These useful tools were once simple and traditional.
Three modern versions have redesigned this
tool and added some features.
Shoulder planes are, in
the opinion of some highly skilled craftsmen, the wood putty of the
The first time I ever saw
Frank Klausz, he was (as per usual) surrounded by rapt pupils as he
dovetailed a box during a woodworking show in Ft. Washington, Penn.
As Klausz sawed and chopped his pins and tails, his audience
peppered him with questions.
One question really stood
out that day.
ďMr Klausz,Ē the guy said.
ďYou and other woodworkers from Europe donít seem to use shoulder
planes. Why is that?Ē
Without even a pause to
ponder, Klausz responded. ďI donít need them. I cut my tenons right
the first time.Ē
As a frequent user of
shoulder planes, that truthful comment stung. Cutting your tenons
dead-on is the way to go, but I donít do it enough by hand to master
it, Iím afraid. And so the shoulder plane remains on my bench when
Iím doing traditional work.
I had bought my first
shoulder plane several years before hearing Klauszís assessment of
the tool. My plane was an English-made Stanley 93, and Iíd bought it
after reading a glowing account of the wonders of shoulder planes in
Fine Woodworking magazine.
I remember unwrapping the
tool from its waxy paper, honing the iron keen and square and then
cleaning up a rabbet at my workbench. The tool cut on one side of
the blade, but not the other. So I Englished the blade left and
right in the planeís body and tried again. No luck; the tool
wouldnít cut on one side. And so I put it away.
Every month or so I would
fish it from my tool cabinet and give it another try on a piece of
non-essential work. And every time the tool refused to take a
full-width shaving. So I blamed myself as not being skilled enough
to wield such a precision instrument.
Then one day the shoulder
plane was perched on my workbench on its side with its sole touching
a piece of work. I noticed that the sole didnít line up with the
edge of my wood. So I grabbed the workpiece and put a square on it.
The work was perfect. It was the shoulder plane that was messed up.
I put a try square on my
shoulder plane for the first time ever and confirmed that the sole
of the tool was not at all square to the planeís sidewalls. I was
furious. I trotted back to our shopís edge sander and began power
sanding the planeís sole with the side of the tool on the edge
sanderís table. After 10 minutes of work at the sander I walked back
to my bench and my opinion of shoulder planes changed forever. The
tool worked, and worker better than I thought possible.
Shoulder planes arenít
just for truing the shoulders of tenons. If that were the only task
they were designed for, Iíd just fetch one of my chisels to undercut
the shoulder of the joint and walk away. Shoulder planes adjust
rabbets, dados, half-laps, bridle joints, tenon cheeks and any other
work where one surface must be square to another.
Shoulder planes donít form
these joints, but they do refine them so that everything fits the
way the maker intended.
During the last 10 years I
have become a shoulder-plane junkie and have tried every size and
configuration available on the market. And Iíve concluded that most
users are better served with buying a new tool instead of a used
one. Trust me: You donít want to buy a user tool that you cannot
send back if the sole isnít square to the sides. Most flea markets
and internet auction sites are caveat emptor, and so shoulder planes
with a warranty are the best choice in my opinion.
Three new commercial
brands stand out as the best tools in my book: Bridge City Tools,
Lie-Nielsen Toolworks and VERITAS (sorry Clifton, Iíve just had a
few too many defective Cliftons pass through my hands).
with all three versions for some time now and have found they are
quite different to hold and behold. Hereís a close look at what I
like (and dislike) about each version in the size thatís close to ĺĒ