The fact that your tools are new means they’re nowhere near ready for use. This may not match your expectations, but it’s true of nearly every hand tool (and most power tools) that you might ever acquire. It’s not that the tools weren’t made well; they almost certainly were. But the job of the person in the foundry where your planes were made, for instance, is to make tools that look just like planes, and to be sure there are not fatal flaws that would keep them from working. That foundry worker doesn’t use the planes (he’d surely get in trouble if his supervisor caught him making shavings on the job!), and he probably isn’t a woodworker anyway. So he has no business trying to make planes perfectly ready to use. It’s not the retailer’s job to make tools perfect; their job is to choose good tools, inform you responsibly, offer competitive prices and good customer service, and so on. In the life history of your planes, you are the first person they’ve ever met who actually needs them to work properly—so you’re the right person to put them into shape for doing so. The work to be done is both simple and brief, and it will begin building a connection between you and your tools even before you put them to work.
Blades must be sharpened; corrosion-preventive coatings must be removed. Handles can be shaped, refinished or replaced. Castings may be polished and waxed, rough edges smoothed, sharp corners eased. Only the first two chores, sharpening and cleaning, must be done, while the rest are entirely a matter of choice. “Perfecting the Steel Plane”, another handout from Highland Hardware, offers several suggestions for improving both the tools and your understanding of them.
Cleaning & Care
Chisels, as well as new planes and the irons and chipbreakers with them, arrive coated with oil or lacquer which prevents corrosion quite effectively, but it also keeps the tools from sliding easily on wood surfaces. Lace a Scotch-Brite pad or a bit of steel wool with lacquer thinner and scrub down the chisel blades, the soles and sides of the planes, and the front and back of the plane iron and chipbreaker. Don’t let solvent drip onto your plane bodies where it might damage the enamel finish. Now apply a thin coat of wax and buff all the freshly cleaned surfaces; this will inhibit corrosion and reduce friction very well. Look up Renaissance Wax in the Rust Control section of our site for a few tips on waxing your tools.
The easiest way to understand sharpening is to compare it to sanding wood. Both processes use abrasives to shape and smooth surfaces toward a desired condition; both start with whatever grit seems appropriate in a given situation, and then proceed through various finer grits until you’re satisfied. For a cutting edge, you want the two surfaces which meet to form the edge to be very smooth. Think like a microscope about what a cutting edge looks like at high magnification. Coarse grinding scratches on the bevel and back of the tool look like sharp mountains and deep valleys. The mountain peaks may be thin and suited to cutting (sharp), but they’re weak and ragged; the valleys between them score your work with every stroke. As you polish the surfaces that form an edge smoother and smoother, the valleys get shallower and shallower. As the edge gets closer to straight it gets thinner and thinner, and the whole thing becomes increasingly suited to cutting wood. In a nutshell, the object of sharpening is to make two surfaces meet to form an edge, and to make those surfaces so smooth that the very thin edge they create can penetrate through wood easily and cleanly. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Did you ever sand a piece of wood all the way to a fine finish, then apply a stain or finish coat and suddenly notice a few deep sanding scratches left over from early in the sanding process? You didn’t leave those scratches there deliberately; you just didn’t see them as you sanded to finer and finer grits. The problem wasn’t technique, it was lack of information. If you’d brushed or blown the piece clean several times during the job and looked at it under a bright light coming at a low angle, you’d have seen those scratches and eliminated them early on, saving yourself a lot of grief. Likewise, looking closely at what’s going on while you sharpen is often all it takes to figure out what needs to be done.