The low-angle block plane is a fine tool used for cleaning up end grain after cutting a board to length, for removing the arris, for shaping of outside curves, and for cutting angles such as an under-bevel on the bottom side of a board.
It differs from the more common smoothing plane in that it has an adjustable mouth, no cap iron, and the blade is installed bevel up. The iron has a primary bevel of 25° and a bed angle of about 12°. The attack angle, that is to say, the angle at which the blade enters the wood, is the total of the bevel angles, plus the bed angle, or roughly 37 to 39°.
The relatively low angle is well suited to cutting end grain. Hardwood fibres are aligned longitudinally with the length of the board like a bundle of straws. If you try to cut the end of the bunch of straws with a plane bedded at a higher angle, the blade tends to dive between the straws and into the work. The 37° attack angle of the low-angle block plane attacks the stack of straws from the side, which reduces tearing, and provides a clean cut.
These days the machining on modern block planes is incredible. If you purchase a Veritas or Lie Nielsen plane, you may proceed with confidence that the tool arrives flat, and square. If you have an older plane, check the flatness of the sole with a machined straight edge, and a 0.001″ piece of shim stock. If you have a good quality 12″ ruler, you can make a quick sole check using it as your flat reference. Invert your plane, place the flat shim on the sole, place the rule, on edge, on the shim, and then try to remove the shim. Try this at several locations along the length of the sole. If you can remove the shim without moving the rule, your plane sole requires flattening.
Assuming the body of the plane is flat and square, your next task is to tune the plane iron. The block plane setup is different from that of the smoothing plane. Unlike the smoothing plane, we keep the leading edge of the block plane iron square to the iron sides. We purposely avoid creating a camber when grinding and honing the tool. (To refresh yourself with sharpening, see Preparing Plane Irons).
It is important to note that we take very thin, see-through shavings with this tool when cleaning up end grain. It is not so much about shaping, but rather just cleaning up tool marks. If you cannot take a continuous shaving off the end grain of your board, then the iron is dull, and requires honing. Your tool must have a keen edge – anything less, and the process will be frustrating, as the iron will bounce up out of the cut.
The adjustable mouth of the plane is a very handy feature. I find it useful to open the mouth to about ⅛” when planing end grain. You do not need the sole ahead of the cutting edge to be close for end grain work, since the cut does not tend to split ahead of the blade. Having the mouth wide open allows me to see through the mouth while cutting, which is useful when starting the cut.
The short toe section of the block plane makes starting the cut somewhat challenging at first. We want to avoid chatter to maintain a smooth cut, so it is essential that you place the toe of the plane flat on the board before proceeding into the cut. When shopping for your plane, have a good look at toe length. The new Veritas low-angle block plane features an enclosed toe section to ensure that your plane runs dead flat. The toe is also longer than other designs, which is a bonus when you are establishing registration flat on the board before entering the cut. When working end grain, I actually use a two handed grip. To reduce the occurrence of chatter, your grip on the tool is firm, with both hands, throughout the cut.
You may wish to set up your plane on a test board before planing that exquisite piece of cherry that will soon be part of your coffee table. Cut a fresh piece of cherry or other moderately hard wood, of a similar thickness to your actual work piece. Open the mouth of the plane wide open, and then tighten the front knob to lock in that setting. Skew the plane about 5° and place the toe of the plane on the end of the board, ensuring that you have the plane sitting flat on the board. Reduce the tension on the lever cap wheel to allow for depth of cut, and lateral adjustment. Retract the blade so that you initially have zero cut – a good habit to ensure you do not dive into an important piece of work. Move the plane back and forth on the wood while slowly advancing the blade until it just starts to cut. At this point, read the shaving to determine whether the shaving is of the same thickness from side to side, or if it is thicker on one side, and fading to nothing on the other. Adjust the blade with the lateral adjustment to achieve a shaving of equal thickness across the width of the cut. You will note that the lateral adjustment also affects the depth of cut, so you may have to readjust the blade depth to get the optimal thin shaving.
The left hand takes a firm grip of the front knob, and applies significant downward pressure. Maintain pressure on the front of the plane throughout the cut to reduce chatter. I tend to skew the plane very slightly from 90°, which makes it easier to start the cut because the blade does not catch the leading edge of the board all at one time. The skew also reduces the effective attack angle, thus improving the cut. The other reason for skew is comfort; I am right-handed, so I skew the plane with the heel to my right side, allowing for a more comfortable grip. The left hand provides most of the forward force. Refrain from applying downward pressure with the right hand until the heel of the plane is on top of the board.
The technique I use for planing end grain is to plane half-way across, and then reverse the board and plane from the other direction to reduce the probability of tear-out at the end of the cut. We do not want to create what we refer to as a “flapper”; a massive splinter on the far edge of the board created by planing across the unsupported edge. When you plane from either side, you will see a colour difference in the end grain since you tend to fold over the end grain slightly in either direction. We will correct the colour difference later by a light sanding with 400 grit sandpaper. You will feel that the finish off the plane on end grain is not nearly as smooth as a flat grain surface cut with a smoothing plane. This happens because you still have the ends of the fibres sticking up like straws.
Using a square, verify that you have maintained a square relationship between the edges of the board and the end, as well as the face of the board to the end. If one side is slightly high along the length of the surface, correct this by varying the skew of the plane. If the left side is high, skew the rear of the plane slightly left. Do not try to apply more weight to the left side, simply hang the rear of the plane over toward the high side of the board and take a normal stroke. The bias created by the skew will remove more wood on the high side.
For cleaning up end grain on smaller parts, I prefer to hold the work on a shooting board. Shooting boards are simple to make in your shop, and together with a block plane, you have a solid, repeatable system to clean up end grain. A consideration when purchasing your block plane then becomes: how often will I use a shooting board, and how well can I hold the tool when I use it on its side? The height of the sides of the plane body will affect the stability of the tool. Short sides may lead to an unstable condition when using the plane on a shooting board.
The block plane is a wonderful tool for removing the arris; the sharp edges formed by two flat surfaces meeting on the edge of a milled board. Increase the cut from the setting used for planing end grain. Place the plane at 45° to the end of the board, and make three light passes. Change the angle of the plane to 22° to the end of the board, and take one pass. Move the plane to 22° to the face of the board, and take your fifth pass along the first edge of the board. I call this the 123-4-5 method. It results in a very clean, faceted edge that we refine later with 400 grit sandpaper. You have now rounded over the arris on the first edge. Use the same technique on the far end of the board, then work your way around the end of the board counter clockwise until you have removed the sharp edges. We eliminate small amounts of tear out at the end of each cut by moving to the next set of cuts in the counter clockwise pattern. After removing the arris, use a block and sand lightly with 400 grit paper, leaving a wonderfully smooth end, ready for finish.
I regularly use a block plane for shaping outside curves. The grain varies from flat grain, to various angles depending on the curve. The important point to remember is to plane downhill. That is to say, we always plane with the grain. To keep tear-out to a minimum, adjust the mouth of your block plane to a minimum opening for the thickness of shaving you are removing. The key in shaping is to keep the cut light, the mouth setting tight, and the balance of the plane on the curve, keeping the cut continuous.
The block plane is also a great tool for creating bevels on the bottom side of tabletops. Keep the mouth tight when working with the grain to reduce tear-out. I often will put a bevel along the underside of a tabletop to visually lighten the weight of a tabletop. Simply strike a line along the edge of the tabletop, and along the bottom, and plane until you meet the layout lines. The low-angle block is ideal for quickly selecting an angle by eye, and then creating an under-bevel.
Fine hand tools allow you to make any variations you want in a short amount of time. They allow you to enjoy the art of working by hand and eye while keeping the dust and noise level down in your shop.