What Hand Planes are Good For

DTA0288The difference between school and real life is that in real life the tests come first and then the lessons. This is especially true of woodworking; you never know how far you should take one step of a project until you are knee-deep in the next step. That’s when you realize you didn’t fuss enough and now have a painful correction to make, or that you fussed too much and spent a lot more time than you needed to on something that doesn’t matter. With enough experience you land in the middle and create nice work in a minimal amount of time.

If most of your woodworking experience consists of reading there are several traps waiting for you. The first is believing that reading about woodworking is the same as woodworking. Without practical experience, you’ll never really know which techniques work for you and which are a waste of your time, your money or both. You can’t judge the importance of any tool or technique by the volume of words used to describe or debate it, or by how many times something is repeated.

mtr_6552Hand tools in general and planes in particular are excellent examples. You might have picked up the notion that planes exist for the purpose of creating fluffy shavings and that each part of your project must be individually planed to perfection with the thinnest possible shavings. Only then can you employ your other specialized tools to make perfect joints and when you put things together all will be well. Things that sound good in print don’t always make sense in the shop.

I’ve never been patient enough to make a perfect part or a perfect joint, but the furniture I make turns out pretty nice when I’m done. In my world, the most valuable function of a hand plane is to bring two surfaces that are pretty close to each other into alignment. Instead of fussing over the last few thousandths of an inch when milling parts or making joints, I shave them off either during a dry run assembly or after final assembly.

dry-fit_A1491A hand plane is the ideal weapon for this. Park the toe of the plane on the high side, the heel of the plane on the low side and push. This is faster, easier and gives better results than any other method I know. You need to know how to get your plane pretty sharp, and if you use a bevel down plane with a cap iron, it pays to set the cap iron close to the edge. It’s OK to skew the plane at an angle across the joint or go against the grain if you need to. There is a minor risk of doing some damage, but no where near the injuries you can inflict with a belt sander or random orbit sander. Sending the panel through a wide-belt sander is easier, but that leaves cross-grain scratches that need to be sanded out.

When you leave the romantic nonsense and magical thinking behind you’ll discover that a plane is fast and efficient for some tasks and slow and tedious for others. Tools have evolved to make them easy to use and a simple way to decide on a particular method is to weigh the time it takes vs. the quality of the finished product.  If it isn’t easy and fun, there is probably a different approach that will be. As with anything you read, try it for yourself and practice it a few times before you adopt it or recommend it.

– Robert W. Lang

There is an article in the April 2014 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine about setting the chipbreaker of a plane to eliminate tearout. If you’re a subscriber, or a friend or relative of the authors you already know about it. If you’re not a subscriber, you can buy a digital version of the April 2014 issue and while you’re at it you can click here to subscribe to Popular Woodworking Magazine.

8 thoughts on “What Hand Planes are Good For

  1. rlfarmerw

    Sometimes when working in front of someone else can I do something very well and I’m asked hey man how did you do that. it’s always amusing because I know how many times I’ve messed it up trying to teach myself how to do it and how to fix my mess ups. I usually smile and pass on the secret . Practice makes perfect right?

  2. 8iowa

    Sometimes the need dictates the tool to be used.

    When I built the “Workshop in the Woods” in ’07 I found myself using WoodMizer sawn boards from local trees. A monstrous 10 or 12 inch jointer was out of the question.

    Starting with a new #5 Clifton I learned how to remove twist and cup, prepping a reference surface for the thickness planer. Since then I have expanded my inventory to include numbers 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 hand planes. Without spending a fortune, they are all re-furbed Stanley’s The latest, a #7 antique store find, had been well used and well loved by it’s original owner. A little clean-up and a new Hock iron & chip breaker has turned it into a super tool.

  3. Bernard Naish

    Good advise certainly.

    Time taken is not the only criterion when deciding to use a hand plane. There is also the question of noise and dust not to mention the environmental aspects.

    I do use a planer/thicknesser but only when I have a lot of material to prepare that is too thick. I have stopped using a jointer machine as my #7 and #8 do the job better, faster, cleaner and quieter and I love the sound they make and the sheer joy of being able to easily get an incredibly straight edge by hand. I am learning how to hand rip and hope soon to stop using my band saw. I only use hand screwdrivers as I am fed up with the need to keep buying new batteries and it is not very tiring and only a little slower. I have never felt the need for a table saw or any other circular or reciprocating saw. I would give my electric router away but it is so old no one would want it. If I can find a hand powered pillar drill then……..

    That is just the way I am going but I only ever make one piece at a time, I am not interested in kitchen cabinets, I do not need to feed a familly and I am very green (environmentaly anyway).

    Then as you say “As with anything you read, try it for yourself …”

    1. Redbat

      I have been using the Yankee push screwdriver No. 30A for over 55 years now, and I never liked a regular twist screwdriver. I have made custom bits for any screw I want to drive, and while I do have two electric screw drivers (I have 7 children that buy me birthday and Christmas presents) I almost always go back to my old Yankee push screwdriver. Any thing that has been this successful over this many years can’t be wrong! When the driving of a screw becomes tough I change to an old Stanley hand brace with a 3-inch sweep with a screw driver bit installed. I drill pilot holes with a Miller Falls No. 5A egg beater drill or a Yankee No. 41 push drill. I like the Yankee No. 41 the best. Hope this gives some of you younger individuals some ideas. These tools last a life time and can be passed down to your children and grandchildren.

  4. creatingsawdust

    Best line in this article is “If most of your woodworking experience consists of reading there are several traps waiting for you.”

    I couldn’t agree more & this advice goes for all aspects of life.

    I’ll take experience (even failed experience) over book smarts any day because in work & in hobby only being “book smart” never works out in the end.

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