Getting Started With Hand Planes

Maybe you are looking for an inexpensive way to get started in woodworking. Perhaps you're looking to add some hand tools to your arsenal of power tools. No matter what your situation, there are a few types of hand planes that belong in everyone's toolbox.

In this article, I use generic names for the planes (e.g. Jack Plane) instead of specific numbers (e.g. Stanley No. 5). I do this because every manufacturer has different naming and numbering of their products, sometimes within the same manufacturer! For example, a Stanley No. 5 and a Stanley No. 605 are both be considered jack planes.

So here is my list of useful planes, listed in order of importance:

Block Plane

A good plane to get started with is a Block Plane. This relatively small plane has quite a few uses around the shop. A block plane is great for creating small chamfers, cleaning up end grain, trimming miters, thicknessing or smoothing small or thin pieces, and more. Any operation where you need to remove a small amount of material is a great use for a block plane. In addition, because they are so small, a block plane fits easily in a tool box for use at a job site.

Block planes are available as low-angle and "standard" angle. The angle here refers to the angle formed between the bottom of the plane and the bed the blade rests on. Low-angle planes typically have a 12° bed angle and standard block planes have a bed angle of 20°. In both cases, the blade has the bevel up, which allows you adjust the effective cutting angle as necessary. However the typical 25° grind on blades gives an effective cutting angle of 37° and 45°, respectively. I would suggest a low angle plane as the smaller angle is ideal for cutting end grain, a task a block plane is used quite often for.

Jack Plane

As the name suggests, the Jack Plane is a "jack of all trades" bench plane. A jack plane can be used for everything from flattening or smoothing boards to trimming end grain. If you can only have one bench plane in your workshop, a jack plane is the one to get.

As with the block plane, jack planes are available in low-angle and standard angle models. The standard angle is usually has a bed angle in the 45° to 50° range and the low-angle is around 12°. What you choose really depends on what you plan to do with the plane. I've had no problems using an older Stanley No. 5 plane with the "standard" 45° bed angle. However, if you plan on smoothing end grain cutting boards or trimming the ends of boards regularly, a low angle jack bench plane is probably appropriate.

Smoothing Plane

A Smoothing Plane is used for the final..er...smoothing of a board. Many people consider the smoothing plane to be the last step of surface preparation, avoiding sanding completely, before applying a finish.

A smoothing plane is one of the shorter bench planes. As such, it doesn't ride along on the high spots of a board and will follow any imperfections much better. In addition, the plane is typically set to take a very fine cut in order to avoid tear-out and leave behind a nice, even, smooth surface.

Smoothing planes typically have the same bed angles available as with the Jack plane. However, many prefer higher angles (45° to 50°) on a smoothing plane, as the higher the bed angle tends to perform better on highly figured wood.

Jointer Plane

The Jointer Plane performs the same task that a power jointer performs, making the face or edge of a board flat. They typically have very long (20 to 24 inches) beds. This keeps the plane from following any dips and bumps in the board and only cut off the high spots.

When preparing stock by hand, the jointer is usually the last plane used to flatten the face of a board. It is also used to straighten the edge of a board and make it square to the face. Sometimes, it is helpful to use an add-on fence in this latter case to help keep the plane square to the face.

Shoulder Plane

Unlike the previously mentioned planes, the Shoulder Plane is a bit different. The blade of a shoulder plane goes all the way to the edge of the plane allowing you to plane along an inside corner. This makes a shoulder plane ideal for trimming the shoulders and faces of tenons when adjusting them to fit a mortise.

In addition, some shoulder planes also have the ability to remove the toe, or front, of the plane. This allows you to plane all the way into a corner such as when you need to clean up a stopped rabbet.

Since shoulder planes are used with end grain almost as often as long grain, they typically only come with a lower bed angle. However, these planes are also usually a bevel-up design, so the effective cutting angle can be adjusted by grinding the blade at different angles.

These are the planes that I would suggest you start with. There are certainly many more types of plane out there, allowing you to cut mouldings, smooth curves, and more. Once you've become comfortable with these planes, any future plan acquisitions should be based on performing a particular task in your workshop.

What planes are on your "must have" list?

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