The Stanley #444 Dovetail Plane #2: Set-up & Link to Video Trailer

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Blog entry by Smitty_Cabinetshop posted 03-23-2013 03:29 PM 5898 reads 0 times favorited 60 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: An Overview Part 2 of The Stanley #444 Dovetail Plane series Part 3: A Critical Piece of the Puzzle is In Place! »

This second installment of the #444 mini-series details the set-up required to use the Stanley Dovetail Tongue and Groove Plane and concludes with the layout of joints to be cut.

Fettling a #444
If hand planes are part of your tool arsenal, fettling has probably become a part of your shop routine and vocabulary. Loosely defined, to fettle a plane (or any tool for that matter) is to make it ready for action with optimal effectiveness. Aside from setting and honing the primary bevel of the plane’s iron, fettling may include lapping the sole, polishing the backside of the cutting iron, polishing the lead edge of the chipbreaker and lever cap, and in the case of shoulder and rabbet planes, squaring the sole to the side(s) of the plane.

Fettling the #444 dovetail is similar to what may be required for a high end smoother or shoot board plane, for example, but different. Here’s what I did to optimize (in my case, enable) performance.

My plane, unlike many out there in #444-land, is worse for wear. There’s patina around the front horn from being gripped in the same place, over and over, through years of use. Same with the handle area.

This plane has been used, and I’m more than happy to see that. So while your dovetail plane (i.e.: Beast) may be a collector’s piece, mine is not. My initial attempts at cutting grooves were essentially failures, as were a couple of tails I tried to cut. And once I had some time to think about it, it became clear that I was expecting this very complex plane to work ‘out of the box,’ without any fettling. What was I thinking? Typical karma involves serious aggravation to do this simplest of tasks, so why would this plane be the exception? So, in the name of getting the Beast to perform at its best, I decided to pull every trick in the book to ensure every machined area was aligned, sharpened or flattened as required. And that’s the first part of this installment.

WARNING: Am I advocating everyone take the following steps to put their collector-status dovetail plane to use? No. Actions taken on my plane, particularly lapping the sides, have likely impacted the plane’s value to a collector so you may not want to do this to yours in the name of performance. Some examples shouldn’t be used at all. And besides, your plane may work fine without taking these steps. With all disclaimers out of the way, let’s move on.

—Lap Sides of Plane
The sole of the plane is set at a 20 degree bevel to it’s sides, so it can’t be squared like a shoulder plane. It can, on the other hand, not have sides that are flat; especially in front of the iron and around the spur areas. Am I worried about the loss of nickel plate? Nope. This plane will continue to be a user, so let’s treat her like one.
I worked one side, then the other. Neither side registered fully to the fine DMT without a few minutes’ work. There’s a bit of pucker behind the iron on the left side, but that’s not an area I need to worry about. Overall it took about 10 minutes to get both sides in line.

Now the sole can travel in grooves of its own creation and have a clear, consistent cutting path to follow with each pass.

—Lap Sole w/ Spur Block(s)

The spur blocks are different ‘thicknesses’ to support different sizes of cutting irons. The sole of the plane was lapped flat with one block in place, then again with the second one in place. Here’s a before and after:

I’m glad I chose to lap first with the wider of the two blocks, as it helped register the sole to the diamond plate more fully, at the correct angle, more so than the narrower spur block. Oh, and make sure the spurs are retracted before pulling this trick, or there’ll be a #10 ¼ in your future.

—Lap Fences

My Bevel Fence has a weld area and a crack. Always a good idea to lap repaired cast iron. The Square Fence got lapped so it wouldn’t feel left out.

—Sharpen / hone spurs

Last time I messed with the Stanley #444, it could cut grooves with side walls what were pretty ratty. Not that they’d be seen, of course, but the product told me a sharpening of spurs and irons (along with lapping the sides) was in order. The spurs received attention first.

A little work on the fine DMT showed it wasn’t flat on the outer surface of either of the two nickers. I don’t want to remove a ton of material here; the outer surface of each spur needs to be coplanar with the side(s) of the main bod of the tool. That said, I want them flat to fully register to the sidewalls of each cut. We’re talking micro-thous though, right? Anyway, this operation will be completed only once.

I then carefully worked the primary bevels of each spur on the fine DMT. They’ve got a ‘camber’ to them that appear original, as each of them (included the right-side, stowed spur) but I’m not certain. Either way, do not remove more material than necessary to get an edge.

Half-dozen swipes on the strop and the edges were sharp and looking good. The spurs are now the shiniest parts on the plane.

—Spur-to-Cutter Alignment

To get this right, I stripped all the accessory parts from the main body of the #444 and used it as a kind of skewed shoulder plane.

I made a start line with my marking knife and pushed the corner of the plane along the line without issue. Well, there was a bit of an issue, and that’s when I thought of the #278 and how the iron on that plane needs to be aligned with its machined, outer face. So I released the plane’s grip on the iron, bumped left to get it aligned with the left face of the plane (where the spur aligns too, significantly) and there was a big (positive) impact on the end result.

I think I’ve got it!

—Setting the T-Bolt

This fat-headed bolt is somewhat of an anomaly, as I don’t recall seeing or reading about a similar appendage on any other Stanley plane. The #48 and #49 planes have fences that spin, for example, but fences that slide up and down over a center key (or T-Bolt) are simply weird. And the job of the T-Bolt is to capture the fence in use securely without binding it completely. That it can vary means it can be optimally set. No guidance out there, so the path I set is total conjecture on my part. Here’s the front and back sides of the T-Bolt.

The question is, how sloppy or tight to set the travel of the fence(s)? That’s input I’d like to have from someone in the know, but as of yet they’ve not spoken up. So I’ll opt for ‘less slop is better, but it has move freely.’ So that’s the setting I’ve found for the T-Bolt on my plane. Easy up-and-down, with as must lateral pivot taken out as possible.
And I can’t move on from the T-Bolt without addressing the small, slotted set screw atop the main body of the plane, over the T-Bolt.

We talked about the set screw in Part 1, and now it comes into play. When you’ve got the T-Bolt where you want it, drive the set screw in to set the T-Bolt and you’re done! Except when you change fences, of course, as you’ll have to do to cut a single, complete sliding dovetail joint…

—Setting the Sliding Depth Gauge

Either fence is fitted with a sliding depth gauge that serves as a depth stop more than anything. Once attached to the plane’s main body via the T-Bolt, each fence rides said bolt up and down, in an elongated slot bounded on top by the fence itself. The other end of slot is closed up by the sliding depth gauge.

While the #78 has a fixed depth stop, The Beast relies on fences to both align the angle of the plane (and cut) while also serving as depth-of-cut regulators thanks to this gauge. Front-to-back movement is eliminated by the Slide Slot Stop Screw, shown here as the small slotted screw set under the T-Bolt. With the bevel fence set to the T-Bolt, set the depth gauge to establish depth of a groove. With the square fence joined to the T-bolt, shoulder depth of a tail is being set.

Graduations along each fence’s T-Bolt slot are used for reference, to ensure consistency. The following graphic was affixed to the underside of the #444’s chestnut box to set dovetail pin and groove measurements.

Here’s one that is clearer but is also (likely) a three-folded sheet that was put inside the plane’s box in later production runs. I have this one in hi-res (file size exceeds 7MB) thanks to a friend on the Old Tools mail list.

There is a lot to discuss re: neck widths and groove depth, but that’s in Part 3.


We are cutting dovetails, so it should come as no surprise that this plane again begs the question as to which comes first: Tails or Pins? Well, the pins are technically grooves in this exercise, but you know what I mean. I’m a tails-first guy, so I’m happy to say the #444 also requires pins be cut first. But I can’t, because Stanley instructs us to begin with the groove. And I can see benefit to that approach that isn’t presented in the manual. Let’s begin with an assertion: Tails are easier to produce with this plane than grooves. It’s not just me that says it, either. I found one Galoot in the Old Tools archive that reached that same conclusion is 2007; how’s that for consensus?

The layout of a sliding dovetail joint, then, follows the path set by the Stanley Rule and Level Company: cut grooves first. Then the matching tails can be cut and adjusted pretty easily to match those grooves. Rats. Pins win this time…
To cut a groove means choosing the proper iron, and the manual helps here with the following:

The groove irons are ‘small, medium and large,’ and the tail iron is the largest one overall. So remember that for later. How to cut a groove, then, with the beast? It begins with choosing which iron to use, and that is determined by the size of the groove. Stanley Works has it right in the manual to the point that I can’t suggest changes to their core message on cutters and spurs. For grooves, “Select the widest groove CUTTER which can easily pass through the neck… If the cutter is wider than the Main Stock (of the plane), turn back the right hand SPUR [and] attach the SPUR BLOCK which will give a spur for the outer edge of the cutter.” So Stanley suggests spurs at either side of the cutter, with the sole of the plane supplemented by spur cutters until it’s width matches that of the cutter.

And remember to set the iron so the smallest of shavings is taken. Heavy is not good with a combination plane, and it’s not optimal here, either. Especially when grooving cross-grain. This is a little heavy, but is effective.

Groove cutting requires knife lines, measurements and battens (additional layout detail) that will be covered in Part 3.

Cutting a tongue requires the left (main body) spur be deployed while any spur to the right (main body or either of the two block spurs) be retracted. The distance of the bevel fence from the plane’s body cuts a tongue that has to match the groove’s depth. And the video in part one shows the cutting of a tongue so I won’t go into additional detail here.

—Workholding – Grooves and Tails
The last topic for today is workholding when using the #444, and I bring it up because it’s not obvious. In the part one video, stuff being tongued was clamped in an end vise. That’s fine, but not workable if I were cutting stock wider than my vise could extend (which is likely; my end vise has an effective range of around ten inches…) And if I wanted to create grooves for this dovetail assy,

the end vise approach just won’t work. I don’t have answers lined up to share at this point, just questions. An idea for cutting grooves across multiple boards would be a planing sled, but I haven’t made one to try it. For longer stock, maybe a couple bench hooks? And cutting a groove longways likely requires some kind of sticking board, as many joinery operations require. I’ll post those types of ideas / solutions when I come up with them, but it’s outside the scope of these three parts, though.

That’s all for now, and thanks for looking!

EDIT: Here’s a link to the trailer video, in advance of Installment 3.

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

60 comments so far

View Don W's profile

Don W

19003 posts in 2764 days

#1 posted 03-23-2013 03:48 PM

Stanley called. They will be reproducing the #444. They want you to write the manual.

well done.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View Brandon's profile


4152 posts in 3148 days

#2 posted 03-23-2013 04:00 PM

Nice, Smitty. I’m really enjoying this blog series. Very few people own #444s but only a very small percentage of them actually use them. Kudos to you for giving an old plane new life.

-- "hold fast to that which is good"

View jap's profile


1251 posts in 2250 days

#3 posted 03-23-2013 04:17 PM

nice write-up

-- Joel

View waho6o9's profile


8516 posts in 2773 days

#4 posted 03-23-2013 04:25 PM

I appreciate your efforts as well Smitty, thank you.

View Sylvain's profile


750 posts in 2696 days

#5 posted 03-23-2013 05:13 PM

You have a nice workbench, with plenty of possibilities.
If it doesn’t work, here are some alternative work holding methods from Paul Sellers:

-- Sylvain, Brussels, Belgium, Europe - The more I learn, the more there is to learn

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


15689 posts in 2815 days

#6 posted 03-23-2013 08:10 PM

Excellent ideas there, Sylvain, thanks for posting that link. Gotta love Paul Sellers and his motivations.

For the rest of the comments above, thanks for the input. What’s documented so far is nowhere near expertise, just knowledge. The longer I mess with this tool, the more I realize what true ‘expertise’ would be. Until I get to that level, this tool is more hassle than it’s worth as a user.

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

View kenn's profile


810 posts in 3916 days

#7 posted 03-24-2013 12:02 AM

If you are not the leading expert in the world on this plane, who could it be? And if two gallons agree on any issue, it must be true.

-- Every cloud has a silver lining

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


15689 posts in 2815 days

#8 posted 03-24-2013 01:49 PM

“If two Galoots agree on any issue, it must be true.”

But getting Galoots to agree on anything is the problem. :-)

The challenge for Part 3 is to complete a dovetail joint ‘off the saw,’ and for that I’m going to concentrate on making the cuts to fit 3/4” stock together…

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

View theoldfart's profile


10161 posts in 2647 days

#9 posted 03-24-2013 02:24 PM

If two galoots is an agreement then three must be a conspiricy! So this 444 thing is really a plot to confuse the masses or a least me.
Nice work Smitty !

-- "With every tool obtained, there is another that is needed" DonW ( Kevin )

View lysdexic's profile


5256 posts in 2819 days

#10 posted 03-24-2013 05:51 PM

Great stuff Smitty.

Do you think you can tackle a tapered sliding dovetail with The Breast?

-- "It's only wood. Use it." - Smitty || Instagram - out_of_focus1.618

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


15689 posts in 2815 days

#11 posted 03-24-2013 07:39 PM



-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

View lysdexic's profile


5256 posts in 2819 days

#12 posted 03-24-2013 08:13 PM


I typed Breast. :^)

-- "It's only wood. Use it." - Smitty || Instagram - out_of_focus1.618

View Dave's profile


11429 posts in 3036 days

#13 posted 03-24-2013 11:09 PM

Wow Smitty this is a complicated design and it looks as you are getting a grip on the setup and operation. Well done.

-- Superdav "No matter where you go - there you are."

View Mauricio's profile


7144 posts in 3348 days

#14 posted 03-25-2013 05:59 PM

“Breast” LOL.

Smitty you are doing a great service here for the greater WW community man.

My question was going to be what you thought about the 444 vs. just cutting it with a saw but I see that you are planning on looking at that in post #3. Cant wait!

-- Mauricio - Woodstock, GA - "Confusion is the Womb of Learning, with utter conviction being it's Tomb" Prof. T.O. Nitsch

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


15689 posts in 2815 days

#15 posted 03-25-2013 06:16 PM

Maur, just for grins I googled “Stanley #444 dovetail” over the weekend. Parts 1 and 2 of this blog series came up first and second in the list of results. That’s how little info there is on this plane out there on the interweb. Whether I’d call playing with this tool a ‘service’ or not is debatable, though. :-)

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

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