How to choose and use hand planes
Get back to woodworking basics with this traditional hand tool
Every time I mention a hand plane to a group of woodworkers in my workshop, I see their eyes glaze over. People love their tablesaws, jointers and planers–generally, anything with a large motor on it. But I can’t emphasize enough how important hand tools are to get your woodworking to a level not attainable by machines alone. You’ll upgrade from a 15" thickness planer to a 20" model and then find you need to build a 24"-wide panel just a week later! Only a hand plane can make that wide panel truly flat. A belt sander is worth a try, but the hand plane is the real star once you know how to use it. For some more advanced techniques, such as mortise-and-tenon joinery, I believe that only a hand plane can achieve the perfect fit. Hand planes are essential tools and, in skilled hands, can achieve a level of accuracy you just won’t get with machines alone.
Types of hand planes
There are many specialized hand planes out there, but the three I recommend, if you don’t already own some, are the following:
1. No. 4 smoothing plane for flattening medium- to small-sized panels and other long-grain work.
2. Regular-angle block plane for long-grain work in tighter quarters, for more delicate work or for situations in which using the plane with one hand is helpful.
3. Low-angle block plane for end-grain work, such as trimming the ends of dovetails, finger joints and through mortise-and-tenon work.
Back to basics
A big distinction lies between a bevel-down plane, such as a No. 4 smoothing plane, and a bevel-up plane, such as a block plane. The bevel-down plane has the blade’s bevel on the underside of the blade. The angle of the plane’s frog, which holds the blade in the plane body, determines the effective cutting angle. The standard angle is 45º, which is too steep for end-grain work but works well for long-grain work except in very difficult grain-reversing situations.
A bevel-up plane, on the other hand, has the blade’s bevel on the top face of the blade. This orientation means that the angle at which you grind the blade’s bevel helps determine the effective cutting angle. The bedding angle, when added to the grinding angle of the blade, gives you the effective cutting angle. Therefore, with a 25° blade bevel in a regular-angle block plane (using a 20° bedding angle), we have a 45° cutting angle, just like in a No. 4 smoother. However, put the same blade in a low-angle block plane with a 12° bedding angle and we have a plane cutting at 37°, which is suitable for end-grain work. Grind the blade to a 30° bevel and put it in a regular-angle block plane to achieve a 50° cutting angle, suitable for long-grain in more difficult timbers.
With a bevel-up plane, you can control the effective cutting angle based on the grinding angle you choose for the blade. Based on the usefulness of this configuration, companies such as Veritas Tools now make larger hand planes in bevel-up styles, such as smoothers, jack planes and even jointer planes.
Build those skills
The number one reason people don’t use hand planes is that they don’t have the skills yet (and it takes a while to gain them). But you won’t learn how to use these tools just dreaming about it. Buy two or three basic planes. Learn how to tune them well and use them. Two years later, while your friends are still complaining that they can’t use a hand plane, you’ll be cutting off 0.001" shavings and achieving accuracy they only dream of. It’s hard to beat the sense of pride you’ll get from becoming proficient with at least a few hand tools, and your woodworking projects will rise to a whole new level.
Beyond the first three planes already discussed, I recommend a longer plane, such as a No. 7 or No. 8, which is very useful for levelling very large panels such as larger tabletops. A longer plane is also necessary if you plan to joint the edges of boards by hand. A No. 5 jack plane is useful if you want a somewhat longer plane at a lower cost and with less weight. I only resort to my No. 7 plane to level a very large table, whereas a No.5 is a good starting point for something medium-sized. In both cases, I go back to my No. 4 plane for final smoothing.
When the going gets really tough on difficult timbers, such as the reversing grain of ribbon-striped mahogany, I go right to my Veritas scraper plane, which works more like a card scraper than a plane; having the scraper blade held in a plane body with a flat sole is far superior to a card scraper if you want to keep the surface flat. Then there are some more specialized planes as well, such as my Stanley No. 90 and the Veritas medium-shoulder plane. The former converts to a chisel plane for those tight spaces inside a cabinet or up against a stopped cut, while the latter is great for tenon shoulders or cheeks.
One of the most common uses I have for my regular bench planes (No. 4, No. 5, No. 7) is levelling panels such as tabletops or door panels. I start by finding the high points using a straight edge and marking them with a pencil. Then I focus on those areas, cutting on the diagonal across the panel. Remember that you physically have to lift the plane off the surface on the other side of a raised area or it will cut a little deeper than is ideal to reach your goal. Set the blade to cut just 0.001" to 0.002" at a time, unless you need to remove a lot of wood. The thicker the shavings, the harder it is to push the plane as well. Once I have the surface flat enough for my liking (usually .003" or better over a smallish tabletop), I then plane in the direction of the grain to improve the surface that has been left somewhat rough from my diagonal strokes.
Another common use for both my No. 4 smoother and my regular-angle block plane is trimming solid-wood edging glued to a plywood panel. The cambered blade I use allows me to set it so that the centre cuts just 0.001" to 0.002" deep, while the outside corners of the blade don’t cut at all. I can be careful with face veneers simply by moving my plane over so that the corner of the blade is over the veneer, not the middle. I also use my regular-angle block plane for trimming iron-on edge banding. However, I tend to use solid-wood edging more so that I can rout decorative edges.
Whenever I glue up a mitred frame, which could be a picture frame, mirror or even a tabletop with recessed glass, I use my No. 4 smoother to level all of the corners, always working from the lower areas to the higher ones, although I have to respect proper grain direction at the same time. I don’t care what kind of joinery method you use for mitred frames, I can guarantee that the corners will never end up perfectly flush on the faces. While most people just use a sander, a hand plane is far more precise and can get the job done without rounding over the surfaces or introducing a bad twist into the frame.
A low-angle block plane does a fine job on end-grain areas. For example, it is fantastic for levelling dowels used as through joinery, or maybe to pin a half-lap or mortise-and-tenon joint.
When building a piece of furniture, you might want to put a small chamfer around something like a drawer front. A low-angle block plane does the best job on the end-grain areas, while a regular-angle block plane should be used on the long-grain areas at the top and bottom.
Trimming the protruding tails and pins on a dovetail joint, or the fingers of a finger joint, is tricky business. Sanding never works well, as end-grain is much harder than long-grain. So, sanding not only takes longer but results in a more uneven surface. What makes this operation tricky is that end-grain requires a low-angle block plane with an effective cutting angle of about 37°. But when you finally make the end-grain areas flush to the surrounding surface, you’re likely to take off at least a couple of thin shavings from the long-grain too.
If the grain direction is against you here, the low-angle block plane will cause tearout. My solution is to use the low-angle block plane until I’m just 0.001" or so away from hitting the long-grain. This technique takes experience and a fine sensitivity in your fingertips to feel the surface. Then, I switch to a regular-angle block plane, which doesn’t like end-grain and will turn it to a whiter colour because it actually dulls the surface. Yet, I feel I have to switch to the regular-angle because tearout on the long-grain is impossible to repair. After getting everything flush, I can switch to sandpaper and polish up those end-grain areas as much as I want when I sand the surfaces prior to finishing.
Another, more advanced technique involves trimming the cheeks of a tenon to fit its mortise well. While you will be tempted to use your tablesaw and tenoning jig to trim just a few 0.001" off the cheeks, the blade will flex and the tenon will become thinner at its tip. So, you need to trim the tenon to fit properly with a shoulder plane, working cross grain. If you don’t have a shoulder plane, both a regular- or low-angle block plane will work (both angles work cross grain), but these planes can’t trim wood right to the shoulder of the tenon. You’ll have to finish off with a wide chisel in order to trim the wood closer to the shoulder. However, both methods work well once you have developed the skills.