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The Veritas LA Jack

It all began when I was the successful eBay bidder on a rather derelict Stanley #62 low angle jack plane. Up until that time the only low angle planes I had used were block planes. I had read several good reviews of LA jacks and smoothers, notably those from the Lie Nielson (LN) and Lee Valley (LV) stables, but could not really justify the expenditure since I was already foster parent to a large (and growing) collection of vintage and modern planes. A significant number of these were high angle planes since much of the woodwork I do is in Australian timbers, which tend to tear out more easily with lesser angles.So what is so special about the #62? Patrick Leach, on his The Superior Works website, writes

"This is one of Stanley's better planes they ever decided to manufacture. It is nothing but a jack plane with the block plane mechanisms added to it, instead of the common bench plane mechanisms. It has its cutter seated at 12 degrees, an adjustable mouth, and the depth adjustment knob like that found on the other block planes in this series."

So there I was with this Stanley #62 with cracked rear tote, pitting on side and sole, a sole that was mildly cupped (making the plane unusable as it stood), and reportedly an enlarged mouth (but this turned out to not to be the case - as I suspected the seller had confused the presence of an adjustable mouth). Fortunately it was quite cheap (everyone must have been asleep at auction time), or put off by the negative sounding advert (quite likely), and my plan for an inexpensive LA jack was on track. All the problems were fairly easily repaired, and this was described in an article for those interested in the details.

It went from this

to this

Using the #62 on end grain was simply a joy. With its original Sweetheart blade it was capable of making full length shavings on Jarrah and Pine (keep in mind that end grain on soft woods is more difficult to cut than on hard woods), and to do so with greater ease than my two LA block planes, a Stanley #65 (with Hock blade) and a LN #102.

The #62 did not fair as well on long grain with gnarly or reversing grain, where it would repeatedly tear out. On the other hand, on undemanding straight grain timber, such as Hoop Pine, it would leave a surface that literally glowed. Quite stunning!

I began to suspect that these bevel up planes had a potential beyond the traditional bevel down planes. My reasoning was that the bevel down brigade relied on blade thickness for stability since the blade would exit the planes' mouth without as much support from the frog. This was one of the reasons that the Stanley Bed Rock planes were considered superior to the basic bench plane since the Bed Rock frog extended to the sole itself. On high-end planes, such as Norris infills, the blade is increased in thickness as well as attention given to the blades' bedding to the frog. The potential for LA planes lies in the way the blade is supported over a wider area around the mouth of the plane. Blades do not have to be as thick, although the combination of a thick blade together with such secure bedding is likely to translate into less vibration and, hence, less chatter - and smoother, more controlled cuts.

So I was eager to explore this further, particularly with high angle blades.Another advantage of the bevel up plane concept is its greater flexibility with set up for different timbers. With bevel down planes, the higher the effective cutting angle, the better its ability to deal with gnarly grain. There is no limit to the angle one can use (as you go higher and higher you approach the angles associated with scraper planes). I, like many others, keep a selection of bevel down planes, some with 45 degree beds, others with 50 degree (York pitch) beds, and typically 60 degree beds (such as on the wonderful HNT Gordon range) for the most difficult timbers.

One alternative to owning several planes is to add a back bevel to the blade of a standard 45 degree smoother. A back bevel of 5 - 15 degrees will enable it to imitate a 50 - 60 degree cutting angle. The downside of this approach is two-fold: firstly, sharpening is a more complex affair; secondly, changing blades on a bevel down plane, such as a Stanley #4 or #604 is more cumbersome since you also have to negotiate resetting its chip breaker. With the bevel up planes it would be possible to change the cutting angle by grinding this directly onto the blade. And no chip breaker.

In addition to a 25 degree bevel (producing a cutting angle of 37 degrees), one could have others with 38 degrees (York pitch) and another of 48 degrees (cutting angle of 60 degrees). Word from Lyn Mangiameli, who has completed significant research on high angled smoothers, suggests that a microbevel ground to produce a cutting angle of 64 degrees on the LV LA smoother “achieves simply outstanding results". I wanted to test this out. Around this time I was contacted by Rob Lee of Lee Valley tools. He had read my article on renovating the #62 and wondered if I was interested in comparing my Stanley #62 with his LV LA Jack? Was I just! And so we get to the present, this point of the review, with the intention to investige the promise of bevel up planes. My plan was to try and obtain objective evidence (by comparing photos of the timber surface) after planing at all relevant times. I have included these below.So let's move on and have a look at these two LA Jacks alongside one another. LV at top and Stanley below.

Size: One notable difference is the size of these planes. The Stanley is based on a #5, and is similar in width, length and heft. The LV is more like a #5 ½ , which is wider, longer and heavier, and hence is referred to as a #62 ½ .

Overall finish: The LV arrived crisp and clean, ready to use out of the box. All parts appeared well-machined - no rough edges anywhere. The sole was flat in all directions, the mouth was square to the sides. The sides were square to the sole, which meant that it was all ready to go on the shooting board.

The ductile iron out of which the LV is manufactured is a reassuring reminder that this plane will survive if dropped from the workbench to the floor. The cast iron of the Stanley is relatively fragile and unlikely to withstand a similar impact without damage.

Blades: The Stanley blade is 2" wide and 1/16" thick. The LV is 2 ¼ " wide and 3/16" thick. They are not interchangeable. Both planes are designed for bevel up blades bedded at 12 degrees. Both LA setups involve blades with 25 degree bevels. The LV also has available, and reviewed here, a HA set up, with a blade beveled at 38 degrees (to produce a plane with a York pitch).

I did purchase a 1/8” thick LN “Replacement” blade to supplement the #62. The bevel was sharpened to 25 degrees for use in LA mode. The original Stanley was given a 38 degree microbevel to work in HA mode and match the LV blade pair.

All sharpening was completed on King waterstones up to 6000 grit, then honed on Veritas green compound, which I understand to be the equivalent of 9000 grit. For reliability, I used a Veritas honing guide, and all bevel angles were carefully checked.

The LV blades were very nicely finished. All were flat and needed no extra work in this area. I did find the A2 steel (of the LN and LV) to be a touch more difficult to sharpen than the original Stanley SW blade, which was notably softer than the Others. It did take a fine edge - as good – but it just did not hold it as long. The A2 took and held an excellent edge.

Blade adjustment systems: Adjustment mechanisms are not only different, but the LV version offers a genuine advance in design.

The Stanley adjustment mechanism only permits forward and rear movement. There is moderate backlash. The side-to-side adjustment is made by moving the blade itself, which is the reason for the cutout shape at its rear. The LV mechanism is a modified Norris type and functions in a dual role to adjusts both rear-and-forward and side-to-side movement. It does this with minimal backlash. In practice, I do not find the Stanley's manual side adjustment to be a problem. Both planes require that the hold down screw is loosened slightly. It is also possible to manipulate the LV blade in the same manual maner.

As can be seen in these pictures, there is a considerable difference in size in the beds, the LV being about five times the size of the Stanley. This suggests that there is potential here for greater blade stability.

Totes and knobs also differ in design. The Stanley pair is the familiar design made of Rosewood. The LV pair, I'm told, was designed for function. I asked Rob Lee about this and he replied, “The plane handle design evolved from an ergonomic assessment of bench heights, grip, and application of force along an axis in-line with the blade…Ones hand has numerous pressure points that can lead to fatigue (mostly in the palm). A more curved handle that “fits” the hand better (with a loose grip) isn’t necessarily the best shape for prolonged or intense use. In addition, it isn’t as comfortable when one skews the plane. Believe me – I, too, much prefer the look of the older Stanley handles…. But they were designed in another era, when hands were smaller, and benches were generally lower, and ergonomics was more Darwinism than science. For us, a more upright handle made better sense, and in prolonged use was more comfortable”.

The Bubinga is warm but the rear totes are a little too flat for me aesthetically. Nevertheless, they are comfortable in use and, in fact, appear to be a good size for handling this plane. In fact, after a while the Stanley tote began to feel a little cramped for my average-size hands. The LV handle is attached with two through bolts, whereas the Stanley has just the one. The LV certainly felt taut.

Both planes have adjustable mouths in traditional block plane manner. The mouth is locked by a screw under the front knob. In the case of the Stanley, there is a twist lock that enables one to slide the mouth plate back-and-forth. This has a smooth and positive action on my #62. The LV functions similarly but there is no similar adjustment lever. Instead, there is an adjustable depth screw (this can be seen in the picture above) and this is used precisely adjust the mouth outward, but not inward. Initially I thought this to be an oversight by LV, but the correct method is to make adjustments while holding the plane in the vertical axis (using gravity to return the mouth plate rearwards). Rob described it this way, “I use the brass stop knob to adjust the mouth in and out – holding the plane vertical, looking at the mouth. It’s also handy to unlock the shoe – slide it forward – clear trapped chips – then slide it back and lock….once you get used to this – it’s about a second to clear the throat”. It is a nice feature to be able to set a repeatable size mouth and return to this in between using the plane with wider mouth settings.

The other novel feature of the LV is a set screw on either side of the blade. These can be used to hold the blade square to the mouth, or they may be used to adjust the blade in minute increments. More points scored here.

The final feature that has been added to the LV is the recessed round finger grips on either side of the plane. One of the traditional uses of the LA Jack has been on a shooting board for cutting end grain. Common use has been made of a #5 ½ or #6 in this regard. Holding these planes tends to be a compromise at best. My preference in the past has been to use a HNT Gordon Try Plane, to which one can attach a side grip.

The recessed side grips on the LV make it considerably easier to grip the plane for use on a shooting board. While on this topic, the extra width and the extra heft of the LV combine to make this a great plane for end grain trimming on the shooting board. The Stanley is a good plane in this department, but the LV is much better.Timbers used to assessment these planes

I chose a selection of two softwoods and two hardwoods, all Australian timbers. The softwoods included Hoop Pine (pictured before) and Camphor. The hardwoods were Jarrah and Tasmanian Oak.



Tasmanian oak

Results of end grain planning

It should be made clear that the LA setups were not my primary interest here. It has already been established what these planes are capable of when called upon to plane end grain. Their potential in the HA area was the more compelling reason for assessing these planes. Still, I was keen to compare the LA Jacks against my reference, a HNT Gordon Try Plane.

All the timber ends were planed on the shooting board. There was a clear pattern evident with the worst surfaces (tear out and/or chipping) evident first in the soft woods, then less so as the timber increased in density. Jarrah produced the best finish. Evident, too, was that the best finishes came from the jack planes in LA mode, and the worst came from the high angle HNT Gordon Try Plane, which left a comparatively ragged finish. Of the LA Jacks, the Stanley produced a very slightly smoother finish on the soft woods, consistently taking full-length shavings. Against my expectations, the LV did not quite match this. The LV did produce a slightly cleaner surface in sections, but was not as even overall. The pictures of the Camphor below depict this.

By contrast, Jarrah and Tasmanian Oak finishes were identical for the LA Jacks. These cuts were clean, free from tear out, and had a smooth, burnished look that the soft woods could not manage.

Using the Bevel Up Jacks as High Angle (HA) planes

As I noted earlier, it was the possible use of the LA Jacks for HA use that excited me the most. I set out to assess this armed with the gnarliest piece of Jarrah that one could imagine. In planing this piece it was not going to be the case of which plane could prevent tear out; tear out would occur, I had no doubt about that. It was to be more of the case of which plane could reduce tear out the best. The bevel-up planes were used with a York pitch blades (cutting angle of 50 degrees). Supplementary planes included a 45-degree Stanley Bed Rock #604 (with LN blade and chip breaker), and a 60-degree HNT Gordon smoother (with its own 1/4" thick HSS blade). Results are below.

These pictures don't clearly portray the results as much as desired. Photos were taken on my scanner set to a resolution of 9600 pixels/inch. The problem is that this only provides a two-dimensional image. Ideally, surface detail needs to be viewed in three dimensions. The third dimension – revealing depth of tearout – is not possible here.

In the above examples, tearout is seen in the white colouring. Predictably, the worst was the LV Jack using the LA blade. The Bed Rock actually produced a good finish but when it tore out it did so quite deeply. The HNT Gordon left minor surface tearout here-and-there, but the surface was otherwise very smooth. The best finish was actually the LV Jack with the HA blade. This was similar to the HNT Gordon, but with perceptively less surface damage.A shootout of the LV and Stanley Jacks, using York pitch blades, left the LV noticeably ahead on points. See below.

So what could be done with a real HA blade?!

During the course of the past few weeks, while I was getting to know the LV LA Jack, I grew increasing impressed and decided to throw caution to the winds and lash out on the LV LA Smoother (see picture of Shooting Board. The LV LA Smoother is the first of the planes in the background). The HA blade was given a microbevel of 52 degrees to so as to provide a cutting angle of 64 degrees. This was tested on the Evil section of Jarrah (above). And it did well. Very well. In fact, better than my HNT Gordon smoother, which had been my reference up till that time. It outclassed anything I had used before on this timber section. See the results below.

Last words

The potential of these bevel-up planes is such that I believe they going to be the force for future plane design. I wonder why Stanley did not take the concept of their #164 and #62 beyond the LA blades? That the LA blades are great at cutting end grain is no surprise now and never was back then. I guess that LA block planes are going to be preferred if all you are going to cut is end grain since they are so much cheaper. But LV and LN have revitalized interest in these planes, more so since there is awareness that they have great range and flexibility, and all it takes is a selection of spare blades to handle the HA spectrum as well, if not better, than dedicated HA planes. The LV LA Jack (and Smoother) has certainly advanced the design begun by Stanley. It is evident that The Son of Stan(ley) has now developed beyond the original expectations of its parent. It will be interesting to see the further developments that lie in the future.

Derek Cohen

Perth, Australia

October 2004