Plane floats

I have a question about plane floats:  Could those knowledgeable about these tools--Don McConnell, Larry Williams, and others--please comment on whether plane floats have general woodworking uses.  And if so, what are they?  How do floats differ in their cutting action from rasps?  Do they have unique advantages or attributes that you don't find in other cutting tools?  What kinds of applications are floats the 'go to' tools for?

Thanks in advance,  Wiley
Hi Wiley, et al:

Yes, floats do have woodworking uses beyond plane making - though, obviously, they seem to be most closely associated with that specific trade.

Floats differ from rasps in that their teeth traverse the width/thickness of the float, with the succeeding teeth effectively forming a series of scraping edges. The pointed teeth of rasps score the wood fibers so that they can be carried away by succeeding teeth. Single cut files are more similar in form to floats, as indicated by the fact that older catalogues and texts often refer to single cut files as floats.

Floats differ from single cut files not only by the larger size of their teeth and the process by which they are manufactured, but also by being tempered so that they can be sharpened with a triangular file. Additionally, if the lead tooth of a push bed or side float is kept very sharp, the body of the float can be lifted slightly and the lead tooth used to make very aggressive scraping cuts. It's amazingly effective.

As to general woodworking usages, floats will often serve in situations where one might typically use a cabinet rasp or file. Though there are times when half-round rasps and files are crucial, so it's important that floats not be thought of as some kind of panacea. Interestingly, depending on how one manipulates a float, one can work quite aggressively or quite delicately, as the situation dictates.

Another consideration is that floats can be made to cut on either a push (thither) or a pull (hither) stroke. This can help accommodate limited access or difficult grain orientation situations. Additionally, thin floats can be slightly flexed to concentrate the more aggressive cutting action where one wishes.

We've had a number of customers purchase floats to use in cleaning up joinery. While I don't personally have experience using them in these applications, people seem to find them particularly useful in larger mortise and tenon joinery - such as through mortise and tenon joinery in work bench bases and in timber framing.

Regarding the latter, I recently found the following quote in C. F. Partington's _The Builder's Complete Guide ..._, c. 1825:

      "It is of the utmost importance in framing that
  the tenons and mortises should be truly made. After
  a mortise has been made with the mortise chisel, it
  should be rendered perfectly even with a float; an
  instrument which differs from a single, or float file,
  only by having larger teeth. ... " (p. 524)

Historically, specialty floats have also been used for cleaning up long runs of mouldings. The Summer 1979 issue of _Working Wood_, asked about the purpose of three such tools, and they were identified in the next issue as cabinetmaker's floats, used especially in cleaning up mouldings in church work. I'm attaching a photo of these floats to give people some idea of their appearance. Many a time, while I was carving handrail fittings (easings, descending volutes, wreaths, etc.), I frequently coveted such specialty floats and sorely wished I had the metal working skills to produce them.

Again, I need to acknowledge that I have a commercial interest in the sale of floats. Not only have Larry and Bill sold floats of their own manufacture over the years, but we (Clark & Williams) currently carry the Lie-Nielsen offerings (made to Larry's designs). Despite that, I thought it important to attempt to answer Wiley's questions, and hope that the information proves to be of some general interest.

Don McConnell
Eureka Springs, AR


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Very interesting, Don. I was looking around for floats 4 or 5 years ago and came across a lot of gunsmith and cabinetmaker floats from the old tool vendors in the UK, they weren't that expensive. Like an idiot, I passed them up because I was hunting for planemaker floats, which I never did find. Then I remembered about Japanese strike through chisels, which are a bit misnamed in English, used for both bashing down stray fibers in the bottoms of mortises and breaking through a thin remnant in mortises, mostly the bashing job. As it happens, their shape prompted me to try scraping for a few minutes (I don't own any official forged versions, was using one in a Japanese tool class given by Odate), and they worked great.

Later, taking a dai making class (the wooden body of a Japanese plane), we used 3 mm paring chisels for fine tuning the blade abutments; and all I could think about was using the strike through chisels, if they were available in tiny sizes, for this job. What I did was use the paring chisel bevel down, which added a lot of control and precision; but I've yet to make or find a tiny, single-tooth strike through chisel/scraper. Think I'll try making one for the next dai.


Pam's post reminded me of another tool, from yet another culture, which has some significant parallels with floats. Rudolf P. Hommel, in _China at Work_, described it simply as a "Wood Scraper," and provided a photograph. I'm attaching an image of that photograph. The original is of very poor quality, so I've edited the background in order to eliminate a lot of distracting "clutter." Of it, Hommel says:

    "The instrument is 12 1/2 inches long. It consists of a wooden holder
  and 19 steel knives fastened permanently in the wooden part. These
  knives are 1/4 of an inch wide, 1 3/8 inches long, and 1/16 of an inch
  thick. The cutting edge of each is bevelled. The steel blades are forced
  into kerfs sawn across the grain of the wooden holder. The wooden
  part of the tool is fashioned out of a single piece of wood taken from
  a kind of elm, called chu which is found in Kiangsu Province. ..."

Hommel indicates this was used for stock preparation and smoothing in particularly hard and difficult woods. What strikes me about this tool is that the cutting action would be very reminiscent of floats.

Quick note about Hommel and his book. He was a contempoarary and acquaintance of Henry Mercer, and saw this publication as featuring Chinese tools and trades in a manner similar to that in Mercer's _Ancient Carpenters' Tools_. _China at Work_ was first published in 1937, the republished in 1969 by the MIT Press.

Don McConnell
Eureka Springs, AR


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Saw one like this on ebay sometime in the last couple or three years (there was a guy who taught English in China and supplemented his income selling tools), wondered how it was used, thanks.