Don't Fear the Camber

The progression of learning to use hand planes is often something like this:

Stage 1: I tried to use (my grandpa's/a flea market find/a Home Depot $19) hand plane, and it sucks. It just chatters across the wood, doesn't make shavings, and doing any work with it would take FOREVER. (I goes onto a shelf or into the back of cabinet, never to be used again for years).

Stage 2: I finally learned how to set up and sharpen a plane, and I'm getting fair results, some nice shavings - still learning how to use it correctly! I like these, but I'm still not confident. It still takes some time to get real work done.

Stage 3: I can sharpen my blades well, and set up the planes to get whisper thin shavings. I get smooth cuts, but getting work done still takes a while.

This post if for you Stage 2 and Stage 3 types out there. Welcome to Stage 4 (which should really be a lesson you learn at Stage 2, and if someone had shown us this stuff earlier, we would never had had to experience Stage 1)! You learned to sharpen planes, either from classes, books, videos, just getting the sharpening thing down was a lot of work. You tried a bunch of the sharpening methods, from sandpaper on glass, to water stones, to oil stones, to diamond plates, and after buying into those, found the one you liked. You bought all the plane sizes; no.s 3,  through no. 8. Along the way, you'd read, or seen, or heard about putting a "camber", or curved edge on some of your plane blades, but you'd never tried it. It was enough working getting a straight across blade sharp. And after searching for that eBay or tool swap plane, doing the restoration on it, or after you saved up and bought that de-luxe Lie Nielsen plane, the thought of "screwing up" that plane's blade by trying to put the curve on it was NOT going to happen.

But it should happen. Let's review what the planes are for. For most work, you really only need three: small, medium, and large. Small: a smoothing plane (a no. 3 or no. 4), Medium: a jack plane (no. 5) and Large: a jointer/try plane (a no. 7). Use the jack plane to rough size your parts, removing a lot of waste. Then use the jointer on larger, longer boards to flatten them, and finally, use the smoothing plane to smooth the surface. Of these three, putting a camber edge on the jack plane is the place to start. By cambering the edge you are able to quickly and easily remove a lot of wood, and GET SOME WORK DONE. The curved edge can take large bites out of the work while still letting you drive the plane through the wood, and get down near your pencil line quickly, so you can move on to the other planes. A jack plane with a straight blade set fine works like trying to paint a house with a toothbrush. A jack plane with a straight blade set deep works like trying to shovel snow with a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood: huge bites that are too big to lift or remove. It's the camber that lets you take nice bites out of you work. So for flattening a board, taking that 1/2" of width off a board without sawing it, the cambered jack is the way to go.

the strong camber on my jack plane

So how to create a camber? You simply tilt the blade side to side when sharpening, alternately applying pressure to the left and right as you work the iron back and forth on the stone. If you're using a honing jig or guide, you can't get a camber, (unless you have a fancy honing guide with a cambering attachment) so it's time to learn to sharpen freehand.

And how much of a camber? That's a matter of personal choice, but on my jack plane, I have a fairly strong camber at about a 10"-11" radius (I just go by eye).

Fir the jointer plane or the smoother, other rules apply. I tend to keep my jointer plane blade with no camber, so that there is no arc to the cut when I am jointing panels for a glue up. On my smoother, I have a very slight, almost non-visible camber, that I get with just adjusting pressure when honing. I also slightly round the corners of the blade to help alleviate any plane tracks that sharp edges would cause. 

But that discussion of for another day. For now, I hope I have encouraged you to try cambering you jack, and discovering the joy of quickly removing a lot of material fast.

What the Wax Does

Applying paste wax to furniture is part of most furniture maker's process. For closed pore woods, such as cherry or maple, clear paste wax is usually used. But when finishing furniture made from open pored woods (oak, mahogany, walnut), it is a common practice to apply a colored paste wax as a final step. Usually a black or very dark brown wax. For the Arts & Crafts / Craftsman / Mission pieces I have built using quarter sawn white oak, I've done it on every piece. It is a standard part of my finishing regimen. Recently, I finished up a commission to replace some worn painted plywood doors on a mid-century modern credenza with mahogany veneer doors, and I used dark brown wax there as well. Let's look at the effect...

In these quarter sawn white oak door frames, the wax adds definition to the pores, and gives the wood more richness and depth. The overall color darkens slightly, but it is more about emphasizing the pores and corners.

In the case of the credenza, I used the wax to match the existing finish on the outside of the case. In this piece, the mahogany veneer on the body had already been finished by a factory finishing process. I suspect it was a dark colored glaze (sort of a "wash coat" that only leaves colors in the pores & corners) topped with a tinted top coat. However, the doors I built were starting from bare mahogany. So instead of trying to do a glaze (something I don't tend to do) and applying a tinted top coat, I approached it differently. After several rounds of testing, I found that first applying a coat of amber shellac, followed by several coats of clear wipe on polyurethane, THEN a final waxing with dark brown paste wax, resulted in a match for the original finish quite well. 

Once I had the formula, I applied it to the finished piece...

With any final coat of wax, you can buff it to the desired sheen, from shiny to matte. I usually apply it using fine (0000) steel wool to knock of any dust nibs as I go, then buff with a cotton rag. The result is a smooth, deep finish with the sheen tailored to your taste. So if you're new to finishing, or just new to wax, try it out (ON TEST BOARDS) and see what it can do for your finishes.