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Learn How. Discover Why. Build Better. - Christopher Schwarz


 
 

Premium Shoulder Planes by Christopher Schwarz
Copyright 2007. Originally appeared in the Fine Tool Journal

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These useful tools were once simple and traditional.
Three modern versions have redesigned this
tool and added some features.

Shoulder planes are, in the opinion of some highly skilled craftsmen, the wood putty of the hand-tool world.

The first time I ever saw Frank Klausz, he was (as per usual) surrounded by rapt pupils as he dovetailed a box during a woodworking show in Ft. Washington, Penn. As Klausz sawed and chopped his pins and tails, his audience peppered him with questions.

One question really stood out that day. ďMr Klausz,Ē the guy said. ďYou and other woodworkers from Europe donít seem to use shoulder planes. Why is that?Ē Without even a pause to ponder, Klausz responded. ďI donít need them. I cut my tenons right the first time.Ē

As a frequent user of shoulder planes, that truthful comment stung. Cutting your tenons dead-on is the way to go, but I donít do it enough by hand to master it, Iím afraid. And so the shoulder plane remains on my bench when Iím doing traditional work.

I had bought my first shoulder plane several years before hearing Klauszís assessment of the tool. My plane was an English-made Stanley 93, and Iíd bought it after reading a glowing account of the wonders of shoulder planes in Fine Woodworking magazine.

I remember unwrapping the tool from its waxy paper, honing the iron keen and square and then cleaning up a rabbet at my workbench. The tool cut on one side of the blade, but not the other. So I Englished the blade left and right in the planeís body and tried again. No luck; the tool wouldnít cut on one side. And so I put it away.

Every month or so I would fish it from my tool cabinet and give it another try on a piece of non-essential work. And every time the tool refused to take a full-width shaving. So I blamed myself as not being skilled enough to wield such a precision instrument. Then one day the shoulder plane was perched on my workbench on its side with its sole touching a piece of work. I noticed that the sole didnít line up with the edge of my wood. So I grabbed the workpiece and put a square on it. The work was perfect. It was the shoulder plane that was messed up.

I put a try square on my shoulder plane for the first time ever and confirmed that the sole of the tool was not at all square to the planeís sidewalls. I was furious. I trotted back to our shopís edge sander and began power sanding the planeís sole with the side of the tool on the edge sanderís table. After 10 minutes of work at the sander I walked back to my bench and my opinion of shoulder planes changed forever. The tool worked, and worker better than I thought possible.

Surgical Instruments

Shoulder planes arenít just for truing the shoulders of tenons. If that were the only task they were designed for, Iíd just fetch one of my chisels to undercut the shoulder of the joint and walk away. Shoulder planes adjust rabbets, dados, half-laps, bridle joints, tenon cheeks and any other work where one surface must be square to another. Shoulder planes donít form these joints, but they do refine them so that everything fits the way the maker intended.

During the last 10 years I have become a shoulder-plane junkie and have tried every size and configuration available on the market. And Iíve concluded that most users are better served with buying a new tool instead of a used one. Trust me: You donít want to buy a user tool that you cannot send back if the sole isnít square to the sides. Most flea markets and internet auction sites are caveat emptor, and so shoulder planes with a warranty are the best choice in my opinion.

Three new commercial brands stand out as the best tools in my book: Bridge City Tools, Lie-Nielsen Toolworks and VERITAS (sorry Clifton, Iíve just had a few too many defective Cliftons pass through my hands).

Iíve worked with all three versions for some time now and have found they are quite different to hold and behold. Hereís a close look at what I like (and dislike) about each version in the size thatís close to ĺĒ wide.


 
Learn how. Discover why. Build better.
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