Chris Schwarz's Blog

Getting Started in Old Hand Planes

I am just now starting to acquire the tools necessary to do some woodworking, but the money is very tight right now; so I’ve started looking some local flea markets. I was recently one of the largest local flea markets and there was a vendor that had several old planes. And I have some questions about looking at vintage woodworking equipment.

First let’s start with the wooden planes. There were two wooden ones that looked like they had seen better days. From what I remember both had several cracks in the main block. I think these would be almost worthless except that the wooden frogs looked like they were still in good shape and could be used in another block. What would be your thoughts on this? Is a cracked wooden plane useless or is there a good way to mend it?

The same vendor also had several old metal planes that were just labeled with Stanley and their price. I didn’t have the time to examine them too closely, but my guess is that one is a Stanley No. 4 and I think the other was a No. 6. Both were showing signs of rust. The question I have on these is how can I tell if the sole is as flat as it needs to be? The one that I think is a No. 4 was listed for $35 while the No. 6 was $50. These sound like a good deal to me, but would hate to spend the money and find out that there are some serious flaws in them. Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated.

I want to thank you for taking the time to read this and hopefully answer these questions. I really enjoy reading the articles on using hand tools, especially since most seem to be very affordable even when you have a tight budget. Keep up the good work.

-Reese Yontz

Reese,

Buying and tuning vintage planes is a valuable and worthwhile experience. When I started woodworking I had a lot more time than money, and so that’s the route I went down. I learned a lot about plane mechanics, which has served me well in this job.

There is a lot to learn when it comes to buying vintage planes. My best advice is as follows: First pick a style of plane that appeals to you, either wooden-bodied planes or metal-bodied planes. Both work great, but learning about both is a Herculean task at the outset. I think metal planes are easier for beginners to pick up, but I think that’s my bias because that’s how I began.

Then I’d read everything you can get your hands on about buying, sharpening and tuning this style of plane. Focus on buying only four planes at first: a smoothing plane, jointer plane, jack plane and block plane. Don’t buy four smoothers or six blocks (a common mistake). Don’t rush into the decision to purchase; the only way to save money when buying old tools is to make certain each purchase is exactly what you need. And the only way to determine if it’s exactly what you need is to read, read, read. And then try, try, try.

I can help with the reading part. While there are excellent books out there that can help you, I think the best place to begin is on the internet, specifically, the Hand Tool KnowledgeBase, a “link farm” of the best articles on hand tools, all organized to make them easy to browse.

Here’s the link to the section on hand planes.

Also, I recommend you spend a few enjoyable hours reading Patrick Leach’s “Blood and Gore” website.

Leach’s description of every Stanley plane ever made are immensely enjoyable (though I don’t agree with every word of it; I really like No. 6 planes). And his prose will help sensitize you about what to look for when buying old tools.

Good luck. Welcome to the fold.

Christopher Schwarz