Tools of the Trade: The Smoothing Plane
Now that we’ve flattened our stock with the jointer plane, it’s time to smooth it to prepare it for joinery and finishing. To do this we need to add another tool to our chest: the smoothing plane.
What is a smoothing plane?
According to Neve’s City and Country Purchaser of 1735, the smoothing plane is “so called from its Use to smooth or finish the Planeing Work the Iron of which is set fine for that Purpose it is about 6 or 7 Inches in Length.” The smoothing plane was used after the jointer, to put a final finish on the board.
This is a smoothing plane that belonged to Nathaniel Dominy of New York, currently in the collection of the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library. The plane was made by the user, with the iron imported from England, which was relatively common in the period. In Philadelphia there were regular shipments of plane irons, and advertisements don’t show much local manufacture of edge tools until the 1760s. But before we go down the local-manufacture rabbit hole, let’s take a look at how these were used.
How were they used?
Smoothing planes are the last step in stock preparation. They give boards that have already been flattened with a jointer a smooth, satiny surface, and prepare them for a finish. Here’s the piece we flattened in last week’s post. It’s already pretty smooth, but it can be better:
First, make sure your smoothing plane is set very fine, barely the width of a hair. This will give you fine, gauzy shavings that leave a silky surface (you should be able to get an almost reflective surface):
Following the same basic method as with the jointer plane, move from one end to the other, making sure each pass overlaps. After a bit of patience, you’ll be rewarded with a silky smooth board and a nice pile of light, fluffy shavings (they should feel almost like tissue). This piece is now ready for joinery or whatever use you might have!
But we don’t just use the smoothing plane to make things look pretty. We’ve been using it to smooth the outside edge of our rim boards for the water wheel, bringing them all perfectly true to our layout lines and square to the face.
This also gives the wheel a very smooth surface, allowing it to shed water more easily, reducing drag, and making it a touch more efficient. This will let it run faster and longer, which means more flour for bread and cakes, or barley for beer, and, in the end, isn’t bread and beer what this is all about?
As always, I would normally invite everyone to come visit us in the Millwright Shop, but it’s currently closed due to COVID-19. We will be continuing to post here on the blog, and we’ll be doing more Facebook Live videos, so be sure to follow us on Facebook. Stay safe and check back here next week!
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 Neve, Richard, The City and Country Purchaser And Builder’s Dictionary, London, 1736, Google E-book, “Smoothing Plane” Accessed May 18, 2020.
 Dominy, Nathaniel. 1765. Smoothing Plane. In the Winterthur Digital Museum Collection. Accessed May 18, 2020.
Dominy, Nathaniel. 1765. Smoothing Plane. In the Winterthur Digital Museum Collection. Accessed May 18, 2020. http://museumcollection.winterthur.org/single-record.php?resultsperpage=20&view=catalog&srchtype=advanced&hasImage=&ObjObjectName=&CreOrigin=&Earliest=&Latest=&CreCreatorLocal_tab=&materialsearch=&ObjObjectID=&ObjCategory=tools&DesMaterial_tab=&DesTechnique_tab=&AccCreditLineLocal=&CreMarkSignature=&recid=1957.0093.055%20A-%20D&srchfld=&srchtxt=smoothing&id=5492&rownum=1&version=100&src=results-imagelink-only#.XsJ_T2hKiUk
Neve, Richard, The City and Country Purchaser And Builder’s Dictionary, London, 1736, Google E-book, Accessed May 18, 2020. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Neve_s_The_city_and_country_purchaser_an/Hh9hAAAAcAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1