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I have a #5 faithfull handplane (don't judge me, I didn't know any better!) that I tried to get working last year and failed miserably, so it sat in the cupboard for 6 months whilst I sulked. Since then I have bought a couple of books, and read a few forums, and i want to try and have another go at working with hand tools to make basic things for the house (a new gate, a repacement door, blanket boxes etc).

All that waffle aside, I have some feeler guages and initially I want to check the sole of the plane for flatness. Will a piece of formica kitchen worktop be a flat enough reference surface to see how bad the plane sole is, or do I need to find something flatter (if so, what can I use that is likely to be found in an average house?)

Then secondly, if the sole needs a lot of flattening, is that something I can easily do on a series of grades of Scotch paper glueued to the worktop, or am I just creating more problems for myself here?

Cost is more of an issue than time, I am doing this to do soemthing creative with my hands, but as I do not know yet if this is somethign I will actually enjoy long term, I don't want to buy a lot of equipment that could end up on ebay in 2 years.

  • "the sole seemd the place to start for me" well because of production variables you can definitely be lucky or unlucky, some planes are not flat (flat enough) when bought. But FWI I have four modern metal handplanes, no premium brands, and none of them needed any work done to the soles. Out of curiosity I lapped the sole on my Faithfull block plane last year to see if it would make any difference to performance and it certainly looked lovely and shiny when I was done... but it could easily take 0.05mm shavings before I did any work and 0.04mm shavings after the work :-) [contd] – Graphus May 27 '16 at 17:30
  • [contd] The Y-shaped piece, called the "Y adjusting lever" by Stanley, actually doesn't fit that well on most Bailey-pattern planes! It's 19th century engineering and there is inherently a lot of play in the mechanism (referred to as backlash or slop) on most planes of the type. Even on some very good planes there is slop, although it's perhaps 1/2 a turn instead of more than a full revolution as you might find on an inexpensive one. – Graphus May 27 '16 at 17:34
  • There is nothing wrong and a lot of things right about a #5 plane, and I'm not sure what the implication is. – aaron Feb 3 '17 at 20:27
  • @aaron it was more the brand, I bought it new at random off an online auction site, when 5 minutes on a couple of forums would have persuaded me I'd be getting a better quality tool buy buying an older plane (such as one of the pre-mass production Stanley's) and renovating it than buying a cheap new one and expecting it to work miracles. – Matt Feb 6 '17 at 13:46
  • @Matt oh gotcha.. i didnt know "Faithful" was brand. – aaron Feb 6 '17 at 13:56
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The easiest way to check if the sole is flat is to turn the plane upside down and lay a trusted straight edge across it in various places and orientations. If you can see light coming thru between sole and straight edge -- assuming it isn't a grooved sole -- then it isn't flat.

There are articles/videos on the web that will guide you in flattening the sole. Generally they do assume you have a reasonably flat reference surface to support the sandpaper used to grind the sole flat.

The plane iron can probably also benefit from some flattening and honing, especially for inexpensive planes.

It should be possible to tune this up to get good performance from it.

  • Thanks. I mentioned The kitchen worktop piece as that will be relatively solid, and not flex. I think the budget will stretch to a steel rule or engineering square if looking for light gaps is easier. (And feeler guages wouldn't show if the sole was slightly hollow but had a level edge I guess.) – Matt May 24 '16 at 15:38
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    A 12"x12" marble tile can serve as an excellent base surface for flattening the sole. Find a flat slab using the straight edge test, place it on a fully supported surface, and place a piece of wet/dry sandpaper on its wetted surface. The surface tension will hold the paper in place as you begin working the surface to flat. – Ashlar May 25 '16 at 3:11
  • You can also find granite surface slabs at surprisingly reasonable prices -- not counting shipping cost, they are heavy -- if you want an excessively certified flat surface. – keshlam May 25 '16 at 4:34
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    For cheap, plate glass works very well. A tiny bit of oil (or water) will keep the sand paper down (and lubricate the proceedings). After a couple passes, you see the high spots as shiny and abraded and the low spots untouched. A table saw machined surface (or similar) will also work as a flat reference. – ewm May 26 '16 at 15:10
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This is going to run long so TL;DR warning.

I have a #5 faithfull handplane (don't judge me, I didn't know any better!)

No judgement here! Two Faithfull planes formed the core of my handplane collection when I started out and I use both still regularly. I actually rate the Faithfull planes as possibly the best of the budget planes available over here, in general they have noticeably better fit and finish than Silverline planes for example (although they too can be made to work well, see this video from Graham Haydon, Tuning Up a Cheap Handplane and note how surprised he was at how well it could be made to work).

Edit: I've just found out that Graham Haydon's videos have been removed from YouTube unfortunately.

All that waffle aside, I have some feeler guages and initially I want to check the sole of the plane for flatness. Will a piece of formica kitchen worktop be a flat enough reference surface to see how bad the plane sole is, or do I need to find something flatter (if so, what can I use that is likely to be found in an average house?)

You can put aside the feeler gauges for now. This is a 5, a jack plane, if used in its normal function it's not necessary for the sole to be absolutely flat. We should all remember that wooden planes were used for a very long time and their soles can't be expected to remain as flat as a machined piece of metal, and yet they did all that their owners required of them (and still can, there are abundant numbers of woodies of all sizes that are well over a century old and still just as capable as the day they were completed).

If you are lucky enough to buy a plane with a perfectly flat sole that's a good thing and the plane will work excellently.

However, many out-of-flat conditions on the sole of a plane are actually acceptable. Here are some examples, the coloured zones in each case indicating low spots:

Out-of-flat sole conditions

I want to be very clear here, all of the above are acceptable and the plane can function well depending upon what you need it to do.

The bottom two will cause consternation with some viewers, and the conventional wisdom is that a low mouth opening is a dealbreaker, but that's not always the case. If the plane is primarily used for rougher work (as some jacks are dedicated for, also very applicable to scrub planes) the low mouth is of no consequence to the plane's function.

Note: there are numerous other issues that can cause, or contribute to, a plane not functioning well. This includes sharpness, depth of cut, the position of the cap iron/chipbreaker in relation to the edge, how well the cap iron's leading edge is fettled and the size of the mouth (if the frog is set forwards shavings can easily be blocked from rising through the throat).

Then secondly, if the sole needs a lot of flattening, is that something I can easily do on a series of grades of Scotch paper glueued to the worktop, or am I just creating more problems for myself here?

Yes you can do this using paper if you decide it's needed. But instead of regular wet-and-dry paper I would recommend that you do, at minimum, the initial bulk removal using the type of paper sold in a roll as it's very strong and you can stretch a long length of it out, this makes the lapping go very much faster if there is a lot of material to remove. So instead of stroking the plane back and forth over 25cm (10") or so you can do it over 60cm or longer (well over 2'). And if you find you have a lot to remove start at 80 grit at minimum although beginning at 60 grit would not be a problem. You can actually start and stop at 80 grit if you want to, there's no need to work up to 220 and finer as many people do but that's a discussion for another day.

Since you mention your Formica worktop, yes that should be suitable. Although many people prefer to do this kind of work on glass or a scrap piece of polished granite worktop material should be flat enough as it is made very flat initially, is inherently very strong and stable and is kept flat by the framing that supports is. Somewhere along a length of kitchen work surface there should be an area flat enough for this kind of thing, but check with the edge of a long steel rule or aluminium spirit level to confirm.

Cost is more of an issue than time...

This is one reason to prefer the roll abrasives over sheets, it's usually far cheaper for a given run of paper. It also typically lasts longer, so you save in two ways. Resin-bonded paper like this can last a lot longer than an equivalent grit of silicone carbide paper (the dark grey stuff), outlasting it by as much as a factor of 10, although good and bad examples of both types of paper are out there.

I don't want to buy a lot of equipment that could end up on ebay in 2 years.

Other than the abrasives no equipment is actually needed for flattening a plane's sole. Although you can do some of the flattening using a mill file or machinist's file (and many machinists would recommend doing so) it is quite common today for woodworkers to do the entire job on abrasive paper, cloth or film.

Beyond flattening the sole
It's important to note that the sole is possibly not the only part of a plane that might need fettling. If you want to smooth out the leading or trailing edges of the mouth, or work on the mating of the frog to the body casting, these are usually jobs for a file, so at least a flat needle file or warding file can be useful, or a mid-size machinist's file.

Files can also be used for relieving sharp edges along the sides of the sole and for rounding the leading edge at the toe and the trailing edge at the heel, although that can be done perfectly well with abrasive paper too if preferred.

Some further reading with a range of opinions and perspectives on the issue:
Plane soles should be mostly flat from Paul Sellers.
Plane and Simple by Andy King, on Get Woodworking.
Tuning a Stanley Bailey Bench Plane on Finger Lakes Guitar Repair.
Plane Soles: Ham Hands Make Iron Bananas from Chris Schwarz on Popular Woodworking.
Troubleshoot Your Plane on Popular Woodworking.

  • Thats all very helpful, thanks for that. I apprecaite that other areas will need work as well, its just the sole seemd the place to start for me. The other issue I can easily see is that the adjustment wheel for plane depth works on on a Y piece to move the blade. This doesn't fit very well (Hard to explain) so I'll read the articles, and see if I can get this to work, or if I need to source a new one of those whlist I figure out the sole. – Matt May 27 '16 at 11:43

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