Introduction to Handplanes

When I was first revving up my new woodworking hobby I bought a table saw and ran a 100-amp electrical service out to my shop. After all, I planned to build a table for my wife and assumed I would need a planer, a band saw, a drill press, a jointer, a router and a dust collection system to go with my bright new table saw. Then I got sick. At least that’s what some would say. Actually I just stumbled onto my first old hand plane and haven’t bought a power tool since. Despite my illness, my wife has her table along with a few chairs and accessories that have since come from my hand-tool-only shop. Oh, I still use the 100-amp service, that’s where my coffeemaker is plugged into.

Now I know I’m in the minority when it comes to using hand tools exclusively. Not many folks will use only hand planes to thickness plane rough stock. It’s my choice and I stick with it because I like it, and therapy sessions to get over it are too expensive. Still, there are a lot of uses for hand tools even in a powered-up shop.

Of all hand tools, planes are probably the most symbolic and recognizable. Planes come in so many varieties that entire books have been written just about them. Let’s look at some basic hand planes that can get a budding hand tool enthusiast started or fit nicely into the arsenal of a power woodworker.

The Stanley Rule and Level Co. dominated the hand plane industry in the 19th century. Consequently, Stanley’s competitors adopted its hand plane numbering system. Even today, ordinary garden-variety bench planes carry these traditional numbers to designate their size. Stanley #1 through #8 include the most basic of bench planes as well as some not so basic. In simple terms, the bigger the number, the bigger the plane. These all-metal Bailey-style planes are essentially the same form but on a different scale. And all have pretty much the same function: to make the wood flatter and smoother than it is. The smaller ones are better for small work while the larger ones are best for leveling out the large boards. See how simple hand tools are? I don’t own one of each of these sizes, nor do I need to. There is not much size difference from one number to the next, though there is a lot of difference between a #1 and a #8, and understanding these differences will make using hand planes more of a pleasure than a pain.

If you ever come across a Stanley #1, type 1, and it costs less than your house payment, buy it. These little gems aren’t much for actually cutting wood (you could pull it out of your shop apron to trim a joint), but they’ll cut plenty deep into your wallet.

Numbers 2 through 4 are smoothing planes from 7″ to 9?” inches long. While not as small or pricey as the #1, the #2 is still on the smallish side and is not usually available from modern plane manufacturers today. That makes it more of a collectible than a good working tool. The old #3s from Stanley are 8″ long, while the ones Stanley makes today list at 9″. I have an old Trustworthy-brand plane that I rescued from a garage sale and restored. It’s 9?” long, about the size of a #4. I use it when I’m flattening boards from their original rough sawn, air-dried state. It helps me get at some of the high spots that my longer planes sometimes ride over. I have some 12″-14″ wide air-dried pine boards that I use to make reproduction furniture. My Trustworthy/ Stanley #4 look-alike is good for this task. It’s also good for jointing the edge of shorter boards.
The #5 jack plane is right in the middle of the normal range of bench planes and, as you might expect, it is the most versatile. It’s 14″ and has a good heft to it.

That length makes it work well for jointing short boards. I have a couple of Stanley transitional jack planes about this size, a #26 and a #127 (these fall outside that numbering system from #1 to #8). Transitional planes have a wood bottom and metal upper structure. This type of plane was common at the end of the 19th century into the start of the 20th as planes transitioned from all wood to all metal, thus their name. I use mine for leveling across the wide boards that I flatten by hand and for jointing the edges of boards that are too small to support my larger jointer plane. In a power shop, these are just as useful for trimming drawers and edge jointing as well.

The #7 and #8 jointers are, as you might guess, best suited for edge jointing a board. Since they are 22″-24″ long, they obviously find their use on long boards. The length of the plane causes it to ride the high spots as the blade nicks them off. That way, the high spots get lower and lower until there is nothing left but an even surface that matches the long flat bottom of the plane. I honestly can’t think of a use for these in a fully powered shop if you joint all your boards with a power jointer.

Other Planes
From 1905 to 1942, Stanley made the 14″, #62 low angle jack plane that is being reproduced today by plane maker Lie-Nielsen. The low angle of the blade makes it ideal for working on end grain or cross-grained wood. As I confessed before, I use a lot of pine and my Lie-Nielsen low angle jack reminds me every time I use it why I like good quality hand tools. The 3/16″-thick low-angled blade and the well-built heft of this plane makes light work of some of the most temperamental grain and hard knots that I run into. It also has an adjustable mouth that I can set to a barely perceptible opening and eliminate nearly all tear out, even in the most irregularly grained wood. This is a real plus for both the powered and the powerless shop. In fact, this beauty can sometimes tackle a job that would make most jointers and planers tremble with fear.

One other plane gem that has become essential in my shop is the scrub plane. Scrub planes take a lot of wood off in a hurry. With my Stanley #40 I can take off a ?” or more from the uneven side of a 12″ x 5-foot board in a matter of minutes. This is a small plane but a beast when it comes to getting my rough stock down to size. Often with hand tools, using the right one begets speed, and that’s certainly the case with the scrub plane.

Rabbet and shoulder planes come in a variety of shapes and styles but all serve the same basic purpose. As implied by the name, they’re used for cleaning up rabbets or any joints that have right-angled surfaces, such as the shoulders of a tenon. When you cut your mortise-and-tenon joints by hand, your hand sometimes over-cuts or under-cuts. A small side rabbet plane helps clean these up. Though I don’t personally use a power tenoning jig, I hear that once in a while a little trimming or cleanup is needed there as well. That’s when these come in handy for getting that just-right fit. The same holds true for dadoes and grooves, whether power cut or hand crafted. Some examples of these that are still made today and available through mail order and retail woodworking stores are the Stanley #78 duplex rabbet plane, the Stanley #79 side rabbet plane and the Lie-Nielsen #98/#99 set of side rabbet planes.

One final basic hand plane that I reach for often is the block plane. You can find these, old and new, in many price and quality ranges. The one I use most often is a simple Stanley #60? that I bought new from a mail order catalog. Like most modern hand tools it’s not up to the heft and quality of its ancestors but it’ll do for most chores. When it’s freshly sharpened, it will take clean shavings from the end grain of a freshly hand-sawn board. It’s also good for softening the edges on finished work, especially if you want to have the subtle character of hand tooling instead of the uniform edges that come from a machine.

In my hand-tool-only shop I can’t get along without these icons of the hand tool world. But I hear from some of my powered up brethren that these planes enhance the workmanship and pleasure of their shop as well. Even if you haven’t fallen prey to the hand tool fever that struck me, you just might find that some of the rich old tradition in these tools can add to your shop as well. PW

Dale Lucas is a woodworker in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.