Not long ago, someone noted my growing set of hand planes and asked, “How many planes does a person actually need?” Without hesitation, I answered “three.”
Aside from certain specialty planes and joinery planes, a regular bench plane performs one of three functions. When dimensioning stock by hand, all three are usually necessary, but I seldom need a fourth.
In what follows, I will demonstrate the process of flattening, straightening, and smoothing a board. If I start with something not too far out of flat, I can dimension the whole thing in 10-15 minutes. Others take longer.
My method is very conventional, and I learned much of it from the writings of Chris Schwarz, but I find that these basic techniques are not as widely known as they should be in the woodworking community.
Starting with Rough-Sawn Stock
If the board is not yet the approximate width I want it, I will joint an edge first, then use a marking gauge to mark it to width, and then rip it down.
When I’m ready to start planing the face, I begin by looking carefully at the board from several directions. Specifically, I’m looking for convex and concave sides. The board may be slightly bowed or cupped (sometimes both!), or twisted. I lay the concave side down on the bench and begin planing on the convex side. Why? The board doesn’t rock when I put the concave side down. If the board is twisted, I may need to place a wedge, shim, or even a few shavings under one corner to steady the workpiece on the bench.
I use the jack plane to bring down the high spots. This board isn’t so out of flat that I have to plane across the grain. Planing with the grain works fine here. For more serious stock removal, planing at 45* or even 90* to the grain works well. Just don’t plane toward your reference edge, as the plane often splits out chunks as it exits the board.
I may not be able to see the high spots, but I can feel them. I use my fingers as much as my eyes to tell me where to plane next. The jack should be set to take a relatively thick shaving, so the work goes fast.
On average, about 80% of my time is spent with the jack plane. It’s worth getting a relatively light one that is also comfortable to hold. I prefer my wooden jack plane for work like this. The thick iron never chatters, and the plane is relatively light for its size.
Once the board is relatively flat, it’s time to straighten things out with the jointer. I start on one side, and take regular, overlapping passes over the whole board, until I’m taking a full shaving on each pass. The better job I’ve done with the jack, the less time this will take.
If I’ve been careful with the jointer plane, I may be done, especially if the surface won’t show on the finished product. But often I’ve left plane tracks and some tear-out, so I finish up with the smoothing plane. I usually take the smoother over the whole surface, but also spot-treat any tear-out.
I sight down the board periodically to see that the board is staying flat. It doesn’t take too many hasty strokes with one of the planes to get the board out of flat again. Some people use winding sticks to help them see if the board is flat.
Now that the face of the board is jointed, it’s time to plane the other one down parallel. One of the most important tools for planing is the marking gauge.
Referencing from the planed surface, I find the thinnest spot on the board’s edge, keeping in mind that it may be either on an edge or on one end. (Since this shelf will go into a dado, it’s important that the ends be consistent sizes, but the middles need not be perfect. Still, it’s good to practice getting your stock square.) I set the gauge and scribe that thickness all the way around the board.
Now I repeat the process, but I keep an eye on the gauge lines. I start planing on the thickest spots first, leaving the low spots for last. The gauge lines usually tell me where those high spots are. I use the jack to plane almost down to the gauge lines all the way around.
I then switch to the jointer to finish going just to the lines. How do I know when I’ve hit my lines? I watch the edges carefully for this:
That long sliver is the wood just above the scribed line. This tells me that I’ve come down to the top of the line and can stop with the jointer. Because a gauge line has thickness, I can now switch to the smoother to finish up and still not go past my line.
I generally finish by marking the board to final width with the marking gauge and then planing the edge to the line. However, in this case I am making a bookshelf, and the rough sawn edge will butt up against the back of the case, so there’s no need for a planed edge. A sawn one will do fine. When you’re working by hand, you have to economize somewhere.
Look at the Shavings
Woodworkers often wonder how thick their shavings should be. I don’t have a micrometer or anything, but digging through my pile of shavings at the end of the day, I can tell which shaving came from which plane. Here’s an illustration:
In each picture, you see a sample of shavings, with the edge that made them. On the left is the jack plane, with its cambered edge. The shavings are narrow and relatively thick, about the thickness of magazine paper at their middle. The mouth is relatively wide.
In the center is the jointer, which I sharpen with no camber at all. (Some prefer a slight camber, and I’ve used it that way too.) The shavings are wide, but thinner, perhaps the thickness of a sheet of notebook paper, or a little thinner. The mouth is narrower, which reduces tear-out.
On the right is the smoother, with a very tight mouth and wispy shavings. I merely relieve the corners on the edge of the iron, so as to avoid leaving plane tracks on my finished surface. The shavings are as thin as tissue paper, or thinner if possible. Often they are no more than wisps. This board is pretty soft, so I can take thicker shavings than I would on a hardwood with wonky grain.
Some woodworkers like to have several of each type of plane, each set up for slightly different tasks. That’s fine, but the majority of your hand plane work requires precisely three planes.