


  1. Thank you, Brian, for giving credit to Auguste, who has done so much for all of us.

    1. I truly would not have purchased that blade without him.

  2. I've heard that a number 5 1/2 jack plane is a good compromise plane. What are your thoughts on that?

    Thanks, Dean

    1. Unfortunately I know little about the 5 1/2. If you have one already, there is your answer. It should work admirably on a shooting board. I would say if you have an opportunity to try it, do.

      Also, it depends on what you want to compromise?

  3. Love, love, love the picture of you and Tony. Even though I know jack about woodworking, I am thoroughly enjoying reading your interesting blog. (I am Brian's big sister and Tony's cousin, can you tell??

  4. I am a bit embarresed about the fact, that I have never made a shooting board.
    By the way, these posts are written in a nice and clear alnguade.
    Good job (as always).
    I agree to Ben, lets thank Auguste for all the good deeds he has done on various fora.

    1. It should have been language. Sorry for the typo

    2. A shooting board isn't so necessary when you can make a nice crosscut with machines. But, once you make one, you'll shoot everything!