Chris Schwarz's Blog

Plow Planes: Metal vs. Wood

In my kindergarten class, someone was snitching cookies from the lunchboxes of the rest of the class. (Spoiler alert: It was the fat kid.) While the teacher’s investigation was ongoing, she gave us a speech that I still remember.

“I once had a student who stole cookies,” she said. “Then he stole lunch money. Then he stole money from his parent’s wallets…¦.”

Long pause. “Then he robbed a gas station.”

If you are still in the “smoothing plane” (stealing cookies) stage of your slide into handtools, let me give you a peek at some of bad deeds you’ll be committing against your family’s checkbook in the years ahead. First stop: plow planes.

Plow planes make grooves in the edges and faces of stock, which is great for frame-and-panel work. They also can be adjusted to make the tongue on a tongue-and-groove joint. And they are great for wasting away stock when you are making decorative moulding with moulding planes.

There are many different kids of plow planes, but I think there really are two families: the wooden plows and the metal plows. And their differences are in more than the raw materials used to make them.

Because that’s the most obvious difference, however, let’s start there.

Metal vs. Wooden Bodies
If you’re buying a used plow, the metal ones are usually in better shape than the wooden ones. And the metal ones can usually be resurrected a little more easily. That’s because the wooden body of a plow can warp (very difficult to fix), and the wooden wedge that secures the iron can be frozen in its mortise or can be so modified that it is useless.

That said, I always prefer a wooden grip on a plane, so the metal grips aren’t my favorite. Heck I’ve thought about wrapping some friction tape around the handles to improve the feedback.

Where the Shavings Go
In use, the biggest difference for me is where each tool’s shavings go. On the metal plows, the shavings eject into the fence and the user’s hand. This is annoying because many times the shavings bunch up like a wad of toilet paper in the fence and you have to stop your work and clear things out.

On the wooden plows, the shavings are ejected away from the user and onto the benchtop. I have yet to find a disadvantage to this way of work , except that you have to sweep off your bench once in a while.

About that Fence
The fence on a metal plow is usually secured with two thumbscrews. Because of the tight tolerances when the tool is made, it’s usually simple for the user to get the fence parallel to the tool’s skate , a critical detail.

With wooden plows, it’s all over the map. Fences can be fantastic or one step above semi-adjustable firewood. The bridle mechanism on my D.L. Barrett & Sons plow is perfection. It’s better than a metal plow. One thumbscrew locks everything, and it’s always parallel to the skate.

However, most of the wooden plows you’ll find have two wooden screws that adjust the fence (or sometimes wedges do the job). With the two wooden screws, it’s a bit more of a hassle to get things parallel. Plus, sometimes these screws are damaged beyond saving.

Different Depth Stops
On a metal plow, the depth stop is on the side of the skate that is opposite the fence. On the wooden plow, the depth stop is between the fence and skate. I haven’t found either to be troublesome, but you do have to pay attention to your work. You don’t want to waste away part of the wood that you are going to need your depth stop to contact on a later cut.

I work with both tools and find that they both do everything a woodworker needs. The choice of tool comes down to:

- How much you can spend
- What is available in your area
- How much work you want to put into the tool
- And which form makes you drive by Texaco stations that aren’t on your way home.

- Christopher Schwarz  

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6 thoughts on “Plow Planes: Metal vs. Wood

  1. dave brown

    Wow, those barrett & sons plow planes are awesome. Of course, my favorite is the Mathieson Bridle. There right up there with Sauer & Steiner. Currently unobtainium for me.

    If I ever came home with one of those the cops would be at my door in under a fortnight — looking for my wife.

    The Mathieson would be on my tombstone. :g

  2. David

    Chris – Not all wooden plows eject shavings on the bench. There was a lot of variation in design in the "golden age" of the plow (the late 19th century), and some of the designs ejected shavings on the left side of the plane (typically, these are sash fillisters, not plows, but I’ve also seen plows that do this), some on the right. Incidentally, I’ve found that most wooden plows that eject shavings on the left side of the plane actually do a very good job of getting them to curl upward and outward (and not bunch against your hand or get trapped by the plane). I’m not sure why, but it may have more to do with the design of Stanely metal plows than with metal vs. wooden planes.

  3. Ace Karner

    I have a plow plane problem, I have a Stanley 45, two 46’s, a 47 and a 55. I also have a Record 43 and two wooden planes, an all boxwood Benson and Crannell, and a beach Ohio Tool Company with a closed tote. I manage to use them all once in a while, and I’m always keeping my eyes open for another. I shudder to think of all the planes irons I have should I ever decide to hone them all. LOL

  4. Tony Lees

    I’ll never see a wooden plow again without thinking of this and laughing out loud: "Fences can be fantastic or one step above semi-adjustable firewood."

    A few years ago I bought a tool box full of tools from someone who’s grandfather had done his carpentry apprenticeship with the railways at the beginning of the 20th century. It was still packed with all the tools and arranged as it had been by his grandfather. He plonked a smaller box on top of the tool box and said that I could also have this plane for an extra NZ$50. And there it was – a pristine SW Stanley 55 with all it’s cutters. I felt obliged to tell him that it was actually worth a bit more, but he said: "I know, I looked on the internet. But I get the feeling you’ll give it a good home." I’ve been feeling a little guilty ever since because I’ve never really made very good friends with that plane. I console myself with the fact that the plane was pristine while the rest of the tools weren’t. He either bought it at the end of his working life, or never made friends with it any better than I have.

    What amazed me even more though was the array of tools he had in that tool box. When I worked as a carpenter I had several plastic toolboxes, and the plane family was represented by 2 block planes. He on the other hand had an array of planes and a whole host of tools that we would now only associate with furniture making – all wrapped in a big, dovetailed box, with smaller dovetailed trays. Things have changed a little over the years.

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