Category Archives: spill plane

Observations on the Spill Plane

I made my first spill plane as a demonstration tool for a 4th grade field trip several years ago, and the children (and adults too) were fascinated by it.  It was neat to have them guess what the spills were used for in colonial times, which they usually did not know, but when they found out the answer, they tended to think it was a pretty ingenious solution to a common need.  Without a doubt, the spill plane is the biggest crowd pleaser  at demonstrations, especially when attendees get to make their own spill.  In just a few minutes, several dozen spills can be produced.

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There are a few things that need to be kept in mind when using the plane.  First, the wood used for the spills needs to be a soft pliable wood; I find white pine to be ideal.  A hard wood will not curl satisfactorily into tight spills.  Clear straight grain is also essential.  I have found nice pieces from shipping crates by cutting around the knots.  The piece needs only be about 12″ long.  I am not sure how many spills can be made from one board, but it would be in the thousands.  Be sure to use wood that is not too dry.  I have more trouble in the dry winter weather getting nice spills, because the wood is not as flexible, and tends to split.  Storing the wood in an unheated environment helps.

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Two other tools are necessary to keep the spill plane in top working order.  One is a plane hammer, and Sterling Tool Works makes a very nice well balanced hammer for this purpose.  I highly recommend this fine tool.  Lee Valley also makes a hammer that will do the job at a lower cost.  The hammers are designed to adjust the plane without damaging either the wood body or the blade.

Wax is also essential for the longevity of the wood body.  I use paraffin wax, the type used for canning, but a candle will also work.  Rub it on the sole and sides of the fences every few dozen strokes.  This reduces the friction on the plane and makes it easier to push.  Under vigorous use, the sole of an unwaxed wood bodied plane will actually generate enough heat to discolor and burn the wood.  It will smell like burning wood!

If the board gets out of square, most likely the blade is not square to the sole of the pane.  Using the plane hammer, tap the blade toward the lighter cutting side.  Sighting down the sole, look for an even protrusion of the iron across the width of the mouth.

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Spills were often kept on the mantle, which is where they would have been used most often.  Find an old cup or vase to display them, and wait for the  “What are these things?” from guests.  Of course, a demonstration is then in order!

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Spill Plane

Reproduction Spill Plane
Completed spill plane with spills

Completed spill plane with spills

The spill plane was a unique 18th century tool that was not used to improve the surface of the wood, but rather to create a shaving with a tight stiff curl that could be used to transfer a flame from one place to another, such as from a fireplace to a candle or lantern.  Spills would have been made of pine or similar resinous wood.  The plane was used as any wooden plane would be, using straight grained scraps of wood about 12  inches long.  Each pass produces a spill, so named for the way the chip “spills” out of the escapement hole in the side of the plane.  The blade is sharply skewed, and the chip is forced into a tight curl by the contoured bottom of the wedge.  The edges of the spill overlap each other, which gives the spill a tapered shape.

While there are many types of spill planes, the ones that we produce are patterned from an 18th century original, and feature a two piece body, skewed blade, and escapement hole in the side through which the spill exits the plane.  The blade is adjusted using a small hammer, such as one sold by Lee Valley or, for tool lovers, one by Sterling Tool Works, which is also available here. We have made planes of American Beech, Black Cherry, and Maple with spalting and/or light figure, all quarter sawn wood.  The plane body is actually two pieces, with one side ripped of  to make it easier to create the mortise and bed for the blade.  It is then reattached with brass screws. The blade is made of tapered O-1 tool steel, hardened to Rc 60-62, and sharpened, ready for immediate use.

Available for purchase here.  Price ranges from  $135 to $145, depending on wood type and/or figure.  For those who wish to make their own, a plan kit, including full size plans, construction notes, photos, and a ready to use blade can be purchased here.

The wedge is shaped to facilitate the curling of the spill and guide it through the escapement hole.  It is also taper both ways, which ensures that it will fit against the escapement side of the throat to ensure there is no gap for shavings to jam. Both sides of the plane have fences to keep the plane centered on the stock, allowing a maximum of  about 7/8″ thick material to be used. (3/4″ stock works best.) Finish is several coats of Minwax Antique Oil Finish and paste wax.

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From left, American Beech, Black Cherry, and Spalted Maple

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Spill plane components

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Wedge detail

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Iron logo

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Front showing dual fences

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Each plane is test cut before shipping, and comes with a users guide.

These planes are usually available in various woods. They are new tools, used only for the tuning process, and are sharp and ready to go.  A user guide is included, telling about the purpose of the plane, and tips for using and care.



Spill Planes Available Now

Completed Spill Planes

I now have a batch of spill planes available for sale.  These are all made of steamed quarter sawn European Beech.  Some of the planes have dark spalting streaks in the wood, as seen in the photo.  The wood is not compromised in any way, it just has an interesting look.  Each plane is tuned and ready to go, and comes with a users guide.
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If interested please visit the tools page to purchase or contact me with questions.

Spill Planes in the Works

Today, finally, I was able to dig out my limited supply of steamed European Beech and get started on another batch of spill planes.  The beech looks like it came from two different trees, with one being more red than the other.  Both are wonderfully straight grained and clear, and at or near quarter sawn.  I’m not sure how long this wood has been dried, but I have had it for several years, and the person that sold it to me had it stored a while also.

This photo shows the perfect quartered grain in the lower piece, and the slightly radial grain in the upper piece.  Also note the light spalting grain in the lower piece.  because the spill plane is almost square in cross section,  quarter sawn wood is not as important for stability, but I get it as close as I can.

Here are the blanks cut out.  The spill planes are now available!  If you are interested, please visit the tools page to purchase.


Making Spill Plane Blades

I currently am in the process of making a small batch of spill planes, and started with the blades.  I am a tool and die maker by trade, so I made an agreement with my employer to use a CNC milling where I work.  ( No, it was not free.) The blades are O-1 tool steel, and is available as flat ground stock in the size needed. (1/8 x 1 1/4)  After sawing the blades at the correct angle,  the blades were clamped in a fixture that allowed me to machine both the tang shape on one end, and then with the fixture tilted to 25 deg. to machine the bevel on the cutting edge.

The blades were then heat treated at my own shop to a hardness of 60-62 Rc. This was done with a pair of MAP torches, one on each side of the blade, which was held with a pair of vice grips.  After heating to cherry red, the blades were immediately quenched in oil.  (This operation was done outside for obvious reasons.)  After cleaning off the oil residue, the blades were tempered in our kitchen oven.

I then took the blades back to my work, and engraved the logo on the tang end.  The blades are only hardened on the cutting end, so machining the logo was not a problem.  I could have done this at the time of machining, but I wanted to see how flat the blades stayed after heat treating, in case they needed to be surface ground, in which case the logo would have been lost.  They stayed flat within .002″, which can be lapped out with a course water stone.  Surface grinding was not needed.


The next step will be to lap the backs and bevels flat, and hone the edges razor sharp.  I have a nice stash of quarter sawn beech for this project, and plan to make all of the planes out of it.  These spill planes are on sale now.   I still have a couple from the last batch in maple and beech.  See my spill plane post for more information.