Moulding Planes: A Beginner’s Guide to Use
Welcome to the wonderful world of moulding planes. I love these things. They’re quieter and cleaner than a powered router. While they can’t work on curves (use a “scratch stock” for that), for any kind of edge trim on pieces like bookshelves, heirloom chests, and cabinets, they are hard to beat. Or for mouldings and trim, from which they derive their name.
Of all the antique tools available to us today, moulding planes are perhaps the oldest ones that are still functional and easily used without “guilt.” You don’t see woodworkers readily using a 175-year-old saw or bench plane that often. But a well-kept, restored moulding plane from before the American Civil War will function much as it did the day it was made.
However, search for information on these, and you’ll see there’s a lack of good content especially when compared to other antique tools. Among a few, a notable exception is Matt Bickford’s site. He gives a wealth of information, and I can easily spend a lot of time there.
Bad information also pervades the internet. Poor techniques and potentially damaging advice get a lot of views. So let’s dive in and take a look at how to use and not abuse these beautiful artifacts.
Clean & Ready
Cleaning & restoring a moulding plane will be an article for another time. In a nutshell, I follow the process on the bodies as listed below for the wedges. Let’s get into the anatomy.
How is the inside of the mortise (the hole in the body into which the wedge and iron go)? Is it clean? If someone cleaned them for you, they should be fine. If you bought them off the antique store shelf or from an auction, they might need a little touch-up. A float file edge and side will clean them up properly, but other methods will work if you’re absolutely delicate. The mouth can be easily damaged, so be careful.
Ensure the irons are free from rust (I use a wire wheel), and that the wedges don’t have any gunk on them. For the wedges, use a non-scratch scotchbrite or 000 steel wool for gunk removal. Just some water with a drop of dishsoap. This does an excellent job of cleaning it up while leaving the patina. After it dries overnight, I give the iron and wedge a treatment of Alfie Shine restoration paste wax and let it sit overnight before buffing with a rag the next day.
Mallet vs. Hammer
You’ll want a mallet, and a hammer. A mallet is made of wood, a hammer is made of metal. Use the wood on wood, metal on metal. Do not strike or tap the wedge or body of a wooden moulding plane with metal.
The best practice is to hit the iron with something softer than the iron. Brass is the typical metal of choice, and one gent I know uses leather on the face of his brass hammer. Moulding planes are tools made to be used, but they are also antiques which should be treated well.
Inserting the Iron/Wedge
Insert the iron into the mouth bevel-side down, and get it so that you feel it with your finger tip. The “top” of the iron should be resting along the back of the mortise, creating a solid bed.
Insert the wedge, and give it a good solid tap from your mallet to set it. Not a wallop, but don’t be dainty. Your iron should not have moved too much, maybe just a tinge. If it’s protruding too far, then go to iron/wedge removal, below.
Adjusting the Iron Depth
Now that your wedge is firmly set, make a test pass on your wood. Shouldn’t be taking any shavings yet, or very minimal. Tap the end of the iron with your hammer, with your finger over the mouth to feel the iron slowly advance. Be conservative, a little at a time.
If you tap-tap-tap and feel no movement, increase your tapping force a bit. When you feel it advance ever so slightly, firmly hit the wedge with the mallet to make sure it’s set, and take another pass or two. You’re not in a race, so don’t feel like you have to rush. Lighter passes are ok. Worry about speed/heaviness of cut when you’ve got a good amount of experience under your belt. Always tap the wedge back down whenever you adjust the iron.
Voila! Once you’ve got a depth that’s taking decently thin shavings, then it’s all about holding it right. Moulding planes will occasionally have “spring lines” on the front that show how they should be oriented to the edge & face of the wood.
Moulding making is an art all to itself with a lot of sub-info. Check out Matt Bickford’s blog for a great black hole time suck of amazing moulding work and techniques. He goes into proper use technique more in his book as well. I don’t personally own it, but it’s on my list. Have heard great things about it.
Wait, how do I get the iron out?
To remove the iron/wedge, grasp the plane by the wedge, sole-down, in your weak hand by your index & thumb, the rest of your fingers grasping the top of the body against your palm. I’m right-handed, so my left hand does this. Strike firmly the rear (heel) of the plane near the top with your mallet. A well-tuned plane should only take a single or maybe two strikes to loosen the wedge enough to easily pull it out.
BEWARE as this will loosen the iron and you don’t want it to go careening to the ground. Do this over a bench. I like to hold the plane upright when doing this, so the weight of the body works for me to loosen the wedge.
Never hit the finial’s underside with your mallet in normal use. I only do this when I get a new-to-me plane in bad condition that won’t retract the wedge by hitting the rear, and then I only do this with great care. With your planes in good condition, you should never need to do this.
Advanced — Depth Decreasing
So your cut is too heavy and you want to lessen it? You can do the process above to remove, re-set, etc., or, you can do option B. Take the plane upside-down, set it on your bench. Sole will be facing up at you, nose/toe will be facing away from you with the heel against your crotch. The wedge/iron will be hanging off the bench.
Take the whole plane and lightly raise and smack it down with force against the bench just as it sat. Be careful not to hit the wedge against the bench. Check the depth with your finger, and repeat as necessary. It will retract your blade. Remember to set your wedge again with a firm mallet hit.
Sharpen using your normal process, focusing on the backs of the irons. When you have a burr on the top/bevel side, take that off with your stones/sandpaper/diamond plate/whatever. Convex & rebate irons just use against your stones.
Concavities, you’ll need a either a slip stone or roll some high-grit sandpaper around a dowel of appropriate size. I use the 4000 grit stone from Lee Valley and have been very happy.
You shouldn’t spend too much time on the bevel/front. Just enough to take off the burr at each grit increase is just fine. If you’re a moulding plane professional and perfectionist, you can, but we wouldn’t be having this discussion if you were.
I won’t go into too much detail here, but if your irons and the soles of your moulding planes aren’t matching up quite well (usually due to poor sharpening of those before you), then you will need to reprofile. This involves diamond files, etc. other things. Some of what I have and use, and there are even more options available:
It’s a whole process and I’d recommend getting more familiar overall before starting to tackle that. Avoid a power grinder as it’s very easy to mess it up both from screwing up the profile and from losing temper on the blade. Moulding plane masters I’ve spoken to advise against it and don’t do it themselves.
Some people reprofile the sole of the plane to match how the iron has malformed. I don’t really like this approach as it’s not original intent to the plane. But I won’t crap on someone who does.
Go forth, and enjoy moulding planes. Craftsmen and companies created them for work and beauty. Use them and add to their tsukumogami.
Questions, comments, disagreements? I want to hear your feedback either below or on one of the shared pages.
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