While hand planes are alluring to many woodworkers, getting started can be confusing since there are so many options. If you ask 100 hand plane enthusiasts which planes to start with, you might receive as many answers. Based upon my 15 year love affair with hand planes, the following is my suggested approach to help you get started.
For today’s hand tool purist as well as woodworking legends of days gone by, hand planes provide a means of performing a wide range of tasks ranging from dimensioning rough stock and preparing a finished surface, to creating joints and tuning them for a perfect fit. Today, however, many woodworkers have chosen a path where power tools perform many of the tasks that were previously performed by hand planes. You just can’t beat the performance and consistency of a power jointer and planer, dado blade on the table saw, and electric router.
It doesn’t, however, have to be an “either/or” scenario. Even those of us who have made a significant investment in a power tool arsenal can benefit from incorporating hand planes into our repertoire. My philosophy is “best tool for the task at hand”, and in many cases for me, that viewpoint leads me to a hand plane. Some of the aspects that I enjoy about hand plane use include:
- Precision to a couple thousandths of an inch
- Surface preparation quality that cannot be rivaled by power tools
- Low dust generation
- Quiet operation
- Soulful experience taking whisper thin shavings
- Beveling an edge
Start slowly, choose wisely. Hand planes differ from power tools in that they require more finesse and a better understanding of the tool to get good results. For that reason I suggest buying hand planes one at a time, getting the best quality that you can afford, and gaining confidence with that tool before moving onto the next. You will know that you have confidence with the tool when you are eager to pull it out to use on that critical surface or key joint in a prized project. At that point if you are feeling the need for more, you can feel good about expanding your arsenal. Also, as you look for your first planes it is important to understand that a bargain hand plane is, well, not necessarily a bargain. Some imperfections can be remedied, but many cannot. My recommendation is to start by buying hand planes that are high quality, tuned and ready to go. Once you get to know the joy of working with a tuned plane, then you might want to try your hand at restoring one that has potential, and by that point you will have a better sense of what to look for to find that “diamond in the rough”.
Block plane first. The most used plane in my shop, and frankly one of the most used tools overall, is the block plane. This tool provides tremendous versatility, and can be used for a variety of tasks including:
- Tuning joints
- Flushing edging glued to plywood shelving
- Rounding over edges
- Erasing mill marks left from a table saw or bandsaw
- Adjusting the fit of a door
- Beveling an edge
I have several different block planes, and each one serves a different purpose for me. But if I could only have one, my choice would be a Stanley 60-1/2 or equivalent. I generally prefer an older one, as the quality of steel and most components is generally better, but quality can be inconsistent on used tools so a safer bet would be to start with a new Stanley Sweetheart version of this plane. This tool can perform a variety of tasks with little chatter and a healthy level of precision.
Jack plane next. The next stop on the hand plane path should be a good quality jack plane. This tool can be used when you have a board or a panel that requires face jointing but is too wide for the capacity of your jointer. I frequently find myself working with rough boards that are too wide for my 8” jointer, which leaves me with a few options. A) I can build a sled to hold the board evenly as I run it through my planer, B) rip the board into smaller pieces that will fit on my jointer, or C) use a jack plane to flatten one side of the plank. I prefer to use the jack plane as I find it quicker, less hassle, and a rare opportunity to get a cardio workout in the shop. I also appreciate the fact that I can leave the wider board intact without disrupting the grain pattern by ripping and re-gluing.
The hybrid use of a jack plane goes like this. Just flatten one face by planing perpendicular to the grain, and when you think you are getting flat, check your progress with winding sticks by placing one winding stick on each end of the board and determine what further adjustments need to be made to achieve a flat surface.
Once you have a established one flat face on the board, flip it over and place the flat surface down on your planer. The planer will then do what it does best; creating a board that has two flat and parallel faces. Then flip the board again and clean up any imperfections left from your jack plane work.
If you don’t have a power planer, or if you are looking for a pure hand tool experience, continue on after the jack plane, hitting the surface with a #6 or #7 hand plane to flatten the surface, then flip the board over and repeat the process. Although I occasionally take the full Neanderthal approach, I am typically just as happy to enjoy the performance advantages of the hybrid approach.
My favorite jack plane is the Lie-Nielsen low angle version. This plane delivers great results right out of the box and can be easily set up for fast removal of stock or, by closing the adjustable mouth, smoothing operations. The thick blade allows it to power through heavy cuts, while the low blade angle makes it a great choice for stock removal on figured wood. If the price tag of this tool is too hefty, you might consider a 5-1/2 Wood River Jack Plane. I recently had an opportunity to use one and I was quite impressed by its capabilities, pealing perfect full width translucent shavings from hard maple with little effort.
If you liked the jack plane, you will love a #4 smooth plane. After achieving a flat surface with the jack plane/power plane combo, the next goal is achieving a smooth surface. For that we turn to a #4 smoother. Of all the planes in your arsenal, this is the most critical to buy high quality and maintain in good working order, because it will be used to produce a show surface. With a good quality smooth plane, you can render a board smooth as glass in short order without all the noise and dust of power sanding.
For this tool I recommend picking up an older Stanley (ideally a Bedrock, but many of the non-Bedrock older Stanleys are great as well) that has been well tuned to produce perfect shavings. If you have become familiar with hand plane anatomy from your first two purchases you might consider buying one that requires a little TLC, but be sure that it is solid and has no cracks.
Shoulder plane. For the hand tool purist, a shoulder plane is used to do the heavy lifting in forming rabbets and tenons. The hybrid woodworker will use power tools to hog out the majority of waste, turning to the shoulder plane to achieve a perfect fit. There is a wide range of sizes and styles available, so choose one that matches your woodworking preferences and feels good in your hand. Larger shoulder planes excel at removing stock more quickly and flattening longer surfaces, so if you tend to work on a larger scale or want to dabble in full hand tool woodworking, look for a larger unit. For finesse tuning of joints you can get by with a smaller version.
My recommendation for a hybrid woodworker’s first shoulder plane is to find one with a small, traditional design. The traditional design fits well in the user’s hand, and the small size will make it easier to master. There are several good options out there, such as the Lie-Nielsen small shoulder plane that I use. For a more economical option, look for a good quality vintage Record or Stanley should plane which can provide a good user experience as well.
Be aware that hand planes are addictive! I believe the hand planes that I have numerated here offer a great phased approach to give you a taste of the precision and quality that high caliber planes can bring to your woodworking. If you learn how to use and maintain them, this starter set will extend your capabilities, and from a practical sense you might not ever need to buy another hand plane after you have acquired these. That said, many woodworkers (well, at least me) find the experience of creating translucent shavings so enjoyable that there is a constant temptation to add “just one more”. If you decide to give hand planes a try and find yourself a bit obsessed, well, you’ve been warned…
What are your favorite hand planes? Do you have a suggestion for a plane that should be included in the “hand plane starter kit? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section.
Low Angle Jack Plane, $245
Small Shoulder Plane, $165
Sweetheart Bailey 60-1/2 Low Angle Block Plane, $99
WoodRiver #5-1/2 Jack Plane, $195