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How do I avoid tear-out when planing figured wood?

Q:

My low-angle block plane keeps pulling up chunks of grain on quilted maple rather than cutting cleanly, even with a sharp blade. How can I avoid this tear-out?
—Matt Hoskins, Danville, Ky.

A:

Figured wood can be tricky to work, Matt, as you’ve discovered. In your situation, the low-angle block plane “digs” under the interlocking grain, lifting it instead of shearing it cleanly. 

To best prevent this, you need two things. First, use a plane with an adjustable mouth, so you can close it down close to the blade [Photo below] to limit the thickness of the shavings you’ll make. Second, you want a steeper cutting angle of 50–55°. 

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Send your woodworking questions to askwood@woodmagazine.comTo achieve this, first determine the blade’s bed angle for your plane. For example, a standard angle block plane typically has a 20° bed angle. Subtract that amount from 50°. In this case, you’d then sharpen a 30° bevel onto your plane blade, as shown in the illustration top of page. (If you only have a low-angle block plane, get a second blade and sharpen it to a steeper angle. That way you don’t erase the benefits of the original low-angle blade for other tasks.) With a freshly sharpened blade and the mouth closed as tightly as you can without clogging the shaving, you should be able to cleanly shear that maple edge [Photo B].

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