Block Plane Selection and Rehabilitation

by Bob Smalser

This article first appeared as a thread on theWoodNet woodworking forum. It was compiled and reproduced here for easier public consumption. All Text and Images are the property of Bob Smalser.

I gave my heirloom Stanley #60 away to the oldest boy awhile back thinking my larger Stanley #65 alone would suffice, and miss not having a small plane for the apron pocket.

So for 60 bucks at auction I bought some antique tool dealer's collection of rejects. lesser planes, a minor chip here and there, stubby irons or missing parts. At the top are a crude Stanley #110 on the left and Sargent's idea of a low-angle block on the adjustable mouth, but too large for my hand and too little support for the iron. At the bottom from left to right are two, more desirable Stanley #60 1/2 low-angle blocks, a Stanley #65 also with a low-angle, 12-degree bed, and a standard-angle Stanley # 9 with a 20-degree bed, all with adjustable mouths. I'll rehab them all and sell or give away what I don't need. I order the parts required from Stanley.eccentric levers ($2.00), a replacement iron ($6.00) and miscellaneous screws from their catalog: Stanley Hand Tool Parts Catalog

I dismantle them and toss them into a phosphoric acid solution overnight. The acid attacks the rust without touching iron or steel, and leaves behind a protective coating of iron phosphate in pits and recesses, inhibiting further rust. I much prefer this rust removal method to any other for tools used in damp boat sheds.

A day later all rust has been converted to sticky crud that has to be cleaned off.

I begin with a coarse wire wheel, followed by a bath in hot soapy water with a small wire brush to clean the recesses, a good rinse, and drying over mild heat:

I take these back to the buffer grinder to clean off the after-rust developing on the flat surfaces where I scrubbed off all the iron phosphate using a fine wire wheel..

.with special cleaning attention with a Dremel Tool given to the critical bed and mouth areas.

I buff the exterior surfaces to a shine using green rouge.

And degrease with mineral spirits followed by strong trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen, so here I wear gloves, which are also necessary to keep my oily fingerprints out of the blued finish.

I then cold blue the parts using phosphate blue ( This solution hides rust staining, inhibits further rust, but most importantly is an index dye for the critical stages of flattening irons and soles.

Before sharpening I check my stones for flat using 60-grit wet-or-dry paper on a precision-ground, cast-iron surface like this jointer table. A couple strokes done dry allows sighting down the stone to find any hollows still shining amid the stone dust made by the abrasive paper. If I have to flatten the stone I use kerosene as a lube and rub the stone till until I have a perfectly flat surface. I'll never get a good edge without perfectly-flat iron backs, and I'll never achieve flat backs without flat stones.

As you can see by the indexing blue remaining after initial honing of the backs, all of these irons will require more work on the coarse stone to make the blue near the cutting edge disappear. If the iron back isn't dead flat at the cutting edge, the high spots (relative to the sole) with blue remaining won't get as sharp and won't attack the wood uniformly with the remainder of the edge.the plane drags in use, and the cuts aren't smooth.

Common after flattening these old irons is to wind up with high spots at the corners of the cutting edge that simply won't go away.

I could simply grind the iron back a few millimeters, but this iron doesn't have much life left so I simply hone a slight back bevel or 2 degrees or less into iron's back until the blue at the corners disappears.

This blued iron is adequately flat far enough back to accommodate a number of quick resharpenings without having to mount another major attack on the back.

Once more to the jointer table with 60-grit lubed with WD-40, I attack the plane soles. First I mount the iron and set the adjustable mouth to the position in which it will be used the most often, and then remove the iron to flatten the entire sole assembly. You can see how badly this Sargent's sole is out of flat by the index dye remaining. This one is pretty bad, and will take two sheets of 60-grit followed by a sheet of 100-grit to make true. I flip plane ends around every few strokes to make sure I'm flattening the sole as evenly as possible.

Few are as bad as that Sargent, but when they are that bad, keep in mind that soles don't have to be absolutely perfect like iron backs do. Just the toe, both sides of the mouth and heel need to be in the same plane to do fine work. In fact, Japanese planes are purposely set up with hollows in between my inked ovals to reduce friction. Much of the chattering woodworkers complain about in Stanleys isn't because the iron is dull or too thin, but because the critical area behind the mouth is in a hollow and is unsupported by the work piece....just like an entire third of the Sargent's mouth is in a hollow. Indexing dye makes a huge difference in how well you flatten, and flat is what makes the plane work well..or fail to. If you aren't using it, you may not be flattening as well as you think you are.

I'll do some trial work using three fettled planes. From the left, a stock #60 I just finished above, my old standby #65, and a near-new Lie Nielsen #60 low-angle rabbeting block plane. I checked out and finish-honed the L/N using the above techniques, which took only 10 minutes as these are as close to perfect as you can get.

My 15-dollar #60 has its stock carbon iron ($6.00), my #65 a thicker Hock carbon replacement iron ($35.00), and the L/N a thicker-still iron of A2 steel ($150.00 complete). The L/N is one heavy block plane..two or three ounces heavier than my large #65. It is more suitable for a leather holster than an apron pocket.

I set the mouths up for combination work removing both end grain and long grain hardwood. One of the limitations of this model L/N is that the mouth is a bit tight for heavy cuts in boatbuilding softwoods, placing it at a I'll compare the planes using White Oak instead.

The stock, 70-year-old #60 had no trouble at all making end grain cuts in White Oak.

Neither did the pre-war #65 with Hock iron.

Nor did the L/N. I even tried my stock, standard-angle #18 on the far right on the oak end grain and it pared it adequately too..just not as effortlessly as the low-angle models.

Will the stock #60 take full-width shavings of tough oak edge grain? You bet. Easily and all morning long.

So will the #65.

.and the L/N.

.but here's where the stock #18 shines. As cheap as the old, standard-angle block planes go for, don't be without a #18 or #9 to match your low-angle #65 or #60 . In the middle of a project you'll sharpen half as often.

How long will the different makes of iron stay sharp? L/N's A2 steel with chromium and molybdenum added is tougher and will hold its edge longer. The only down side to A2 is that it doesn't take quite the edge that good carbon does. Not by much though, and after a couple hours of work dulling both, I can barely tell the difference. But when freshly honed I can feel a difference, and if I were to go to A2 irons I'd try diamond paste on an indexing plate instead of stones. In the inevitable compromise between how sharp, how easy to sharpen and how long it remains sharp, my ideal remains Hock carbon.but as you can see, I stumble along just fine with stock Stanley.

And as a rabbet plane, this L/N hasn't enough depth for anything deeper than a quarter inch, although it would work well as a shoulder plane for crossgrain work on small tenons. If you need a rabbet plane, buy a rabbet plane. An inexpensive, old Stanley #78, Record #078 or Miller Falls #80 can be made to work as well as the #60 here. Let my friend Jake Darvall in Australia teach you how to fettle them.

These techniques work equally well on newly manufactured Stanley block planes, which also can be made to work well. Pre-war Stanleys are generally less expensive and better made, however. When selecting tools for boatbuilding, keep in mind that teaching yourself to clean, flatten and sharpen can free up the money you need for all those other tools you need but don't yet have.

Additional detail on sharpening, bluing and fettling is found here:

Smalser articles on Woodcentral

Smalser articles on Woodcentral II

Smalser articles on WoodenBoat Forum


Return to How-To Index

Return to Woodworking

©2007 Cian Perez /