January 17, 2024

A Trim Carpenter's Secret Weapon

First and foremost, I want to start by ensuring you all that I am not a huge tool snob. I do like nice tools, and I have my preferred brands, but I can and have made due with basic tools over the years. There are tools that make my life easier, tools that make my work cleaner, and tools that make my job safer, but they may not be absolutely essential in getting the job done. I am not not a vintage or hand tool geek either. I can most certainly appreciate them, and the nostalgia is romantic, but at the end of the day, I want to get the job done in the most efficient way possible. All this aside, there is one hand tool that I feel every trim carpenter should have in their quiver. It is extremely underrated, improves efficiency, and provides a smile every time that I use it. That tool is……a low angle block plane.

Okay so what exactly is a low-angle block plane? When you hear the word plane with regard to hand tools you probably picture a long flat bench plane that is used with two hands to straighten or flatten long boards. This is the classic and most common type of plane. A block plane or low-angle block plane is not quite the same. The major difference between a bench plane and a block plane is that the block plane iron has an upward-facing bevel. The upward-facing bevel coupled with the bed angle of the iron allows for better trimming of end grain, miters, and cross cuts. This is due to the lower cutting angle of the plane; hence the name long angle block plane. Imagine taking a chisel and holding it at a 45 degree angle to a piece of wood and running it along the grain. That chisel will want to dig into the material more aggressively than the same chisel angle at a lower angle like 37 degrees of the block plane. Now this may not make a huge difference when cutting wood along the grain, but how about when using the plane to trim against the grain? A lower cutting angle will make cutting across the grain much easier, much cleaner, and less chance of tearout. This is where the block plane shines. 

I use my low-angle block plane to trim miters, fine-tune scribes, remove material to fine tune a joint, and to save myself countless trips back and forth to the saw. This tool is used for “tweaking,” not bulk removal. For example, if you have ever been trimming the inside of panels with a small moulding that gets mitered and you cut and install the first length a hair long, the second piece of the miter will not fit properly. The toe of the first miter prevents the toe of the adjoining miter from seating and then the heel of the second miter does not line up. Rather than go back to the saw and adjust the miter angle of the second piece of moulding, I use my low-angle block plane to trim the first few inches of the backside of the moulding. This makes the section of moulding near the miter narrower, and allows the heel of the moulding to flush out on the inside of the miter. While this may seem trivial in this situation, imagine pre-cutting a room's worth of panel moulding and then installing it all at once. You will run into this situation dozens of times and save yourself how many trips back and forth to the saw. 

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I also use my block plane to fine tune scribes on moulding. Whether it be base moulding, crown moulding, or casing against a wall. The change of getting the scribe tuned perfectly off the table saw, belt sander, grinder, or RAS is unlikely. If the scribe needs a little fine tuning in place, I can use my block plane to adjust any inconsistencies directly where it will be installed. My feet do not even have to move. Plane some material, test the fit, and repeat as necessary. This is extremely important and useful when installing prefinished or stain-grade material that needs to be caulked in place. This can save you so much time and aggravation, which leads to a better product. 

Another useful area for a block plane is when fine-tuning miters on mouldings. Generally speaking I do not use the plane to adjust the angle of the miter. I will use the saw for that because it is quicker and more accurate. I use the block plane for fine-tuning or removing material off of the back of the miter. For example, when installing a piece of door casing and it needs to be rolled slightly to sit tight to the wall, you must remove some material off the back of the miter. You can take the piece of moulding to your saw and bevel the saw at your miter angle to remove the material, or you could simply use the block plane to remove however much is necessary to get the job done. The added benefit is that you are not removing too much material and you salvage your glue joint. 

Pick your poison, maintain your brand loyalty, refinish a vintage iron, it does not matter. What matters most is that you own this tool, use this tool, and understand how to maintain this tool. A plane is only as good as how well it is maintained. If the sole of your plane is not flat, if the depth adjustment is not smooth, or if your iron is not sharp the tool will not work. Just as with any tool or machine, the plane will work better with frequent maintenance. This also makes the job less laborious. A plane that is constantly sharpened and maintained only takes a few minutes to fine tune or sharpen, but a plane that has been let go could take an hour or two to fix. Keep up with frequent sharpenings, oilings, and flattenings, and maintenance is a breeze.

If you are a trim carpenter, a remodeler, or even a hobbyist, do yourself a favor and get a quality block plane. I personally have two Lie Nielsen block planes, but there are many other quality brands out there. Do your research, purchase the tooling required to maintain the plane, learn how to use it properly, and you will wonder how you lived without it. My knees thank me every time that I am on a ladder or a bench and I can fine tune my joinery without having to move my feet. Again, I am not a huge tool snob and I am not into vintage tools, but if you only own one plane like myself, make it a low angle block plane. It is the workhorse of all planes!

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