Sunday, April 28, 2013

Essential Tools for Newbies: Revisiting the Bevel Up Jack

Last December I wrote a series of blog posts about what hand tools a beginner should first focus on.  There are a lot of list of "essential" tools out there, and making sense of them for someone new to hand tools can be daunting.  I have seen some lists of tools that every woodworker "must" have that would have scared me off of hand tools if I had seen it before I got started.

My thoughts are that one should start woodworking with the tools you already have, along with some truly essential tools for woodworking.  In short, my list includes only the following tools, which I think make a great place to start:
This seems a bit simplistic.  I'll admit that it is.  However, you can use these tools to build some cool stuff.  My recommendation is to start with these and once you get good at them, you'll soon find out what other tools you need.  Hopefully, you will find out that there are even more tools you don't need.

I had intended to build some real furniture using only these tools.  Yes, I did build several projects using only my Beginner's Tool Kit (BTK), but I have yet to get a furniture build completed.  Jonas from Mulesaw stole my thunder a bit by building a dovetailed sea chest (with canted sides, secret compartments and self-made hardware) using only the tools that happened to be on the ship he was on at the time.  This included only a Stanley #3 smoother, a hacksaw, a powered hand planer and a few junky chisels.  Trust me, it is possible to do fantastic things with just a few tools.

Made with a hacksaw, duct tape and chewing gum by Jonas.
Moving on to the actual subject of this post:  since I have written this series I have used my Veritas Bevel Up (BU) jack plane with the stock 25 degree iron for all of my planing tasks, almost exclusively.  My jointer and smoothing planes have rested comfortably in the bottom of my tool chest since then.  I only used a vintage (new to me) scrub plane on my current project just the other day.

My overall impression:  This plane works like crazy.  I haven't really missed the others.

BU Jack it use.
Handplane monogamy has not been the sacrifice I thought it would be.  In fact, it is quite liberating.  Not having to spend time choosing a plane, or for that matter, not having to keep four or five different blades sharp is a big benefit.  Focusing on just keeping one iron sharp makes it feel like I am being a lot more productive.

The secret is in the BU jack's versatility.

Ninety percent of what you need a bench plane for is one of three things:  rough work for removing a lot of material, flattening, and smoothing.  Let's go into how the BU jack performs in these three tasks, as well as some others.


BU Jack as a Fore Plane

A fore plane is one of the first planes I use on a board straight from the lumber yard.  After sawing a board to rough dimensions, I will use a fore plane to remove all of the fur and get things sort of flat and square, taking the board down to near final thickness.

Traversing my bench top.
Adjustments needed 

Open the mouth wide.  On the Veritas model I have, it just takes a twist of the front knob to loosen the mouth, and the knob pushes forward to open the mouth. It takes about a half a second to do, and I am back to work.  Once the mouth is open, the blade can be advanced for a heavy cut.


How to do it

From a rough board I always start by making a couple swipes along the back edge to create a chamfer to prevent spelching, or blow out.  Then, I will traverse along the whole board, planing across the grain.  After a few passes across the grain, I will switch to a diagonal pass, followed by another diagonal pass 90 degrees to the first diagonal pass.  If at this point, there still are some low spots that haven't been touched by the iron yet, I will start the process over.

Once the whole face is clean, I will check the width and along the length with a straight edge to see if it is flat, and use winding sticks to check for twist.  The board does not have to be perfect at this point.  If there is a major flaw, it might be quicker to fix it at this stage.


BU Jack as a Jointer

After your board is roughed into shape, you will want to make it perfectly flat on it's faces and edges.  The Veritas BU Jack is 15" long, which is a bit short for a traditional jointer, but with a bit of care you can get excellent results.


Adjustments needed 

Retract the blade and tighten the mouth.  The finer the cut, the more accurate the results, but the longer it takes.  One benefit of the versatility of this plane is you can start with a medium setting and make it fine once you start getting close to finished.  It wouldn't hurt to run your iron over your honing and polishing process before jointing.


How to do it

If your board still looks a bit rough after the fore planing process, you can start on the face with more alternating diagonal cuts.  I wouldn't do any traversing at this point.  Alternate diagonal and with-the-grain passes until the deep gouges are removed.  Once the face looks perfectly flat, check with your straight edge and winding sticks.  Your face might start looking like it is ready for finish at this point, but don't pay attention to that.  We are looking for dead-nuts perfectly flat reference surfaces.

Once the reference face is done, we mark it and move to a reference edge.  I will take my time planing this edge as it is easy to mess up.  Once the plane is taking full length and full width shavings, I can check my progress just like before with a straightedge and winding sticks.  If I am satisfied, I will next check with a square to ensure this edge is perfectly 90 degrees to the face.  It often is not.  To correct this, I will move the plane over to the high side of the edge and take a full length shaving with just the edge of the plane taking a shaving only half the width of the edge.  I use my fingers as a fence to ensure the width of the shaving is consistent.  After this, I will take a full width shaving and check my progress.  It should be better.  Continue this way until the edge is perfectly 90 degrees.  This edge is marked to keep track of the reference edge.

Now that there is a reference face and an edge, I can use a marking gauge to mark the final dimensions of the remaining face and edge.  Now it is just a matter of planing down to the line.  If there is a lot to take off,  the mouth can be opened and the blade advanced for a thick cut like in the first step.  When I get close to the line, I change everything to a very fine cut and move to the line.  When it disappears, it is done!


BU Jack as a Smoother

This plane makes a pretty big smoothing plane, but if you were careful in the flattening steps, this plane can be made to work nearly as good as any smoother.


Adjustments needed 

It is not a bad idea to touch up the blade on polishing medium.  Hopefully, after this step the wood will be in good enough shape to apply finish, so our best edge is useful.  Set the blade back to a very thin cut.  I like to close the mouth to as tight as I can get it without it touching the blade.  One alteration I did to my blade was to round over the sharp corners on a course stone.  It just takes a couple rolling swipes, and instead of a sharp corner, the blade will have rounded edges.  This helps avoid plane tracks during smoothing, and I haven't found that it has any negative side effects during roughing or jointing.

If you really want it to be a smoothing monster, hone a 50 secondary bevel on your blade, or drop in a dedicated 50 degree blade.  There is not much that this plane (with a total 62 degree angle) will not be able to handle.


How to do it

I will take my time and inspect every part of the surface.  There likely are some plane tracks or tear out left over from the jointing process.  These fine cuts should take care of those.  I look for wispy paper thin shavings as a sign that things are working correctly.  The final test is if the surface meets your exacting standards.


Other Things in Which a BU Jack Excels


Nothing squares end grain as easy and fast as a plane with a shooting board.  This easily made shop appliance needs to be in every shop.  With this appliance, perfectly square end grain is a sure thing, every time. The real secret to shooting quickly, is to get better at crosscutting.

Jack on a shooting board.

Adjustments needed 

Sharp.  As always.  If your end grain has a line or two after shooting, it means there is a ding in your cutting edge.  A quick couple swipes on a polishing stone might be enough to give you a perfect cut.  A medium cut with a medium mouth opening should work fine in most cases.  I only ensure that when the plane is laying on it's side that the blade is perfectly 90 degrees to the bed of the shooting board.  Contrary to popular belief, the plane's side doesn't need to be square to the sole for this to work.


How to do it

This plane was born to shoot.  Indeed, I purchased this plane for the sole purpose of shooting.  It was a happy accident that I found out how truly versatile it is.

First, I examine the board to ensure I know which is the reference edge.  This edge will always go against the fence of the shooting board.  Next, I make a little relief cut or a chamfer on the edge to prevent blowout.  There are a lot of ways to do this, but I find it quick and easy to shave it with a chisel.

Proper technique involves holding the piece against the fence with one hand while moving the plane with the other.  Don't try to use the handle, a more effective grip is holding the side of the plane with fingers wrapped around the lever cap.



Before and after
I never cut a taper with only a plane before just a few days ago.  I am currently working on a Shaker side table in cherry which has tapered legs.  As per instructions in the DVD, I used my jack plane to cut them.  Christopher Schwarz uses a vintage Stanley jack plane to cut them.  I was able to do it with my BU jack, as well as joint and finish the cut.


Adjustments needed 

I set the plane up the same as I would for roughing.  As I get closer to the line, I make adjustments to take a finer cut by retracting the blade and closing the mouth.


How to do it

I started the cut just like in CS' DVD:  I start with a short stroke off of the end of the leg.  The second stroke is started a little farther back.  The next a little farther, and so on.  When I get near the mark for where the taper starts, I start over.  I think it is important to check the taper cut is square to the reference face every once in a while.  If the cut goes off, you can easily remedy it using the same technique described in jointing.



I normally do chamfers with a block plane.  If one doesn't have one (because this is your only plane), the BU jack does an excellent job.  This plane, after all, is just a giant low-angle block plane.


Adjustments needed 

It depends on how big your chamfer is.  For a big one, start course, and set to fine as you get close.  For a small one you can start fine.


How to do it

I like a grip where my fingers from the hand that is holding the front knob are on the underside of the plane.  My thumb goes right behind the front knob.  I then use my fingers as a fence, which holds the plane at a specific angle to the piece being chamfered.  After a few strokes, I check the end to see if the angle is where I like it.  After a few correcting strokes, I plane down to the mark.  If there are multiple identical chamfers to cut, I count the number of strokes it takes and do the same on all cuts.  They should all look similar.  If the chamfer is fat on the ends and skinny in the middle, I take a few strokes out of the middle only until it evens out.  Then I continue with full length strokes.  This is a sign that I am not planing evenly.


Plowing Grooves

OK, the BU jack cannot plow grooves.  I was just checking to see if you have read this far or not.

In conclusion, a BU jack plane truly is essential if you do not have dedicated planes that can do all of these other common tasks.  I have also found that using this plane exclusively has really allowed me to get to know this plane.  I think I can do twice as much with this plane than I could when I originally wrote the BTK series.  My guess is I am not even using it to half of it's potential.

Perhaps you have found other uses for a BU jack.  What are your experiences?


  1. My understanding is that a BU plane needs a more tightly cambered blade than a comparable BD plane. What type of camber do you put on your irons?

  2. Stainless, see Derek Cohen's article on cambering BU blades.

    Jim B

    1. Hi Stainless, Hi Jim,

      I knew there was a lot more to learn about this plane. I had given up trying to camber a blade for my BU jack.

      Up until now, I haven't experimented much with cambering this plane. I do it only on my BD planes.

      The only thing I worry about with a camber, is reducing the versatility of that particular blade. i.e., If I put a heavy camber on my 25 degree blade for roughing, that blade might not be so useful for smoothing anymore. Wouldn't you think?

      I have to study this post of Derek's a bit more, there is a lot of knowledge in there.

      And, there is nothing stopping me from getting some more blades to test with different cambers. I have a few already, all with no cambers. I have the stock 25 degree blade, which I have been using during the time mentioned in this blog post, I have a toothed blade (which works well for both roughing and fine work), a 37 degree blade which I haven't got to test properly yet, and a 50 degree blade which works awesome for smoothing.

  3. If I could only take one plane with me to a deserted island, I would take this one.

  4. Great post. I like the idea of attaching a sacrificial piece of wood using a clamp as in your 2nd picture.

  5. Another great post Brian! this make me think of an article by Christian Beckvoorst in FW : one bench plane can do it all... I have heard people complaining that if you have to change blades for each and every task, it's just a pain.... but you seems to go away pretty well with only the 25° iron... Still, the plane + a set of at least 2 blades, you have to spend at least 350 euros at dick or fine-tools... I know I know, it's still cheaper than 2 or 3 planes.... As a newbie, I bought a used jack stanley plane for 12 euros on ebay uk, I just loved it! it sings to you when you use it, I am not kidding! My beginner tool kit is almost set! needs to finish fixing my old roubo bench before starting any serious project. Regards

    1. Hi Aymeric!

      You should be able to do plenty with that jack plane. Get the blade sharp and you will be surprised. Chrstopher Schwarz lists that plane as an essential tool, and a smoother and jointer as "nice to haves." If you put a nice camber -an eight or ten inch radius on the blade that came with the plane it will be an awesome roughing tool. If you get another replacement blade, such as the Hock available from Dictum for 33.50 Euros, It will be awfully versatile, too.

      Or, just use the plane as-is. I think it is less about which tool you buy and more about getting good at doing different things with a tool that you know. Good luck with the bench, send photos.

    2. Thanks for the tip on the extra blade. The jack is awesome, it was pretty dirty when I received it, spent 2 hours cleaning it and sharpening and honing the original blade, and now it stands ready to win a beauty contest :-) I also have a Juuma smoother and I am on the lookout for a used record or stanley jointer. I purchased the Juuma after reading the good review by Paul Sellers in UK. It does work pretty well, a little bit to heavy I think. will send you a pic when I am done fixing the bench.

    3. One other cool thing you can do with your plane is hone a microbevel on the back, called mysteriously enough, a back bevel. With this you can increase your angle of attack to trick your jack plane into thinking it is a 60 degree smoother. If you do it right, it isn't that hard to grind out when you don't need it.

    4. Hi, thanks for your reply, that's actually what I do, a back bevel, using a tiny steel ruler to lift the blade for that final honing. I am still using the poor-man's sharpening and honing system : wet sand papers (500, 1000, and 3000), I do have very descent results...

    5. Hi Aymeric,

      The ruler trick is great. It makes a great way to get a sharp edge without spending too much time lapping. This puts a one or two degree back bevel on your blade which doesn't really affect the cutting geometry that much.

      You can go much farther with that, if you need to. You can add a 15 degree back bevel by mounting your blade upside-down in your honing guide. Four or fives swipes on your polishing stone should be enough, and that fifteen degrees will add to the standard 45 degree cutting angle for a total of a 60 degree cutting angle.

  6. Awesome! I didn't know about this ! thanks for the tip!

    1. Enjoy!

      If you make this back-bevel just a hair's width by only using a few swipes on your polishing stone, you'll notice it is enough to change the cutting properties to that of a high-angle plane. If this back bevel is only that wide, there then isn't much work in grinding it off again when you need to go back to a normal bevel.

  7. Brian,thank you so much for this blog and the others in the BTK series. I've recently rekindled a passion for woodworking and the use of hand tools. And your articles have eased my self imposed stress due to limited time and funds. Currently, I'm in need of a saw(s) and I've been going back and forth over back saw or panel saw and how much to spend. Your article on the Ryoba saw solved my delima. I'm also going to take your recommendation on a BU Jack plane. Many thanks again.

    1. Hi Charlie, you totally made my day with this comment. Really, I don't think that this information is new, it is just that not so many people are thinking about woodworking from your perspective; i.e. trying to start a user-set of tools. A lot of lists seem to think you can collect all of the tools that a well equipped joiner might want. The rest of us have to start somewhere.

      I would love to hear about your experiences with the Ryoba saw. I'm thinking of revisiting that tool for another blog post, too. Not very many people seem to think this is such a great recommendation.

      True, it is the only tool on my list that isn't intended to last forever. However, from the perspective of starting a user set, it makes perfect sense to me because it buys you time to get the right saws in your user set. Without a saw to rip, crosscut, and cut joinery you might be required to buy five new saws, just to start! This is a big barrier to entering the craft. You can do all of those tasks with a Ryoba. By the time you get your skills to the point where you outgrow this saw, you can be picky in your next purchase.

      Enjoy your BU jack, I know I do mine. Mine is the Veritas, but I think one would do well to try out both that and the Lie-Nielsen before buying, if you can.

  8. Hello Brian. Thanks for your comments as well. I'm going to pick up a Ryoba this weekend and I will keep you posted on it's use. Which brings me to an interesting side bar with sawing.

    The other day, I read some of your other posts on saws and I came across one where you mentioned eye dominance. I'm like you, right handed but left eye dominant. Your marksmanship experience struck a chord with me. That evening I had to saw up some mdf for my wife's art school. I've never been the best at sawing and it's always been frustrating. But this time I sawed the boards left handed and kept and eagle eye on the line and blade indicator. 10 cuts literally took me less than 5 minutes. I ripped (pun intended) right through it and the cuts were straight! Amazing! I was using a circular saw, but it was still a huge difference. I'm going left handed with my Ryoba. I think it will greatly improve my sawing.

    Second, with respect to BUJ planes. I've used a LN a couple of times in a limited situation but never a Veritas. What are your thoughts on one vs the other? I'm leaning towards the LN because they're a mom and pop shop similar to where I work and they're such good looking planes. I've got about 4 weeks before I can order one.

    Thanks again and I'm looking forward to hearing more.

    1. Hi Charlie, you must be hard-core if you looked back far enough to find that post. I almost forgot about it. Perhaps it is time to re-visit that topic on a new blog post.

      I have tested a few times sawing left-handed, but it is just too weird for me with a western saw. For some reason I can do it easier with a Ryoba. However, I have been having the best success with taking Ron Herman's suggestion, and just working at making sure I am looking at the line with my non-dominant eye. If you can learn to saw left handed, I think that is probably the way to go. It will likely be worth it in the long run.

      I think the Veritas vs. the Lie-Nielsen is pretty much a wash. Whichever one you choose will be the right decision. Christopher Schwarz told me this was the best plane Veritas makes, and Tom Lie-Nielsen told me this is his best-selling plane. Advantages for the Veritas: it is wider and less expensive. Lie Nielsen: It is narrower and the finer details are obvious. LN in my opinion is prettier. I like the mouth adjustment in the LV better. They both are small, North American companies, and I am pretty sure both companies would be happy if you bought the other's plane. This is why I think you should try them out. You will come up with your own preferences.

      I'll just say that knowing what I know now, I probably would buy the LN. That being said, I will never trade in my LV for it. The upgrade is minimal for the cost.

      The worst that can happen is you decide you don't like it and want the other one. Sell it on eBay for nearly the price you paid for it. It happens all the time. Practically no risk.

      Whatever you do, don't fall for the cheap Chinese copies (including the new Stanley Sweethearts). It will cost you big in the long run as you will eventually upgrade to a LN or LV.

  9. Well I've been called thorough/obsessive more than once in my life that's for sure. LOL! I'm getting a Ryoba saw this weekend and will do some work with it. Should get a BU Jack in 3-4 weeks. I'll keep you posted. Have a great weekend.

  10. You know Brian, I went back reading your 2013 review on the BU jack, and it's amazing how right you were and still are (your recent 2015 hand in the till post). This plane is a game changer for me. I purchased it a week ago, it's an amazing tool! No more struggles with my Jumaa #4, and my stanleys #5 and #7. All in all I spent almost 350 euros on all three, as I have to purchase some Hock blades and chipbreakers for the stanleys. I was never able to get some decent smooth shavings with the jumaa, the blade was very difficult to set. The only one that gave me satisfaction was the #5. The jointer, I am not sure it is working properly, I tried to flatten the sole, but was somehow disappointed by the results... The thing is that when you start working wood, you have no reference at all about how efficient your plane is, you see I could never compare the shavings from my juuma to another smoother, so I could never knew how good or bad this plane is/was. Now I know! I just tested the BU jack and I was able to get - in a snap - the thinnest shavings I was ever able to get, all this with a 25° iron! It's so easy to set the plane! just retract the blade, close the mouth, and there you are, from thick to smooth shavings! And of course I was totally blown out by how efficient the BU was as a shooting plane, it's simply incredible! Honestly this is the plane any newbie should get hand down! Best regards from Basel :-)