Getting a Hand Plane Ready for Use

Woodworkers that prefer to use hand tools affectionately refer to themselves as Neanderthals, a nod to the first human users of tools. I don’t fall into that category myself, never having met a power tool I didn’t like, and leaning in preference to those that make the most dust and noise . But even power tool aficionados that make stringed musical instruments need to use hand planes now and again. I couldn’t imagine getting along without a low angle block plane or a #5.

Planes are not ready to use right out of the box – they require some preparation before they can be used effectively the first time. I have to admit that I never used to do this, being too impatient to go through the recommended procedures when I first got a new plane. Of course this meant that the thing never worked very well when I needed it. By the way, if my purchases of used tools are any indication, no one else seems to bother to tune their planes either. I've never bought a used plane that had its sole lapped. Now that I have a quick way to get planes ready to use all my planes are in good shape and (surprise) my planing technique has improved dramatically too. Described here is a very fast method for getting a plane in working order using a horizontal stationary belt sander, a tool which is very common in lutherie shops. With the common 6" x 48" belt sander you can tune any size plan up to a #5. You’ll need 100, 180, and 320 grit belts. If you plan on using your belt sander for much sharpening and lapping it would be worth it to buy some silicon carbide (black) belts as the lapping will wear out the aluminum oxide (brown) belts pretty quickly.

Warning! The method described herein may (will) upset the sensibilities of any right thinking hand tool aficionado. Read on at your own risk. BTW, if you want to know anything at all about Stanley hand planes, check out Patrick Leach's great website.

Last updated: September 11, 2018

The first thing to do is retract the blade so it is not extended out of the mouth. Don't remove the blade, just retract it. This way the plane body will be under the same stresses when you lap the sole as it will be when you use the thing. Is this really important? I don't have the measuring tools to tell, but what the heck, its just as easy to do it this way.

Put a 100 grit belt on the sander, turn it on, and lap the bottom of the plane until it is flat and all the grinding marks have been replaced with 100 grit scratches. Check your progress often. Move the plane around while you do this. If it gets too hot let it rest for a bit before continuing. Safety tip: Turn the dust collector OFF when you are grinding metal!

If the sole is really out of shape and you can't get it flat with 30 seconds or so of grinding like this, switch to a 60 grit belt, then go back to the 100 when the sole is flat.

Change to a 180 grit belt and lap again, removing all the 100 grit scratches. Change to a 320 grit belt and lap again, removing the 180 grit scratches. Again, if it gets too hot let it rest for a bit.

All this lapping can make the edges sharp. Round over the side edges by rocking the edges on the moving 320 grit belt.

Round over the front and back edges by hand using 320 grit sandpaper wrapped around a dowel or small block of wood.

Now it’s time to lap and hone the blade. This is also done on the belt sander with the 320 grit belt, but with the machine TURNED OFF. Lap the back of the blade by rubbing it around in circles on the belt. It doesn’t take too long to do this, even by hand. It is not necessary to get the whole back of the blade well lapped. Concentrate on the area about 1" from the cutting edge.

Once the first inch or so of the back of the blade has a nice shine to it and all grinding marks are gone, you can hone the blade. Hold the blade at the angle of the sharpened surface and push it a few times across the belt, again with the sander turned off. Push at an angle to the movement of the belt to keep the belt from moving. If you want to use a honing guide to hold the blade at the proper angle, go ahead.

The blade comes from the factory hollow ground, but there is no need to flatten out the entire hollowed surface. Just make sure you have honed it enough so that there is an obvious flat at the cutting edge. As you hone the blade again and again as it dulls with use, you’ll eventually remove the entire hollow surface.

Raise the angle about 10° and give it one more push across the belt to put a nice double bevel on it. Turn it over flat on its back and give it one more lapping push to remove any wire edge. Once you start honing on your belt sander you may never want to go back to stones again. The surface is big, flat (yours is flat isn’t it?), and as sharp as your belt is new, plus the thing doesn’t need to be held or clamped down.

Polishing the blade will make a significant improvement in its performance. The quickest way to do this that I have found is to use a hard felt wheel on a bench grinder and chromium oxide (green) compound.

By the way, the wheel in the picture is moving counter clockwise, so the surface is moving AWAY from the edge of the blade. Putting a blade onto a wheel so that the surface is moving into the edge of the blade is inviting death. Don't do it!

If you don’t have a bench grinder you can polish with the same compound and a piece of leather or even a flat piece of wood. But the machine is a lot quicker.

Put the plane back together and it is ready to use. Total time: 5 minutes. Hone and polish the blade again as necessary with use.


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