Bowmaking Tools: Hand Planes

I’ve recently had a lot of people show interest in bow making tools. So this article is the start of a short series of an in-depth look at the main tools that bow makers use.

Large Block Planes

Stanley No. 9-1/2 and Lie-Nielsen No. 60-1/2 Block Plane

The length of the sole on the Stanley 9-1/2 and Lie Nielson 60-1/2 are prefect for bow making. The toe can bridge the gap of the the eyelet mortice in the stick when final fitting the frog. With an adjustable throat, it can be nearly closed to produce the fine shavings we need for removing pernambuco without tear out. Using a low angle plane, 20 degree bed, with a high angle on the blade, 35 degree bevel, makes the edge of the blade very strong. This gives us a total angle of about 55 degrees which is essential for working difficult pernambuco. I usually can get most of my graduations of the stick completed with these planes.

Standard Block Planes

The Stanley 102 and Lie Nielson 102 (low angle) are set up for working ebony for the frog as well as general planing and jig making around the shop. The blades of these are set up with a standard bevel of 25 degrees.

Salchow Bow Planes

Many American bow makers have used these style of scraper planes to make tens of thousands of bows. These were originally designed by William Salchow, a similar model is produced for Lynn Hannings and is available on her website. They are available in large(125 mm x 25 mm), medium(93 mm x 15 mm), small(55 mm x 10 mm) sizes as well as a small and medium sized curved sole. The curved bottom plane is essential for planing curve in right behind the head. I find the small plane useful for rounding the stick and the large and medium plane are good for working with difficult pernambuco prone to tear-out.

Peccatte Style Plane

This plane was made for Jerry Pascaweiz of Triangle Strings. Many people have produced these style planes at home or in large batches by machinists. Planes of this design are still being used by many French makers and others around the world. The blade was made by Hock Tools and I ground it to roughly a 40 degree angle. I have also used a very similar one produced by Rodney Mohr that has a HSS blade. I really love the design, craftsmanship, and just how well the plane works.

Ibex Finger Plane

Taken from the violin world, the Ibex Finger Plane is a rounded bottom(across its width) brass plane. I use this plane for shaping the curve on the side of the frogs as well as trimming the frog to the stick.

Veritas Scraper Plane

I found this plane very useful to quickly remove tool marks when roughing out sticks before bending. It produces a really nice finish but is too large to finish bows with so I don’t use this plane too much anymore.

Jack Plane

I only really use this for roughing out large lumber and cleaning up pernambuco boards before cutting bow blanks out on the bandsaw. This plane has a standard woodworking setup.

Plane Setup

Flattening the sole of a plane can be done on a flat piece of granite or glass. PSA back abrasives or regular wet/dry sandpaper can be fixed to the surface. Depending on the quality of the plane, working through several grits may be necessary. As I move to finer grits, the scratch marks are used as a guide to know where I am removing metal. I put the plane blade under regular tension, but backed out a little bit so that it is not engaged.

Grinding and Sharpening Plane Blades

Flattening the Back of Plane Blades

Before setting an angle and working the bevel on the blades, the back of the blades need to be dead flat and polished to a near mirror or mirror finish. Technically the cutting edge on a plane blade is the back edge, a mirror finish will produce a nicer finish on the wood as well as hold an edge longer.

Plane Blade Steel

Plane blades are available in wide range of options, D2, A2, O1, PMV-11, and HSS. I don’t have any experience currently with PMV-11, which is a powder based alloy but I’ve heard great things for use on pernambuco. High Speed Steel has been working really well for me for my bow making knives and I know Rodney Mohr’s bow planes come with HSS steel blades and they work amazingly well. The downside with these last two metals is that they require diamond stones for sharpening. I still finish on a water polish stone.

Sharpening

Wet Grinder

The Tormek T-8 wet grinder is the industry standard wet grinder and has and an enormous number of accessories and jigs for sharpening just about anything. For plane blade sharpening a tool like this is essential. Plane blades rarely come with the high angles that we need, so grinding the proper angle is a necessity. I don’t recommend using a regular bench grinder unless you have the hands of an angel, because it is really easy to heat up the cutting edge of the blade and ruin its temper.

Veritas Sharpening Guide

I got the Veritas Honing Guide not too long ago and have been really pleased with the results. I used to sharpen all my plane blades free hand but find this jig really helps with repeatability and conserves on the removal of material. If you are new to sharpening, I strongly recommend a guide like this for sharpening the blades on water and diamond stones.

Water Stones

For the plane blades made of D2, A2, and O1, I’ve been really pleased with the Norton 220/1000 and 4000/8000 combination water stones. Most sharpening can be done on either the 1000 or 4000 grit, and the 220 grit should rarely be used unless you need to repair an edge. Many times it is a toss up between the 220 grit and just going back to the grinder.

Diamond Stones

For any of the exotic metals such as PMV-11 or the super hard stuff like HSS, these are definitely a necessity. These metals will eat through water stones. The DMT Diamond Bench Stones essentially have tiny diamonds embedded into steel plates and engineered to be flat within .0002″. Because they are super flat, they can be faithfully used to flatten the back of plane blades.

Strops

I recently made some glass lapping blocks to use with 3M’s PSA backed micro lapping film. I like this setup for plane blades as it ensures a precisely flat back and bevel. I used to use a Leather Strop and still do for most of my knives and chisels. This is the final step in sharpening and blades should be taken to the strop often. This will cut down how often you will actually need to sharpen the blades on water or diamond stones.

Coming Next in the Bowmaker’s Tool Series

The lathe is a invaluable tool that we use for bow making and restoration work. We will take an in-depth look at what are some available options, the tooling, and setup for these glorious machines.

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