bench planes – the cap iron

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The cap iron is the part of a bench plane that is held on top of the cutting iron with a shallow bolt and thus joined the parts are secured on to the frog by pressure from the the lever cap. In old books planes with this arrangement are often referred to as double irons for reasons that are obvious when you discover that here is a long tradition of planes with a single cutting iron, held into place with a wooden wedge. In modern USA parlance the term used is chip breaker.

plane drawing
the parts of a bench plane

What is it for?  You’d be forgiven for thinking this would be a straightforward question, but the subject is rather controversial. Research done by Japanese engineers in Yamagata in 1989 produced video evidence of the effect that cap irons had in reducing tear out  (this is where small sections  of wood are pulled – rather than cut – from the surface leaving an uneven finish) when using machine planers.

When this research was uncovered it started a vigorous internet debate about whether cap irons in plane irons could have the same effect, with some going as far as denying that cap irons worked in this way, and with others accepting they did work, but speculating that the understanding of the cap-iron’s function was somehow lost from common knowledge during the early part of the 21st century 1)In practice it turned out that it had not really died out, but the tradition for using the cap-iron to control tear-out does indeed seem to have stalled somewhat, at least in the UK, and a number of experienced woodworkers who were trained as apprentices in the 50s and 60s were not taught about it at all.   While it is a stretch to claim internet forums rediscovered the technique, it is fair to say that they have made ensured its renaissance . In the end wiser heads prevailed and the original purpose of the cap iron was gradually unearthed.

Historical perspective

Let us begin by looking to Mr Bailey  who – as the inventor of the eponymous design used by Stanley, Record and many other plane makers – must have been something of an authority on the matter of plane design.  He did not invent the cap iron and indeed refers to it in a patent from 1867 as follows:

Figure 3 is a longitudinal section of the plane-iron and cap-iron, as ordinarily constructed, that is to say, with one bend, a, only near the bearing-edge of the cap iron. 

US72443 - front page
US patent # 72443

What Bailey describes in his invention2)you can see the full patent specification here is the modification that we are now familiar with in Bailey planes, where there is a small hump at the end of the cap iron:


He says:

My object is to use very thin steel plane-irons, and in so doing I find that they are liable to buckle under the pressure of the cap, which causes them to chatter, and makes them otherwise imperfect…

When thick plane-irons are used, their stiffness may resist the pressure of the cap sufficiently to prevent buckling or rising of the plane-iron from its bed; but in thin steel plane-irons which I use, the pressure of the cap upon the projecting portion of the plane-iron causes this portion to yield slightly, and of course produces buckling at some point behind, and generally close to the fulcrum. To prevent this buckling or rising, and still use the thin steel plane-irons, I put an extra bend in the cap, so that it shall have a point of impact with the thin steel at the place where it tends, from the pressure on its projecting edge, and the fulcrum behind that edge, to rise from its bed, and thus I effectually prevent buckling and chattering, whilst I can avail myself of the economy of thin steel for the plane-irons…

The difficulty experienced from the construction of the cap iron with the single bend …, is, that it allows of vibration of the cap-iron and the plane-iron while in use, such vibration being productive of what joiners term chattering, and consequent defective operation of the plane.

Thus, in Leonard Bailey’s metal plane design, the cap-iron plays a part in reducing the possibility of the thin irons he was using from flexing and creating ‘chatter’ 3)this is where pressure on the blade causes it to flex back and forward so that it does not maintain even contact with the wood .

However, it is important to note that Bailey is trying to resolve an issue that is created by his attempt to use very thin irons (traditional wooden planes typically had thick tapered irons and did not suffer the same problems).

In fact it seems that the cap-iron was introduced at least 100 years before Bailey’s suggested improvement.   There was a discussion on the old tools list that mentions an advert in the Pennsylvania Chronicle (Philadelphia) placed by S. Caruthers in 1767:

“double iron planes of late construction far exceeding any tooth planes or uprights whatsoever for cross grained or curled stuff”

You can find the original thread archived here, along with many other learned and interesting comments on the old tools forum. 

One of the seminal works on how to use bailey planes properly, the 1934 edition of Planecraft 4)published by C J Hampton of Record tools fame has, on page 20:


And thanks to the diligent research of contributors to this thread we also find the following historical comments on the topic:

The cutting iron having been sharpened, the top-iron is screwed fast at the required distance from the edge, say for coarse works one-sixteenth, and for fine work, one fortieth or fiftieth of an inch.

 Holtzapffel, Turning and Mechanical Manipulation Volume 2, 1847 p 497

The position of the break iron is of great importance. The nearer its edge is to that of the cutter, the harder will be the work of planing, and the thinner the shaving, supposing the plane to be set “fine,” ie with its edge projecting but slightly beyond the sole. Hence it is usual to set the the break-iron one-sixteenth from the edge for the first roughing-down process, and then to re-sharpen the blade and set the break iron but very slightly above the other, and thus to finish the work.

 James Lukin, Carpentry and Joinery for Amateurs, 1879 p25

Thus when the jack-plane is required for heavy work, that is to say, for hacking down a rough and uneven surface, the edge of the break-iron should be about 1/8 inch from the edge of the cutter, but for finer work it should not be more than 1/20 inch from the latter; and in the smoothing-plane the distance between the edges of the two irons should be less than this – indeed so slight as to be perceptible but nothing more. The higher the break-iron, the easier the plane will be found to work, and the lower it is the heavier the plane will work, but the cut will be cleaner.

Francis Young, Every Man His Own Mechanic, 1882, p 166

For fine work the cap iron of the jack plane should stand back from the edge of the cutting blade almost 1/16 in.; whereas for rough planing, the distance may be increased to almost 1/8 in. The smoothing plane and the trying plane require the cap iron setting back from the cutting edge about 1/32 in. Steel smoothing planes will require a finer set than 1/32 in. when used on hardwood. No hard and fast rule can be given for setting the back iron; it is one of the points that will come to the worker by experiment and experience, and the above measurements are given as a general guide.

William Fairham, Woodwork tools and How to Use Them, 1922, p97

To prevent the iron from tearing the wood to crossed grain stuff, a cover is used with a reversed basil, and fastened by means of a screw, the thin part of which slides in a longitudinal slit in the iron, and the head is taken out by a large hole near the upper end of it. The lower edge of the cover is so formed as to be parallel or concentric to the cutting edge of the iron and fixed at a small distance above.

 Nicholson’s Mechanic’s Companion (1812).

So we know that the cap iron was being advertised as an aid to working with difficult wood over 200 years ago, and that in order to benefit, numerous authorities agreed that you had to set it close to the edge of the blade. There is no consistent direction on how close, however. Perhaps the clearest instruction being from Planecraft, namely “as close as you can get it”.

How so, though?

The exciting news is that there is actually some research to refer to here, but first the theory.

The theory of how cap irons reduce tear-out

Once the plane blade starts to cut into the surface of the wood, the shaving rides up the blade and acts as a lever on the fibres ahead of it, the fulcrum being the leading edge of the mouth and the blade itself acting like a wedge.   The leverage can cause other fibres that are connected to the shaving to be pulled from the wood before they are cut by the edge of the blade (this is the phenomenon known as tear-out).

One way to reduce the leverage exerted by the shaving is to adjust the frog so that there is a very small opening between the front of the mouth and the blade, thus effectively reducing the length of the unsupported shaving.

You can also see how taking thin shavings would have a similar effect, since the shavings are weaker and break before they can lever out any other fibres in the wood.

The other techniques involve causing the shaving to break early by raising the blade’s ‘angle of attack’.  That is to say, if you  increase the pitch of the blade it causes the shaving to bend more sharply than would normally be the case, and this weakens the fibres immediately in front of the blade and, thus weakened, they are less likely to lever out fibres they are attached too.

A traditional way to accomplish this is to use a modified frog that seats the blade at a higher angle than normal. Indeed, so common was this technique in days gone by that a commonly selected steeper angle (50°) was given its own name (“york pitch”) compared to the standard pitch (~45°). Other  less common angles are Middle Pitch (55°) and Half Pitch(60°) (these very high pitch angles are most commonly found on moulding planes).

The argument follows that the cap iron has the same effect, presenting a steep surface to the shaving and thus creating an effective higher angle of attack.


As I have illustrated in the sketch above, the tendency for the cap iron to break the fibres in the shaving is more pronounced the closer the cap iron is to the edge of the blade.

this also explains why tear-out gets worse when you encounter grain that runs in the same direction to the plane’s forward motion.   This is because the tears will follow the grain direction removing material from behind the point that the plane blade has already passed and leaving an uneven surface.

In case my draftsmanship has left you none the wiser then I commend to you the excellent Richard Maguire, who is a talented woodworker and a natural explainer of things.  In the video below he does a practical demonstration of these ideas:

So that is the theory, and here is some research that shows it actually happening at a microscopic level.  In Professor Kato’s study shavings of 0.004”  reliably caused tear-out in his experiment, and this was prevented by adjusting the machine’s chip breaker to be 0.004” from the blade edge. Note 4 thousands of an inch is a tiny distance – about 0.1mm.

[youtube width=”75%” height=”75%” autoplay=”false”][/youtube]

There is a translation on Steve Eliot’s web site 5)also contained is a lot of Mr Eliot’s interesting independent research into the effect of wear on plane blades.

So according to the theory – and backed up by the experimental evidence and the experts quoted above – adjusting the cap-iron to be very close to the cutting edge can help reduce tear-out.

Avoiding tear-out in practice

One intriguing aspect of real-world planing is that skewing the plane can reduce tear-out in some circumstances.  This is counter-intuitive, since skewing the plane reduces the angle of attack (think of walking up a steep hill by climbing directly up it, rather than walking along a winding path that snakes up the hill: the indirect route is easier because it is at a lower pitch).     One theory is that skewing the plane increases the shearing effect (imagine cutting into a tomato with a slightly blunt knife, you would naturally use a slicing action to start the cut rather than simply pushing down).

Perhaps this is a good example of why, although it is good to know a bit of the theory, there is no real substitute for practice.

setting up your cap iron

Even if you are not worried about tear-out there are a couple of things you can do to your cap iron that might make it work more effectively

  1. polish the curved section at the front of the cap iron to reduce the resistance when the shavings are deflected by it:
polished version on the right – fine sandpaper  followed by a little autosol metal polish does the job

2. slightly undercut and flatten the front edge. This will ensure a close fit to the blade and prevents bits of shavings jamming in the gap between the the cap iron and blade and clogging the plane.  It is easily done by holding the cap iron as in the picture below and rubbing left and right on some sandpaper or another flat abrasive surface.

The raised height of the abrasive causes the cap iron to be undercut slightly, making for a tight join when cap iron is pressed to the blade.

Update: March 2017

It seems some people struggle to get a good fit by undercutting the front part of the lever cap (see comments below).  Here is another method to try:

“Having sharpened the back-iron to a fine edge on the oilstone, screw it fairly tight to the cutter, leaving about 1/16″ [1.5mm] of the latter exposed. Next holding the pair very firmly on the bench, draw a hard bradawl, or the broken off end of a sawfile, along the edge of the back-iron; this will strip off a fine shaving of metal, and the operation should be repeated until it is impossible to see the slightest trace of light between the irons when the edge is held in a strong light, and the joint at the side, which is looked through, is shaded by the hand.”

George Ellis – Modern Practical Joinery (1902)


As we have seen from the above, if you are experiencing tear-out you can try setting your cap iron very close (“as close as you can get it”) to the tip of the blade to see if it helps.  There is a knack to it, but it is not difficult. You can set the cap-iron pretty close before tightening the screw and then gently tap the screw to make final adjustments.  Incidentally, one of the things you may notice when you experiment is the way the shavings escape from the plane changes according to how fine the cap-iron is set:  Too close and the shavings crinkle up like an accordion, very close and the shavings straighten up, slightly less close creates a sort of wavy ribbon effect.   Apparently similar effects are seen with high-angle planes, too.

The disadvantage of a very close setting is that – like high angled planes – it is harder to push the plane when set up this way.   No doubt experience will tell you when it is needed.

David Weaver has done a good practical introduction into setting the cap iron here.

We will never know for sure why the cap-iron was invented, but it seems plausible that it was initially introduced to emulate the effect of a high angle plane but with the added convenience of being able to revert back to a normal setting when tear-out is not a problem (thus creating a much more flexible tool).

Subsequent alterations to the design were made to resolve issues with thin irons, namely their increased propensity to ‘chatter’ compared to thicker irons.

And on that final point, it worth noting that while many woodworkers regard chatter as a minor problem – uncommon and easily avoided, even with thin irons – this did not stop manufacturers from coming up with increasingly ingenious inventions in attempt to prevent it all together.  You can read about two of these inventions here: The Record Stay-Set Cap-Iron and the Millers Falls two part lever cap.


1 In practice it turned out that it had not really died out, but the tradition for using the cap-iron to control tear-out does indeed seem to have stalled somewhat, at least in the UK, and a number of experienced woodworkers who were trained as apprentices in the 50s and 60s were not taught about it at all.   While it is a stretch to claim internet forums rediscovered the technique, it is fair to say that they have made ensured its renaissance
2 you can see the full patent specification here
3 this is where pressure on the blade causes it to flex back and forward so that it does not maintain even contact with the wood
4 published by C J Hampton of Record tools fame
5 also contained is a lot of Mr Eliot’s interesting independent research into the effect of wear on plane blades

6 thoughts on “bench planes – the cap iron”

  1. I’d caution two things in use of the cap iron:

    1) The idea of shooting for .004″ gives an arbitrary and unnecessary target. You use a cap iron for two weeks (and no scrapers or high angle planes) and you’ll learn pretty quickly to set the cap iron distance by eye and sense. It is set different distances from the edge on different planes (on a try plane, for example, maybe about twice the distance of the thickest shaving, but who knows…there’s never a reason to measure. The feedback that you get from the planed surface and the continuous (a tearout free shaving should be continuous once a board is flat) is all you need.

    2) The kato and kawai work was done for the purpose of the super surfacer. We don’t work the same way as individuals, and we will not be doing something in general like setting the cap iron distance equal to a shaving thickness. It presents unnecessary resistance and makes the surface quality lower. We want the cap iron to hold the shaving in place until it is cut, and that is about it. We’re aiming to get a surface that was cut by a 45 degree plane, and one that will look like it on soft or hard woods, not to get a surface that looks like it was scraped or planed by a very high angle plane.

    It’s not the same as a high angle cut or a scraper plane cut. We not trying to break the chip, we’re just trying to hold it in place until the iron can sever the wood.

    In practice, the try plane and smoother should be set with a cap iron (if someone is doing heavy work with planes) that eliminates tearout or keeps it minor enough that is is removed with no additional work in the next step. For example, if someone is measuring shavings, you might want to take a 7 or 8 thousandth shaving out of cherry with a try plane, and you can tolerate very minor tearout if it is something that will be removed in the process of smoothing, but without taking more passes than you otherwise wood smoothing.

    You always want to plane with the grain in general, but sometimes it’s not possible to go end to end and side to side on a board, thus the cap iron is helpful. For jack plane type work, you want to rely more on working with the grain – setting the cap iron too close limits your ability to adjust the shaving depth when you have two more steps to remove tearout. In the worst wood, you might want to set the cap iron just close enough so that it prevents absolute disaster.

  2. >It is easily done by holding the cap iron as in the picture below and rubbing left and right on some sandpaper or another flat abrasive surface.

    This is not easy, I have ruined two cap irons using this advice. It will cause a convex edge which will render the cap iron a clogged up mess.

    You have to be extremely careful doing this.

    • I am sorry to hear you had trouble Tom – I have read that other people have had difficulty setting up their cap irons, but I can only speak from my experience.

      A couple of remarks about my set-up might be relevant – I am using a DMT diamond stone, which I know is flat. All of the used oil stones I’ve bought have been worn so they are ‘dished’ along the length to one degree or another – if I had used those then the cap iron would have taken on the same profile and no doubt I would have had issues.

      Second, I have only done this with old Record cap-irons, which like Stanley are made from a bent piece of soft steel and are very thin. This means very little pressure is needed to remove material from the leading edge , which I found made it easy to keep the cap iron flat to the stone. None of my old cap irons had a lot of damage either – just the odd nick and dent – and that may explain my success. I suspect it would be a more difficult job on modern high-end cap irons, which are generally much thicker (although one would hope they did not need adjusting in the first place!)

      Finally, as you can read elsewhere, I flatten the face of my irons – if they were not flat at the point the cap iron beds down then, no matter how much work I did on the cap iron, it would never fit correctly to the blade.

      I hope that extra information helps someone!


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