Hand Planes - Where to Start?

Posted by Tobias Lochner on

In the not too distant past, every home & workshop had at least a few hand planes, but nowadays the names of Stanley, Record, Bailey, etc seem to be relics of a bygone era.

 

Hand planes used to be a staple tool in every woodworker's tool chest. Our fathers and grandfathers, and countless woodworkers before them, relied on hand planes when building a house, making furniture, or simply to quickly and neatly trim a swollen door.

Rare 22-1/2" Norris Jointer

Extremely rare Norris 22-1/2" Jointer Plane

In fact, the hand plane can be dated as far back as about 2000 years. Below is an image of the remnants of a hand plane that was unearthed during the archeological excavations of Pompeii, which was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79.

All that's left of the Pompeii Plane

Now that can we agree that hand planes have been part of our technical evolution for a couple of thousand years, the question is, why?

The answer is really quite simple....because when set up and tuned properly, they do their job simply and remarkably effectively, that's about it. 

             
          Spiers Shoulder Plane by Glen Holtley                      

We have far fewer hand plane variations today than before. Thanks to the power tool industry as well as mass production, many woodworkers feel that hand planes are simply not necessary anymore. 

Matched Pair of Veritas Small Plough Planes

Earlier this year, I did a search on the internet for hand plane manufacturers and I found a total of twenty seven companies and individuals, commercially making hand planes. I was truly surprised. What does this tell us about the woodworker in the 21st century and what does it tell us about the humble hand plane?

   Norris A5 Smoothing Plane          

I'll let you into a secret, closely guarded by those in the know: Well made hand planes do their job, simply and effectively, without fanfare these instruments do what they are designed to do....no more, no less.

Lie-Nielsen #102 Bronze Low Angle Block Plane

Whether the hand plane is in the form of a jointer, jack, fore, try, smoother, block, fielding, mitre, rebate, moulding, moving fillister, infill, plough, router, spoonshave, sash fillister, spokeshave, scraper, scrub, shoulder, violin, thumb, bullnose, chisel, grooving, compass, wagon, finger, palm, combination or shooting plane, bevel up or bevel down and whether it is completely wooden with simply a wedge to hold the iron, wooden with a chip breaker as well, a transitional plane, infill plane or a totally metal plane, western or oriental, they all share a common purpose and duty; to shave wood in a user-controllable manner. 

Consider this: A hand plane is basically a chisel held at a specific angle by a jig, with the blade protruding a specific distance below the limitation of the jig, and it is then either pushed or pulled across the surface of a piece of wood. That's it.

 Ok, so I am over-simplifying, but I am sure you get the picture.

If I could offer one sage piece of advice to anyone getting into using hand planes, this would be it: Don't overthink the tool! 

When buying a hand plane, the first thing to consider is application. There is no one single hand plane that does everything. If you are considering investing in a decent hand plane (there are a few plane brands available in South Africa), please do your research properly, because sadly many of them are really way more trouble than they are worth. You can see the faults on these cheap planes very easily, soles are not flat, mechanisms are rough, tote and knobs are plasticky, the castings are not finished off properly, the paint is badly applied and the blades do not hold an edge for long.

I had the chance to try a low angle block plane (available in South Africa) from one of these manufacturers a few weeks ago. Once I got the mouth adjustment plate to actually move, it could not move it close enough to the blade to make the feature usable.The bed was terribly out of true. It was also badly finished off and I could not achieve a decent edge on the blade, even after having spent over half an hour re-flattening it , and spending an inordinate amount of time with it on my whetstones.

For a good general all rounder that is capable of covering numerous applications at the workbench, consider a low angle jack plane, something like a Lie-Nielsen #62, Veritas #62-1/2 or Luban #62. Low angle jack planes are all around 14-15" / 350mm - 380mm long, with a bed angle of 12º and an adjustable mouth.                             

 

What sets them apart from their standard cousins, other than their mouths & bed angles, is the fact that the blade is lying on the bed in a bevel-up format and they don't have a chipbreaker.

Standard bench planes, #1, 2 3,4, 5, 5-1/4, 5-1/2, 6,7 and 8, all have their blades lying on their 45º frogs in the bevel down format and all have chip breakers.

So what, I hear you muttering....

 Veritas #62-1/2 Low Angle Jack Plane

Ok, here goes: In the bevel down format, the angle of attack of the blade is determined by the angle of the bed (frog) of the plane, 45º is standard, although the better makers (Veritas & Lie-Nielsen) offer frogs at various angles to allow you to change the pitch of the blade. The blade is then sharpened at a 25º bevel (It doesn't really matter whether it is 24º or even 27º,  the angle of attack remains the same. (ie the pitch angle of the frog).  Even with razor sharp blades, some woods just are not interested.

Luban #62 Low Angle Jack Plane     

Enter the Low Angle Jack Plane: In this design, the blade lies at a much lower angle - a 12º bed. This bed is part of the plane body and is milled flat. Because the bevel of the blade is facing upwards, the bevel actually determines the angle at which the blade attacks the wood, and not the angle of the bed.

Lie-Nielsen #62 Low Angle Jack Plane

If you start with a bed angle of 12º, and you fit a bevel-up blade of 25º to the plane, you then have an effective 37º angle of attack. Taking this concept further, by using a more obtuse angled bevel on your blade, say 38º, you then have an effective attack angle of 50º and if you put a 50º bevelled blade into you plane, you then end up with 62º angle of attack.

So, you own a calculator and can add, I hear you grumble, what does this actually do for me in the real world?

The low bedding angle of the blade provides excellent end grain planing, with a standard iron honed with a 5º secondary bevel, giving you a final 30º. With this setup, shooting the ends of boards to their final fit is extremely easy and really comfortable.

Using the same style standard iron, you can add in some camber and open up the mouth to handle a thicker shaving, ready to handle some quick stock removal.

With a freshly sharpened standard iron, honed at an angle between 30º and 45º,  you can make A Grade Curly Maple look like it belongs on that exquisite period chest of drawers or even high-end guitar.  Overall, a Low Angle Jack Plane is probably the most versatile of all bench planes and is a great plane to begin with.

Hand Plane Bed & Frog Pitches:

20° and under (Low Angle) -- Used for low angle planes such as Low Angle Jack Planes, Mitre Planes, Shoulder Planes and Block Planes. The blades for these planes are used with the bevel up, which has the effect of increasing the overall pitch by the amount of the bevel angle. As these planes are usually used for end grain work, having a lower angle with the blade supported right to the tip and a fine mouth opening is a major advantage.

Note for Plane Nuts: Block Planes are so called, because in yesteryear they were primarily used for planing end grain butchers' blocks.

45° (Common Pitch) -- Used for most bench planes, from wooden bodied right through to Stanley/Bailey types. A bedding angle set at 45° is optimum for most softwoods and straight grained hardwoods, and the blade is used with the bevel down, requiring a chip breaker in most cases (especially when using a thinner blade). Japanese style planes don't need a chip breaker because the blades are usually quite thick.

50° (York Pitch) -- Used for hardwoods and is especially useful for highly figured and interlocking grain. Used for low angle jack planes, rebate planes and some plough planes.

55° (Middle Pitch) -- Mainly used for moulding planes for softwoods.

60° (Half Pitch) -- Used for moulding planes for hardwood.

70° to 90° -- Used for toothing planes, side snipe and side rebate planes.

90° plus -- Scrapers and scraping planes.

If you wanted to keep your plane selection to using Stanley/Bailey designs, you will have to buy models that offer the necessary variable angle frogs, therefore allowing you to effectively change the bed angle to suit your application, a finicky and quite expensive business at best. The alternative is to get a reliable Low Angle Jack Plane (#62 or 62-1/2) that has an adjustable mouth via a plate in the sole in front of the blade, and then getting a couple of blades at different angles to suit your work in hand. I find that having 25º, 38º and a 50º sharpened blades on hand for my #62 Low Angle Jack is ideal, so that I can quickly change out to a different pitch blade and get back to work.

Owning a Low Angle Jack Plane and a few differently pitched blades does not mean that all other hand planes become superfluous, not at all. It simply means that you have more applications that can be done with a single general Jack Plane, and you most probably would then limit your basic plane range to the addition of a really good Smoothing Plane, Block Plane, Jointer Plane, Shoulder Plane, Router Plane and Rebate Plane.

With Block Planes, I find that the adjustable mouth, low angle versions suit my kind of work perfectly. As far as rebate planes go, a Block Rebate Plane with nicker blades on both sides will satisfy most rebating needs, larger versions are available as well.

Regarding Smoothing Planes, I would urge you towards a bronze #3 or #4 or maybe a ductile iron #4-1/2 which also has an adjustable mouth.

In closing, I again emphasise that you should never buy cheap and cheerful planes. If your budget does not stretch to top-of-the-line Lie-Nielsen products, then the next logical step would be the excellent Veritas range from Canada or the Luban Range from China which is gaining an avid following worldwide as an incredibly well made and great value brand with superb blades. (the Luban range also features Bronze Cap Irons & Lever Caps, as well as a solid bronze #1, #102 and #103!).

An exquisite African Ebony & Brass Luthiers Plane by

South African Plane Maker, Boaz Zeffertt

Most importantly, when buying a hand plane, (unless you already know what you want) the shop MUST let you test it yourself!

At Toolcraft, a workbench is always ready and waiting for you, bring a board of your choice in anytime and play with the various hand planes and blades, you will then choose with knowledge and your own experience.

Until next time, let's make shaving, not dust!

 


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    4 comments

    • Hi Don. Thank you so much for your very kind and supportive words. If you have any questions or ideas for future blog posts, please let me know. I am hoping is my own small way to unravel the hype and confusion around woodworking tools as best I can, and in the process give sensible and unbiased direction to newcomers to our craft.

      Tobias Lochner on
    • What a pleasure to read something well written for a change! Such writing makes the subject so much easier to understand and it flows so much better than articles with distracting spelling or grammatical errors. Explanatory drawings make it all so much clearer. Planes have always been somewhat mysterious for me – at least some of the mystery has gone and the hands-on trial will be easier!

      Don MacIver on
    • For those of us who knew very little about hand planes this gives us a very good insight into what they’re all about. Thanks. A very interesting read.

      James Florence on
    • Thanks for the positive response, James, much appreciated. Hopefully the post helps to clear up a little of the mystery and confusion surrounding hand planes.

      If you have any suggestions for future blog posts, please let us know and we shall try our best to include them.
      Tobias Lochner on

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