Start Using Hand Planes

Every woodworker ought to own a hand plane, and know how to use and maintain it. There are whole books devoted to this topic, and most are very helpful.  But information overload can be paralyzing.  Let me help get you started.

Selecting a Hand Plane

For a first hand plane, I would recommend either a smoothing plane or a jack plane.  Both are versatile and widely available on the vintage-tool market.  A smoothing plane is typically 9″ long with a 2″ wide iron (blade).

Two vintage jack planes (L&R) and a vintage smoothing plane (center). The smoother is an extra-wide plane called a 4 1/2.

A jack plane is longer, usually about 15″, but with a similar sized blade.  Many woodworkers get the most use out of their block planes, which are also easy to find.  High-quality new block planes are also more affordable than their larger relatives.  In the Stanley numbering system, the smoothing plane is a #4 and the jack is a #5.

You get what you pay for. Really. The Lie Nielsen and Veritas planes are not over-priced. They are ready to use out of the box, and once you hone the iron and get used to the adjustment mechanism, they perform beautifully. The WoodRiver planes from Woodcraft have gotten good reviews in the mid-range market. I would not recommend getting anything cheaper. Anant, Groz, and new Stanley will just frustrate you. (As I write, the jury is still out on the new Stanley Sweethearts.) A vintage Stanley, Millers Falls, or Sargent plane is a very good choice if you can find one cleaned and fettled for you. There are many reputable vintage tool dealers who can find you a solid user at 1/4 to 1/2 the price of a comparable new plane. Buying a hand plane is just like buying a drill press or a band saw. It’s a fundamental shop tool, and a cheap one is not worth it. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder how you ever did without it.

Maintaining a Hand Plane.

The most expensive hand plane in the world is useless if the iron is dull. And “sharp” for a handplane means razor-like sharpness, Japanese-chef-knife-like sharpness, shave-the-hair-off-your-forearm sharpness. Getting a really sharp edge does not require expensive equipment, though you can spend a bundle if you want to. But there is a learning curve. Just using the bench grinder isn’t going to cut it. Find a sharpening medium you like and stick with it until you figure it out. I love my diamond stones, but there are also water stones, oil stones, and sandpaper-on-patten. How many grits you work through depends on the medium. The most important thing, I think, is working through the grits until the edge is honed and polished. On my diamond stones, I use coarse and fine, followed by a strop. For sandpaper-on-patten, you might go through four grits and then strop. It’s essential that your final grit is very fine, something like an 8000-grit water stone or a leather strop charged with honing compound. A honing guide is helpful, but not essential.

Once you learn to sharpen a plane iron, you’ll discover all of a sudden that you can do the same thing to your chisels, and your pocketknife. You will struggle less and find greater satisfaction in your work.

Using a Hand Plane.

Practice, practice, practice. Once you get the plane in your hands and are satisfied that the iron is sharp, start by retracting the iron. Then advance the iron little by little until you get a shaving on a scrap piece of wood held securely in a vise or butted against a stop or batten on the benchtop.

A jack plane in action.

Try to advance the iron by as little as 1/8 a turn at first. Nudge the adjuster and take a pass, nudge and pass, nudge and pass, until you get something. Eventually you will find that turning it by just a couple degrees will make the difference between a thick shaving and nothing at all.

Try to take a shaving about the thickness of a sheet of notebook paper to begin with. Watch the shaving as it comes up through the mouth. It will probably come out more on one side or the other. Fiddle with the lateral adjustment lever until the shaving comes up in the middle. Use both the tote (handle) and the knob to push the plane. The front knob is not just a steering wheel.  Eventually you will learn to put more pressure on the knob at the beginning of each stroke and more pressure on the tote and the end, which ensures even stock removal across the length of the workpiece. And posture is important. Use your whole body to plane, not just your arms. That reduces fatigue.

Don’t let all the information overwhelm you. Hand planes are a wonderful world, and will really enhance your work once you figure out what they can do.

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2 Responses to Start Using Hand Planes

  1. I just found your blog. I added it to the blog aggregator on my site at UnpluggedShop.com. When you make a new post, within about two hours, the headline will automatically appear on my site so woodworkers everywhere can click over to your site and read it. If you ever have any questions or concerns, please let me know.
    Thanks,
    Luke Townsley

    • Hi, Luke. I’m glad you found my blog worth indexing. Not all my blog posts are focused on woodworking, but I do try to include some woodworking content in each one.

      Your site looks like a good resource for woodworkers like me, and I appreciate the gesture.

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