techniques #4: Sharpening up my little Buck Bros. 3" block plane

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Blog entry by Gary Fixler posted 03-07-2010 04:36 PM 8855 reads 1 time favorited 3 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 3: PVC tube with hinged doors as lathe dust collector Part 4 of techniques series Part 5: Greasemonkey script: Flickr LumberJockifier »

No [new] pics or videos in this post, but I thought I’d drop a note for posterity to say that I’m excited about my future of hand plane work and the setting up of parts and sharpening of irons that comes with their use. I own this tiny block plane (lucky review #777!), which was very sharp right out of the blister pack, easily making full width, full length curls from the edges of whatever boards I threw at it.

Buck Bros. 3

I’m very much a set-it-and-forget guy, usually dreading opening up cases to fiddle with adjustments, and steering well clear whenever possible of truing up tools and disassembling things to clean them out and sharpen up components. It’s just laziness. I’ve been working very hard to fix this character flaw. These days I almost always flip the lid on my drill press to swap the belts around for the proper speeds for whatever bit/part combo I’m using. I put tools away all day as I finish with them, and vacuum and sweep up my messes as I make them. When the power switch started sticking on my RIGID shop vac – in the ON position! – I unplugged it, disassembled the whole motor case, pulled the switch, then disassembled it to see if I could fix it. It was just worn out. I found a perfect replacement with a softer, rounded switch lever at my hardware store – their last one! – and put the whole thing back together. I had also used my dust collector to sweep everything out inside. It looked new, and worked really well. Combating entropy in the shop feels really good. I’m trying to do that more often in the shop – really laying into a problem to make it right whenever I notice one – and it’s starting to pay off. I have a lot more room than I’ve had in a year out there with all the improvements of late, even with the new rolling lathe stand, rolling planer stand, and now the whole belt/disc sander with rolling base. Maybe I can fit a nice, big oscillating spindle sander and large drum sander, both with cabinet bases in here ;)

Yesterday, not quite sure what to do with myself in the garage, I decided to play at the role of hand plane master by using what I’d learned in YouTube videos from the Lie-Nielsen folks and many others, including amateurs online to completely set up the little Buck Bros. plane. It’s practically a toy, and so small it would have to prove easy, especially lapping the bottom to flat. This would be a great intro to the proper techniques, which I could use later. As I wrote 260 days ago in this plane’s review (linked above): “There really isn’t much to it, so in a way, it’s kind of like a beginner’s plane. You can learn quite a bit about how planes work from this <$10 utility tool, which is really better used for minor adjustments, or flushing up pegs. This knowledge can be expanded through larger, more expensive, and more complicated planes later (that’s my plan!).” I’m finally doing it! I disassembled all 4 of its pieces (stop laughing!). That included the wedge screw, wedge, iron, and cast base with its embedded wedge rod. The wedge isn’t a true wedge. It’s retained on the rod by a groove, about which it pivots a bit as you tighten the screw.

I marked the entire bottom with a large Sharpie™ and decided at first to use two different grits on my WorkSharp 3000. The plane fit easily on the disc. This left really strong swirling all over the bottom. I moved it to opposite sides of the wheel to cross the concetric circles, but in the end it just wasn’t giving me that pro finish. It also took quite awhile to work the Sharpie out of all low regions.

I had some wet/dry 400 grit sandpaper, so I wet one wing on my cast iron saw table (while cringing, waiting for rust to bloom all over), laid the paper down on it, wet the top, and then started lapping the plane base back and forth in the direction of the plane body. Little by little I worked up a lot of grit in a slurry in front and back of the plane, and worked pretty darn near a mirror finish into its bottom. It felt like powdered glass. I was a little excited about it. I didn’t end up getting the swirls out of the left and right sides; the grooves were too deep from the WorkSharp, and subsequent heavy scrubbings on the wet/dry paper didn’t really get me closer to removing them, so I gave up on that. I think I would need to work through more grits from low toward high to more effectively power them away.

The blade had gotten gunked up pretty badly from use, so I actually used Goo Gone, which got it back to a powdery, drab gray metal. Then I used the WorkSharp again and got a really sharp, perfectly parallel edge which actually was slightly off the original angle, giving me that nice micro bevel all the pros are always talking about. The edge was a super-thin burr that flaked away at a touch, leaving a still razor-sharp tip to the blade. I cleaned out the base and reassembled – not as hard as I always make it out to be in my mind – and learned something…

It’s fantastically easier to set the depth of the blade and get it parallel with the base when the base itself is like a still lake surface, silky smooth and highly reflective. Something else soon occurred to me. The exact depth setting is a lot less critical when the blade is frighteningly sharp. If it’s a hair deeper a cut than you wanted, the sharpness, and overall flatness and slippery smoothness of the plane bottom pick up the slack and enable a smooth cut still. I grabbed a stick of olive about 2” square and 8” long from my drying rack. This was almost 3x the width of the plane blade, so it would be a good test of some flattening techniques seen in videos of flattening larger wood with larger planes. The olive had warped badly, as all olive seems to for me, so it would be a chore to flatten it up. Some sides were cupped like smiles down their length, some bowed up.

Flattening wasn’t too bad, and I got something super flat, and very nearly 90° with each side all the way around. I made a big pile of shavings and my hands were okay afterward, even though the tiny little plane usually ends up hurting my hands after a short while. It was easier to plane than usual with everything set up nicely. I still managed to bleed a little by banging into the wood a few times in overzealous, rhythmic movements that sent the plane off the edge, and my hands hard back into the edge or corner of the board. It’s funny, but I kept thinking things like “If only I had more of an area to grip at the back here,” and “If only there was something I could hold onto up front that got my fingers out of the way of the shavings so they wouldn’t jam up,” and even “I wish there was a bit more bed in front of and behind the blade so I could slide back and forth quickly without overshooting the ends so often,” eventually realizing that all of my growing list of wishes, if granted, would simply build me a larger block plane :)

Old pic of the sole after my first use long ago, for reference:


One of the things that’s bugged me about hand planes is that the infeed and outfeed sections of the sole are coplanar. It makes sense from a flattening-the-sole quickly and easily standpoint, but not from a true jointing standpoint. The sole is like this:

—outfeed—\—infeed—direction of cut—>

In jointers, the blade tips cut to flush with the outfeed, and you lower the infeed out of plane with that to determine how much is planed away. Even my Incra LS Super System has a split fence, and you align both flush with the front of your straight bit, then adjust the infeed half back a bit to your cut depth to use the system as an edge jointer. With a plane, you really ride on the infeed, and as it cuts out the shaving, the outfeed ends up hovering above the new surface. I think I’ve heard a few times that you should start with pressure on the front, then by the end of the cut should have pressure on the back, but if that’s the case, at some point you’re rocking the plane back, and should be creating a very slight curve in the top of the piece. If you ride the front all the way to the end, it should get a tiny bit unstable at the end of the cut, leading to a very tiny bit of a snipe at the end. I think all in all, the shavings are so thin – like tissue – that it will never matter, but it still bugs me on a logical level.

There’s a technique plane users often use of putting their free hand on the side of the plane body, fingers tips curled below and in contact with the face of the board of which they’re planing the edge. It helps give some tactile feedback, and somehow seems to help one keep the plane pretty level while pushing through the cut. I was happy to see that even on this little guy I could use this technique. It not only helped me turn high edges into level flats I could build from, but kept my tiny little plane on the surface, instead of sliding off either side. I also got to experiment with things, like using the metal of the sole to either side of the mouth to help overlap cuts and widen the flattened areas, though I still have logical arguments that there are problems with this – e.g. with the blade lower than all of the plane, when you’re riding the flat of a previous stroke overlapped slightly, you’re still cutting a shaving lower than that flat next to it.

I almost walked out the door to find a glass dealer and pick up a small sheet of 1/4” plate glass, but decided to accomplish something else instead. I am now considering this, however. It comes with 25 feet, and I think the idea is that you can put some all around the top and bottom to create a board that can be flipped over to have 4 4.5”x11” long grit surfaces. I could pick up both systems for $68 total and have 220 and 320 on top of one, and 400 and 600 on the bottom. The other could have 800 and 1200 above, and 1500 and 2000 below. Of course, none of that would be adequately sized for flattening the bottom of even a No. 5 jack plane @ 14” long. Decisions, decisions…

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

3 comments so far

View hObOmOnk's profile


1381 posts in 5470 days

#1 posted 03-08-2010 02:19 AM

I have three of those little planes so I don’t have to stop and sharpen in the middle of long projects.
Here’s some other mini-planes that I find helpful. Amazon

-- 温故知新

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


23357 posts in 5019 days

#2 posted 03-08-2010 03:06 AM

Lookin good Gary, I should be doing that instead of reading about you doing it :-))

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View Gary Fixler's profile

Gary Fixler

1001 posts in 4724 days

#3 posted 03-08-2010 01:16 PM

Randy – that’s pretty cheap for a box of 3 nice-looking infill planes!

Topamax – I do my fair share of getting out of doing what I should be doing while online, too :)

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

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