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Building A Shepherd Smoother

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While in business, the Shepherd Tool Company sold some 1000 kits and 450 finished infill planes of various descriptions, including smoothers, jointers, chariot planes and shoulder planes. The kits proved to be an affordable way for many woodworkers and beginner plane makers to embark on making their first hand plane. Woodworker Steve B. explains how he went about building his own handplane from a Shepherd smoother plane kit.

For some time I had gazed at images of various infill planes with lust, but could not afford a new Holtey or an old Norris or Spiers. However my desire for such a plane seemed a few steps closer when I came across the web site of Shepherd Tool Company.

After browsing the web looking for further references to Shepherd and their wares, I decided to buy their Spiers #7 Smoother kit with brass sidewalls. The photographs that I'd seen of completed planes, and the reports of some people who had actually built the kit were very compelling. I started to get quite excited!

I placed my order for a Shepherd smoother in September 2005, and the charge was debited to my credit card. After more than two months had passed, and after many unanswered or misleading e-mails with Ben Knebel, one of the co-founders of Shepherd, I started dealing with Doug Evans, the other Shepherd co-founder. Unfortunately Doug wasn't much more forthcoming.

Towards the end of the year, rumours started circulating about the seemingly decreasing financial viability of Shepherd. Regrettably, these rumours proved true, and Shepherd ceased trading in February 2006. Although I'd been charged for the kit, I wasn't really expecting to ever see it. Miracles do happen!

Building A Shepherd Smoother
A layout of all the components in the Shepherd kit.

In early May I received the kit from Shepherd, but it was with mixed feelings that I reviewed the contents of the kit. Some pieces were very well produced, such as the sidewall jigs, but some were pretty ordinary, such as the sidewalls themselves, which looked as if they'd been cut out by a particularly bad tempered Grizzly. The instructions that accompanied the kit were generally quite good, but most of the illustrations and diagrams were completely indecipherable because of very poor photocopying.

After doing some web searches, I managed to find a couple of sites that provided reviews of the build process for Shepherd smoother kits, complete with some illustrations and comments. Although I couldn't find one that dealt with building a Spiers #7 infill kit, I did find one for other Shepherd kits by Ian Dalziel, and printed it out. These proved invaluable.

The build commences

Building A Shepherd Smoother
While the instructions were OK, many of the illustrations and diagrams suffered from very poor photocopying.

A couple of months passed from receiving the kit to me actually starting work on it. I will admit to being somewhat nervous about tackling the build as I hadn't done any metalwork since my school-days -- and that was farther back than I'd care to admit. When Shepherd were still operating, they offered a charge-free replacement of either the sole plate or the sidewalls if something went badly wrong (the exception being the model with the brass sidewalls, of which my example was one, where a small charge would be levied). However, as Shepherd was now insolvent, this safety-net didn't exist for me. No second chances!

Fettling the dovetails

Probably the most intimidating aspect about making the Shepherd smoother was the fitting and peening of the compound dovetails that lock the sole and sidewalls together. As it turned out, this proved to be one of the easier tasks. The fitting of the dovetails involved making some filing: two small wooden blocks, one of the ends cut at 15 degrees and the other at 5 degrees. These were used to provide a sighting line for filing, a process which involved simutaneously filing at either 15 degrees left or right, and 5 degrees in or out. This sounds more complicated than it was, but I did practice a bit on some scrap first.

Preparing the Tooling Block Buck and Cauls

Building A Shepherd Smoother
The side plates temporarily bolted to the buck block.

Since the sidewalls were to be peened to the sole plate, a process that involves some fairly heavy hammering, it was necessary to make up a tooling block. This would serve to keep the sidewalls parallel and at a prescribed distance from each other, and also, with the aid of the alignment jigs, ensure that the assembly would remain aligned during the peening. I chose to use Beech for the tooling block, a dense hard wood that would provide the proper support and not be compressed by the loads imposed during peening.

It is essential that the tooling block be precisely the width of the sole plate inside the cut-outs for the dovetails, i.e. the width of the interior of the plane. To do this I cut the tooling block to length from some oversize stock, and then trued up two of the faces so that they were exactly perpendicular to each other and straight. I then cut the block almost to width on the table saw and carried out final dimensioning with a hand plane. By doing it this way rather than on a jointer, I could sneak up on the size needed in very small increments. It's definitely worth spending some time in getting this right, as any inaccuracies would be disastrous. To double check on the dimensions provided in the instructions, I used a digital vernier gauge to measure the cut-out to cut-out width of the sole plate, and double-double checked my measuring the width of the two partly machined infill pieces of wood -- Cocobolo in my case.

Building A Shepherd Smoother
Filing the dovetails with the filing angle guide clamped in place.

To secure the sidewalls to the tooling buck, the instructions required that pair of cauls also be made. The instructions were quite explicit and clear about the dimensions for the jig components, but one issue that I faced were some very unusual dimensions (e.g. 2.356" or 1.1780") that just didn't make any sense, so I checked the material gleaned from the web-published reviews, and some light dawned.

I drilled the two transverse 1/2 diameter holes through the cauls and the tooling block using the dimensions provided, and to guarantee accuracy used one of the jig plates as a template.

Basically the sidewalls are fitted to the sole plate and placed onto the tooling block with the sidewalls located on the jig plates, then the provided bolts passed through one caul, one jig plate, then through the tooling block, the other jig plate and the other caul, and nipped up, but not fully tightened up at this stage.

Building A Shepherd Smoother
Close up of the angle guide.

I next drilled two vertical holes in the tooling block, each one about 3/8" from the ends of the sole plate. These accommodate a pair of lug screws, which anchor the sole plate to the block with fender washers. I used some clamps to press everything together tightly, checking for sidewall parallelism, and squareness of the sole to them, then tightened the clamping bolts. It's important that these be done up very tightly to prevent any movement of the various elements during the peening process, and of course that everything is properly aligned. If any movement were to occur during the hammering, things could get very ugly very quickly.


Building A Shepherd Smoother
Sole and side plates bolted to the assembly block, ready for peening.

This process, which at first seemed to be quite intimidating, actually proved to be pretty straightforward.

I'd bought a 12" x 12" x 2" block of mild steel that had been milled flat on both faces to use as a form of anvil for the peening and riveting. This will be handy to have in the shed for other things later on, but I sure wouldn't want to drop it on my feet!

The sidewalls are peened first, driving the brass so that flows into the dovetail cut-outs in the sole, then following the hammering order prescribed in the instructions, the sole plate is peened to each sidewall. It really pays to do as the instructions say and use a few strong blows rather than a lot of lighter ones, especially with the brass, otherwise it tends to work harden.

Building A Shepherd Smoother
Another angle, showing the cauls that hold the side plates firmly to the buck block.

To be honest, I didn't find peening the mild steel of the sole any harder than the brass of the sidewalls. I did find that judicious use of a small flat nosed punch helped to push the metal into any gaps that simple peening didn't fill. It was really quite satisfying to see how the metals quickly flowed together.

The end result of about twenty minutes worth of hammering was one ugly looking lump of metal! I think I almost gave up at that point as I couldn't see how I was ever going to transform the mess into something that would have even a passing resemblance to the plane I wanted.

Filing. The beginning of a lot of filing

The next stage of my smoother build process involved a few hours worth of filing, removing the high spots and bringing the sides and sole to a reasonable facsimile of flatness. The instructions were quite explicit about getting these to a point of flatness then stopping.

Getting the plane body off the tooling buck required the use of a spreader (made up from some threaded bar and a couple of washers and nuts) to gently ease the sidewalls apart a fraction. The instructions mentioned that this was a possibility.

Installing and fettling the throat plate

Building A Shepherd Smoother
Peening done and ready for clean-up.

In earlier editions of Shepherd's kits, the throat plate was just a block of metal that the assembler had to carefully file to shape, including the face of the plate that supports the iron. In the version that I received, Shepherd had made a sizeable improvement by supplying a machined and pre-drilled block. Unfortunately the holes in the throat plate and the also pre-drilled ones in the sole in this particular Shepherd smoother kit didn't quite line up. My remedy for this was to bolt the throat plate to the sole using the centre hole, align the iron support face of the block to the cut-out in the sole plate, tighten and clamp, then carefully drill through the sole plate using the block as a reference guide. My reasoning for this was that I thought it more likely that the throat plate would have its hole spacing to specification, and that the hammering on the sole plate during the peening process may have distorted it by a whisker.

Building A Shepherd Smoother
Dovetails filed flat.

Next up was riveting the throat plate to the sole, so I prepared some of the supplied 1/4" diameter mild steel bar by cutting three lengths equal to the distance between the top of the throat plate and the bottom of the sole plate plus the thickness of two washers, and lightly radiusing both ends of the bars. As per the instructions I radiused each of the face side holes to provide a stronger mechanical join for the rivets. The instructions suggest using a file, but as I have a corded Dremel and some conical grinding stones I used these.

Riveting these components together was simply a matter of inserting the three rods through them, then with a washer taped over one end, peen over the other end until a nice domed rivet-like head had been produced, then flipping the work piece over and riveting the other end. To provide support when riveting on the sole plate side I stood the big steel block on edge so that the throat block was fully supported. This was repeated this for the other two rivets, then out with the files again to smooth off the two riveted surfaces.

Building A Shepherd Smoother
Throat plate fitted and ready for peening.

The next step was to temporarily fit the rear infill (I needed the spreader rod again, but the fit was very snug) and carefully file across the infill, throat block and the rear edge of the throat in the sole plate to make one contiguous, flat and perpendicular plane to support the iron. I decided to stick with the standard 45 degree bedding angle even though the original Spiers # 7 had, I believe, a 47 degree bedding angle. I don't suppose that the wood will notice a 2 degree difference...

Fettling the throat

Having set the bed for the iron, the next task was to file out the sides of the throat to accommodate the iron at its bedding angle. This needed to be done very carefully as I didn't want to make the mouth any bigger. I did note though that the width of the provided iron is about 1/8" narrower that the distance between the two inside faces of the sidewalls. I briefly considered the use of some set screws in the sidewalls as some Lee Valley planes have, but I chose not to pursue this as it would give a very unauthentic look to the plane.

Building A Shepherd Smoother
Sole filed flat after the throat plate rivets have been peened.

One last step before fitting the infills was to smooth and burnish the inside of the sidewalls, something that would be much easier without the timber being in the way, and to radius the tops of the sidewalls between where the infills locate.

Fitting the infills

The Cocobolo infills provided by Shepherd are partially machined in that the curves and faces where they mate with the plane body are accurately cut. Their upper surfaces (iron bed excepted) are mostly finished, but still need some fettling. How much and to what final shape is pretty much the users choice. I chose to leave the rear infill as supplied, but did round over the upper part of the front bun a little. The tote is also supplied almost finished except for one side which needed to be trimmed back to fit the space for it in the rear infill. An easy enough job on the belt sander.

The front bun, the rear infill and the tote are riveted in place, so needed to be drilled to match the pre-drilled holes in the sidewalls. I test fitted all four of these rivets just to the plane body, really to check that the holes were all in alignment. Thankfully they were, so I pressed in the bun, rear infill, and tote, making sure that they were fitting properly (especially the iron bed part), then clamped the assembly tightly together and drilled the 1/4" diameter holes through the wood using the sidewalls as a template.

Building A Shepherd Smoother
Truing and filing the bed.

I next prepared the infill blocks and tote by sanding them up through the grits to 360, and applied a couple of coats of Danish Oil. To have been more authentic I could have used hard shellac, but the oiled finish is what I chose. I again checked that the sidewalls were parallel to each other and perpendicular to the sole with the infills in place, which they were I'm pleased to say. If they weren't, that would have been the time to make any adjustments to the infill pieces to correct this.

I prepared the rivet holes in the sidewalls as I did with the throat block and sole plate, and then riveted the wood into place.

Once again filing is required to smooth off the rivet heads, but now with the infill timber in place, the plane takes on a much higher degree of rigidity, and it's no longer possible to flex the sidewalls. As there's was still one more rivet to go, for the lever clamp, final smoothing of the sole and sidewalls would have to wait.

Building A Shepherd Smoother
Fitting the cocobolo infills.

Fitting the lever clamp

It was a little disappointing to find that the lever clamp (like the iron) was about 1/8" narrower that the space for it. As far as affecting the performance or tuning of the plane, I doubt that it will make much difference, but a closer fit would have been nice.

The riveting procedure for fitting the lever clamp was pretty much per the riveting of the infills.

Smoothing the sole

One of the nice thinks about Lie Nielsen or Lee Valley planes is that the soles of their products are superbly flat and smooth. After all the hammering that the Spiers kit's sole had received, I could see that I was in for some big league filing and lapping.

Building A Shepherd Smoother
The smoother plane with the lever cap and screw in place.

Using soft-grips in the vice to help protect the sidewalls from any more abuse than absolutely necessary, I set the plane body upside-down in the vice and proceeded to draw-file the sole, checking fairly frequently with a steel straight-edge the flatness across the sole's length and width. Pretty soon I realised that the centre 1/3rd of the sole was a full 3/64" higher than the nose and heel. I considered using the bench belt sander, but I hadn't modified it to take a flat and rigid belt support, and didn't want to risk making the problem worse, so I just resigned myself to more filing then doing the hard yards with 80 grip paper on some float glass, gradually moving up through the grades to 1200 W&D with an oil and kerosene lubricant once the sole was flat and square to the sidewalls.

Building A Shepherd Smoother
Showing the recess for the rear tote.

Burnishing the sidewalls

These were much easier to file fully flat then lap with paper, again starting at 80 grit, but moving up to 2500 then a final burnish with Veritas polishing compound on a hard felt wheel on the bench grinder.

At this point I also applied a couple more coats of Danish Oil to the Cocobolo, being careful not to get any on the metal parts.

Lapping the cap iron and sharpening the iron

Both of these elements arrived rather pitted from surface rust, so the first order of business was to buff up the cap iron and the non-business end of the iron.

Building A Shepherd Smoother
The finished Shepherd smoother.

Sharpening the iron turned into a bit of a labour of love as the back of the blade was far from flat to start with, so this stage took a couple of hours to complete. Actually honing the bevel and subsequent micro-bevel was pretty straightforward using the Lee Valley MkII sharpening jig and camber roller. I used the float glass and abrasive paper for the iron's back and Japanese water stones up to 8000 for the actual sharpening process.

Tuning the plane

The main difficulty that I had here was really because of my lack of experience of using planes without an adjuster! Still, with a bit of fiddling around, I managed to set the iron so that it would take very fine shavings.

Tests on a piece of gnarly beech proved that the plane does indeed work as well as I hoped it would.

Now I wonder how hard it would be to make a replica Norris infill jointer...

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