Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Fingers In the Till - Lee Valley Low Angle Jack

Things have been a bit quiet in my shop lately.  I have a couple projects down there that are itching to get finished, but for one reason or another, time in the shop just seems to come up less frequently than I would like.

As a way to continue to record my thoughts for posterity, I thought I might take some time occasionally to dip my hand into my tool chest and share with you whatever comes out.

I think I'll dub this series:  Fingers In the Till.

A rather fetching photo of my LV LA Jack in action.
First up is my beloved Lee Valley Low Angle Jack plane.

I've written about jack planes before, and I think now that I have been using this plane differently since then, I can say a bit more about it.
Used to bevel this large panel.
In my original treatise on my take of what a Beginner's Tool Kit should look like,  I stated that one can do woodworking with just a few tools.  One of them should be a jack plane.  To put my money where my mouth is, I built a few projects using only those tools.

Something unexpected happened when I moved to exclusively using this plane:  I really got to like it.
Rough work across the grain.  In this case, flattening my workbench.
I think that using one plane, to the point where you know every single little quirk about it and can use that knowledge to the tool's best advantage is far more useful than having a choice between 50 specialty planes to do specific tasks.  Up until the time I wrote that beggining tool kit post, I would typically use a scrub, a jointer and a smoother for those respective jobs, and 99% of my work with this plane was relegated to use on a shooting board.
This plane excels on a shooting board, but that's not all it can do.
Intelectually, I knew this plane could do all this other stuff, but figured that if I had a dedicated smoothing plane and a dedicated jointer plane, those should work better for those tasks.  Right?

Thickness planing with the jack.
Well, the truth of the matter is for most furniture sized work, the jack plane works just fine for those tasks.  In fact, it can be easier.  Not only do I only have one plane to maintain and sharpen vs. three, this one plane can stay on my benchtop within easy reach to do whatever task is next. 
Dimensioning a piece of cherry.
I feel like this plane is now an extension of my arm.  I know how this plane will work and what to do to it for any particular job.  I have never experienced that before.  Continually switching between different planes prevented me from really getting the most from those planes.  Using this one exclusively (mostly) not only helped me get the most out of this plane, but made me a better planer in general. 

In short, I thought using only one plane would be do-able, but instead I found out using only one plane increased my skill exponentially. This was a far bigger gift than only having to buy one plane.
It only took minutes to get this nasty piece of pear looking silky smooth using only one plane.
If it sounds like I am going crazy over the experience of getting good with one plane rather than specifically this Lee Valley plane, well, that's true.  I know that Jonas thinks the same about a wooden smoother he has.  He switches out his smoothing blade to a radiused blade when he needs to take thick shavings.  Paul Sellers recommends a vintage Stanley smoother is really the only bench plane one needs.  Christopher Schwarz has only a jack plane on his list of essential tools in the Anarchist's Tool Chest (incidentally, this book is what set me on the path to what I currently keep in my tool chest).

So, enough about all that philosophy.  Let's get to this plane specifically:
Sometimes I clamp it upside down in the vice when working small parts.
This plane is of the bevel up variety, similar to a standard block plane.  This means there is no chipbreaker, and the cutting angle includes whatever angle the blade happens to be sharpened at.  This can be a powerful feature to use to your advantage!

What I really like about this plane is it's versatility.  I find myself twisting the front knob to adjust the mouth all the time.  I always set up the plane by adjusting it for a fine shaving, ensuring the shaving is the same thickness all the way across.  Then, I will turn the adjuster knob to make a more agressive cut, depending on the task at hand.  I like to take the most agressive cut appropriate for the task.
Smoothing a cribbage board.  I love this shaving!
Generally, the deeper the cut, the more I open the mouth.  I think the mechanism to adjust the mouth on this Lee Valley plane is better than anything else out there.  Even better than the Lee Valley jointer!
Chamfering with the aid of my Moxon vice.
I like the fact that you can change blades out for what you are doing.  I have the standard 25 degree blade, a 38 degree blade, a 50 degree blade, and the toothing blade.  I bought them all before I really started using this plane.  In my experience 99% of usage with this plane works with the standard blade.  If it doesn't, try sharpening it before you go crazy with other blades.  But, when you need it, those steeper angles really do the trick.  I've only "needed" to use the 50 degree blade once.
I think in the old days I would have bevelled this board with a block plane.
This plane is also built like a tank.  I am embarassed to say that it has fallen from my bench twice (that I can remember, anyway), no worse for wear.  However, I wouldn't recommend trying that out just to see if it works.
Here's a photo of my friend John playing trombone.  He sometimes reads this blog, and I'm sure he'll be amused to see his picture completely out of context here.
A famous woodworker said in a class I attended that this is the finest plane Lee Valley makes.  I don't know about that, but it's the finest one I have.
More little parts.  If you try this, watch your fingers!  I have clamped the handle in the bench vise.
When I first bought this plane, I wanted it for use with a shooting board.  I also didn't know if I wanted this one, or the one made by Lie Nielsen.  I chose this one based solely on that it was cheaper in price.

If I were to do it over again, I might choose the Lie Nielsen plane because the fit and finish on the Lie Nielsen is a bit finer, and it might be a bit easier to push since the blade is somewhat narrower.  I think that the two plane manufacturers both came out with an excellent tool, and it is not worth it for me to make that small of an upgrade (and learn another tool).
Here I am smoothing the grooves made with the toothed iron in the same plane.
I suppose the moral of this extremely long blog post is that if you are an experienced hand tool woodworker, and don't yet have an LA jack, you probably don't need to go out and buy one.  Instead, try narrowing your working arsenal of planes down to just the minimal amount.  If you are new to woodworking and looking to buy a plane to fill a hole in your tool chest, this is a fine choice that comes with my highest recommendation.

Do you have experience with this plane?  Do you have a favorite plane?  I would love to hear about it in the comments.


  1. With a toothing iron in it the plane blasts off into inner space. For squirrely grain and with two irons, you can tame it. I think the LV planes are better the LN ones but LV planes win the ugly contest. The fixed bed and the adjustable mouth is what really makes this plane in a class by itself.

    1. Ralph, this is pure poetry.

      I completely agree.

  2. Despite having a complete stable of planes I use my Veritas BU jack plane the most. I found it a bit tricky to set the blade square at first but soon got the knack. Much easier to change or take out the blade for sharpening. Much less vibration because the blade is thick and there is no frog to flap about. Hence more feedback from the tool and less force needed. Regards, Bernard

    1. Thanks for the comment, Bernard!

      I had the same trouble at first. Now, I use a little test piece of wood to take a few swipes on either side of the blade. If they feel the same, I'm good. If not, a couple light taps with a brass hammer and I'm good to go.

  3. Yes, a low angle jack plane is a extremely versatile tool. I purchased a Stanley Sweetheart 62 at a ridicoulus low price before xmas. The quality is surprisingly good compared with the price I paid.

    1. Nice review. Good luck with your Stanley Sweetheart!

  4. Yes, love the trombone picture in this post!