A well-tuned and properly used router plane can plow a 10" long x 1/4" wide x 1/4" deep groove in a matter of minutes. But sometimes it can't. Sometimes it starts, stops, and balks, taking too long to get the job done. Just a few simple tricks can make the difference between a recalcitrant router plane and one that smoothly and quietly goes whoosh.
Keep It Sharp
Not surprisingly, the single biggest factor governing how well a router plane handles is the sharpness of the blade. A dull blade digs in and refuses to cut. And it always seems to dig really deep right when the front of the plane goes off the end of the board. I’ve often thought, "Well, it's just a short job. I'll struggle through and sharpen it later." But this way of doing things invariably makes a short job into a long one.
Waxing the base of the plane makes almost as much difference as sharpening the blade. I don't know how many woodworkers routinely wax their planes, but I suspect that if you try it once, you'll never look back. According to my rough measurements, the coefficient of kinetic friction of an unwaxed plane on dry wood is about 0.2. If you wax the bottom, this number becomes approximately 0.1. I suspect that the latter number is even lower when the plane is moving briskly across the wood due to an effect similar to ice melting underneath skate blades. This translates into the plane being easier to push and a lot less work to use.
Making Mechanics Work for You
If you use a router plane incorrectly, it’s all too easy to end up fighting yourself. I prefer to push the router plane. This is because if I pull, I have to exert two opposing forces; the first one pulls the plane along the board toward me but also tends to lift it up out of the cut. I then have to exert an opposing force to push it down. In practice this equates to being hunched over the job and ending the day with a needlessly tired back and aching arms.
Another way to make mechanics work for you is to keep the fence between you and the wood. As you push the plane along the board, not only are you pushing it down but you are automatically holding the fence against the wood as well.
You don’t need to exert yourself as much if you push rather than pull your router plane.
Staying Flat on the Wood
When you are working near the edge of a board such that more than about a third of the width of the plane is unsupported, that plane has a tendency to tip. A long afternoon spent working with a tippy plane can be frustrating, but if you keep your dominant hand on top of the wood you can stabilize things quite a bit. Since we use our dominant hand more often, that arm is a little stronger and therefore pushes down on the plane a little harder, tipping the balance in our favor.
Another way to keep the sole flat on the wood is to use a board under the unsupported edge of the plane. This works well, but the boards must be closer than 1/32” to the same thickness. This is not too difficult with standard sized lumber, and if you have an odd piece, you can make a support by planing down a thicker board.
Keeping the sole flat on the wood by using another board for support.
Setting the Depth Stop Accurately
When setting the depth stop, your first instinct may be to measure the depth of cut and set the stop collar against the bottom of the height-adjustment nut. This approach works, but it’s rather inaccurate and seems to require two and a half hands to hold everything.
A better way is to set the plane on a flat board and slowly lower the blade until it just touches the surface. Next, put something of equal thickness to the total depth of cut required between the nut and the stop collar and tighten it up. This can be a thickness block or a drill-bit shank. The latter are readily available in most woodshops, usually come in 1/64” or 1/32" increments, and are accurate to 0.003" or better. Their only disadvantage is that they leave off at 1/2" or 3/8". You could also use a dial caliper (photo).
Using something of equal thickness to the depth of cut.
Knowing Your Depth of Cut
When you want to know how long a job might take or figure out how quickly you can work on various woods, it’s good to know your depth of cut. One way is to calculate it based on the pitch of the blade-adjustment screw. On the Veritas model, this is 32 tpi, so if you turned it 1/8 of a turn, the depth of cut is 1/32" x 1/8" = 1/256" or approximately 0.004". A faster way is to grab a dial caliper or micrometer and measure several of the shavings from your last cuts.
All these tricks will make your router plane a joy to use. But before you rush off to the shop to make your plane start whooshing, there's just one more thing…
Using a dial caliper.
A "Docking Station"
For most woodworkers, their hand planes play sweeter music than their iPods ever could. Your router plane, however, will go much longer between sharpenings if you build a docking station to set it in when you're not using it. Without the docking station, you have to 1) retract the blade every time you set it down, 2) set it on its back with the sharp edge of the blade exposed or 3) put the blade down on the bench where it will become dull in a hurry. So, take a board about as big as the base of the plane and drill a 1-1/4" diameter by 1" deep hole in the middle. The blade will occupy this hole when you set the plane down.