Discussions on this forum are membership-run. I (Mary May) will monitor conversations and will try and contribute as needed. However, I can't guarantee that I will always have time to keep up with the discussions. Please feel free to contribute, as the only way this forum will be successful is if members get involved! I will also be the "judge and juror" with inappropriate, rude, or offensive behavior, so play nice!
The discussions on this forum can be read by anyone, but if you would like to join in and participate, please login or register as a Free Member.

Potential use of "Small Router Plane" for Backgrounding

I am a new member. I have used many hand planes and am familiar with "router planes" They are essentially a holder for a small right angle chisel. Originally, there was the Stanley 271 and, I believe, a Record equivalent.  Today, two examples are Lee Valley  and Lie Nielsen    The chisels are 1/4" or 3/32" with square or pointed ends.

These have the advantage of being to set a consistent depth. For larger areas of background removal, the larger router  planes can also handle the job.

Mary, I also remember you mentioning in chapter 4 "LOVE & ACANTHUS LEAVES" in the book that some folks at a woodworking company used an electric router to drop a very large background area in a quite thick board.

Use of router planes is quite nice (no dust, no motor, and creates chiseled wood chips) and creates a consistent product.

So 2 questions:

1. Have you tried a router plane for background removal, and

2. Is doing this by hand also CHEATING ?? 🙂


I have not used these, but have heard it does work for doing a general backgrounding. I would think the difficulty is getting into the small, tight areas, where you would probably need to used gouges to get close to the carved edges.  Since I have never used these, I may be completely wrong. Someone else may have more knowledge of this.

And no, it's not cheating and you won't be kicked out of the "carving club" for doing whatever is necessary to get to the actual fun stuff - shape things! I may be a purist to a point (don't like sandpaper, if I can help it), but I'm also realistic. I think from a learning perspective, knowing how to lower the background with a gouge is good practice in control of the tool, but then reality kicks in when I have a 5 foot long design that needs to have the background lowered 3/4 inch. Then I let the machines take over...

Bernhard Baumgardt has reacted to this post.
Bernhard Baumgardt

The biggest drawback to using a router plane in my experience is that it cannot take a thick shaving. It is meant for leveling the bottom of dados and rabbets etc. after they have been cut with another tool. In theory you could lower a background with the plane but it will take a very long time. It is much faster to lower the bulk of the background with a gouge. Once you are almost done I could see a router plane being usefull in some situations for final leveling. Keep in mind that the base of the plane must be supported by a flat surface. The blade is flat so it is like trying to level with a straight gouge. I've never tried a router plane on a carving but my guess is it would have limited usefulness.

Just to clear my concience and in the spirit of full disclosure I have to admit that I tried a trim router to lower the background of my last carving. It worked beautifully even in the small enclosed areas. The only drawback is that my guilt ridden concience won't let me sleep at night.

LOL Tim!  I've lowered the background on many "carvings" with a router with great speed.  Some clean up required.  Tried the Stanley 71 hand router on latest carving and gave up.  It is a small relief carving with a lot of tiny background areas. I even made a tiny bit from a 3/32" allen wrench, but it just was not efficient.  The nature of the cutting action takes a lot of real estate that wasn't available in this carving. Could not even think about hogging out the waste with it.  Even just trying to level the background by taking off high spots was not working out. If the tiny bit hit a difficult spot, it flexed and dug in.  Gave up.  If used on a larger scale carving with lots of open background, it might be useful for rough leveling but it won't leave a finish cut.

Having said that, I realized that the cutters are all straight edges. What if a custom one with say a #3 sweep were made?  Hmmmmm  might work better.


Hi, Just a question .

If Grindling Gibbons had a router , or power carving tools, would he have used them ?

I recently saw photos from a city in China which specialised in wood carvings both, large and very small  and it looked like they used all types of  power tools and the carvings were exceptional. Where do we draw the line, I think we should be able to use any tools available.







It would have been a slow. I think Gibbons had another 100 yrs to wait for electricity.

You won't be kicked out of the "carving club" if an electric router is used for backgrounding 🙂

The 2 lessons that come to mind are the oak leaf and acorn. That was very difficult grain, being sepele. When I do these jobs for clients, I have to weigh up the time it would take to lower by hand (at least 5 times the amount of time) and the amount of time it would take to route the background flat. At some point when I do it by hand, I would make well below minimum wage, and the frustration of carving this wood as deep as I needed to would have just about driven me mad.

Having said that, I really don't like using a router. To me, machines (whether router, sharpener, dremel etc) always seem to create that unpredictable scenario. The router can grab, tear, or split the wood in unpredictable places. Using gouges is so much more "controllable", but that is simply my comfort level. I am always surprised at what damage machines can do to my carvings and often mutter to myself as I try and repair any damage (with hand gouges) "that's why I don't use these". Maybe as I go on in my career, I will incorporate machines more, but somehow I don't think so. There is still that "purist" part of me that thoroughly enjoys the sound and feel of a gouge slicing cleanly through wood.

PS. Grinling Gibbons also had about 50 apprentices to do all the background lowering 🙂

I'm struggling with smooth backgrounds as well; I can't figure how carvers get mirror like surfaces on grounds or balls (in ball and claw feet) without rasps or sandpaper.  Is it seriously just about getting more experience and control of #1s and #2s, or are there methods covered somewhere in Mary's videos to help?

You can sand the surface. I always recommend using sandless sandpaper (like Mirka Abranet) because there is always the temptation to re-carve along a sanded surface. If you do this with traditional sandpaper, grit can be left in the wood and really dull chisels. I have heard that scraping also works, but going near detailed carving can be a challenge. I, personally have not learned how to use a scraper for surfacing. For leveling a background I rely on using a nearly flat chisel (a #2 is preferred) and just letting the gouge shave off the high spots. This really works if that #2 gouge has a very flat bevel. If the bevel is rounded, or if there is a tiny secondary bevel on the back of the gouge, it will want to "scoop" rather than shave the high spots. This will create more gouge marks, rather than smoothing.

I hope this helps!