Hand Tools

Setting up shop since retiring?

Looking into enrolling in your beginners class this summer and have enjoyed your Q-and-A section of the Amana Tool website. Just wondering if a pair of skewed chisels are of use in my hand tool want list. 

Already have 2 sets of 1/8" to 1" Marples and several older buck bros and others up to 2". Dont have the skewed set and was looking at the Narex 1/2" right and left set from Lee Valley .One of the Marple sets I'm going to cut down shorter for dovetail work.


Metairie, LA

Our Expert

I use skew chisels primarily for carving; the shoulders flanking the arch on a "tombstone" panel door is a good example. Rather than purchase skew chisels now, I suggest that you wait until you have a specific need for them. This way you'll have a better idea of the sizes to purchase. Also, for some odd reason, skew chisels tend to be expensive when compared to comparable bench chisels with a 90 degree end. So in order to stretch my woodworking dollars further, I purchase ordinary bench chisels of the size needed and grind the skew angle myself. It's not difficult and only takes a few minutes.

I'm looking forward to seeing you this summer.

Using hand planes?

I love bevel-up planes, as I know you do as well, so I thought you would be the best person for me to get an opinion from, if you have time. I have a full compliment of planes:
1. Two block planes
2. #7 jointer (servicable)
3. big heavy dedicated smoother
4. medium and large shoulder planes
5. large router plane
6. #5 (terrible)

My question, at this point, is probably becoming clear. I feel I need a real general purpose plane, and living ten minutes from a Lee Valley location, that part of the decision is easy.

My thoughts were to get a (BU) smooth or a (BU) jack. What are your thoughts?
Thanking you in advance,


Halifax (Canada) NS

Our Expert

As I'm sure that you know from reading my articles, I really enjoy using hand planes. But while I have a large number and quite a variety of planes, I mostly use three types: smooth planes, block planes and shoulder planes.
All three types are bevel-up and I have several of each type adjusted to different cutting angles.

Basically, a higher cutting angle, such as 60 degrees, smoothes without risk of tearout, even on highly figured wood or reversing grain; a low cutting angle, such as 35 degrees, works better on end-grain. A middle cutting angle, such as the 45 degree angle on old Bedrock planes, is a compromise between a reasonably smooth surface and ease of use (planes set up with a higher cutting angle can be difficult to push, especially on dense stock).

Although I enjoy using hand planes and reach for them often for a variety of tasks, from fitting a joint to smoothing a surface prior to finishing, I'm not a hand plane purist. For example, while I like to smooth surfaces with a plane instead of a power sander, I prefer to flatten rough boards with my large 16" industrial jointer. (If the board will fit. When flattening boards wider than 16" I use a jointer plane).

I don't use a jack plane for smoothing because when the time comes to smooth a surface, the surface is already flat from the machining process. Afterward the milling process, I use a smooth plane to remove the machine marks. A jack plane adds extra length and weight that isn't needed for smoothing. You may have heard that the extra mass of a larger plane helps to power the plane through the stock. That's true, but only to a point. Once that point of ideal weight is reached it just becomes extra work to push a heavier plane.

I prefer today's bevel-up smooth planes for a number of reasons: I can choose the best cutting angle for the type of grain and the task, the design of the plane is simple and easy to adjust, and the length, weight and low center of gravity is ideal for the job of smoothing.

How to remove rounded surface left by router bits or shaper cutters?

When shaping contours with inside corners how do you deal with the rounded surface left behind by the router bit or shaper cutter?


Boise, ID

Our Expert

As you've discovered, whenever the router bit cuts into an inside corner it creates an arc. The solution is to simply carve the profile into the corner with chisels.

What plane do most serious woodworkers prefer?

When shaping contours with inside corners how do you deal with the rounded surface left behind by the router bit or shaper cutter?


Boise, ID

Our Expert

There are a number of important features that combine to make a quality hand plane; a flat sole and smooth operating adjustments come to mind. However, the most important question to ask is whether the plane will smooth the wood without creating tearout. Anyone who has used a hand plane has experienced tearout and knows how frustrating it can be. Once it's in the surface, tearout requires a lot of tedious scraping and sanding to remove. This is why many woodworkers don't use planes, they use sanders instead. That's unfortunate because there are a number of tasks, such as precisely fitting a drawer, that cannot be accomplished without a plane.


In my experience, the most effective method for eliminating the risk of tearout is to use a plane with a high cutting angle, such as fifty to sixty degrees. And the easiest and most effective way to increase the cutting angle is with a bevel-up style plane.

The most commonly available plane for the last one hundred years has been the bevel-down style plane with a forty-five degree cutting angle. The forty-five degree cutting angle is usually too low which is why it often tears the wood, especially when used on dense, figured stock such as curly cherry or tiger maple (in contrast a low cutting angle is highly effective on end-grain). And the bevel-down design does not easily lend itself to changing the cutting angle.

In contrast, the cutting angle of bevel-up planes can easily be changed simply by swapping out the blade with one that has a different bevel angle.That's because the cutting angle of bevel-up planes is the sum of the bevel angle and the bed angle.

I suggest that you take a close look at the Lee Valley/Veritas planes. Lee Valley offers a variety of different planes with innovative designs including block planes, shoulder planes and bevel-up smooth planes.

Cutting half blind dovetails?

I need to cut half blind dovetails in 1-3/4" maple.  My baseline scriber does not produce a good base line.  In your DVD on dovetails you briefly mention putting a double bevel on your scribe pins. How can I easily do that in my shop?         

-Jerry G.

Port Ludlow, WA

Our Expert

The baseline plays an important role in the process of cutting a clean, precise dovetail joint; it provides an incision for positioning the chisel when chopping the waste areas of the joint. Most new marking gauges simply do not scribe a baseline which is deep enough to prevent over cutting this important part of the joint. And many are simply dull and do nothing more than tear and scratch the wood.

To scribe a clean baseline I use an long-discontinued Stanley #65 gauge. The gauge has a steel pin which I grind to a double-bevel. To safely and accurately grind the pin I grip it in the jaws of locking pliers.

Honing chisels?

I have your dovetail tape and am really learning and enjoying it. I have sharpened my chisels as sharp as I can get them, they feel razor sharp,  I am still crushing the soft wood I am practicing on, not getting a smooth cut.  Getting closer though, thanks for sharing your knowledge. 


Mcrae, AR

Our Expert

Using sharp hand tools can be very enjoyable as the cutting edge slices cleanly through the wood. In contrast, dull tools leave the wood torn, crushed and ragged. Although sharpening can sometimes seem clouded in mystery it is really just another set of skills that, when broken down into basic steps, are actually quite easy to master. 

Here are steps that I use: 

1. Grind the bevel---I prefer a "hollow grind" because it is more efficient to hone a concave bevel than one that is flat; there's no need for a honing guide because a hollow bevel is easy to position on the stones. A hollow
bevel can be quickly and easily created on a wet grinder. Avoid a dry grinder with small diameter wheels; the edge can overheat quickly and the small wheel diameter of a dry grinder will weaken the cutting edge.

The bevel angle is a compromise between sharpness and edge retention; lower angles are sharper and weaker, higher angles are tougher but often do not cut as cleanly; especially on soft woods. Although the most common bevel angle for a chisel is 30 degrees you can increase the sharpness by lowering the angle a few degrees to 25 or even 20 degrees. If the edge fractures easily during use increase the angle a few degrees. In order to avoid
continually changing bevel angles I have several sets of chisels and each have different bevel angles.

Once the bevel is established there is usually no need to grind the tool each time it dulls. I grind when the bevel becomes worn from repeated honing or if the edge becomes severely damaged. Otherwise I just hone the tool to
restore the edge.

2. Flatten the back---New chisels will require flattening on a coarse stone to remove scratches from the manufacturing.   Once the scratches disappear continue with progressively finer stones until the back has a reflective, mirror polish. 

3. Hone the bevel---Position the heel of the bevel on the stone first then lift the handle slowly until the edge comes in contact. Now pull the chisel across the stone. Examine the chisel edge carefully and switch to the next finer stone when the scratch pattern is uniform. The final stone in the set should be fine enough to create a mirror finish on the edge.   

Finally, examine the edge closely. Even though you think that it's sharp a close examination with a 10x loupe may reveal small serrations in the edge. For the cleanest cuts the edge must be completely smooth and polished. If
necessary repeat the honing process until the edge is polished from corner to corner.

Hand plane recommendation?

I am curious what hand planes you would recommend I purchase. I am looking at lie-nielsen and have heard great things about them. I am trying to use mostly powered tools to straighten and dimension my lumber. I am looking at #40 1/2 scrub plane , cabtmakers scraper #85 , and beading tool. I am not sure what else to purchase. I am trying to make 1 large purchase, but don't want to buy anything that will never be used either. Most of the descriptions of the planes are pretty general, so there's kind of my confusion.             
Thank you 

-Ryan H. 
Horicon, WI 

Mcrae, AR

Our Expert

Although I own a number of hand planes the ones that I use most often are the smooth, block, and shoulder planes. In fact, these three planes should be considered an essential part of a tool kit.

As the name implies smooth planes are used for smoothing the stock after milling it to size. Once I've cut stock to size with my jointer, planer and table saw I use a smooth plane to remove the mill marks. A sharp plane will

create an incredibly smooth surface that can't be improved with sandpaper.But that's not all, I also use my smooth plane for leveling joints and trimming and fitting doors and drawers.

You have a couple of options when shopping for a smooth plane: a traditional bench plane with a 50 degree frog (the bed that supports the cutter) or one of the new bevel-up smooth planes. A bevel-up plane will allow you to
increase the cutting angle to 55 degrees simply by increasing the grind angle. The extra 5 degrees will enable the plane to cut cleanly through difficult grain such as tiger maple.

Next on the list is a block plane. I think of the block plane as a scaled down smooth plane and I use it for many of the same purposes. The shorter length and lighter weight of a block plane makes it perfect for light trimming, chamfering and shaping where a full size smooth plane may be awkward. Look for one with an adjustable mouth.

Shoulder planes are used for trimming and fitting joints such as the shoulders of tenons. Unlike the two previous planes the mouth of a shoulder plane is open on each side. This unique feature is what allows a shoulder plane to trim into corners.

When shopping for planes look for flat soles, thick irons(cutters), and parts that fit well. Don't skimp on quality; a cheap plane is no bargain. Once you gain experience with these three planes you'll have a better idea of the other planes that you may need.

For more on tuning and using hand planes take a look at my book The Complete Illustrated Guide To Using Woodworking Tools. Or consider enrolling in Woodworking Essentials at my school. In this six day class you'll learn to use planes, cut dovetails and construct and fit a drawer. It's a great wayto get started using hand tools.

Chisels for paring work?

I've been trying to fill out my workshop tools and have been looking for paring chisels such as the Stanley 720.  What I am finding is they are either way overpriced or in such bad shape that they are beyond help.  Do you recommend the Lie-Nielsen chisels with the longer handle for paring work, or do you find the longer steel of a 720 necessary?  Thanks. 

-Tom S.

Humble, TX

Our Expert

I suggest that you take a look at many other old brands of chisels which are not as high priced as the Stanley 720's. Swan, Taylor, and Pexto are just a few of the older brands of paring chisels which are still available at a reasonable price.


I noticed in a recent Fine Woodworking article you had many chisels in the window well chisel rack.  I would very much appreciate your describing what types you have, which chisels you use the most, and any other modifications you might have made for particular jobs (such as the chisels modified for dovetail work).  From the pictures in the Fine Woodworking article, it looked like you had sizes from 1/8 to 1 1/2.  It also looked like you had both butt chisel Stanley 750's and paring chisel 720's.  If it is not too much trouble I would greatly enjoy hearing your response. I greatly admire your work, your books and articles, and your videos. I hope to attend one or more of your classes in the future!

-Don B.

Clayton, MO

Our Expert

It's great to hear that you're enjoying the articles and videos. As you've noticed, I have two lengths of chisels in the rack at my bench. I use the longer style, Stanley 720's, for paring and carving. The long length, approximately 12", provides good leverage and control when making long, thin shavings. I typically grind the paring chisels at a low angle, such as 25 degrees. The low angle minimizes the cutting resistance which increases the ability to control the tool. However, I have a couple of paring chisels which I've ground to a steep 60 degree angle. The high angle on these chisels allows me to pare difficult wood such as tiger maple.

The shorter length and lighter weight of the Stanley 750's make them ideal for chopping such as when cutting the waste area between dovetails. When chopping I grip the chisel as you would a writing instrument and drive the chisel into the wood with a mallet. Because I use these chisels for chopping the acute angles between dovetails I bevel the sides in order to provide easy access into the sharp corners.

Although I have many planes in my kit the ones that I reach for most often are the smooth, block, and shoulder planes.

As the name implies, the smooth plane is an ideal tool for smoothing the wood in preparation for finishing. Once you learn to tune and use a sharp smooth plane you'll quit using sandpaper; planes are a pleasure to use and they are faster than using sandpaper, too.

Most smooth planes have a cutter that is mounted bevel down. However, I prefer bevel up smooth planes because by changing the grind angle on the cutter you can change the cutting angle of the plane. A high cutting angle, such as 60 degrees, works best for smoothing most hardwoods. The high cutting angle will easily smooth difficult grain such as tiger maple. But a high cutting angle is the best choice for smoothing most any hardwood because it will handle small pin knots, reversing grain, or any mild figure that may tear out when using a bevel-down plane.

I think of a block plane as a scaled down smooth plane. I use my block plane for smoothing and fitting whenever a full-sized smooth plane may be too large and awkward. And because the cutter is mounted bevel-up I can modify the cutting angle simple by changing the grind angle on the cutter.

As the name implies, shoulder planes are used for trimming and fitting the shoulders of tenons. But they are also useful for many other tasks. In fact, I sometimes use a shoulder plane for smoothing. For example, when constructing lipped doors I use my shoulder plane to smooth away the mill marks in the rabbet. Like the smooth and block planes, the bevel on the shoulder plane is facing upward which allows for changes to the cutting angle. I use a low angle when trimming end-grain shoulders and a high angle when smoothing a rabbet or other long-grain detail.

To avoid the time and expense of continually changing the angles on the cutters I suggest that you purchase additional cutters for each plane.

Help cutting dovetails for drawers?

Thanks for the great DVD on Dovetails!  I am a novice at handcut dovetails so please help me understand.

Since you instruct to make the saw cut to the left or right of the line, why scribe a line with a knife rather than a sharp pencil line?  It is much harder for my old eyes to see and you don't let the saw blade follow the scribed line anyway?

-John G. 

Medina, OH 

Our Expert

Thank you for the compliment on the DVD. I understand the issue with your eyes; my eyesight is not as sharp as it once was. However, I don't recommend that you use a pencil instead of a knife to make the layout lines. The saw actually does follow the layout line; the kerf is either to the left or the right but the saw teeth touch the line. Pencil lines have thickness and are simply not as precise as a knife line.

To overcome the weakness in my eyes, I wear reading glasses when creating detailed work such as carving or cutting dovetails. I also place a task lamp close to the work. The additional light is a big improvement. You might also try using a very sharp pencil to shade the knife line and make it easier to see.

Modifying chisels for dovetail work?

In your PW magazine article on modifying chisels for use in cleaing up hand cut dovetails, it was difficult to determine if the top of the handle was concave or convex after they were cut shorter.  Which way would be the best for use with round mallet work? 
I am looking forward to possibly attending your 18th Century Carving class next year. Thank you


Tallahassee, FL

Our Expert

For the past twenty-five years I've used the long-discontinued Stanley #750 chisels for dovetail work. Their perfect balance provides good control when chopping the waste area from between tails and pins. Unfortunately, most chisels today are too long for accurate dovetail work. 

The solution is to cut off a portion of the handle. I suggest that you cut the chisel to nine inches in length. Afterwards, use a file to crown the end of the handle slightly.

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