How Many Planes Does a Man Need? Dimensioning a Board with Three Hand Planes

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.

Three basic planes (L-R): jack plane, jointer plane, and smoothing plane

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.

This board was cupped in the middle. I begin planing in the center and work my way toward the sides.

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.

The jointer plane initially rides over the low spots, taking off the peaks, and leaving the board flat and straight.

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.

The smoothing plane’s body is short, so it can get down into any low spots left by the jointer.

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.

Side Two

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.

You can set your gauge to a number, such as 3/4″ or 7/8″, or you can pick a thickness that looks good and stick with it.

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.

Once I have scribed a line all the way around the four edges, I have a pretty good idea where the high spots are.

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:

I don’t have to crane my neck to look at my gauge line with each stroke. The board will tell me when I’ve reached the line.

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:

Shaving size and shape is determined by the profile of the edge, as well as the depth of cut.  The jack’s iron is cambered (sharpened with a rounded profile), the jointer’s iron is sharpened straight across, and the smoother’s iron is sharpened straight across with the corners slightly relieved. The mouth of each plane is progressively tighter. 

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.

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5 Responses to How Many Planes Does a Man Need? Dimensioning a Board with Three Hand Planes

  1. Tico Vogt says:

    Good post. I like your choice of selecting a wooden jack for its weight.

  2. Jamie Bacon says:

    Great job on the tutorial. Very well explained and good pictures for visual aid. I’m an all wood plane guy myself. I love the feel of wood on wood.

  3. Thanks, guys. I’m still getting the feel of wooden planes, myself. I have a wooden jointer as well, but the mouth is wide open, so it would have to be patched before it would match the performance of my Sargent jointer. At the moment, I’m still addicted to the mechanical adjusters on the iron planes. I’m hoping to eventually pick up something like a coffin smoother with a York pitch for difficult grain.

  4. Why you should never surf woodworking forums with headphones on…

    Wife: “Well this guy HERE says you only need three planes!”
    thekiltedwoodworker: “What? Where did you come from?”
    Wife: “I’ve been here a while. What do you need all of these other planes for? Like the one on your Christmas list last year that you just HAD to have?”
    thekiltedwoodworker: “The Skew Rabbet Plane? That was a joinery plane, sweetie. He’s talking about bench planes.”
    Wife: “Uh huh. He calls that big one a ‘jointer plane’. Isn’t that used for jointery?”
    thekiltedwoodworker: “Er… no. It’s um. It’s used for jointing the board, which just means making it all in the same plane, er, the same level of flatness. It isn’t actually used for joinery.”
    Wife: “…”
    thekiltedwoodworker: “Hey, I don’t ask you why you need so many pliers for beading, do I?”

  5. Fortunately, MY wife is something of an enabler. She’s letting me buy a router plane today. But she’s getting a large bookshelf out of the deal.

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