Canadian Woodworking

Shaping a Plane Handle

Author: Konrad Sauer
Shaping a Plane Handle
Shaping a Plane Handle

The most enjoyable aspect of plane-making is the woodworking – and within the woodworking, freehand shaping is the very best. The first hand-plane I made was an open-handled smoothing plane that took at least a full day to shape. Thankfully, I have become much more efficient at it.


There are a few important fea­tures of a comfortable handle. Many mass-produced handles are usually 15/16″ to 7/8″ in thickness. In my opinion, this is too thin. I start with 5/4 stock to finish between 1-1/16″ and 1-1/8″ thick.

Wood selection is also important. I tend to stick with woods from the rosewood family (dalbergia), ebony or boxwood, as they are incredibly stable, a joy to work with and are beautiful to look at and hold.
I start off by bandsawing out a handle blank, dating it, and setting it on a shelf to release any internal stresses. How long depends on many factors, but gen­erally six months is more than enough, as long as the wood has previously been very well seasoned. When the handle is needed, I further refine the shape on the bandsaw and flatten both sides parallel with one another. This handle fits into a mortise and the fit has to be perfect.

One trick is to use white pencil cray­ons for marking on these typically dark woods. I use my finger as a fence and draw some quick layout lines. You can also mark the center line along the back of the handle. 

Proper Positioning
Sauer clamps the blank in a hand-screw clamp, and secures the clamp in a metalworking vise before shaping the handle. This set-up allows him to adjust the position of the handle so he’s always working comfortably.

shaping a plane handle

Ease the Edges
First Sauer shapes a heavy, even chamfer into the outer edges of the handle (left). He then further adds facets to the edges, keeping them evenly spaced. At this point he can easily see if he’s veering off the line, as facets of different widths start to appear (right).

shaping a plane handle

shaping a plane handle

Shape the Inside
After repositioning the handle so he’s working parallel with the ground, Sauer takes care to shape the inner edges of the handle.

shaping a plane handle

Sand the Surfaces
With fresh sandpaper and rubber sanding forms, Sauer smoothens all the surfaces.

shaping a plane handle

Ready for a Finish
The finished handle is very comfortable to grasp and has no sharp edges.

shaping a plane handle

Rasps and files do the work

I like to work with a machinist vise and wooden hand-screw with leather-lined jaws. The leather provides tremendous grip and can be replaced if it wears. This gives me infinite working positions and 360° access for shap­ing. I also like to orient the work so I’m generally working the rasps and files horizontally. I believe quite firmly in this approach and will not hesitate to re-adjust the work in order to maintain proper position.

In general, I use rasps for the coarse and medium work, then metalworking files for the finer work. Everything is fin­ished with sandpaper, starting with 220 grit, then 320, 400 and ending with 600 grit. You may start with a coarser grit.

With the work in the correct position, I start with a fairly coarse rasp for rapid stock removal on the outside edge of the handle. I remove the corner, resulting in a consistent, flat, evenly spaced bevel or chamfer. This is my warm-up, and gives me a feel for the rasp and establishes a rhythm. 

One other important aspect to shap­ing is good lighting. When I am shaping, I am constantly watching the surface and looking at the areas where I am removing material, but also where the highlights and shadows fall and their shapes. The width of the highlights will tell me if the curve is smooth or lumpy. It is a little like reading a topographical map – when a highlight or shadow wid­ens, it means the surface has flattened out. You want to see parallel lines tell­ing you that there is an even gradation. A tight curve will appear as a series of narrow facets. A long, gradual curve will have wider face

Trust your eyes and hands

Once both outside edges are roughly shaped, look at the end of the handle to see how symmetrical the shape is. I do not use templates or other measuring devices. I rely on my eyes and hands to tell me when the shape is right. I’m not interested in mathematical perfection – a handle just has to look right and feel right, and I firmly believe there is more life to things that are not mathematically perfect. 

Shape the inside

Shaping the inside of the handle is a little more challenging because there is much less room. For protection I apply a few layers of masking tape on the oppo­site edge of the area I am shaping.

Be aware of handedness when shaping. I’m left-handed and am naturally biased this way. Throughout the entire shaping process, I am constantly feeling the handle with both hands to ensure it’s balanced.

Once all the rasp and file work is done, I start sanding to remove the small facets and to blend everything together. The 220 grit paper does most of the work, but again you may want to start with a lower grit. Don’t be afraid to change paper often – especially with this transi­tion from files to paper. Also be aware of using the entire piece of sandpaper; it’s like a sharpening stone – don’t just use the middle. Lee Valley sells won­derful rubber forms that are perfect for wrapping paper around. They come in a variety of shapes, such as rounds, hol­lows, and V-shapes.

I use French polish for most of the finishing. The exception is boxwood, where I apply a coat of boiling hot double-boiled lin­seed oil, then after two weeks of drying I apply a coat of paste wax.

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