All worthwhile pursuits have their gurus. Selfies? Kim Kardashian. Nonviolent civil disobedience? Gandhi. Woodworking? Steve Hay. Steve Hay’s Woodworking Master Class teaches novice and sage woodworking enthusiasts alike a lifetime of tips and tricks via his television and YouTube channels. Here, we take a look at some of his best hacks for the humble hand plane.
When it comes to the hand plane, according to Steve:
“You do need patience, you do need a bit of time, and you do need to really want to know how to use them. The rest is pretty easy to understand.”
How many planes do I need?
Anyone who has gazed upon Steve’s workshop with awe and envy, as we have, will have noticed his vast array of tools. Not least of which, his selection of hand planes is enough to make even the most neophyte of woodworkers a little hot under the collar. While it’s an impressive collection for sure, Steve is quick to point out that it’s by no means a prerequisite to good woodworking.
“Those of you have seen a lot of my videos and my shows know that I have quite a nice selection of planes. I just want to show you how easy it is to plane, and you don’t need a lot of expensive or exotic, or a range of planes like I’ve got.”
Which are the best planes to start out with?
Despite Steve’s collection of every hand plane under the sun, he recommends a few standard sizes which will cover you for most jobs. The size 7, 5, and 4 are the most common types of plane manufactured these days. Steve finds the number 7 most useful but says the one he uses the most is the No. 5. However, the most popular and regularly used elsewhere, according the Steve is the Stanley No. 4.
Finding a good hand plane is not necessarily an expensive endeavour, as he explains:
“This one’s got a plastic handle, so really, collectors aren’t all that interested in picking them up. And you can generally pick them up for under $30 plus postage and handling, from most of the auction sites.”
(You can read our Buyers Guide to Shopping for Vintage Tools for more on this topic.)
Steve’s tip top rule for working with any plane?
“Remember to keep it sharp, but keep it safe”
Sharpening your blades
“There’s as many ways to sharpen, as there are blades, I’m sure. My particular preference is that I use an oil stone. Generally, when I’m working, just to brighten my tool up, or give it a secondary bevel, I use an oil stone.”
Steve has a number of useful videos for taking care of your plane, see our article How to use a Sharpening Stone for a detailed look at these. Meanwhile, Steve’s got some practical tips for any woodworker.
Top tricky tip:
Add a small nail to each end of the underside of your sharpening block, and snip off the head. This will add just enough friction that it will help the block to stay put on your bench while you’re using it. How very MacGyver of you, Steve!
When sharpening your stone, Steve says, get into the habit of bending at the waist and using your body for the forward and reverse motion, rather than your hands. The reason for this little dance-like manoeuvre? When using your hands to push and pull the blade, you tend to roll it, and create an uneven finish.
How to test if your blade is sharp enough
Once you’re finished sharpening, grab a piece of paper and run your blade along it. The blade should slice through that thing like butter. Plus, it looks pretty badass, to boot.
How to hold your plane
You may have been using a hand plane for years and be very comfortable with your style. If so, move along to the next point. If you’re a bit of a newbie however, Steve has some simple instructions for getting a good grip on your tool. Hold your plane by the handle with three fingers and thumb, then place index finger along the plane, in the direction you are planing. This will ensure you’ve got enough leverage behind you, and keep your hands from getting too sore. At the end of the day though, Steve isn’t going to beat you around the knuckles if your technique is a little different.
“Really it’s horses for courses. Whatever you’re comfortable with, will work.”
Cleaning your wooden hand plane
Cleaning your well-used wooden hand plane is, by nature, a very different process to maintaining your regular plane. Restoring the wood and blades of your wooden hand plane, while not a job you’ll undertake every week (or even every year), is worthwhile for keeping it spick and span, and working the way it should.
What you’re going to need:
- Some course steel wool (number 2 grade will do just fine);
- A sheet of 240 wet and dry sandpaper;
- A sheet of 600 or fine sandpaper;
- Methylated spirits;
- Linseed Oil;
- Gum turps (ordinary turps will do, but gum or eucalyptus turps smells prettier).
Dismantle your wooden hand plane, and douse your course steel wool in a little metho, as well as the wood. You can leave the liquid to soak in for a little while, however it’s not critical. Now, begin to gently, very gently, scour with the steel wool until you have achieved a shiny, bright new surface to your wood. Don’t go overboard with the scrubbing, lest you whittle it away to an unrecognisable state. Or as Steve puts it:
“What I’m doing is maintaining the integrity of the finish. I’m just taking all the gunk off, that’s built up over the years, so I’m not abrading it with an abrasive paper.”
Once complete, using a piece of rag doused in yet more metho, just wipe against your surface and then marvel at how clean it is, and how clever you are. *high fives*
Steve then makes a mixture of linseed oil and gum turps to make his plane ‘look absolutely spectacular again’. With your steel wool and turps mixture, rub into your wood until it’s looking even more marvellous.
“Don’t go on the grinding wheel, don’t go on the wire wheel.”
Steve used to be a devotee of the wire wheel, but nowadays be prefers the simple solution of sandpaper and kerosene. Grab your trusty course steel wool and this time, dip into some kerosene and give the metal parts a good rub to remove any rust. Then dip your 240 sandpaper into the kero, rubbing again until a smooth finish is achieved. Now Steve warns, you’re not trying to get a shiny result here, just a smoothness that makes the metal components workable.
“A few household products: a bit of kero, a bit of linseed oil, three different grades of steel wool, a dirty old rag, a bit of time on your hands. And the rewards, I kid you not, are absolutely spectacular.”