Thursday, May 26, 2016

Woodworking on $1.50 a day -- Part 4.5: Hand Planes, Part 2

In Part 4 of the "Woodworking on $1.50 a day" series, I wrote about an inexpensive "Hong Kong" style wooden plane.  I did so largely because it's really nice, as a beginner, to buy a tool and start working, especially when you don't exactly know what "well set up" feels like.

If you're not into the "tap it with a mallet" school of plane adjustment, you do have one other option that can (if you're lucky) be even less expensive, which is to buy used.  If you luck out you may find a nice old plane for $10-25 at a yard sale or flea market.  The problem is that it's not going to look very nice at that price.  It's going to be rusty, the handle or tote may be broken, and the cutting edge may be more of a mashing edge, with big nicks in it.  This may be something you can fix.

If you're going to buy an old plane -- and I certainly have, and will again! -- here's what you should look for.

1) Size.  The common sizes are usually referred to by the numbers Stanley gave them.  Here they are:

  • #4.  The most common, used primarily for smoothing.  9" long, 2" wide.
  • #3.  A smaller smoother.  8" long, 1 3/4" wide.
  • #5.  A jack plane:  you'll mostly use it for removing a lot of material quickly.  14" long, 2" wide.
  • #7 or #8.  A jointer, 22" or 24" long.  Use it to make the edge of a board straight.

2) Brand.  There are hidden gems in every brand, but there are also brands where you can pretty much rely on the tool having once been excellent.  I'd trust anything made by Stanley before the second world war, and anything made at any time by Millers Falls.  How do you tell if it was made before World War 2?  Good question!  Sadly, there's no easy answer.  There's a flowchart here that may help, but may not.  Record also made some good planes, as did Sargent.  Just to add to the confusion, all of those companies made planes for Craftsman at various points.

2) Condition.  This is more likely to matter.  Here's what you want to see on a smoothing plane.

  • A smooth sole.  Rust is fine, pitting is not.
  • Mostly smooth sides.  A little pitting won't hurt anything, but make sure it's not too extensive.
  • A smooth cutting iron.  Say it with me:  Rust is fine, pitting is not.  (At least within a half inch of the cutting edge.)
  • A long cutting iron.  Some of the older planes had a short piece of hard steel welded to a long piece of either softer steel or iron.  If the iron is too short, there may not be any hard steel left, which means it won't cut.  EDIT:  As TaDaMan points out in the comments, overall length is fairly irrelevant.  What really matters is the distance between the cutting edge and the slot for the cap iron screw.  
  • A cap iron that fits closely.  Again, some rust is OK, but the end closest to the cutting edge should fit tightly against the blade.  You can fix it if it's a little off, but it should be pretty close.
  • No missing parts.  A tote (handle) or knob (front handle) that's cracked can be glued together.  One that's missing entirely will have to be replaced somehow.  On most of these planes there's a lever that lets you move the blade a little bit side to side.  If it's missing, you're likely to have trouble.
What planes would I recommend?  I most commonly use a #3, #5, and a transitional (wood body, metal adjustment knob) 24" jointer.  Most people prefer a #4 to a #3, but I'm weird.

I'd recommend starting with a #5 or a #7, and I'm well aware that that's an unusual recommendation.  Here's why:

Smoothing with a plane takes a lot of skill and a well set up tool, and sanding is easy.  There's no way around it.  A really good tool will compensate for only a little bit of skill, but first you have to get it really well set up.  That's hard to do if you only have a little bit of skill.  For me, at least, my first year or so working with a #4 was infuriating.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get it to work.  I eventually went to a class and found out that part of the problem was the tool, and part was technique.  It drove me nuts until then, and still does, occasionally.  So I don't think you should start with a smoothing plane.

A jointer, on the other hand, is relatively easy to use.  You put a board on edge (I'll talk about workholding in my next $1.50 a day entry, I think), and you run the plane from one end to the other.  You'l need a little practice in keeping it square and not creating a bow instead of a straight line, and a lot of people find that a fence helps a lot, but that's pretty much all it does.  It's easy to learn to use, and the initial setup isn't as fiddly.  Conveniently, it also solves the problem that ripping a board (cutting it to be narrower) with a handsaw leaves a rough edge that isn't always straight.  I realize it's counter to what just about everyone else says, but I think you should start with a jointer.

A #5 can do a lot of things.  On boards shorter than about two feet, it can make a pretty good jointer.  On large boards, it can make an OK smoother.  If you curve the cutting edge, it can take out big chunks of wood if you go cross-grain, which is nice if you have a thick board and want a thinner one.


Once you've bought a plane, it's probably going to need some work to make it usable.  There are a LOT of sources on how to do the repair work.  Almost all of the ones I've seen are good.  I'm going to include a pointer here to one video, by Paul Sellers.  Why this one?  A few reasons.

First, it's long.  He covers pretty much the whole process over the course of the video, including a lot of conversation about how much perfection is necessary.  At the end of the video, you'll know a lot about how a metal hand plane functions and how to clean and assemble one.  Still not much about how to use one, but at least you should have a decent picture of how to get started.

Second, I enjoy his no-frills approach.  He's spent something like 50 years as a professional woodworker, and has stripped a lot of the craft down to bare essentials.  I like that in a teacher:  give me the critical, no add-on skills first, and THEN I can learn the more complicated ways to do things.

Third, I like his accent.  He's British, and I like listening to him.  It's a minor thing, but it doesn't hurt.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Thinking about my leg vise

When I built my bench in 2012, I decided to go with a leg vise for a couple of reasons.  First, it was something I could do with parts I could go buy that day.  Second, it looked simple to assemble.  And finally, I'd learned to hate standard metal face vises while dealing with an old one I'd been using.  (That turned out to be more an issue with how I was using it than with the vise, by the way.)

I didn't like the idea of having to bend over to move a pin around as is standard, and I also didn't want to cut a mortise through three and a half inches of very dry Douglas fir.  So I came up with a mechanism that would let me adjust it by lifting a piece of wood with my foot while I tightened or loosened the chop.  It worked quite well up until a few months ago, when the wooden bar started wearing away from the constant pressure.  Looking at it, I think I have two decent options.

1) Upgrade what I have.  The aluminum bar (See the last photo in this post for some information about it) is fine, and the only real problem is the pine 1x2 that's wearing away.  I could replace it with something harder, and it would be fine.  Maple, maybe, or more aluminum bar.  It's an easy option, and I know it would work.  But the system has some shortcomings, and I've started thinking about alternatives.

2) Move to a cross-based mechanism.  For some unknown reason it's usually called a St. Peter's cross, despite actually looking like a St. Andrew's cross.  I like the way they work, when they do, and I appreciate the design involved.  The problem is the mortises I'd need to cut.  The chop on my bench is made of pine, and is pretty weak as it is:  I routinely bend it trying to get a good grip on something.  So routing out a big strip along the vertical center will leave it pretty weakened.  I can replace the chop, of course, but it's an annoyance.  It occurred to me, though, that it may not actually need that big a slot.  A narrow (1/4" or so) slot a half inch deep would do to allow a piece of steel bar to slide without slipping sideways, and a piece of 1/4" steel rod through it would spread the load out significantly.  So I might need to give this a try, as soon as I can figure out how to cut a stopped groove that long in the bench leg and chop.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Woodworking on $1.50 per day -- Part 4: Hand planes #1

So here we get to the first of the really iconic tools.  Almost everyone involved in woodworking, even if they're mostly a power tool woodworker, seems to see the hand plane (specifically, a Stanley-style metal plane) as one of the major symbol of fine woodworking.  I'm not really convinced of that for a power tool shop, but whatever.

This is not the post I intended to write.

The post I intended to write talked a lot about how you just can't get decent hand planes for a low price, and how you were going to have to either accept a dramatically sub-standard tool or resign yourself to lots of saving and lots of watching flea markets.  And if you were going to stick purely with European ("Western") style planes, that would still be true.  However.  I wrote a review last week of the Mujingfang 11" Jack Plane, and I've been forced to change my mind.

So what do I think now?

In the Stanley numbering system, there are are lot of oddities.  However, from #1 to #8, the planes get progressively longer, wider, and heavier, starting from the cute little #1 smoother to the #8 jointer.

The most common planes in the middle of the range are probably numbers 3, 4, and 5.  Three is a small smoother:  I happen to prefer it for most things, but that's personal preference.  It runs about 8" long and 1 3/4" wide.  The number four is also a smoother, running 9" long and 2" wide.  The number five is the first one that's usually called a "jack" plane, and is 14" long by 2" wide.

The Mujingfang Jack is sort of an odd size by that standard, since it's called a Jack but is 11" long with a 1 3/4" wide blade.  So the blade is the width of a #4, with a length halfway between a #4 and a #5. The mouth is relatively small, and it's never going to be a fantastic plane for removing a ton of waste.  So why do I like it?  It's sharp out of the box - sharp enough to take the hair off my arm --, and adjusts more easily than any other wooden plane I've used.  I finally (FINALLY!) get why people say adjusting wooden planes isn't as hard as it looks.  Now I know what I'm shooting for with my older tools.  It's very light weight, and it leaves a good surface behind.  Honing it a bit will probably make that even better.


So for month four, I suggest one of two options:

1) Buy the Mujingfang 11" jack.  It runs a little bit over the budget, but I'll try to come in under for month 5 to balance that out.  It can be pushed to remove a significant amount of stock, or you can take off very fine smoothing shavings.  And it's long enough to act as a jointer for short boards, which is nice.  I've read that a plane should be able to straighten a board twice as long as its sole, which means about 22" for this plane.  With practice, you can extend that significantly.  If you really can't swing $51, you could try their shorter 7" smoothing plane.  It's $44, but my guess is that it will be significantly harder to use to get a straight edge on a board.  I also haven't tested it, so I can't make an informed recommendation.  Or you could wait one more week.

2) Head to flea markets, yard sales, antique stores, and the like, and find a Stanley #4 or #5, or equivalent from some other brand.  Buying used is always tricky, and it may take some work, but you may find a gem of a plane for a lot less than $45.  I would suggest avoiding eBay, at least in the beginning:  it's hard to judge whether things are really in as good condition as the ad copy says.  Maybe they are, maybe they aren't.  I've had some good luck, and some really bad luck.

What can I do now?

This is where things get really neat.  Now you can smooth and straighten boards that you've ripped.  You can resaw small boards and wind up with half- or quarter-inch stock, which you can smooth with the plane.  So all of a sudden small boxes are possible, and you can build things that aren't limited to the dimensions of commercially available lumber.

You now have a set of tools that can realistically build a nice workbench, a long-lasting toolchest, or quite a lot of furniture.  You'll still have some trouble with housing dados and grooves, but they're doable.  Mortise and tenon joints should be possible, at least in sizes matching your chisels.  With the addition of a plane, you can now chamfer edges, reduce the thickness of table tops, or a lot of other things.

I'm going to try to make a few quick projects over the next few weeks to demonstrate what can be done, but for now, just start practicing.  Rip a 1" wide strip off a board (along the grain), then use the plane to smooth and straighten it.  Once you're done, do the edge of the original board, and strip another piece off.

Keep practicing, make some boxes, and enjoy!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

CTR 12: Mujingfang Rosewood Plough Plane

This is a review of Mujingfang's plough plane.  I'm going to start off by saying that if you can afford a more expensive option, something like the Veritas Small Plow, you should go with that instead.  But since that sells for $275 with 5 blades, and the Mujingfang sells for $66, they're not really competing in the same market.

If you're reading this and don't know what a plow plane is, it's a tool used to cut grooves in a piece of wood.  Think of the grooves in a frame and panel door, or the ones that hold the bottom of a drawer in place.  Normally they're used with the grain, although if you cut the edges of the groove with a knife or saw they can go across the grain.  Some (although not this one) have cutters ahead of the main iron to make them work better across the grain.

Where, and How Much?

I bought mine from Woodcraft, at this link here.  Full retail is $66 no matter where you buy it:  Amazon, Newegg, Woodcraft, wherever... it's always $66.  It's also always sold by Woodcraft, so there might be a connection there.

What do you get, and What's the Construction Like?

You get the body, fence, arms, and five blades, sized 1/8", 3/16", 1/4", 3/8" and 1/2". The sizes are actually Imperial sizes, not metric, so they should match your chisels if you're buying in the US.

Construction is decent, but not fantastic. It's a fairly simple tool: the body has a metal (presumably steel) skate set into it, and the wedge matches the throat quite well. Adjustment is simple, and the fence is reasonably stable.

There are, however, a few minor issues. The first is with the fence: The fence is held in place by what seems to be a serrated piece of metal, with a bolt through it. By tightening the wingnut, you pull that serrated piece of metal up, and it grips the arm. However, loosening the wing nut doesn't actually push it down... it just loosens the nut. A light tap with a mallet (or on the top of your workbench) loosens it fully, though, so it's a nuisance that you'll probably stop noticing fairly quickly.

The other issue, which is a bit more substantial, is with the skate. On the copy I bought, the front skate was ever so slightly too far back, and the back of the iron just barely touched it. Obviously that meant shavings couldn't escape, and so the plane didn't work at all. As soon as it started cutting it would jam. I fixed it with about two minutes of work with a file, rounding off the back corner of the front skate. That resolved the problem entirely. It's possible I just got a bad one, but it certainly indicates their quality control isn't perfect. You should be able to see the issue here. As I said, a little bit of careful work with a file cleared up the issue entirely. If you're planning to take very heavy cuts, you'll want to take off more of the skate, but I took off maybe 1/32" or a touch more, and that was plenty.

Other than that, it's pretty nice.  The irons fit well and mate with the rear skate quite well, the wedge fits, and the fence (once you've correctly loosened the screw) slides easily.  One thing I did notice is that the arms aren't quite parallel, so if you pull the fence all the way off you'll need to squeeze them together just a touch to get it back on.  Not a big deal, and it means the fence doesn't slide around when the nuts are loose.

 How does it work?

Overall, I'm reasonably pleased.  It's fairly easy to adjust, the fence appears to stay where it's put, and the irons seem to cut well.  One thing to be aware of is that the fence has no inclination to stay parallel on its own.  I recommend using a chisel or setup blocks to make sure you've got it set up correctly.

I would say that, overall, it's not quite as nice as the Sargent-made combination plane I have.  It does a better job of dealing with shavings (it spits them out the top, rather than forcing them out the side towards your hand), but it has no depth stop at all, adjustment is more difficult, and I suspect that the fence will eventually stop holding.

But it does do the job, and if you can't afford a modern combination or plow plane, and you don't have the time or ability to restore an old one, it's a pretty good choice.

Final Thoughts?

As I said, a modern or restored plow plane will do the job more easily and reliably.  But the Veritas Small Plow with five irons costs $275, while the Mujingfang version costs $66.  At a price difference of over $200, I'd go with the Mujingfang until I could find a decent used combination plane.  It does the job, looks like it will remain reliable, and is definitely cost efficient.

Would I buy another?

That's hard to answer.  If I had no plow plane at all, and needed one at a low price, then yes, I would.  Or if I needed one to use in conditions where it might be lost or damaged, then sure:  I'd rather lose this than an expensive one, and as I said, it does the job.

Friday, May 6, 2016

CTR 11: Mujingfang Rosewood 11" Jack Plane

This review is of a tool I really didn't expect to like, the Mujingfang 11" Jack Plane.  Based on their marketing information, Mujingfang basically went out and found people who were making decent tools locally, and brought them together in Hong Kong to make planes for the international market.  Is that true?  Who knows!  All I can do is review the tools.

Straight out of the box, no handlebars.

Where, and How Much?

I bought mine at WoodCraft, catching it on a 15% off sale.  The 11" Jack is usually priced at $51.00 everywhere I've seen it.

What do you get, and What's the construction like?

What you get is:
1) A plane body
2) A double iron (meaning an iron with a chipbreaker)
3) A wedge
4) A rod that's supposed to go through the body side to side.  It's not in the photo above, because I forgot about it when I was taking pictures.

Construction is remarkably good, given the cost.  The sole is flat to within the limits of my measurement, and the wedge is a pretty decent fit.  It could be better, but it's good enough.  The rod tapers slightly, so it only fits through one way, and sticks about halfway through.  I'll be honest... I'm not really sure what the value of the rod is.  It seems to make it slightly easier to grip when pulling, but that's about it, and I mostly don't pull a plane.  There is one oddity, which is in the iron.

You may be able to see, down near the sharp end, a line of bronze-colored metal.  The blade was made by welding a piece of A2 high speed steel (according to the advertisement) to a piece of softer metal.  It's not terribly unusual, and it's not bad, but it does look kind of strange.  The weld also wasn't cleaned up very well, and there are some "splatters" of something on the front of the blade.  They don't affect the function, so I'm not going to worry about them.

Fit is excellent, but finish is mixed.  The iron is well sharpened (shaving sharp, right out of the box in my case!) but shows marks from the grinder.  The surfaces where you'll handle the plane are smooth and cleanly finished, but the throat and wedge are fairly rough.  Again, none of it compromises the function of the plane, but it shows where corners were cut to save some money.  Since they clearly pass some of that savings on, I can't really complain.

 How does it work?

Very well.  To be honest, I'm quite surprised at how well it performed.  While I wasn't able to take a terribly thick shaving, which I'd like to be able to do with a jack, it's perfectly adequate for taking an edge from rough-cut to ready to finish.  I probably managed to get up around a 32nd in thickness before it clogged, so it's fine unless you're trying to reduce the width or thickness of a board substantially.  It's enough different from my metal planes that I'm going to assign most of my problems to inexperience:  I wasn't able to cut a perfectly square edge without a lot of care, and I also pretty thoroughly failed to make the edge straight.  Again, though, both of those are issues with the user, not the plane.

Here are the critical things:  The iron was sharp, adjusting it was relatively simple, and the wedge can be tapped in tight enough to keep the iron from shifting in a heavy cut while still backing out easily with some hammer taps at the heel.  Incidentally, don't use a metal hammer for that:  I use a cheap soft-face mallet I bought at Harbor Freight for hitting the heel or wedge, and a very light steel hammer to advance the iron.  Brass would probably better.

I tested it  in pine and red oak.  In both cases it left a smooth, clean surface.  I imagine it would work as well in just about any furniture wood.
Rough cut edge.
Finished edge.  (Ignore the face... I didn't touch that.)

Final Thoughts?

Absolutely worth it.  Learning to adjust a wooden plane can be an adventure, but this actually adjusts more easily than any other I've tried.  I'm actually considering buying the smoother, and putting these in a light-weight travelling tool kit.  It weighs dramatically less than the Stanley #5, although the blade is a bit narrower and the sole is a bit longer.

Would I buy another?

Absolutely.  I can recommend this one with a clear conscience.