Sunday, June 12, 2016

Test Driving Chris Black's Router Plane

Yesterday's mail included a package from Chris Black in North Carolina. Late last week I realized I have been thinking about getting a router plane for a long time, but never pull the trigger. Looking forward a few months, I have some projects in mind that involve lots of dadoes in pine or poplar, so I called Chris. In addition to the tools he makes for sale, like an awesome birdcage awl and the best sanding block (seriously, when my partner saw it she tried to steal it!) Chris usually has a small pile of really nice old Stanley and other equivalent tools that he's restored for sale. I called him up and asked what he has on hand.

Turns out everyone and his siblings have been asking for router planes lately, so Chris has decided to make his own wooden version. He offered to let me have a look at his “Mark II” prototype. I sent some money by PayPal, he shipped it, I received it. I like it!

He warned that the individual I got isn't finished - - the corners need some chamfering and rounding over for the sake of comfort, a little bit of sanding, and perhaps a couple coats of finish to keep the grime off. I don't care, I like it NOW!

The wooden body is very neatly shaped by a canny combination of machine and hand-tool processes, and it's all been scraped and sanded to a good uniform finish. There's an added back plate of maple, which I guess adds some security to the blade locking screw. I assume that production versions will be all one species of wood, with an extra-thick back instead of the added reinforcing plate on this example.

The really clever part of Chris's design is that even though the shape of the router is traditional, it uses the blade from a modern cast-iron router plane. These new blades have the huge advantage of being readily available and FAR easier to sharpen than the old one-piece “nag's tooth” blades. This also gives me the option of getting different sized blades in case I want to work narrower dadoes or grooves, or maybe even do some stringing.

My plan for this Sunday, my first day off in what feels like several months, was to “clean up the shop” while also getting ready for Tuesday's hand plane class at Highland, and perhaps install some home office built-ins I assembled in February. But as soon as I had the bench cleared off, I couldn't help myself. I roughed out a dado in pine with a saw and chisels, then finished it up with Chris's plane. 

I enjoyed that so much I laid out a wider, stopped housing in birch and worked on that. Neat!

I have to say I'm impressed. At one point during some recklessly heavy cuts, I thought the blade was coming loose in the body, but no, it was actually the screw holding the two-part blade together. I tweaked that with the included allen wrench and went back to work. The blade is held VERY securely by the combination of Chris's snug mortising job and a well-placed thumbscrew. The depth stop is dead easy to set, and in fact I was able to use feeler gauge stock to set the router up to take .004” shavings with no trouble at all.

And thin shavings are the say to go with this little gem. When I teach people how to use the (electric) router, I always tell them to think of it as a trimming tool, not an excavator, and that the lighter the cut they take, the happier they and their tool and their workpiece will be. Same goes here: you rough out your housing with chisels after defining the edges with knives, chisels, and/or saws, and use the router to trim the excavation to an even, precise, final depth. This is the tool to use when you're setting big hinges or laying in a dutchman or dovetail key and you need a perfectly flat bottom at a precise depth. One thing to be aware of is that it's pretty easy to undercut the joint you're working on, which is sometimes desirable and sometimes not. Be careful, take little bites and check your work frequently.

One final note: a big advantage of the wooden router is that it's very light, and the feel of wood on wood as you work is wonderful, as with other wood-bodied planes. I'm not sure it's lower friction, but it just feels great. When Chris and I talked about this plane, we agreed we don't know how to quantify or perfectly describe the difference in experience, but we both like it. Maybe it's one of those transistor versus vacuum tube things.

So does this router belong in the bare-bones, thousand dollar shop? If you're setting out to make solid wood furniture using hand tools, I think it does. Especially at this price.

Chris can be reached by email at, and although this plane isn't quite in production yet, he plans to offer it for . . . well, I think it's too low so I can't bring myself to tell you. But it's under $100! Geez. Shipping is $8 to the continental U.S.

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