Block Plane Selection and Rehabilitation

by Bob Smalser

I gave my heirloom Stanley #60½ away to the oldest boy awhile back thinking my larger Stanley #65 alone would suffice, but I miss not having a small plane for the apron pocket. So for 60 bucks at auction I bought some antique tool dealer’s collection of rejects… either lesser planes, stubby irons, or missing parts.

At the top are a crude Stanley #110 on the left and Sargent’s idea of a low-angle block on the right…an adjustable mouth, but too large for my hand and too little support for the iron.

oldies but goodies

At the bottom from left to right are two, more desirable Stanley #60½ low-angle blocks, a Stanley #65 also with a low-angle, 12° bed, and a standard-angle Stanley #9½ with a 20° bed…all with adjustable mouths.

I’ll rehab them all and sell or give away what I don’t need. I order the parts required from Stanley…eccentric levers ($2.00), a replacement iron ($6.00), and miscellaneous screws from their catalog:


I dismantle them and toss them into a phosphoric acid solution overnight. The acid attacks the rust without touching iron or steel, and leaves behind a protective coating of iron phosphate in pits and recesses, inhibiting further rust. I much prefer this rust removal method to any other for tools used in damp boat sheds.

this is an improvement

A day later all rust has been converted to crud that has to be cleaned off.

first to the wire wheel

I begin with a coarse wire wheel…

then to the bath

…followed by a bath in hot soapy water with a small wire brush to clean the recesses, a good rinse, and drying over mild heat.

The after-rust where I scrubbed off all the iron phosphate is removed back on the buffer-grinder using a fine wire wheel…

then touch up with the Dremel

…with special cleaning attention with a Dremel Tool given to the critical bed and mouth areas.

finish off with the rouge verde

I buff the exterior surfaces to a shine using green rouge…


…and degrease with mineral spirits followed by strong trichloroethylene (a suspected carcinogen), so here I wear gloves, which are also necessary to keep my oily fingerprints out of the blued finish.

then blue the parts

I then cold blue the parts using phosphate blue ( This solution hides rust staining, inhibits further rust, but most importantly is an index dye for the critical stages of flattening irons and soles.

prepare the stones

Before sharpening I check my stones for flat using 60-grit wet-or-dry paper on a precision-ground, cast-iron surface like this jointer table. A couple strokes done dry allows sighting down the stone to find any hollows still shining amid the stone dust made by the abrasive paper. If I have to flatten the stone I use kerosene as a lube and rub the stone until I have a perfectly flat surface. I’ll never get a good edge without perfectly-flat iron backs, and I’ll never achieve flat backs without flat stones.

backs need work

As you can see by the indexing blue remaining after initial honing of the backs, all of these irons will require more work on the coarse stone to make the blue near the cutting edge disappear. If the iron back isn’t dead flat at the cutting edge, the high spots with blue remaining don’t get as sharp and don’t attack the wood uniformly…the plane drags in use, and the cuts aren’t clean.

some high spots

Common after flattening these old irons is to wind up with high spots at the corners of the cutting edge that simply won’t go away.

back bevel is the solution

I could simply grind the iron back a few millimeters, but this iron doesn’t have much life left so I simply hone a slight back bevel of 2°s or less into iron’s back until the blue at the corners disappears.

a better iron

This blued iron is adequately flat far enough back to accommodate a number of quick resharpenings without having to mount another major attack on the back.

the sole is the heart of the plane

Once more to the jointer table with 60-grit, I attack the plane soles. First I mount the iron and set the adjustable mouth to the position in which it will be used the most often, and then remove the iron to flatten the entire sole assembly. You can see how badly this Sargent’s sole is out of flat by the index dye remaining. This one is pretty bad, and will take two sheets of 60-grit followed by a sheet of 100-grit to make true.

there's dead flat and Japanese 'flat'

Few are as bad as that Sargent, but when they are that bad, keep in mind that soles don’t have to be absolutely perfect like iron backs do. Just the toe, both sides of the mouth and heel need to be in the same plane to do fine work. In fact, Japanese planes are purposely set up with hollows in between my ink marks to reduce friction.

Much of the chattering experienced woodworkers complain about in Stanleys isn’t because the iron is dull, but because the critical area behind the mouth is in a hollow and is unsupported by the work piece. Indexing dye makes a huge difference in how well you flatten. If you aren’t using it, you may not be flattening as well as you think.

three planes in formation

I’ll do some trial work using three fettled planes. From the left, a stock #60½ I just finished above, my old standby #65, and a near-new Lie-Nielsen #60½ low-angle rabbeting block plane. I checked out and finish-honed the L-N using the above techniques… that took all of 10 minutes….these are as close to perfect as you can get.

side views

My 15-dollar #60½ has its stock carbon iron ($6.00), my #65 a thicker Hock carbon replacement iron ($35.00), and the L-N a thicker-still iron of A2 steel ($150.00 complete). The L-N is one heavy block plane….two or three ounces heavier than my large #65—better in a leather holster than an apron pocket.

bottom views

I set the mouths up for combination work removing both end grain and long grain hardwood. One of the limitations of this model L-N is that the mouth is a bit tight for heavy cuts in boatbuilding softwoods, placing it at a disadvantage…so I’m using white oak instead.

#60 1/2

The stock, 70-year-old #60½ had no trouble at all making end grain cuts in white oak.


Neither did the pre-war #65 with Hock iron.

a #18 joins the formation

Nor did the L-N. I even tried my stock, standard-angle #18 on the far right on the oak end grain and it pared it adequately too….just not as effortlessly as the low-angle models.

#60 1/2 results

Will the stock #60½ take full-width shavings of tough oak edge grain? You bet.

#65 results

So will the #65…

L-N results

…as will the L-N…

good old #18

…but here’s where the stock #18 shines. As cheap as the old, standard-angle block planes go for, don’t be without a #18 or #9½ to match your low-angle #65 or #60½. In the middle of a project you’ll sharpen half as often.

How long will the different makes of iron stay sharp? L-N's A2 steel with chromium and molybdenum added is tougher and will hold its edge longer. The only down side to A2 is that it doesn’t take quite the edge that good carbon does. Not by much though, and after a couple hours of work dulling both, I can’t tell the difference. But when freshly honed I can feel a slight difference, and if I were to go to A2 irons I’d try diamond paste on an indexing plate instead of stones. My ideal remains Hock carbon, but as you can see, I stumble along just fine with stock Stanley.

L-N in the hand

And as a rabbet plane, this L-N hasn’t enough depth for anything deeper than a quarter inch, although it would work well as a shoulder plane for crossgrain work on small tenons.

Stanley #78 and friend

If you need a rabbet plane, buy a rabbet plane. An inexpensive, old Stanley #78, Record #078 or Miller Falls #80 can be made to work as well as the #60½ here.

When selecting tools for boatbuilding, keep in mind that teaching yourself to clean, flatten, and sharpen can free up the money you need for all those other tools you need but don’t yet have.

Let my friend Jake Darvall in Australia teach you how to fettle them:

Additional detail on sharpening, bluing and fettling is found here:

. . . Bob Smalser

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© 2007 by Bob Smalser. All rights reserved.
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