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How-To: Hand Plane #1: Aha Moment

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Blog entry by DevinT posted 01-18-2022 09:35 PM 653 reads 0 times favorited 25 comments Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of How-To: Hand Plane series Part 2: Cups and Humps »

I am roughly one year into my journey of learning how to hand plane. I decided to start a blog to talk about the things I have learned since starting (while they are relatively still fresh).

Before getting my first hand plane, I …

  • Wondered how they do what they do
  • Did boat loads of research
  • Watched all the YouTube videos

After getting my first hand plane, I …

  • Struggled to get the results the big personalities got
  • Unable to get flawless results (see above bullet)
  • Consistently removed way more material than was necessary to get the results I desired

So I focused on my sharpening, and …

  • My results improved, but were still not perfect (based off of watching results obtained by well known YouTube individuals)

One day, I decided to try and plane Cocobolo. The plane said NO and so, I doubled-down on focusing on sharpening. I got better at sharpening, the Cocobolo yielded, and I got great results (mind you, still not perfect, but finish-ready, which was good enough for the project but not good enough for my on-going goal to obtain the results I see popular woodworkers get).

Over the Christmas break, I visited my Dad, and we practiced a time honored tradition of sharpening knives together—something we had not done together for some decades. He would pull out the crock sticks and we would pull out whatever knives we had on us at the time and we would get sharp with a few strokes on the ceramic.

Well, the time eventually came (as it invariably does) to sharpen the plane blades again (after scrubbing up some crotch figure walnut) and I was sharpening, and I wanted to see if I could actually get a better edge than what I tackled the Cocobolo with …

There I was, running the blade over the 16k Shapton with the cheap Eclipse honing guide, and for a good 4 hours, I dutifully blackened the tip, took one single backstroke on the stone, and then analyzed what happened.

Ugh, I just couldn’t seem to get anything better than razor sharp. There had been a few rare moments in my life when Dad and I were able to put some wickedly sharp edges on knives (usually on the blades with crazy steels from Japan), and it was all down to control, muscle memory, and clean sharpening equipment.

However, ... that’s when I stopped sharpening for a moment and thought about it …

When I am sharpening a knife with a pair of crock sticks, I am holding the blade perfectly straight up and down as I both slide the knife edge down the angled stick and pull it back toward me along the length of the blade. The triangular crock stick is really only drawing steel on a single point.

The reason that working my plane’s iron on the bevel takes so long as the depth of the bevel increases is … as I imagine FEW fool-hearty people would argue against … is that you are working more steel.

This simple fact never seems to figure in with honing a knife because the crock sticks don’t work the entire blade at once, but a single point that moves along the blade.

So, I decided to try something …

I turned the plane iron 30 degrees to the point that 40-60% of the bevel wasn’t even on the stone and as I pulled back, the portion of the bevel that is in the air comes onto the stone.

OH MY FRIGGIN’ GAWD!

10 swipes where I:

  • Point left, start with 50% of the bevel off the stone, draw back
  • Repeat but now point to the right
  • That is 2 swipes, repeat above 2 steps 4 more times for a total of 5 times (or 10 swipes)

Razor sharp? HAH! I don’t even know what to call it … but it’s sharper than razor sharp.

How do I know? Well, here is the test …

You ever see people sharpen their plane blades and then shave arm hairs with it? Watch carefully and you will see that they do quick short strokes to shave the hairs … that’s not sharp.

I’m talking about so sharp that:

  • Putting the thing to your skin makes you nervous because you’re not sure if it will just go straight through the skin
  • One single stroke of any length against your skin leaves zero hairs the entire length of the stroke (none of this stopping the stroke, pulling back, and then re-entering it like you see these video personalities do)
  • Not only does the spot where you pushed the iron against your skin free of hair, but throughout the day you sense a slight tingling sensation … in other words, you got razor burn because it removed skin, not just hair … from a single stroke

HOLY CRAP, this blade scares the bejeezus out of me. No barber would ever use a blade so sharp because one single stroke would leave you with razor burn (baby soft skin free of hair, but reeling from razor burn).

How else can you tell it’s sharp? Rob Cosman likes to pull a fingernail across the blade to make sure it’s free of burs …

Well, pulling a finger nail across this blade:

  • Feels as smooth as brand new glass
  • If you close your eyes, it doesn’t even feel like you’re running your fingernail over a blade
  • If you look at your fingernail, it was cut and if you were not careful, it got your finger and you didn’t even feel it (but there was no blood because it only cut through a few layers of skin … which are now proud)

But wait … it gets better …

Simply by drawing the bevel onto the stone, it not only allowed me to get the most keen edge I have ever produced in my life (plane, knife, or otherwise) but it did it in less time than I have ever spent on a plane iron bevel.

Being able to put all my knowledge about knife sharpening into plane sharpening by using a technique that nobody seems to be teaching is my AHA moment. 45 seconds to sharp? 32 seconds to sharp? I now have to question … what is “sharp” in that context, and why is it not 10-seconds to sharp and why can’t “sharp” mean “deadly sharp”

Well, OK, ... most people probably won’t need a plane that sharp … but getting a perfect finish (not just finish-ready … I’m talking perfect … no scraping, no sanding, zero defects, uniform appearance, maximum chatoyance) on Cocobolo or anything softer …

Well now … I’m here for THAT and when I first started using hand planes, I thought … oh that’ll be fun … whereas now I believe there is no other word than magical.

ASIDE: When my neighbor gave me his hand planes out of disappointment (opening the possibility for me to start learning how to use them at no up-front cost to myself), he lamented that the entire process seamed to revolve around sharpening (which did not interest him). I of course have no problems with sharpening (I enjoy it). So, if you’re reading this and have not yet got into hand planes and are excited at the prospect of getting purely magical results in wood by hand … please be aware that to get the best results you need to develop a sharpening regimen that is pleasurable that you do not mind performing (I knew that there would be a requirement to learn how to sharpen a plane blade before I got into the business of learning how to use these things—with time you will develop your own techniques for obtaining the edges that you require for the type of work you perform).

-- Devin, SF, CA



25 comments so far

View Ocelot's profile

Ocelot

3808 posts in 4097 days


#1 posted 01-18-2022 10:31 PM

Devin,

Long ago when my Dad was a student, he had a job in the university medical school lab. One of the things he did was sharpening microtome knives, which are used to slice biological specimens for examination with a microscope.

He always told me a sharp blade should be able to cut a freely hanging hair.

I never saw him sharpen anything to that standard – and had halfway supposed that it wasn’t really possible.

Give it a try. Take a hair out of a brush. Tape one end of it up so that it’s hanging freely in air – liike to the mullion of a window in the sunlight and try to cut it with your sharpest edge a couple of inches from the point where it is taped.

I’m curious to see if it really can be done.

-- I intended to be a woodworker, but turned into a tool and lumber collector.

View Ocelot's profile

Ocelot

3808 posts in 4097 days


#2 posted 01-18-2022 10:32 PM

Oh, and we need pictures illustrating your sharpening technique.

-- I intended to be a woodworker, but turned into a tool and lumber collector.

View MikeB_UK's profile

MikeB_UK

1027 posts in 2493 days


#3 posted 01-18-2022 10:40 PM



Give it a try. Take a hair out of a brush. Tape one end of it up so that it s hanging freely in air – liike to the mullion of a window in the sunlight and try to cut it with your sharpest edge a couple of inches from the point where it is taped.

I m curious to see if it really can be done.

- Ocelot


How fast can I swing the blade? :)

-- Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

View DevinT's profile

DevinT

3060 posts in 425 days


#4 posted 01-18-2022 10:59 PM

At what angle?

-- Devin, SF, CA

View Ocelot's profile

Ocelot

3808 posts in 4097 days


#5 posted 01-18-2022 11:09 PM

Hey, I don’t know at what angle or how fast.

It was just a story from my Dad. All he said as i recall is “A really sharp blade should be able to cut a freely hanging hair.”

If you can cut it at all with a gentle swipe, it would be impressive.

-Paul

I do know that there is/was a special apparatus – a microtome knife sharpener. I’ve seen them on eBay, but never bought one.

-- I intended to be a woodworker, but turned into a tool and lumber collector.

View Ocelot's profile

Ocelot

3808 posts in 4097 days


#6 posted 01-18-2022 11:18 PM

Given that it was in the 1940’s, it was probably a machine like this one.

-- I intended to be a woodworker, but turned into a tool and lumber collector.

View Eric's profile

Eric

5080 posts in 1332 days


#7 posted 01-18-2022 11:38 PM

My dad also finished his sharpening with an old leather strop. Just like in the barber shop. Thankfully it was never used on me as a kid.

The tool edge should be drape enough to gently cut the wood without tearing the wood fibers. And without to much force by the user.

-- Eric, building the dream

View DevinT's profile

DevinT

3060 posts in 425 days


#8 posted 01-19-2022 12:10 AM

Ok, here is the test. Horse hair has been selected for the test (because my shop brush doesn’t complain when I pluck a hair)

Here is the iron to be tested

Veritas PM-V11 steel. Big fat secondary bevel, mirror polished.

However, we will need a control for the test to determine what level of sharpness is required

The control group contains a knife that takes literal scalpel blades (and is loaded with a #24 scalpel blade that is surgical sharp).

I would also like to see how a serrated edge performs

And I will also test several other fine blades, including an actual razor blade

-- Devin, SF, CA

View DevinT's profile

DevinT

3060 posts in 425 days


#9 posted 01-19-2022 12:44 AM

We as our first success.

First was an actual razor blade which failed.

Then came the yin-yang Spyderco cricket, which also failed

Up next came the original Spyderco cricket, which also failed

But then, came the Blue cricket, and it succeeded, proving at least that it is entirely possible.

My dad sharpened this blade. Great job, Dad!

More tests results to come.

-- Devin, SF, CA

View DevinT's profile

DevinT

3060 posts in 425 days


#10 posted 01-19-2022 12:51 AM

We have had our second success.

First up, in this round, was the serrated cricket, which failed.

Then came the VG-10 folder … also failed.

Then success with the scalpel blade, as expected

-- Devin, SF, CA

View DevinT's profile

DevinT

3060 posts in 425 days


#11 posted 01-19-2022 01:02 AM

BWAHAHAHAHA! YES!

How did it cut? Oh my goodness!

With the scalpel, it took three whacks. With the cricket Dad honed, 2 strikes. With the plane blade, I just placed it adjacent to the hair and pushed and it sliced right through it in one motion.

I about dropped the plane blade I was in utter shock (which would be bad because then I would have to re-hone it).

Holy smokes!

And yes, I am still feeling razor burn from yesterday when I tested it on my arm with only a single stroke.

OK, who is going to let me perform surgery on them with this blade?

-- Devin, SF, CA

View DevinT's profile

DevinT

3060 posts in 425 days


#12 posted 01-19-2022 01:07 AM

Only 3 blades made the cut …

-- Devin, SF, CA

View DevinT's profile

DevinT

3060 posts in 425 days


#13 posted 01-19-2022 01:10 AM

Ocelot, ...


He always told me a sharp blade should be able to cut a freely hanging hair.

From tests performed, I would agree with that statement.

-- Devin, SF, CA

View EarlS's profile

EarlS

5518 posts in 3807 days


#14 posted 01-19-2022 01:31 AM

Anyone here worried about Devin’s fixation with lots of really sharp knives??? Just askin’ for a friend ;+)

I’ve been challenged by Kenny, Dave Kelley, Dave P, Nathan, Duckmilk, and probably a few others to learn how to use a plane. One of my problems is with sharpening. Heck, I can barely get the chisels sort of sharp. Sounds like I need to understand your technique and give it a try on the chisels, then get a plane and learn how to get it really sharp. Might make the learning process easier.

-- Earl "I'm a pessamist - generally that increases the chance that things will turn out better than expected"

View Ocelot's profile

Ocelot

3808 posts in 4097 days


#15 posted 01-19-2022 01:41 AM

Thanks Devin. My dad was not the sort to exaggerate things. It pleases me to hear your results. Now I’ve got to do it.

-- I intended to be a woodworker, but turned into a tool and lumber collector.

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