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Making A Dovetail Plane (Part I)

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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.

While there is beginning to be quite a substantial influx of information appearing on the web, and other places, in relation to the making of dovetailed infill planes, for some reason there appears to be very little in the way of plans, diagrams or tutorials for making a simple "dado-esque" plane for cutting the male part of a sliding dovetail joint. Its interesting to note that none of the major books on planemaking -- to my knowledge -- mention or give any instruction to making this type of plane. There are a couple of web pages around with a few very helpful and descriptive illustrations but the more information out there, the better, I say!

As many woodworkers would, no doubt, know the sliding dovetail joint is ideal for shelving and carcase work as it provides a strong and somewhat decorative alternative to other woodworking joints. While much of this type of work is now done with noisy plunge routers, a specialized dovetail plane provides a much more quieter and calmer option that can be used in the woodworker's arsenal. It can also be used much more efficiently and in less time than it would take to find a router bit, mount it in your router and set up all your jigs. A dovetail plane will also adapt to different sizes of dovetail by simply adjusting the fence and depth stop.

It should be noted that there are a few plane makers around who can supply you with a ready made dovetail plane should you want one. ECE Primus make an "off the shelf" version for around $140 U.S. which is not a bad little plane for most jobs. A couple of other names which come to mind are Knight Toolworks and Clark & Williams, who will even custom make you a plane to your own specifications. If you're very fortunate you might be able to find one secondhand in an antique store, market or online auction site. Due to their relative scarcity you might end up paying more for a secondhand dovetail plane than you would for a brand new one. Then again you just might be lucky.

Yet another alternative is to make your own....

Depending on your skill level or construction preferences its not too difficult a task to make a dovetail plane. All you need is some basic tools, some wood and a spare weekend or two.

Getting started

Fig. 1 - Body blank infill marked out for cutting. The "hard lines" represent the angle of the bed and throat if the blade was not skewed, while the broken lines show the actual lines which will be sawed for a dovetail plane with a skewed blade.

Taking a departure from the more traditional method of construction where only the one block of wood is used, I've decided to make this particular plane from several pieces -- a front and rear "infill" piece, a side piece with a fillet cut out (the fillet will be used as a "stabilizing strap" for the other side of the plane) and another piece for the fence. The plane can, of course, be made from the one piece of timber but chopping the mortise for the throat is a little more involved, and not as easy a task for a beginner to undertake as a plane built up from laminations -- a method made popular by Krenov and other makers in recent years.

While the preferred wood for a dado or molding plane is usually beech, this plane can be made from a variety of different woods such as maple, cherry, walnut or exotics such as rosewood or ebony. I've used bubinga because it was handy, but anything stable will do. If you're concerned about the sole wearing too fast then a harder wood, such as ebony, lignum vitae or boxwood, can be glued to the underside as an alternative. You could even "box" the edges like the more expensive molding planes were done in ages past. Likewise a piece of brass or steel can be screwed to the bottom, or side, if preferred.

The thickness of the wood depends on how wide you want the plane to be (or at least the width of your blade), plus some extra "meat" to act as a surface for the movable fence. I had a spare 1 inch wide dado blade kicking around so I decided to build the plane around that.

Think of the finished plane as being similar to a dado plane, but with the bottom, or sole, angled at around 10 degrees. Unlike most molding planes you don't have to worry about the "spring" of the angle as this plane will be used in an upright position, 90 degrees to the surface being worked. This basically means that one edge of the plane will start cutting before the other side does.

Fig. 2 - Another view of the body block infill (from the sole), showing both skewed and straight blade angles.

Now with a normal skewed dado the "leading edge" will be the edge which cuts first, however with a dovetail plane such as this the opposite is true -- the edge which cuts first is actually the trailing edge. Why the difference? Well, if it were the same as a normal skewed dado plane then the shoulder -- as in the deepest part of the dovetail cut -- would end up having a rather ragged finish... even with the use of a nicker blade. With the trailing edge used for the deeper cut the shaving tends to curl out and away from the cut, resulting in a much cleaner finish. This is why if you ever make a dovetail plane using an existing skewed dado plane then make sure that the trailing edge is used for the deeper side of the cut and that the nicker blade is also on that side. This usually means swapping the nicker blade from one side to the other when making your modifications.

So why bother with a skewed cutter anyway? After all it seems much more complicated to make a plane with a skewed blade than it does with a normal, 90 degree angle mouth. Well, the reason for a skewed blade is that its often easier to use this type of plane due to the fact that the blade produces a shearing type cut. Also, when a skewed cutter is used in a dado or rebate plane the tool has a tendency to "pull itself" into the shoulder of the dado or rebate being worked, rather than push away from the edge. While that won't entirely happen the same way with a dovetail plane -- the plane will pull away from the shoulder but will be, more or less, compensated for by the angle of the cut dovetail and therefore push back into the shoulder (think of a vee groove here and you'll get a rough idea).

Fig. 3 - Carefully sawing the body block, making sure to be as accurate as possible with the compound angle.

I started with a board measuring 18" long by 3" wide and 1" thick (450mm x 75mm x 25mm). Most factory made molding planes were 9-1/2" long, so this particular plane is a fraction under at 8-3/4". It doesn't really matter how long the plane is though -- just make sure that its a comfortable size for you to use.

After cutting the board in half and setting one piece aside, the first piece is marked out to provide a 55 degree bedding angle for the blade and a 67 degree angle for the escapement, as the solid lines in Figure 1 shows. Because this plane is to be made with a skewed blade, however, we need to add a 15 degree skew angle (as shown by the broken lines).

Place the block in your vice. You may want to angle it so that you're cutting down at close to a 90 degree angle (from your standing position). Take a sideways step so that you can allow for the skew angle of the blade and start sawing. Do this slowly and carefully as this is a crucial step and you don't really want to have any mistakes made at this stage (or ever for that matter).

Fig. 4 - Sawing the waste from the second block.

Be careful to support the block near the end of the cut so that you don't split the wood. Once the first block is cut set up your vice for the second.

The waste from between the two cuts is too narrow to be used for the wedge of the plane. Also the grain orientation -- being mostly short grain -- is wrong for a wedge, as its too fragile and will break easily. Therefore you'll need to make your wedge from another piece of wood. More on that later though.

Take a moment to check and make sure that the angles have been cut as close to the lines as possible. If you're a little out, or if you've gone over the line at all, then don't panic just yet. You'll still be fine for the time being as you'll have an opportunity to make things right again during the cleaning up.

Fig. 5 - Another angle of the sawing. The solid line would be the line used if the plane were not to have a skewed blade.

While it should be made clear that its always best to be as careful and accurate as possible with making planes, the good news is that there are often opportunities to fix up potential problems at various stages during the building. Sometimes the plane that you intended to make ends up turning into another plane altogether. At the very worse though if a mistake is irreversible you will still learn skills that will help you in subsequent planes.

After both cuts have been made you can start to clean up the surface. You can plane, file or sand but be careful if you plane them flat as you don't want any tearout. Its much easier to clean the blocks up at this stage than to chisel or file them smooth after the assembly has been glued up.

I used a stationary belt sander to clean these blocks up. They were done freehand, using a dull belt I should add, but you could also use a jig or two to get the compound angles right if you're a little unsure (or if you want to make more laminated planes with skewed angles later on). Any way you do it, make sure to continually check the angles with a sliding bevel as you go, as a sanding belt can make short work of an otherwise accurate plane.

Fig. 6 - Both blocks sawed and sanded.

Likewise a disc sander could be used but, once again, be careful.

Another approach to getting the angles right is to "shoot" them with the aid of an angled shooting board. This can be quite an accurate method if both the setting on your plane and the shooting board itself are properly set. Make sure that the plane's blade is nice and sharp and that the blocks are backed up properly so as to avoid tearout.

If the above methods seem too complicated you could just file and hand sand the angles smooth, again making sure to use a sliding bevel to check the angles.

Fig. 7 - Another view of the sawed blocks.

Once both of the center blocks have been completed its now time to concentrate on the other piece of wood (which we had put aside earlier). This one will act as a side or a "backing block" to which the two center blocks are glued. It also acts as an extension block which will eventually have the adjustable fence screwed to it from the bottom once the sole has been shaped.

A fillet needs to be cut from this piece which needs to be (for this particular plane) around 3/8 of an inch thick and approximately 1-1/4 inch wide. This can be done quickly and easily on a saw bench or, slightly more slowly, by hand using a back saw.

Removing the fillet makes it easier to grip the plane, as it fits in the hand easier than a wider plane would. Also the tips of the fingers tend to rest on the "step" and therefore aid in the pushing of the plane through the wood. This step is further enhanced and made more "comfortable" by slightly hollowing the top face and relieving the outside edge so that there are no sharp edges for your fingertips to bear against. It also adds a more "refined" or finished look to the plane.

Fig. 8 - Side block with the fillet removed. This fillet will be glued on to the opposite face of the plane for stability.

Although the shaping of the step can be done at this stage -- before the gluing up -- I chose to do it afterwards. Either way its simple enough to do now or later on, as there's nothing else that will get in the way at any time.

The fillet piece itself should be set aside until after the glue-up of the center blocks.

Now its the time for the initial glue-up. While both center blocks can be glued at the same time to the side block, you need to be careful about aligning them properly. You also need to make sure that the mouth is nice and tight. This can all become a bit daunting and troublesome, however, when both pieces are slipping and sliding around on the glue. While you could pin them with small nails or dowel them in some other way, you might find its just easier to do one block at a time. That way you can concentrate on one and not worry about the other until the first block has dried (it also makes it slightly easier to clean up any wayward glue).

Fig. 9 - After the first block is glued its time for the second. Though both blocks can be glued at the same time its easier to make sure the alignment is OK if you only have to worry about the one.

If you go the "one-block-at-a-time" method its probably better to do the bed, or rear block, first as it will allow you to more accurately set the size of the mouth with the blade you are going to use once the glue on the rear block has dried. Then all you need to do is place the front block so that there is enough room for the shavings to clear, but tight enough to add support to the shaving as you cut it.

You can use ordinary white or yellow glue, polyurethane, urea-based or even epoxy. I used a cross-linked PVA but anything will work as long as its of reasonable quality, a strong bond and resists creep (Steve Knight was using Gorilla Glue to make his planes at one stage but I'm not sure what he uses now). Make sure to put enough glue on the wood and coat both surfaces to be glued. There's no point starving the joint as it will come back to haunt you at a later date.

Clamp the work in your vice or with any other clamps you might have in your workshop. Once the first block has dried you can clean up any excess glue with a chisel or knife before continuing on with the next step.

After that's done, coat the second block with glue, align it with a straight edge and clamp that one up as well, allowing for the thickness of the blade and the chip clearance. Once again take care to make sure that it doesn't slip about (a couple of nipped-off brads will help here).

NEXT: Shaping the sole, cutting the slot for the slitter, gluing the fillet piece and fitting the blade and wedge. Stay tuned.

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