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Making A Dovetail Plane (Part II)


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Infill plane maker, C.R. Miller, takes a departure from building dovetailed planes to a plane made solely for the creation of sliding dovetails.

Fig. 10 - The basic body of the plane glued up. Note the angle of the bed and the tight mouth.

Where we last left off in Part I of this tutorial, the basic body blank had been cut and glued and the sole was ready for shaping. In this installment we'll go through the process of shaping the sole, cutting the slot for the slitter, gluing the fillet piece and fitting the blade and wedge.

After the center/side block assembly has dried, unclamp it from the vice. Give it a quick check to make sure that everything has stayed in alignment. If you used the "one-block-at-a-time" method then you should be OK, however if things are slightly off then now is the time to fix them. For the most part this just means taking the time to continually check the sole as you plane it.

If anything, you want the mouth of the plane to be tight (i.e. narrow) rather than too wide. If the cutting iron can't be inserted so that it protrudes through the mouth then that's OK, as the mouth can always be opened up. If the mouth is already too wide then there are ways around that as well. For instance, if the mouth is too wide then you may be able to 'pack out' the throat with a veneer or two of wood. If you've been careful with the glue up however then everything should be fine.

Planing The Sole

If you're satisfied with the glue up and the width of the mouth then its time to concentrate on the sole angle. For this particular plane I've set the angle at 10 degrees - that is to say 10 degrees from 90 degrees if you were to lay the plane on its side. To get a better idea of how it looks please refer to Figures 2, 3 and 4. In Fig. 11 the angle is shown from the toe, or front, of the plane, while in Figs. 12, 13 and 14 the view is from the rear of the plane.

Grab your trusty sliding bevel gauge and hold it up to a protractor. Once you've set it to a 10 degree angle (from 90 degrees), lock the blade in place. This effectively means that you've set the blade at an 80 or 100 degree angle, depending from which way you're looking at it. Once set, place the bevel on the toe of the plane and mark the angle. Do the same for the heel of the plane. Double check to make sure that the orientation of the angle is going the correct way, and again refer to the pictures for clarity. This is a very important step so you need to be certain that the angle is right before you start planing. A mistake here can prove to be costly.

Fig. 11 - The newly planed sole at 10 degrees. You can still see the bevel mark at the toe end (front) of the plane.

With your favorite smoother begin planing the sole of the dovetail plane. As with all planing keep in mind the direction of the grain so as to avoid tearout. The work can also be done with a block plane if desired. Take it slowly and keep checking with the bevel gauge until you cut across the full width, then plane down to the marked line. There's no actual need to remove the marked line at this stage as it makes for a nice reference point. However if you have scored the line rather than just marked it with a pencil or marker then you may want to remove it by planing.

It goes without saying that you need to be careful here. Try not to 'rock' the plane as you're planing the sole, otherwise accuracy will be compromised. This work can be done with a linisher or stationary belt sander, but that kinda takes the fun out of it a bit. Again, approach this with caution and take it slowly. Always check with the bevel, or a straight edge, continuously. Also be sure to try the fit of the cutting iron -- the one you'll be using in the dovetail plane I mean -- from time to time. Keep checking to make sure that everything is OK on that front and that the mouth of the plane remains nice and tight. Refer to the pictures below, particularly Fig. 13., for an indication.

Fig. 12 - Showing the sole angle from the heel, or rear, of the plane. Fig. 13 - A close-up of the sole angle from the heel end. Fig. 14 - The finished sole, again looking from the heel end.

Once the planing has been done, take some time to check things over -- angle, fit of the blade etc, etc. If all is good then proceed to the next step.

Cutting The Slot For The Nicker Iron

We now need to cut the groove in the side of the plane so we can fit a slitting, or nicker, knife. This knife is ahead of the main blade and is used to score the fibers of the board being cut so that the edge of the dovetail with be nice and clean and free of tearout. The last thing we need is a raggy edge on our work.

I've used a 1/8 inch wide grooving cutter from a Record No. 043 for the slitting cutter in this plane, but any small cutter will do. Like the main cutter blade, the slitter is wedged to hold it in place.

I've set the bed of the groove for the slitter at an 80 degree angle, at a distance of 1-1/4 inches from the front (toe) of the plane. Unlike the main cutting iron the bed is angled back from the toe. This is so that the slitting cutter will make a trailing cut, or score, rather than a leading one.

Fig. 15 - The slot for the slitting cutter has been cut and cleaned. Fig. 16 - View from the sole. Fig. 17 - Another angle showing the mouth and slitting groove.

Mark out the 80 degree angle on the side of the plane, then mark out the secondary angle just in front of it. This turned out to be around 70 degrees in the case of this particular plane, but it largely depends on the size of slitter you're using and the wedge needed to hold it. It should also be noted that the bevel for the slitter faces towards the plane body and is at right angles to the main cutting iron. This is because the purpose of the slitter is to score across the fibers to be cut, rather than cutting and lifting any actual shavings out through the throat. In this regard no real clearance is necessary.

Once the slot has been marked out, remove the waste by sawing along the inside edge and finishing with a 1/16 inch or 1/8 inch chisel. Resist the temptation to cut the slot out with your table saw unless you really, really know what you're doing. Even then I wouldn't recommend it! There's little point in trying to cut corners here as the results could be catastrophic, project-wise.

Check the slot with your cutter for fit. You don't want the slot to be too tight or too loose. The outside edge of the cutter needs to be below the height of the side face of the plane so that the fillet piece - which you cut out earlier in Part I - can be glued to the plane without fouling on the cutter. If everything checks out OK you can then glue, position and clamp the fillet piece in place.

Final Shaping And Refining Of The Plane Body

It's now time to apply some aesthetics to the plane body. Not only are these important from a visual perspective, but also from a practical one. After all, the plane has to feel right in your hands if you are to do good work. At the very least, corners and edges need to be rounded off in some way - though the edge of the sole should remain crisp throughout.

For this plane i've allowed for fairly wide side chamfers along the top edge, and running halfway down the sides at the front and back. To do this I've used a range of bastard and mill files, before finishing with scrapers and sanding. The chamfers terminate in nicks, or eyes, at the heel and toe. I've also rounded the top of the heel, again with files, so that the plane fits nicely in my hand.

The top of the toe is just lightly 'broken' so that its not too sharp. The same goes for the outside edge of the step, though the top surface of the step itself is filed, scraped and sanded to a concave shape. These edges could be rounded over more if you really wanted it, but I prefer a more traditional look. As long as the plane feels good in your hands and looks the way you want it to, you're fine.

Fig. 18 - Rounding over and refining the shape of the heel. It's important to have a comfortable and nicely fitting grip as you use the plane, so shape the back to reflect this. Fig. 19 - Cleaning up the step. Again it's important that it feels comfortable in your hand so spend a little time here to refine the shape to your liking. Fig. 20 - If you look closely you can see the concave shape on the top edge of the step, along with the chamfers on the rest of the plane. Traditionally some edges you want crisp, such as the sole, while others are rounded over or chamfered.

Cutting And Fitting The Cutting Irons And Wedges

The cutting irons now need shaping and refining. Because the main cutter is skewed, the side edges of it need to be relieved so that it will fit into the mouth of the plane. To do this you will need to grind each alternate side edge to its correct profile. Looking from the heel to the toe of the plane, the left side of the cutting iron needs to be ground on the bottom edge, while the right side of the cutter needs to be ground on the top edge. This work can be done with an angle grinder or power sander, and keep in mind that the blade will heat up as you grind, so be careful - particularly near the bevelled cutting edge. The last thing you want to do is draw the temper of the steel.

The nicker iron is bedded on its side - that is the bevel edge runs from front to back, unlike a normal plane. The only shaping that needs to be done, therefore, is a gentle rounding over. This is to ensure that there are no sharp corners that can dig in to the work being planed. It also makes it easier for the plane to 'glide' across the work.

The next step is to start work on the wedges. A simple wedge profile is shown in Fig. 22. You can use the same wood as you used for the body of the plane or anything else you have lying around. I've used a piece of contrasting wood for this one. Keep in mind that it will need to be wider by about 3/16 of an inch than the width of the mouth, as it too will need to have the sides relieved to allow for the skew of the cutter. Likewise, the method of shaping the wedge is similar to that of the main cutter. Keep testing the fit of the wedge as you plane it to size.

For this particular plane i've used a piece of Australian timber called 'gutta percha' which is found in the far north of the country. It's probably not the most suitable material for wedge making, though there's nothing intrinsically wrong with it.

The wedge for the nicker can be made of wood, bone, metal, plastic or any other hard material. Many makers of times past used boxwood. It should be noted that this wedge is quite thin and, therefore, fragile so choose your material wisely. Again i've used 'gutta percha' for the wedge of the nicker. I can always re-make the wedge if it proves unsatisfactory.

Some Thoughts On Fences

Initially I wasn't concerned about a fence for this particular plane, but i've since had second thoughts on that. Normally I would've just clamped a piece of timber across the workpiece to act as a straight-edge and then have the side face of the plane bear up against it but, in retrospect, that's a little crude. It's also a bit limiting.

Having said that, a complicated fence is not necessary. All is required is a piece of wood, or metal, screwed to the underside of the dovetail plane. The fence can be a fixed one, if you're only going to do the same sized sliding dovetails, or it can be an adjustable one. It's up to you. E.C.E. makes their fence from a piece of angled steel, but aluminum or brass can also be used. Keep in mind though that, if you are planing light colored woods, the brass may mark the finished work.

The approach is simple. If you only want a fixed fence then all you need to do is drill a couple of holes through it and into the sole of the plane. Be careful to make sure that the fence is properly aligned though. If, however, you require an adjustable fence then the holes through it will need to be slotted to allow for this. Make sure that you drill the holes for the screws straight, otherwise the fence will bind. Traditionally slotted cheesehead screws would be used to secure the fences of planes past, but these are hard to find nowadays. Makeshift cheese-headed screws can be made by slotting an ordinary hex wood screw and then filing the hex edges round. The screws can then be put in the chuck of a drill press for final filing if necessary.

In the end I decided to make two fences for this plane - one out of wood and one out of aluminum (though with a wood facing). The bearing face of the fence needs to be angled by 10 degrees so that it sits flush with the edge of the work as you're planing. Refer to Fig. 25 for a picture of this.

Likewise an adjustable depth stop can also be made from either wood or metal in the same manner, though the angle only needs to be at 90 degrees for this. Again you can use a fixed stop but its limiting at best. Again i've made two different stops - one from wood and one from metal - for this plane to help give some indication of what can be done.

Final Finishing

Though some may desire it, there's no need to apply a finish to this plane at all. The bare wood is sufficient enough, as it will soon take on a patina from use. If you do wish to protect it more, then a light oil or wax finish is enough. You could shellac or varnish it, but I don't believe it's necessary unless you're not going to use it that often and live in a climate that's rather harsh on woodworking tools. If that's the case then you'll want to protect it a bit more.

To use the plane, simply adjust the fence to suit the sliding dovetail you wish to cut. Set the depth stop to the depth you require and plane away. Like a normal dado, plow, or grooving plane, it's easier to start the cut from the far end, planing forward but gradually re-positioning the plane back towards you, rather than plane from the nearest end to you as in the conventional planing manner. As you start to near the correct depth you can then switch and start planing in the normal way.

Part I of this tutorial,

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