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Shooting planes compared

This weekend I was one of the presenters at a Lie-Nielsen Handtool Event in Perth. Originally I was asked to demonstrate cutting dovetails, but this was broadened to include shooting boards and planes. I was particularly looking forward to the latter as I has a Lie-Nielsen #9 mitre plane on loan from LN for the two days, and I knew my curiosity about how it stood against the new Lie-Nielsen #51 shooting plane was shared by many.

Some of you will have read my recent review of LN #51, as used on the Stanley #52 shooting board.

I wanted to include a third plane, the Lee Valley/Veritas LA Jack, as this is a favourite of many for use on the shooting board.

These three planes are different in significant ways. The #51 has a cutting angle of 45 degrees but with a skew of 20 degrees. The #9 and the LAJ both have square blades, but the latter has a lower cutting angle. The LAJ has a low angle bed (of 12 degrees), which is lower than that of the 20 degrees of the LN #9.

Do these features make a difference?

I spent some time the weekend before the Handtool Event building shooting boards. In part these were for everyone to use. However I was also interested in how different bed angles of the boards themselves could influence the cutting action. I built boards with a 5 degree ramp and boards that were flat. There is a report of this here.

The LN #51 on the Stanley #52 shooting board.

The LN #9 on a flat shooting board.

LAJ on a ramped shooting board

Now there were a good number of visitors to try out these planes and boards. I probably spent as much time on them as everyone combined as I was demonstrating technique as much as explaining the features of the planes and boards. There were some who had little prior experience, and some with enough to be called experienced. Below is a summary of my observations, which were supplemented by the comments of the participants.

In an effort to recreate “realistic conditions”, the boards used for shooting were all 3/8” thick Tasmanian Oak, typical of the secondary wood in drawers.

#9 with hotdog on ramped board

LAJ with hotdog

First it might be said that all the planes performed exceptionally well regardless of the board they were used on. I could happily live with any one of these planes on any one of these shooting boards. There are, nevertheless, conditions that are more and less favourable when it comes to shooting, and these are summarized below.

Cutting Angles and the Effect of Skew

First and foremost there is a significant effect from the way that the cutting angle and the way in which the blade enters the wood.

In order of ease of the way that the blade cut end grain, the LN #51 was way out in the front of the pack. This was perceived to be due to a combination of factors: the mass of the plane (9 lbs for the #51, 4 ½ lbs for #9, and 6 lbs for the LAJ) and its 20 degree skew angle.

Second in this category was the LAJ. Again the mass is a likely factor, but so is the lower cutting angle (37 degrees versus the 45 degrees of the #9). Note that the cutting angle of the #51 is also 45 degrees, and this suggests that the (20 degree) blade skew plays a larger part than the (8 degrees of) cutting angle.

A similar factor was apparent with the shooting boards. The ramped boards were 5 degrees. While there is a much debate whether the ramped board can be said to impart a true slicing cut, there was no mistaking that any plane on the ramped board cut with less effort and less apparent impact than a flat board.

The ramped board does appear to cause the blade to hit the edge of the board at an angle, which leads to it enter the board at a progressive angle. By contrast, a flat board will cause a plane with a square blade to strike it across its full width. The impact of the latter was noticeably greater.

The skewed blade of the #51 enters the edge of the work piece in a likewise progressive manner, reducing the jar of impact. Additionally, it continues with a true slicing cut.

The Ease of Use

The #51/52 combination was in a class of its own. Even a novice could easily produce clean edges without fail. The #51 is captured by the rails of the #52, and this guides the plane so that all the user needs do is push the plane forward.

The advantage of the #9 over the LAJ is twofold: there is better registration for the base of the plane, and this encourages a user to push the plane in the ideal manner. When a novice was given the choice of the #9 and the LAJ, they would inevitably plump for the #9.

However … when the user was taught how to push the LAJ, and/or the LAJ was used with a hotdog handle, very frequently this choice was reversed. The factor here is that the LAJ is potentially more tippy because it has a smaller footprint, it. I recall one person thrusting the LAJ forward .. and bouncing it against the fence at a canted angle.

The correct way (in my opinion) of holding the LAJ (and shooting planes generally), is to exert downforce at a central point while simultaneously exerting low lateral sideforce. One must not attempt to simply push the plane against the sidewall to the shooting board. This will unbalance the plane and cause it to cant over.

Downforce is applied by the thumb directly into the dimpled fingerhole. Sideforce is applied by the four fingertips pushing from under the levercap.

This handhold is quite comfortable and makes the LAJ a practical user without a hotdog. Indeed, there is the potential for someone to grasp a hotdog (whether on the LV or LN LAJ planes) and attempt to push it against the fence from high (and not use their fingers to maintain sideways pressure from low).

Contributing to “tippiness” is the amount of “run up” to the board that is used. Many – both experienced and novices alike – would draw the plane back to the start of the runway, and then push it forward fast in an attempt to create momentum, as if this was necessary to power through the end grain. Shooting in this manner would lead to user losing control of the plane.

What is necessary for control is minimum run up. Place the plane with the blade nearly touching the near edge of the board, and then simply push the plane forward, with even pressure and firmly. Since the shaving removed is very fine, a plane with a sharp blade will cut without much effort. Once this was understood, the extra mass of the LAJ was an advantage over the more stable #9.

In Summary

The ranking order for these planes is LN #51 and then the rest. On balance I would rank the LN #9 and the LV LAJ equally as they have strength and weaknesses that cancel each other out. The advice I would give to one who owned a LAJ, either LV or LN, is learn to hold it correctly to realise the potential. Those that own a #9 have a wonderful plane that is easier to produce a good result. That is the strength of the #9. And to those that own none of these planes recognise that the #9 is cutting at the same angle as a #5 ½ or #6, and that the correct handhold should make these planes produce a good result (David Charlesworth has a good piece on these planes in his DVD on shooting technique).

The motivation behind my comparison of the planes and the boards is to try and understand the dynamics in shooting - what will lead to improved performances, either with better tools or with existing tools? I do not mean to appear to be advocating expensive tools - just that the ones I did include are recognised to be specialists for shooting.

Equally, I am not meaning to be recommending via my conclusions that everyone should use a ramped shooting board, but that they lead to improved performance indicates that they offer "something". Is it the skew blade, a slicing action, a low cutting angle. Is it the plane or the board .. ? Clearly technique plays a large part since many are very comfortable with the performance of less-than-ideal bench planes. The #52, in taking some of the technique out of the arena, identifies that it is in the equation of shooting.

Regards from Perth


March 2011