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Tool Review: Shoulder Planes

For paring tenons and rabbets, nothing does the job better than one of these handy hand tools.

We'll admit it: Most of us are dyed-in-the-wool power-tool junkies. So when we confess to having a few favorite hand tools, you know it's because they solve problems that no power tool can. That's the case with a shoulder plane. With its open sides and a blade as wide as its body, you can run the side of a shoulder plane against the wall of a rabbet or the shoulder of a tenon and trim an inside cut perfectly square. In fact, a well-tuned and sharpened shoulder plane cleans up corner cuts faster than setting up a power tool to do the job. Shoulder planes come in various sizes, shapes, and price ranges, making the task of choosing one daunting. To simplify your choice, we put six models into the able hands of Tim Peters, master furnituremaker, hand-tool aficionado, and head of the woodworking department at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California. Here are the findings.


First and foremost: Flat and square

If the bottom (or sole) of a plane isn't perfectly flat, you can't expect it to leave a flat surface behind. And on a shoulder plane, a perfectly square intersection between the sole and sides is equally important (just like the relationship between a jointer bed and its fence). Three of the tested planes proved sufficiently flat and square out of the box; the rest required some time spent with wet/dry abrasives and float glass to flatten and square them before use. (Learn the complete technique for flattening the sole of a hand plane in our review of block planes in WOOD magazine issue 160, page 50, or purchase the downloadable review below.) Once done, and after sharpening the blades, all of the planes cut clean, square shoulders on edge, cross, or end grain.


Plane and blade settings must be easy and accurate

The tiniest fraction of an inch when setting the depth of a plane blade can make the difference between a perfect shaving and a plane that's a pain. That's why most of the models feature a screw-driven depth adjustment: You loosen the blade a bit and then twist the knob in to deepen the cut, or out to lessen it. On one plane, though, you tap the wedge or the plane body to change the cutting depth. After a little practice we found this ancient method just as accurate as screw-type adjustments. Besides cutting depth, you can adjust the thickness of the plane shavings by opening or closing the blade throat. (A smaller gap yields a thinner shaving.) On most planes, the front of the sole slides fore and aft after loosening a screw; on others, the only throat adjustment is using a needle file to enlarge the throat -- a permanent adjustment that can't be undone.

Top Tool: Veritas 05P41.01


Learn the complete results of our testing of the Clifton 420, E.C. Emmerich 710-P, Lie-Nielsen 042, H.N.T. Gordon 3/4" Shoulder Plane, Veritas 05P41.01, and Stanley 92 shoulder planes in the May 2008 issue of WOOD magazine, or download the review.


 

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