Back beveling plane irons – a few more thoughts

For some reason, I started thinking about back bevels, again, about a week ago.  Maybe it was because Les brought up David Charlesworth’s book, “Furniture-Making Techniques”.  So I spent a little time with Charlesworth and Garrett Hack (The Handplane Book).  Okay.  We know that higher cutting angles work better on certain species.  Chris Schwarz has weighed in, stating that a 62 1/2 degree is perfect for curly maple.  And I agree, as earlier posts on this blog will attest.  But I decided that we should be looking at simple ways the produce repeatable results.  So I went out and cut several wedges that should help in setting the back bevel, when (if ever) it’s called for.

Using a 3/8″ carriage bolt, a nut, couple of washers and a wing nut, we can make a rudimentary jig that will allow us to maintain the back bevel angle.

Instead of pushing the iron back and forth on the hone, I prefer a lateral “sweeping” motion.  I find that this allows me to apply pressure on either side and maintain the crown that I’ve already introduced to the iron.

There’s still a few “twists” that you’ll have to contend with.  Adding 5 degrees will put you up to York pitch, the old English standard for hardwood.  Adding 10 degrees will put you up to Middle pitch, which is great for lightly figured stock.   But, keep in mind if you’re working with an old Norris or Speers Plane, you’ll be struck by the fact that the iron looks to be about 3/16″ thick.  It probably is pretty close to that dimension.  You don’t get much chatter from one of those beauties.  But when you start cranking up the back bevel on your basic Stanley iron, prepare yourself.  After you cross the “York Pitch Boundary Line”, chatter will be a constant companion.  But with some fettling, you’ll probably able to eliminate the bulk of it.

The other thing that you’ll immediately notice is the greatly increased amount of effort that is required to push a plane with a substantial back bevel.  You’ll be shocked as you feel your heart rate increase as you remove a shaving that is .0002″ (or thinner).

I’ll keep this discussion alive.  There’s gotta be a couple of trade secrets out there about how to shear cut highly figured stock that have been lost to modernity.  I’d welcome any thoughts.

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2 Comments on “Back beveling plane irons – a few more thoughts”

  1. Matt Sullenbrand Says:

    Hi Dennis,

    I have purchased lots of old planes over the years, and started out flattening the backs on all of them. Then I realized, if none of the craftsman who owned these planes worried about flat backs, why should I? I am not convinced that flat backs on plane irons were ever necessary. It seems more likely and more expedient that it was the norm to use a back bevel on almost all irons, save maybe profiled plane irons which would have been very difficult to back bevel. Just a thought.

    • D.B. Laney Says:

      Hi Matt,

      Good to hear from you. I agree with you. All these “afficinados” who are into a mirror like finish on the back of their irons may be all “whet”. My Grandfather, who made his living with his tools (and I still have most of them), never spent a lot of time polishing the back of a bench or block plane iron. You whet the iron then knock off the wire and get back to work? Most of today’s woodworkers have the luxury of being able to take a lot of time when they’re fettling their tools. A hundred years ago you “sharpened up and got your ass to work”. I think we need to explore this a little further on the blog.

      BTW – you’re absolutely right, all of my Grandfather’s molding planes are bright on the back. I love it when people bring me a nice compound molder and ask why it won’t work after they’ve spent hours honing and polishing the bevel. Hello………..

      Regards, Dennis

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