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Hand Planes and other hand tools

For the woodworker primarily using power tools

I have had planes and chisels for years, many inherited from my father who built his first workshop in the United States about the time I was born. I have been making things from wood for over 60 years, and finally am starting to appreciate and use hand tools to supplement my "top of the line" power tools. There have been many "little facts" that I have learned recently that have helped immensely in this evolution. The facts that are revelations to me may have been so obvious to hand tool users that they weren't mentioned, or maybe I am just a cranky ole guy who is slow to learn. This is not a beginner's tutorial, but sharing some of these simple tricks and facts took me 60 years as a power tool user to discover.


Every discussion of hand tools, especially planes, seems to start with a lecture on sharpening. So does this one. If your planes and chisels are merely razor sharp, don't bother investing in these tools. They will do more damage to your projects than good, and you will only be frustrated. Hang that plane you got as a gift on your shop or den wall, but don't try to use it on a real project until you learn to sharpen it ... very very sharp, far beyond just razor sharp.

Grinding is the first part... getting the correct shape to the blade, including the bevel angle for the desired purpose and a cutting edge square to the sides. Grinding is normally only done to fix a damaged blade, or to tune a new blade. Lathe chisels are frequently sharpened on grinders but bench chisels and planes rarely see a grinder. For years I tried to do all my sharpening on a Tormek slow speed wet grinder, which is good for general sharpening, but it was not sufficient by itself for planes and chisels. I now have an extra coarse diamond plate (220 grit) that I often use to repair or reshape a blade, since I have more control than at a grinder.

Honing is the real sharpening that perfects the cutting edge of planes and chisels. I use a coarse 325 grit diamond plate to repair small dings, and to start the sharpening on a neglected edge. If I am just doing routine sharpening, I start with the DMT fine (600 grit) diamond plate (DMT does not use the label "medium") Once it is almost razor sharp on the 600 grit "fine" diamond plate, I move to 4000 and 8000 grit Norton waterstones (kept flat by the coarse diamond plate). I have recently added the extra extra fine (8000 grit) DMT diamond plate but prefer the waterstone at this point. And I have a 13000 grit Japanese waterstone for when I am going to extremes (not every day). I have seen comparable success with a complex regimen of sandpaper (often called scary sharp - see Mark Lovett Wells's tutorial on sharpening). But buying a cheap oilstone and expecting it to last a lifetime (as my father did, and so did I for years) just isn't enough.

There are lots of web sites to help you learn to sharpen, but the best approach is a friend (or class) who can help you when it doesn't work exactly as you expected. The one trick I will offer, on each stone or plate, keep sharpening until you feel a burr on the back of the edge. The burr says you have reached the cutting edge, not just polished the bevel. Too often people stop because they are tired of doing it, before the burr appears, which means all the effort was wasted - your honing hasn't reached the cutting edge.

How often do you have to hone (resharpen) your hand tools? Not every year or month, but every few hours of use. Maybe even several times in a day. But once you learn how, it only takes a couple minutes to restore a sharp edge. Don't expect a new tool to be sharp - even the expensive ones come sharp enough to try, but not as good as you will want them, when you sharpen and tune them to your uses.

Do you need an expensive plane? Probably not, but if you buy an old plane, you will spend hours, or even days, getting the sole (bottom) perfectly smooth and flat. You may spend hours flattening and setting the bevel on the old, bent, thin, rusty blade, or you may buy a new blade and spend time tuning it. Same for getting the frog/bed smooth. Same for the chip breaker. For some uses, the sides of the plane need to be at a right angle to the base. The plane I inherited wasn't even close. You can buy some new tools that are worse than antiques (some of the new Stanley planes have reportedly had bad castings, ground to bad angles). Or you can buy a good quality new tool that is already flat, square, and smooth, with a good blade, ground and ready to hone. Reconditioning old tools is an honorable hobby, but I like to use, not fix, tools, so buying good quality new planes is a good investment for me.

Cutting angle for plane blades

There are different ways that planes establish the angle the blade will enter the wood, as discussed below, but these are some of the different cutting angles.

Types of planes

First, the two big categories. Some planes use the blade with the bevel down, and others use the bevel up. The bevel down planes are sometimes categorized as "bench" planes, the bevel up are generally called "block" planes.

The planes with the bevel down have a separate "chip breaker" that is screwed to the flat upper side of the blade, very close to the sharp edge, to ... duh ... break the chip - make the shavings curl away without lifting and tearing the wood. The angle of the cut is primarily determined by the frog - the part of the plane where the blade is mounted - often at a 45 to 50 degree angle. The blade and chip-breaker combination is then locked into the plane by another piece, with a screw or lever. In most bevel down planes, the cutting angle cannot be changed. The bevel angle on the blade is just to get the back of the blade out of the way, and to provide a thin edge to enter the wood.

Other planes mount the blade with the bevel up. The angle of the cut is the sum of the angle of the bed where the blade is mounted (typically about 12 degrees), plus the angle of the bevel on the blade. A bevel up plane can use a blade with a 38 degree bevel, thus giving 38+12=50 degree cutting angle, similar to the "standard" angle of bevel down planes. The bevel on the top of the blade makes the chip curl up, so a separate chip breaker is not required. But a bevel up plane can also use a 25 degree bevel blade, giving a 25+12 = 37 degree "low" cutting angle. Thus the bevel up planes can change the cutting angle by simply changing blades. (The term "block plane" reportedly comes from the possible low cutting angle, which excelled at smoothing the end grain on the top of butcher blocks.) I also have a 50 degree blade for my block plane, which gives a 50+12 = 62 degree cut for highly figured wood (wood with erratic grain patterns).

High-end planes have an adjustable mouth - the opening in the bottom of the plane for the blade. Why? The blade goes into the wood and lifts wood fibers up. If the fibers lifted get much ahead of the blade, you will have tear-out - a damaged rather than a smooth surface. If you adjust the mouth of the plane so it holds the wood down just ahead of the blade (with a very small opening for the shavings), the risk of tear out is greatly reduced. How big an opening? If you are making thick shavings, the opening has to be larger (to make room for the blade as well as the thicker shavings). But if you are doing a critical finish cut, take a thin shaving and close the mouth as far as possible, leaving just enough room for the very thin shaving.

How big a plane

"Block" planes are often small planes that can be held and used with one hand. Many hand-tool experts recommend a block plane as the first plane because they find them so useful - even keep them in a shop apron pocket or a holster on their belt. I have had a small block plane for years, but never found it useful until after I got much more comfortable using other planes. For example, I would grab sandpaper to ease" an edge, but now I grab the block plane. Therefore unlike most experts, I recommend it as a later plane in your collection, not your first plane.

A "smoother" is a relatively small bench plane - the primary plane I inherited is a Stanley "Bailey #4" smoother - about 9 inches long and a couple inches wide, and not as clean and pretty as the plane in this picture. Experts consider a smoother a key plane in any craftsman's collection. Stanley bought the Bailey designs and patents and continued to manufacture the Bailey designs through most of the 20th century. Other vendors have adopted the Bailey numbering system for different size and type planes.

Since this is a fairly short plane, it will follow a slightly uneven surface and make it smooth - for example if the side of a table is a few thousandths of an inch narrower in the center, and you are trying to smooth the edge, a long plane will not cut in the center, but a shorter smoother plane will follow the surface and smooth it. As a power tool user, I rarely have use for this plane, but that may change over time as I learn more.

The blade on a smoother plane is sharpened with a slight curve - so slight that all that is required is a little more pressure on each outside edge in the last few stroked on the sharpening stone. That curve allows the smoother to NOT leave a line at the edge of each shallow cut.

An expert plane user has no trouble starting a cut with a smoother at the beginning of a board, even though the blade is only an inch or so behind the nose of the plane. At trade shows, the beginners I see trying this kind of plane almost always start planing a few inches in from the end of the board - they have difficulty starting with so little of the plane on the board. For this reason a beginner might want to start with a plane where the blade is set farther back, such as the Jack plane below.

A "jack" plane is about 14 inches long, and has the Bailey number 5. It is long enough to help flatten an edge or surface, but not so long as to be awkward. Of course, as a longer plane, it is not as good at smoothing an imperfect surface. Rather than buying a traditional Jack plane, I bought the less common low angle, bevel up Jack (Bailey number 62 - or 62 1/2 because of the wider blade). With the low angle 25 degree blade (plus 12 degree bed = 37 degree cutting angle) it is good for adjusting drawer sides with dovetails, and other end grain work, but I like the longer sole with several inches in front of the blade to align the plane more easily on things like drawers/dovetails. I bought an "extra" second blade with a steeper 38 degree blade angle (plus 12 degree bed = 50 degree cutting angle) so it can be used as regular jack plane, like a smoother. I also bought a third blade with a 50 degree angle (plus 12 degree bed so that it cuts at 62 degrees), excellent for highly figured wood.

I especially like that the blade is rather far back in the plane, compared to my smoother, since I sometimes want to align by the wood in front of the blade, and not just the wood behind the blade. For example, when smoothing the ends of dovetails, I want to plane from the edge of the box/drawer inward (to avoid tearing out the edge), which means the primary alignment is with the nose of the plane. When I am trimming a hardwood edge on plywood, I turn the plane at an angle so the blade is only over the hardwood edge I am trimming, but (depending on the wood grain) sometimes the nose (ahead of the blade) must be used to align the plane, and other times the nose is off the edge, and the tail provides the alignment. The extra length of the jack plane makes this my most used plane.

A "jointer" plane is even longer than a Jack plane, 18 to 24 inches long, for making long edges and joints very straight. The Bailey numbers are 6 and 7 for the medium and longer jointer planes. I suspect I will continue to use my power tools for this, but for the best glue-ups, I refine the edge with a couple passes of the jack plane. Large surfaces such as a conference table are too large for most power tools, so a jointer or Jack plane becomes the primary leveling and smoothing tool.

Specialized planes

A spokeshave has a very short sole, sometimes curved, typically with handles at the sides. It is normally used to smooth a curved surface, or occasionally to round a spindle (spoke) without using a lathe. A flat bottom is easier to use, but harder to perfect a slightly curved surface; a curved bottom can be used on flat or concave surfaces, but a little more operator skill is required. Smaller spokeshaves have narrower blades, which sometimes are curved in both axis.

This new plane in my shop dates to Christmas 2014, and is my first Lie-Nielsen plane.

A router plane cleans up the bottom of a dado. Sorry, but I have a $10 router bit that does that fast and easy, with a bearing that rides on the edge of the dado.

A shoulder plane has a blade that comes all the way to the edge of the plane. Neat idea, but with limited support on the side of the plane (to make room for the blade), it dramatically weakens the structure of the wider shoulder planes. A dropped shoulder plane can break in half, so there aren't many antique shoulder planes (newer shoulder planes recognize the problem and use special metals and designs). They are often used for smoothing or paring a tenon, or a narrow version, sometimes called a rabbet (or rebate) plane also cuts and cleans narrower rabbets. (An internet discussion, and some friends, explain that a shoulder plane takes thin shavings to precisely adjust a tenon or rabbet, while a rabbet plane is for quickly and grossly removing wood to create a dado or rabbet.) I have had a "Stanley 92 Rabbet plane," made in England, with 3/4 inch blade, for several years. (Based in how it works, I will now call it a shoulder plane, despite what Stanley says.) Although I don't use it often, it is priceless when I need it. That particular plane has a removable nose, leaving the blade in front, making it a chisel plane that can reach into corners.

The Stanley web site now advertises a 92 Rabbet plane as part of their new line of planes. The picture looks like they made it worse, like most of the rest of their "improved" line of planes. If you plan to get one, I would look for one of the "old" model 92 made in the UK, or try another vendor.

This wooden rabbet plane has a 9 mm (3/8 inch) blade that nicely reaches both sides of the plane. Increase the depth of the blade with a slight hammer tap on the top of the blade iron. Decrease the depth of the blade by a slight tap on the back of the plane body. What's wrong with this picture? The plane has to be pulled, not pushed. It is from Japan where pulling a plane is normal - a gift from a great friend. It came without the wedge. Several people have said the wedge should be on top of the blade, but it doesn't work there (the blade no longer aligns right), and in this plane it works perfectly behind the blade.

A cabinet scraper is a wonderful tool, except it always seems to need a new edge, and sure can get hard on your thumbs if you have to do much. A friend introduced me to the inexpensive Stanley #80 scraper plane. It has handles on the side like a spokeshave. Somehow it keeps an edge a very long time. A simple twist of a thumb screw curves the blade, which determines how aggressive the cut will be. Even before I regularly used hand planes, this one was hanging near my bench for quick access, and is often used to perfect an almost but not quite perfect glue joint.

Usage - How

There are countless techniques for using a plane, many of which were covered in grade school shop class. Therefore I will only mention a few that I picked up recently - that I have missed over the years, and that seem to make a big difference.

Keep a small scrap of wood near where you are using your planes. No special size, really just any scrap, perhaps an inch or two wide and 3-5 inches long. Why? Everyone says look down the plane sole and see how the blade barely sticks out. My eyes aren't good enough to do a good job at that. But grab the scrap and slide it (or just a corner of it) across the left, center, and right of the blade, and without looking you will know that you are cutting too deep, or not at all, and whether it is the same all the way across the blade. I can do that faster than trying to get the light right to see the blade, and the wood scrap gives me a better answer.

Most commercial planes have a knob to adjust the blade in and out (you may have to loosen the blade hold down slightly to adjust the blade). Think clock - turn an hour or at most two to try a deeper cut. If you want to make the blade shallower, turn it until all the slack is gone (say 6 hours), then turn it back 5 hours, so you always end up pushing the blade out. For years I adjusted a half turn (6 hours) at a time, and never seemed to get it right. Finally I learned that "an hour" was a big change in blade depth.

If your first pass with the plane just gets a little sawdust, don't adjust the plane. The fact that you got some sawdust means the blade is catching the high spots. Make a few more passes, and you will start to get shavings. That is what happens when you start with a rough or uneven board (whether or not you thought it was rough).

Japanese saws and planes are pulled. Western saws and planes are pushed. If it is more convenient to pull a western plane, and it works well for you, do it. You won't be struck by lightning. (Sometimes when I get a long piece clamped for planing, it is hard to work at the starting end, so I pull.)

Usage - What for?

As a dedicated machine-tool woodworker, some of my "hand tool" focused friends have asked me what I would use hand planes for. (I haven't make any wisecracks about doing it only so they will stop kidding me...yet!)

One of the challenges of working with plywood and power tools is putting a good hardwood edge on the plywood. Fine, glue it on. But then how do you make the hardwood flush with the plywood? I have a dedicated power tool for this job (a lipping planer), but it likes to destroy projects if you aren't extremely careful. A hand plane held diagonally, with the sole on the plywood and the blade over the hardwood, can make a very smooth joint. Plywood isn't particularly flat, so you may need to move the plane at a funny angle to make the hardwood edge match the not-as-flat-as-you-thought plywood. I now set my lipping planer a few thousandths of an inch high, and do the final pass with a hand plane, to eliminate the scallops left by any power jointer or planer.

A "cabinet" drawer with metal slides can easily be machine made to ample tolerances. But a wooden drawer on wooden slides is harder. Yes, I have done it for years with machine tools. But the smoothest drawers are done with extremely tight tolerances. One technique is to make the drawers slightly larger than the opening, then plane them down until they "just" fit... so close, that the joke is you have to plane extra to leave room for the wax. This is a challenge since you are also planing the dovetails.

I didn't believe I could improve on my machine cuts prior to making a glue joint (my saw cuts are smoother than a power jointer), but was challenged by the folks at Lie-Nielsen to try the jack plane. My very good glue joints got even better (although my jack plane is from Veritas).

Some of my unusual projects, like queen size bunk beds, involved gluing up pieces. such as the 4 inch octagonal posts for those beds. And the mattress frames were built into the posts. No, I did not chisel out mortises to receive a mattress, but I did have a lot of interlocking puzzle pieces that a shoulder plane would have helped. Unfortunately I got the shoulder plane just after that project.

I primarily use floating tenons, made to precise thickness using the digital controls on the power planer, so refining a tenon (the classic job for a shoulder plane) isn't among my needs.

And another use of hand planes I don't expect to make... I took a short course from noted woodworker William Ng. He made a very compelling argument and demo about how great the surface could be with planes and cabinet scrapers. Then he sanded the whole surface so the finish would be even. I sand the whole surface out of my power planer, and the finish is even. I skip the hand plane smoothing step, unless the panel is too wide for my planer (16 inches) and drum sander (38 inches).

Too wide? Yup, I recently built a dining room table 44 inches wide. Gluing up even half the width was too much for my jointer/planer, so I did the final smoothing with my jack plane.

Your first plane

If you are reading this, you are probably an experienced woodworker with a lot of power tools, and are just thinking about hand tools. If I had no planes, and were just starting with one, I would get a good one, not one that I had to fix up, so I know that any problems are me, not the plane. Lie-Nielsen is the gold standard in quality hand tools. Older Stanley tools were pretty good, but I have heard nothing but bad about their new (post 2008) products. Veritas makes very good planes - some would argue as good as Lie-Nielsen, some say they are better. There are probably other good ones, but ... I can do a better job helping you choose your power tools.

For starters, for people who have a good power-tool woodworking shop, I recommend a Jack Plane, especially a low angle jack. I found three people who have owned (or at least extensively used) both Lie-Nielsen and Veritas low angle Jack planes, and they unanimously preferred the Veritas version of this particular plane (even people who buy nothing but Lie-Nielsen in other planes.) Therefore I bought the Veritas low-angle bevel-up Jack plane from Lee Valley Tools (and bought the an extra blades for normal and high angle planing). I love it, and consider it an excellent plane to get you hooked on hand planes.

As I watched novices try planes at the Lie-Nielsen shows, I saw the beginners having a hard time starting the cut at the beginning of the board...they were often several inches in before they felt comfortable that the plane was well aligned, and started planing. The long sole in front of the blade in the low angle jack planes solved this problem - they were able to start at the beginning of the board. (Of course the experts didn't have this problem, but I am not that expert). If I am trimming dovetails, I want to plane from the edge towards the center of the drawer to avoid tear-out at the edge. I really like the long front-sole. The same applies to the large aft-sole helping the novice when reaching the end of a board, or when trimming an edge even with a surface such as plywood. This makes the jack plane my strong recommendation as a first good plane.

What is your second hand plane? Maybe the small block plane often suggested by others as a first plane. But really, the one you decide you can't live without after you have a good first experience. The pictures above represent the planes I have, but your desires and needs may be different.