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Is it bad practice not to pick up the plane as you pull back for another pass? Why or why not?

The two great advantages I can see are that, first, you strain your wrists less, and second, you don't risk accidentally letting the plane down too fast.

But perhaps it dulls the blade? How much does it do so, if at all? Are there any other reasons not to keep the plane on the wood as you pull back?

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    No. Yes. Depends on who you ask! Even if one accepts dragging the edge backwards will have a noticeable blunting effect on the iron, there are some subtleties that don't make it a simple as yes it's bad, because there isn't just one way to pull back without lifting clear.
    – Graphus
    Commented Jun 24, 2023 at 22:09

2 Answers 2

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Is it bad practice not to pick up the plane as you pull back for another pass? Why or why not?

No. Yes. Depends on who you ask!

Since it appears it's subjective it runs the risk of all answers equally valid, and questions for which this is true are not a good fit for the SE model.

However, by looking at this more closely I think we can discover some details that demonstrate which approach is better/more correct.

The two great advantages I can see are that, first, you strain your wrists less, and second, you don't risk accidentally letting the plane down too fast.

Obviously there is something in both of these. The bigger and heavier metal planes in particular absolutely are a factor that can affect both, particularly for the part-time woodworker who doesn't have the opportunity to plane enough that they build up their arms/shoulders in the needed ways, as a pro would.... or might.

Most professional woodworkers today don't plane enough that they would either! It's not like the old days when woodworkers used their planes all the time, possibly for hours multiple times per week1.

But perhaps it dulls the blade? How much does it do so, if at all?

I don't believe there is anything out there on this..... it was hard enough for the community to get any definitive data on blunting from normal use (this only appeared in the last few years AFAIK).

And I don't believe there can be any reasonable study done on this anyway because there are too many variables — the type of steel, how much it was tempered, bevel-up or bevel-down, what bedding angle, how far does the edge project below the sole? Think of all the possible permutations and it'll make your head hurt.

And that's even before we've factored in the wood......

Which wood(s) are being planed....? Even if you had some data for common-use hardwoods in furniture work2 how would it translate to pine or fir? What about ipe, purpleheart, iroko or jarrah? None of these are particularly rarely used these days.

Are there any other reasons not to keep the plane on the wood as you pull back?

This is the key question, because the answer is yes.

Part of why I think this isn't purely subjective is that there is abundant guideline advice on how to plane telling us the plane should be lifted off at the end of the stroke, because it's one way to avoid 'dubbed' ends3.

Anyone trained in this tradition (there are others) would have to put the plane back down on to the board's surface at the far end for the return stroke, rather than it being just a matter of leaving it on that surface.

Furthermore, with smaller planes the sole is so short that you can't reasonably leave it on the board at the end of a stroke anyway! It just naturally runs off the far edge if you're not deliberately using the airplane landing/takeoff approach to prevent dubbing. I don't know about anyone else but if a plane had already cleared the wood at the end of the stroke I would just would naturally rock back or take a step back with the plane still in the air, rather than return it to the wood surface just to drag it back over the board.

And there are two other practical concerns.

The first is that an edge or corner of the plane might leave a score line and in the modern era of Western woodworking, where metal planes are hugely dominant, this is a really legitimate concern (even if arrises and corners are softened/relieved, as is fairly commonly done these days by users).

The second is when planing wood that isn't held in a vice, pinned between stops, or otherwise held securely e.g. by a wedged planing stop, a doe's foot or cams. When a board is simply resting against a planing stop (even a toothed one) at one end you can't drag the plane back over the board because this just pulls the wood away from the stop — anyone using a planing stop routinely has already self-trained not to leave the plane on the wood for the back stroke LOL

Here's Rex Kruger showing the problem in a video only 10 days ago (4:51 if you want to jump straight to the relevant bit).

This suggests that anyone historically who was planing wood against a stop without additional holding from a doe's foot, or directly from a holdfast, was lifting off at the end of each plane stroke. I would imagine that's the vast majority of all woodworking, not just in Europe and subsequently in American, but all across Asia too where simple workholding was (and still is) ubiquitous4.


1 We need to remember that Every. Single. Plank. that needed to be converted into a finished board from rough-sawn (or worse, riven!) had to be processed entirely by hand. That's multiple operations, using a succession of at least three planes, to get to the the smoothing at the end. And then there's scraping and/or sanding on top of that!

2 Which honestly are too varied for this broad category to be useful, since it would span at least cherry to hard maple which are miles apart in hardness, without even factoring in poplar and mesquite or alder and hickory.

3 Dubbing is when each ends of the board end up slightly lower, so it's the hand-plane equivalent of snipe from a planer :-)

4 There's no possibility of a holdfast when you don't even plane on a workbench!

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In my limited experience I've found only two cases where I have problems when pulling back without lifting up:

  1. final smoothing of soft woods - if you'll get some shavings stuck in the mouth of your plane as you're dragging it back, you can get ugly "scratches" (more like "long dents" - as you could do with your finger nail). But I sometimes lift even for hardwoods when smoothing, just to be sure, but this may be unnecessary.
  2. planing agains simple planing stop - you'll "unstuck" the wood from the stop - but this is probably immediatelly obvious to anyone who uses the plane stop :)

Maybe there are other cases, but I know only these two.


Oh, I had another thought - if I'd ask myself sort of inverted question:

When I would NEVER lift the plane when dragging back?

My answer would be: When using my wooden scrub plane to remove a lot of wood quickly. (not using plane stop obviously). And I mean really going at it where I plan to remove around 10mm (3/8") or more and going usually at 45 degrees. I'll use bench plane and smoothing plane after that, so surface quality is not an issue at this stage and I can get it done faster without lifting.

I'm not really sure, if that's because I have a wooden scrub plane - but maybe yes, because it's much lighter than metal one and it won't "dig in" with corners when pulling back even if I'd tried (which metal plane can do - viz. @Graphus's excellent answer).

But take that with a grain of salt - it's just my (inexperienced) opinion.

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    @Noah J - thanks for accepting but I think you should have waited for some answers from more experienced woodworkers..
    – Jan Spurny
    Commented Jun 24, 2023 at 23:40

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