I've never used a hand plane before, but recently decided to give hand planing a go. I purchased a Lie-Nielsen No. 5 Jack Plane. For a project to experiment with, I threw together a simple long grain cutting board made with alternating maple and walnut - smoothed first through a machine surface planer.

I had this idea that I would be able to run the hand plane over the surface of the (already smooth) cutting board and peel off whisper-thin shavings. Especially with a new plane and a new blade. Unfortunately, I can't find the sweet-spot between "the blade's not even touch the wood" and "there's no coming back from a gouge that deep..."

So where do I go from here? Is my flaw entirely technique and I just need to keep practicing? Or does an out-of-the-box blade need to be "sharpened" first? Maybe just a tool setup issue? Or, have I selected an inherently difficult practice project (or inherently difficult for a jack plane)?

4 Answers 4


I had this idea that I would be able to run the hand plane over the surface of the (already smooth) cutting board and peel off whisper-thin shavings.

Yes that is exactly what you should be able to do so don't despair you haven't bought into something that isn't going to deliver what you want.

Incidentally since you got a no. 5, or jack plane, it's not always used for this task. Some users do like them as longer smoothers but the primary traditional use for a plane of this size was to roughly dimension stock or take off a rough exterior before moving on to a fore or try plane to flatten, followed by final smoothing using a smoothing plane roughly the size of a no. 3 or 4 modern hand plane.

Unfortunately, I can't find the sweet-spot between "the blade's not even touch the wood" and "there's no coming back from a gouge that deep..."

Is my flaw entirely technique and I just need to keep practicing?

This isn't a technique issue, the plane itself should be capable of preventing this from happening. There's a 100% chance this is a setup issue and a 95% further chance that it's to do with the cap iron or chipbreaker.

Oddly, although everyone will recommend honing as step one in addressing planing issues this probably isn't a sharpness issue. L-N's are shipped sharp I believe and while it's likely that you can get the iron sharper than they send it out in practice it's not necessary for a plane iron to be super-duper sharp as I've mentioned in a few previous Answers.

For a plane iron sharp enough to cleanly slice paper is sufficient for most work, only the very finest work requires a shaving-sharp edge or finer than that (hair-poppingly sharp) because of the action of the cap iron. It's very different in a single-iron plane where absolute sharpness is key to performance.

By all means give the iron a quick hone if you want, sharper certainly won't hurt, but as I say there's an extremely good chance the problem lies with your setting of the cap iron.

Cap iron/chipbreaker setting
As you're using your no. 5 as a smoothing plane you ignore the typical written advice on how far back to set the cap iron from the edge for a jack and set it exactly as per the advice for smoothing planes.

As I mention in previous Answers the ideal setting for smoothing work is very close to the edge, specifically 1/64" (0.4mm) or less*. You won't be able to measure this reliably so just learn to do it by eye, it's easy after just a little practise.

You might benefit from some other information in those previous Answers so I'll link to them here:
hand plane controls (bevel down)
Different ways to set up a Number 4 bench plane
Fettling a hand plane

Fettling the cap iron
I don't know with an L-N whether this is needed but in addition to the setting of the cap iron you may need to perform the basic initial setup of its leading edge to ensure that it mates perfectly with the back of the iron. One or more of the links provided in the above Answers has information on how to do that so I won't try to describe it here.

So if the cap iron needs fettling do that. Then set it very close to the edge, reinstall the irons, adjust for a light cut and you should be able to plane away to your heart's content. And incidentally if you can get it set just so you won't need to worry about grain direction!

*When the traditional setting for a jack plane was something on the order of 1/16"-1/8" (1.6mm-3mm) or even more than that

  • Thank you for the great reply. This is a stock low-angle jack plane (no 62), so it doesn't have a chip breaker. The cap iron sits well back from the blade edge. Your post helped me take a look at my setup again. I haven't been able to fully solve the tearout issue, but was able to reduce the problem. First, getting the mouth as absolutely tight as the shaving will allow. Second, follow the LN directions more carefully/precisely about how to adjust the blade depth. Now better, but not perfect. I am planning to try a steeper angled blade next to see where that takes me.
    – James
    Apr 9, 2017 at 23:34
  • "This is a stock low-angle jack plane (no 62)," oh crap, I was hoping it was just the normal 5! A lot of what I've posted above doesn't at all apply then, because bevel-up planes work very differently to bevel-down. "I am planning to try a steeper angled blade next to see where that takes me." is this done with a steeper frog or do you just get an iron where the bevel is at a steeper angle?
    – Graphus
    Apr 10, 2017 at 8:41
  • Oh one more thing for the future, bevel-up planes are far more sensitive to sharpness being an issue than bevel-down, so you will want to make sure you've honed well before starting and keep the iron touched up during a longer work session.
    – Graphus
    Apr 10, 2017 at 8:43
  • My bad for not being specific about "low angle". The out-of-box cutting angle is 37deg (12 + 25). Reading directions and understanding them are two different things. I now fully understand what this next quote is all about:
    – James
    Apr 10, 2017 at 13:02
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    The trick to getting the most out of this plane is to have multiple blades honed to different angles for a variety of tasks. For example: 25° for end grain work, 33° for smoothing, 38° for tackling wavy grain with less tear out, a Toothed Blade for aggressive removal of material with less effort, and a 90° Scraper Blade.
    – James
    Apr 10, 2017 at 13:03

Odds are your that your plane is not sharp enough and is not correctly set yet for your project. A quick test is to attempt shaving a few hairs off of your arm with the iron. If the blade tugs instead of shaves, you need to sharpen it further.

There are plenty of questions and answers on this site that discuss problems and techniques for planing success. Check out the "related questions" list that pops up when you select your specific question to find more. You can also use select the tag to find other questions on planing or use the search option for keywords such as "tearout". There are also quite a few instructional videos available online that can help you develop your personal technique.

Regarding sharpening, I would first say that regardless of how sharp the plane iron may be out of the box, you are going to need to resharpen it very quickly, I have sharpened irons several times in a day when doing a lot of hand work. (Although intitial sharpening can take a while, touching up the iron can be done in under a minute). So you are going to need a sharpening system right away. Popular sharpening systems include diamond or waterstone surfaces in multiple grits ranging from approx 800 to 2200 grit, and may be done solely by hand or using a honing guide to assist your handling of the plane iron.

While a Lie-Nielsen plane may be better out of the box then many brands, most hand plane enthusiasts will perform additional tuning steps to insure the plane is properly set for best performance. Note that pros use different planes in different sizes and configurations for different tasks. Setup tasks include checking the bottom for flatness, verifying the frog is properly set to provider the correct throat clearance for the iron, setting the plane iron cap (chip breaker) to the proper offset to the plane iron edge for the plane's intended usage, and insuring that the blade is fully sharpened top and bottom. Discussing how to performing each of these steps properly could fill a page or more of text so I would suggest that you check out a few youtube videos first and come back with specific questions. Paul Sellers has some good introductory videos on planing that should help.

One other consideration is that not all wood is easily planed. The problem is not so much the species as it is the orientation of the grain. If you plane against the grain you increase the risk of tear out. You avoid this by planing with the grain (the grain lines move up out of the wood as you move along). There are plenty of answers on this site addressing this problem as well.

  • 1
    Just on this bit, "the grain lines move down into the wood as you move along" the grain lines should rise out of the wood pointing away from the user. As you've described it they would be pointing up towards them which is what leads to tearout city for most people.
    – Graphus
    Apr 5, 2017 at 8:36
  • @Graphus Oops :) My excuse is that it late when I wrote this. Thanks for the error catch. I edited my answer.
    – Ashlar
    Apr 5, 2017 at 17:42
  • Thank you for the reply. I am nervous about sharpening it. The instructions call for using a jig to ensure the blade is square. IFor what it's worth, the instructions says its "sharp and ready to use out of the box". And the blade I'm holding does seem quite sharp. Not "lets try shaving hair" sharp. But maybe "can dice tomatoes" sharp.
    – James
    Apr 9, 2017 at 23:38
  • Sharpening is not a big deal, so you can relax. Any iron will require sharpening in short order so sharpening them quickly becomes second nature. If the iron is still fairly sharp it can be touched up using only the finest of your sharpening stones. I suggest you do some research and watch a few videos to get the idea behind various approaches and ask your questions on this site.
    – Ashlar
    Apr 10, 2017 at 3:27

Little to add to two excellent answers except opinions:

You just got your driver's license and you are driving a Bentley. Not a bad thing, except that you will never get to experience the magic of going from a Mercury Montego to a Bentley.

Shaving whispers of wood is a basic skill. But it's still a skill that has to be learned. That takes time. Hang in there.

This plane of yours will serve you and the generations that follow you. If you heed Graphus and Ashlar, it will serve you well.


An addition to existing answers. I used to surface complexly grained woods such as Brazilian Rosewood for guitar backs and sides with planes.

Run the plane over the stock at an angle such that the blade makes a 30-45 degree angle with the direction of the plane. The more erratic the grain, the steeper the angle. This will not remedy improper plane adjustments but will yield smoother results especially in your example of alternating woods that are not likely to have their grain uniform and aligned.

Pull the plane rather than push. This offers more control and is less tiring.

Resort to cabinet scrapers for the finish "planing". (This, however, does present the challenge of properly sharpening and burnishing a scraper.)

Very lightly "round" the outer ends of the blade, maybe on the order of 0.2 mm. I suspect I may get arguments on this but I find it minimizes the propensity of the blade to furrow into the wood when the blade is less than perfectly square.

  • thank you. I am going to get a higher-angled blade to try out. I read a wood whisperer article that acknowledged this point. And since I am practicing on a cutting board with mixed maple and walnut grains, a steeper angle could be quite helpful.
    – James
    Apr 9, 2017 at 23:41
  • @James. Yes, yet another vairiable. However, I was refering to drawing the plane such that its length makes an angle with the direction of travel. I find this less likely to tear out when the grain varies.
    – bpedit
    Apr 10, 2017 at 2:22
  • Ahhhh, I see. Yes, I had discovered the plane-to-grain angle helped. Maybe not less tear out (yet), but definitely less force required to move the plane. And, with deeper cuttting, less likely to get fully burried/halted.
    – James
    Apr 10, 2017 at 2:55

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