Raging Against Plane Making Tradition

I’m enrolled in Scott Meek’s Planemaking Class right now and have just started laying out my boards and milling my pieces. In our first session we talked about sizing our center block and 2 cheeks. Most of this discussion centered around grain direction and being the typical well read internet woodworker I nodded my head and blithely plowed forward with the conventional wisdom on orienting your plane so that the growth rings run from side to side and the medullary rays run vertically. In abstract this makes perfect sense but in reality when your blank may not have perfectly parallel grain you need to think through the mechanics of wood movement and consider the stresses in order to make compromises. I know what a lot of you are thinking, ditch the blank and find a better one. Yes I know and as someone who works for a lumber company I could easily do this. But it is in the compromises that I find we learn the most about our craft. So I began scribbling on the end grain of my boards, taking pictures, and sending wordy emails to Scott full of 4 dollar words like anisotropic and adiabatic (okay maybe not the second one, but perhaps useful to consider should you build a workbench in the back of a plane to combine your skydiving and woodworking passions). After some time pondering this and considering conventional wisdom and the options laid before me in real time I’m starting to think that the laminated plane, dubbed the “Krenov plane”, may defy the traditional dogma of centuries of planemakers. Perhaps the laminated plane needs not be so picky in grain direction and potentially easier to make with everyday stock.

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Before you haters get your panties in a twist recognize that I am not a planemaker and am speaking out my ass. I do consider myself a student of wood though and probably spend more time than most contemplating grain direction. So take this writing for what it is, contemplation that needs to happen in order to further my knowledge. I emplore those in the know to weigh in here and share your knowledge but to do it in a respectful way. I realize this can be tough when someone questions the very fundamental fabric of the universe of plane making but trust me, we will all be better for it when rational discussion ensues.

The Traditional Method

Wooden Plane Grain Orientation

Graphic courtesy of Scott Meek

Popular maxims say that the radial plane of the wood should be oriented towards the sides of the plane. This means the growth rings will appear horizontal or parallel to the sole when you look at the toe or heel of the plane. This puts the medullary rays running vertically and therefore the least amount of movement, minus the longitudinal (end grain) plane, will be from top to bottom of the hand plane. This makes the sole most stable and presents a surface that is similar to end grain as the rays terminate at the sole creating an end grain like surface when it comes to moving moisture. Stability and uniform moisture management is nice for keeping the sole flat but minimizing movement between the wedge and cheek abutments that lock the wedge and blade in tight while planing is equally important.

SmootherAll this makes perfect sense right? So why do we find some antique planes with the grain running vertically? John Whelan even comments on this in his Plane Making book and opens the proverbial can of worms that perhaps this dogma may be blind tradition. Perhaps parallel grain lines (wider radius rings) allow for more isotropic behavior so now presenting the tough, extractive packed medullary rays on the sole makes for better wear? Hmm, now that is starting to make sense too…

Time out for a second for me to say we are talking about bench planes here, not moulding or joinery planes where the sole needs to conform to a set width in order to do the job. Think about precisely sized hollows and rounds or dados planes that cut a set width. So what if we add those to the equation? 1/2" Dado PlaneWith the radial plane on the sides doesn’t this now set the direction of greatest movement to be across the width of the sole? So your 7/8 dado cuts a wider dado in the summer than it does in the winter. A typical hand tool nut (if you cut mouldings and dados by hand you automatically qualify as a nut) will shrug this off and say that precise size isn’t that important when you size your mating parts to fit and your mouldings hardly need to be reference surfaces (unless your making table rule joints…hmmm). So perhaps maintaining the bed and cheek abutment is the most important thing here to keep a solid grip on the blade. I can go with that logic and write off the changing sole width by rationalizing that with a smaller plane the movement will be less noticeable than the heftier hunks of wood involved in bench planes.

It seems that even the traditional method of grain orientation is a compromise of sorts where the greater importance is keeping that bed, wedge, and abutment relationship the most stable.

So what happens when you ditch the abutments and use a long grain pin

Scott Meek Smoothing Plane

Lamination and Cross Pins Change the Game

Despite hundreds of years of experience 20th century laziness prompted someone (not sure if Krenov was the first) to saw apart a blank to make it easier to create the bed and escapement, then glue the whole thing back together and stick a pin through the cheeks to hold the blade and wedge. No longer is the wedge held in place by abutments that are integral to the body of the plane and therefore move in concert with the grain orientation of that body. Instead we have an entirely different grain orientation and a small enough crosspiece that essentially wood movement is almost negligible. I have even seen some makers using a steel rod for this wedge pin. Now orienting our grain to ensure stability at the wedge, blade, bed junction isn’t a factor as the pin stays constant and if expanding grain increases the gap between blade and wedge you simply drive the wedge in a little further. Hooray for simple machines! Does this mean we could rotate the grain 90 degrees (rings running vertically) and take advantage of a more stable width across the sole and a tougher radial face? Why not? No, seriously why not?

With the rings running vertically the instability lies in the height of the plane. Could this cause the bed to deform and cup or does the introduction of a cross pin stabilize this like a breadboard on a table? Again by choosing parallel grained wood is the instability more isotropic and therefore no cupping but just vertical swelling is the result. I’m doubtful on the later as with any organic product there are too many variables to predict the movement and uniform is hardly ever an option. Still the cross pin acts like a strut and the vapor barriers of glue add rigidity to anchor the pin as well. What kind of stiffening can we expect from that line of glue? In fact if laminating a plane from 3 blocks adds stability would not laminating the center block and making 4 or 5 laminations make it even more stable? These are questions that I do not know the answers too and introduce even more variables like the glue used. Whether or not there is a vapor barrier or even if the glue stiffens things is something that is still open for debate.

I think the key difference that changes the game with a Krenov style construction is that cross pin “brace”.

Why do we care? What does this mean to the would be planemaker? Quartersawn stock in heavy thicknesses is hard to obtain. Properly dried stock in thicknesses over 8/4 is even harder to find. The average bench plane is going to be about 3 3/4-4″ wide and 2-3 1/2″ tall. By insisting the growth rings run horizontally we need to find quartersawn 16/4 stock that is at least 3″ wide or glue up a block of around 3 3/4 – 4″ thickness from thinner quartersawn, 3″ wide material. Alternatively a 12/4 flatsawn board would work that is at least 4″ wide but recognize your plane height will be limited to about 2 7/8″.

Now imagine you could position the grain running vertically or maybe edging into more riftsawn grain and relying upon the cross brace of the pin. Suddenly you have a lot more board options. In the end just by deciding to laminate to create your plane means that you can actually do it with a 4/4 board by gluing together pieces to get your thickness. By having freedom to orient the grain means you could do this with flatsawn stock and run your grain vertically. Now any board you find will work for a plane.

This practice of laminating from thinner boards is actually something Scott Meek talks about in his class and he has made plane making much more accessible to the masses with this approach. He does stipulate that whatever you do, you get your laminations all from the same board. Of course this makes the grain and color match better for a more aesthetically pleasing plane but you increase your chances of a more stable plane by pulling from the same board and therefore the same part of the larger tree. I completely agree with this point of view and am glad to see it being espoused somewhere other than in my own head.

So here we go. Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war! How dare I question the planemakers art as a simple woodworker who uses planes built by others? Seriously I want to hear where my thinking is wrong. I have some practically perfect boards that I can use to make my planes that will adhere to all the standard conventions, but I have 4 or 5 boards for every one of those “perfect” boards that would work just as well.

13 Responses to “Raging Against Plane Making Tradition”

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  1. Jamie Bacon says:

    I’m sure this will all work fantastically, but the Colonial Williamsburg loving, puffy shirt wearing, traditional 18th century woodworker wanna-be in me cringes at cross pins and sports car shaped planes. It’ll be interesting to see how the growth rings oriented vertically will do over time though.

    • Shannon says:

      I’m kicking myself for not getting some pics of the planes we have at the museum with vertical grain orientation and rift grain and knots and such. I’ll be sure to next time I’m there but we are closed for off season now. Regardless many of these planes are 200 years old and they still work just fine.

      • Jamie Bacon says:

        Speaking to that, the fore plane that Peter Follansbee uses in pretty much every video you see was made from a piece of oak firewood, with a knot in it, which CRACKED at the knot, and has been held together for years with a nail where it cracked. And he uses that plane pretty much every day. So yeah, I guess the wood doesn’t exactly have to be perfect.

  2. Scott P says:

    One not commonly discussed factor in choosing grain direction that I believe I read in “Understanding Wood” is the increased wear resistance the medullary rays provide to the working profile. Unlikely to be a concern today for light use but if the plane was used everyday maybe practical benefit.

    • Shannon says:

      No question that the rays are harder but really in either orientation you have rays hitting the sole. In the horizontal direction the rays are acting kinda like end grain and in the vertical direction you have rays running along the sole. I guess that later is much like a corrugated sole over time.

  3. john s says:

    I am by no means anyone with the credentials to comment but I’m gonna! I think there are a lot of “old wives tales” to every trade. I have realized that once one has a chance to get some experience in said trade, such as woodworking, they find out that there is usally many such tales spread to keep the casuals spinning there wheels. So say the sole over time, and we are prolly talking at least a few years, does swell a little. You may never realize until you check it and then its just a matter of fixing it up. With a wood plane it doesn’t take much. No harm no foul. I say go for it!

  4. DTChristensen says:

    Unfortunately, I’m going to speak for the 90% of your readers (i.e. those who are Engineers!) and request the scientific method be applied to this question: Please fabricate a couple dozen planes – perhaps 6 laminated and 6 from solid, each with different grain directions. Then study them by taking surface profilometer measurements at equally-spaced intervals (weekly should just about do it) for at least 20 years. Flatten as you normally would, when the planes’ soles are more than 0.001″ out of flat (be sure to record when this is done, and how much material is removed). Then compile the results and recommendations in a modest ~200-page report so Chris Schwarz’s great-great-grandkids can reprint it as a $500 seal-skin-bound book for archival purposes once trees are are no longer harvested (except for toilet paper, of course!).

    Or, you could just make a plane and wave some sandpaper at the sole occasionally before getting back to woodworking, like the rest of us! ; P

    Thanks for entertaining this funny…

  5. mitch wilson says:

    I plan on building a jack plane in several weeks in a class given by John Wilson. (Also, a nest of 5 oval shaker boxes….how could I resist?) Unlike Jameel, you seem to like sapele, as do I. My local hardwood dealer often gets pretty straight grained sapele, as opposed to the knarly kind. Do you think this would work well for a plane? Any other suggestions as to what kinds of woods I could use? I made a backsaw tote from padauk, and that has worked quite well.

    • Shannon says:

      Well I’m making a second plane from Sapele so I’m not sure what better endorsement I can offer ;) I don’t think you need to be too limited in species. I try to avoid the really hard stuff since I do everything by hand. These species also tend to be kinda brittle too. I think the key is a well dried piece is most important. This may include letting the block sit around the shop for a long while too in order to really season properly.

  6. Alex Mosher says:

    Just a thought on grain orientation: I was given a yellow birch jointer plane several years ago. It was craftsman made and rather crudely at that. It was made from a single piece of riftsawn timber. I have never used the plane, but I have checked it with a try square on numerous occasions. I think that this old plane was made in the summer, because in the summer the stock is almost square in section. In the winter, decidedly out of square. From these observations I conclude that a plane made from riftsawn timber may require more room for lateral adjustment of the iron in order to keep it parallel to the sole of the plane.

    As to cross pins–they are traditional, from ancient Rome to the Orient.


  7. mitch wilson says:

    I often buy several long and wide (14″) boards of sapele when they are available and look particularly good, then have them sit in my basement workshop (which is pretty dry) for a year or two before I figure out a use for it. Is that long enough? Of course, I just used up all of my remaining sapele and was just informed that I couldn’t bring my own wood for the class, but I appreciate your confirming that sapele would work well here. I really like the way it looks and find it mostly a pleasure to work with, especially when you get straight grained boards. Any interlocking grain is no match for really sharp blades with a high effective pitch (ala Charlesworth).

    • Shannon says:

      kinda tough to answer Mitch without knowing how wet the boards were to start with. However the longer, wider, and thicker the pieces the slow they will dry in the middle parts. If you have some idea what you are using it for, it is always a good idea to cut it down close to size then sticker and let it acclimate. This way fresh end grain and rays will be exposed creating a shorter path for the water to travel as it leaves the board.

  8. Barry says:

    In defense of cross pins (and totes unrelated to grain): The Romans used them. Check out p. 15 of Garrett Hack’s “The Handplane Book,” where he says, “The simplest of these [planes] are made … with an iron cutter wedged against a cross-bar—very much like any basic wooden plane made even today.” He does note the ability of abutments—developed later—to reduce clogging. Still, if the Romans were able to rule a good part of the world for centuries with a cross pin in their planes, this construction must not be so bad. Anyway, as someone looking to build his first plane, this tidbit on the KrenovRomanWhatever method definitely builds confidence. Thanks for adding even more with your grain-direction musings, Shannon.

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