Monday, June 16, 2014

Drilling The Mortise On A Moulding Plane Accurately & Efficiently By Hand

I am really excited to be sharing this method of drilling. I know I started this subject a while back on drilling by hand with a bit and brace but I never followed up on the rest of the process. The reason is, frankly, I have struggled a bit with doing this part with absolute confidence every time I approached it. Now though I have been using a new approach that has changed all that. Heres how it goes. Warning- This is a bit of a long post but it is worth it.

First off, out with the bit brace and in with the cordless drill. I know, I know but once you see the results, and I guarantee they are worth it, then you can try this with a bit brace if you want. I love my bit brace but until I find some bits that are long enough, thin enough and don't break then I am going to stick with my new method.

In fact what prompted this new method is that one of the tiny Japanese auger bits I used to drill the mortises broke. I order these from a German supplier and shipping, etc. is a real pain in the wallet. I wanted something simpler.

So then, you will need some long thin drill bits. More on where to source these at the end of the post. Lets get to the process.

The key to making this who process so simple and elegant is a drilling jig. Trust me this isn't cheesy. Whats cool is that you likely already have this jig if you make moulding planes. It is the saw guide jig. This guides your saw as you cut the bed and breast angles. Below is the jig on the plane billet. (Billet has been sawn and waste from escapement chopped away already)

Moulding plane saw guide in place

So this is how it began... I came down to the shop on one weekend before getting ready to do a big order and as I had just broken a tiny auger bit recently I was pondering a new way to get the job done. I was even considering doing the efficient approach Matt Bickford uses with the drill press. Nothing wrong with this method at all. In fact, I had already ordered some long thin drill bits just for giving this method a try. However, If you know me though, I hate to set up any kind of machine or jig. I use them only when it is the most efficient method and only when any other way is just frustrating. As I have said before, I am just too lazy to set up a jig if I don't really really have too. I promise this is not a purist notion it really is just me being lazy.

So, I was thinking about how to make the jigs work on my drill press when my new method just jumped out at me. I though, why not just flip the saw guide around to the top of the billet and then use it as a drilling guide. All that was missing was the other angle for the "lean" of the blade in the plane. 

In practice you will align the jig with your drilling location so that you can just rest your drill lightly against the jig to maintain the correct angle. This takes care of the bed and breast angles.

I figured that the "lean" angle could simply be drawn on the end of the jig and I could just approximate the angle by judging the gap between my drill bit and the drawn line. 

Use the same process on both the bed and breast angles. Then, depending on the # size of plane you are drilling, you will do as many as one or two additional holes between the bed and breast holes.

These above ones are #2s and the ones below are #4s. I always do four holes for the #2 and three holes for the #4. The center holes are just approximated but I still use the lean angles on the jig to keep that on track. 

You will want to start with some very shallow pilot holes. Just deep enough to get the bit started at a steep angle. I do this before placing the jig on the billet. Start the drill bit at 90˚ to the top and then swinging the dill to the approximate drilling angle. It helps to place the billet in the tail vise with the mortise being vertical. It is easier to approximate vertical then any other random angle. I don't try to actually apply any down pressure but just attempt to get the hole started in the right direction. You can see a "pilot" hole on the #4 plane below.

Once all of the holes are drilled then you are ready to remove the very little waste remaining. Before you start this next part it is a good idea to go back and carefully "redrill" the holes to pull any shavings out. Be careful since you can easily drill into the bed or breast. 

Now, Start at the top and just nibble your way down until you can't remove any more waste. Take little bites and clear every little nibble out so that it doesn't remain in the mortise. Hand pressure is all you need here.

Once you can't remove anymore waste then you are ready to mortise straight down the bed and breast angle. Again, take light blows and alternate from bed to breast until you are through. As long as you can get a float into the mortise and start clearing things out you are done. It is easy to get really stuck so do as little as is needed in this position.

By the way if you have never made a plane then the video from Old Street Tools is the one to get. It will make this post more understandable. Larry Williams and Lie-Nielsen did a fantastic job on explaining how to make a pair of hollow and round moulding planes. Get it if you don't have it.

The crucial tool to make this possible is the long thin drill bits. You will need to special order these very likely. I want to mention that Bill Anderson who teaches at The Woodwrights School emailed me a while back and turned me on to this source. Thanks Bill! 

Above is a photo of the list of drill bits I own from McMaster-Carr just for drilling these holes. I primarily use the smaller bits since those are the hardest to find that are long enough.

You will still need to grind these into a brad point bit. It isn't really hard but it is intimidating if you have never done it.  Peter Galbert taught me this method and he has two great posts on his blog from years ago on how to do it. Post #1 & #2. If I where you, I would practice on some used up bits you have lying around. Don't be intimidated. Give it a try and you will feel empowered and surprised at what a little know how can do for you. No need to buy those expensive HSS brad points when you can grind your own. 

After all is said and done I just like how so many people can have an effect on how we personally reach an efficient and accurate way to our work. 

Keep sharing!


  1. Thanks for this! This procedure is where I was stuck in my plane build. I thought it was just me! I'll give your method a try.

    1. Excellent Brian! Hope it works as good for you as it does for me.

  2. Having hard time finding source for rabbet plane blade as shown in your plan. Seems like the ones sold now are much wider on the top part. Any ideas? Thanks for the great posts.

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