Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Lie-Nielsen No. 102 Low Angle Block Plane

Hand planes are tools that are easy to overlook in the modern shop. We have jointers for cleaning up and squaring the edge or face of stock, planers to thickness it, these tasks were traditionally done by a stable of planes of different size and shape, each powered exclusively by elbow grease. Can you function without a hand plane? Absolutely, I've managed to do so for essentially my entire woodworking life...

... until this little beauty walked into my life: the Lie-Nielsen No. 102 Low Angle Block Plane.

Just a few test shavings off some scrap ash
The gulf between a low quality hand tool or one that isn't sharp or is out of "tune" and a properly-cared for, dead sharp, well-made hand tool is revelatory. In fact, use a crappy, dull hand tool early in life and you may find yourself spending a decade ignoring them. I know this, because I did this. Over the past couple years, however, hand tools, joinery, chisels, and yes, planes, began singing their siren's song, luring me toward sailing close to those jagged rocks (yes, I'm aware I'm pushing the metaphor to its limits). And so, working forward from the mantra "Life is too short to use crappy tools," it's no surprise that I landed on this particular tool. (Turns out the fine folk at Fine Woodworking agree, this plane was listed as "Best Overall" and "Best Value" in FWW #228 (sub. req.)). Perhaps the only drawback is that it is such a joy to use that it's almost a gateway drug to more expensive hand planes.

Key to a good plane is a flat base, or "sole." This is flat.
Lie-Nielsen Toolworks is a throwback company, American based, selling American made products. They take very seriously the engineering, machining, and materials used for their tools, and they have the reputation to match. Nick Offerman, comedian and sawdust jockey extraordinaire, dedicated a chapter of his book Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America's Gutsiest Troublemakers to Lie-Nielsen and described their reputation "If you are so into your wedged tenon that your coffee grows cold awaiting your attention, then you are undoubtedly the sort of initiate who is aware of the 'Cadillacs' of American hand tools, that is to say, the ones that are made at Lie-Nielsen Toolworks."

Hope two adjustment knobs isn't too much for you
Adjusting the tool is straight forward. The bronze knob on top of the plane puts pressure down on the blade, holding it in place. Loosen it a quarter turn or so and then the knob at rear of the plane blade will advance or retract the blade. Loosen the bronze knob completely, and you can disassemble the plane.

Fewer pieces mean fewer things that can go wrong
Block planes are versatile tools. They are designed small to be usable with one hand. The low angle of the blade makes it easier to cut through end grain, a task that higher angle planes sometimes struggle with. Also, block planes are often used on smaller pieces for achieving tight fitting joints.

Another use is to chamfer corners.

Chamfered corner
Typically I've used hand sanding to lightly break the corners on my work. (Sharp corners or edges are less pleasant to the touch, i.e. too sharp, and have a tendency to chip, ding, or mar easier than rounded or chamfered edges). A chamfer is a small touch, a minor detail, but one that betrays the craftsmanship in the work.

I couldn't even get the calipers to read a thickness on these shavings. 
Straight of out of the box, this plane cut smooth, clean shavings (unlike the dull block plane from my youth). Just on a whim, I planed some edge grain pine that was lying around and these pictures try to show the difference between planed and unplaned edges. The planed edges would need darn-near no sanding, not so with the unplaned. Sorry about the photo quality. Spent all the money on the plane, leaving none for a fancy macro lens.

Planed edge grain
Unplaned edge grain
Just because the tool starts nice, doesn't mean it will stay nice without care. I took the plane iron (blade) to the 6000 grit Japanese water stone just to touch up the sharpening.

Maintaining plane blades and sharpening probably needs its own series of posts
I spent maybe a minute, probably less, just lapping (flattening the base) and polishing the bevel; somehow the plane cut even finer shavings.

There is something primal in the feeling of using a well made sharp tool. There's a sense of connection between craftsman, tool, and material. That connection is easy to lose track of when using a big motorized planer. Hearing a well honed plane zip over wood, peeling away .008" worth of wood at a pass, and feeling it happen in your hands, well it's a tough sensation to beat in the shop.

In the interest of comparison, the Lie-Nielsen block plane was $115.00 (+ about $20 shipping). A couple other companies have solid reputations as well. Comparable tools are: WoodRiver Standard Block Plane with Adjustable Mouth this one is a standard angle, not low-angle though, ($99.00 on Amazon) or Veritas ($155.00). I've used neither, so can't review them, but both companies have a good reputation.

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