Homemade Shoulder Plane

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It’s early November now. The breeze is cooler, the leaves are changing and falling from the trees. No sign of true cold weather yet, but this is Atlanta and that doesn’t arrive for another couple of months or so. It is however at least cool enough in the shop now to get rocking on my first large piece of furniture, a seven foot long trestle table inspired by the Cross Extension table available through Design Within Reach. I’ve technically been working on this since last Spring, and it’s taught me more than a few lessons about technique, the limitations of my current tools, and which ones I need to have in order to properly build a relatively complex piece of furniture. My kingdom for an 8″ jointer and a 14″ bandsaw. That said, while I’ve dissected and expanded the build process for this first large project, I think it’s paying off in solid experience. I feel confident that I could build a carbon copy of the table in 1-2 months worth of evenings and weekends.

I’m currently building the table legs, and these require three parts: the main leg, a vertical connector piece, and a horizontal support at the top. They are connected together with mortise and tenons. Tage Frid suggests using tenons with only two faces wherever possible, but I feel I need a four-faced tenon for maximum support, as the lateral forces imposed by the 45 degree angled legs could sheer a two-faced tenon out of the adjoining piece. Maybe, maybe not. At any rate, they are all cut now and I’m running into the issue of truing up the tenon shoulders and cheeks to fit tightly at right angles. My chisel work isn’t developed to the point where I feel confident at paring things down consistently by hand, so I’ve decided I need some joinery planes.

The first buy was a Lie Nielsen Rabbet Block Plane. This does the job of trimming tenon cheeks beautifully, as well as anything else I throw at it. I think this will be my go-to block plane from now on (Sorry Stanley!) Unfortunately, the width of this plane makes it impractical to trim 1/2″ and 3/4″ shoulders.

I considered buying another plane from Lie Nielsen for this purpose, but I didn’t feel like spending another couple hundred dollars so soon after the other purchase. Like any good woodworker, I decided if I wasn’t going to buy a tool, I could try my hand at making one. So I ordered a shoulder plane tee blade from Hock Tools, downloaded Woodcraft’s wooden shoulder plane plans, picked up some bubinga and rosewood and knocked this little beauty out on Sunday afternoon. The plane looks simple in the picture (and it essentially is) but it did take about 20 or so steps to complete. I ended up giving it a couple layers of teak oil to pop the colors a bit. It was incredibly satisfying to set the blade and wedge and take a nice shaving on the first try.

Two things strike me immediately. One is that while the high carbon blade comes very sharp, I’d like to hone it further on my 4000 and 8000 grit waterstones and add a 5 degree microbevel and get the blade edge ridiculously sharp. At some point or another (and a lot of trial and error) I learned the secret to getting my tools REALLY sharp and it’s changed the way I work immensely. So anything less just feels…annoying I suppose. The second point is that while this does a decent job at planing the end grain on my tenons, I wonder if I ought to build another one with a low angle to do the job a little better. Another woodworker I know advised me that when planing end grain, it helps to moisten the area with water to both raise the grain and soften it, so I’ll be giving that a go next time I get in the shop to see if it makes things easier.

Additionally, I may cut some curves into the plane to get it into a more ergonomic shape. Using it for a while should reveal what it needs. I was also thinking about drilling a couple holes through the side and inserting some 1/4″ cherry dowel, somewhat for strength, but more for aesthetics.

The table project itself has proved to be a very slow process, but every step has taught me something fundamental about woodworking. These little detours where I build a hand tool or a jig or fixture, or learn a new technique do slow things down, but the amount of knowledge I’ve gained is enormous. The more time and care I take now, the better and faster I’ll be with subsequent projects. And the happier I’ll be with the finished product when it’s sitting in my home.

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One Comment on “Homemade Shoulder Plane”

  1. Tod Kerr says:

    very interesting…I always prefer to build my own tools when can. it makes it that much more satisfying when you use them. this would be a nice addition to my toolbox.


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