Quick-start Guide to Metal-Bodied Handplanes, Plus a Bonus for Wood-Bodied People

Yes, I have read and watched a sizable chunk of what Popular Woodworking has to say about used woodworking tools in the last 9 months. And yes, I recommend the 9-month method if you enjoy gaining the broadest possible background on a new topic as you dive into it. But I am also a quick-start type of guy at times, and I recognize that there are many quick-starters in our audience. So I decided to write a short, 4-step guide to getting started with what most woodworkers choose for their first used woodworking tool – a metal-bodied handplane. As a bonus, I have included a special offer at the end for those who have already mastered metal-bodied planes and are ready to move into wooden ones.

NOTE: the quickest of all possible starts, if you have the money, is to go out and buy a well-made plane from one of our respected partners in the new tools industry. You know who they are! If you don’t have that much money, follow along with these steps.

Step 1. Make friends with used woodworking tools and learn where they live.

Used woodworking tools, especially handplanes, look a little intimidating at first. If you, like me, did not grow up with these heavy, somewhat archaic-looking objects, you might take one quick glance at some online listings or a flea market and move on to the power-tool world. Get over that fear of the unknown, figure out where the best stockpiles are in your area, and shake hands with a few handplanes.

Step 2. Straight and a nice weight.

I fretted over the details of which era and type of used handplane would be best for me. In the end, now that I have been using the plane for a few weeks, I have to say that the main factors for beginners are two (and only two). Look for the cheapest plane you can find that is straight in all its major lines (including a look at the frog and the interior lines), and a nice weight in your hand. If it’s a Stanley and you look at the number, it’s probably a #4. But the point is simply to have something functional and substantial.

Step 3. Clean up the body and, if necessary, break the piggy bank for a new iron and chipbreaker.

Cleaning up the body is mainly a matter of breaking it down, soaking the parts in mineral spirits and going to work with a rag and toothbrush. Importantly, you will also flatten the sole by working it over a piece of granite tile and some coarse sandpaper. Watch the free video on this by clicking here.

Lube up the parts and put it all back together. Does everything mate well? If not, you’ll need to do a little more clean-up.

Now look at your iron and chipbreaker. They are probably rusty and thin. If you really want to, you can work on them and bring them back to life. I decided to go with a new set from Hock Tools, because they are nice and thick (that’s the weight thing again), precision ground, shiny and sharp. All you need to do before using the assembly is hone the iron a bit and clean up the tip of the chipbreaker so that the surfaces mate perfectly.

Step 4. Go to work and make your adjustments on the fly!

That’s it! You are ready to start planing.

Wait a second, you say. Where do I set the iron and how do I make sure I’m cutting straight?

If you’re following the 9-month method, you’ll read a few dozen pages on this or watch a few videos. If you have Chris Schwarz’s phone number, you might call him. But that’s not all entirely necessary. Once you start trying to cut with your new-to-you used woodworking tool, you’ll learn pretty quickly. Move the iron in and out to experiment with different cutting depths. Move it left and right to make the cut flat.

Bonus step for wood-bodied planes.

Are you interested in getting into wood-bodied planes? We are offering a special deal on a Hock iron and chipbreaker set for wood bodies, along with Scott Meek’s new video on making one of these planes. There’s no quicker way to get started with one of these babies, so take advantage!

Dan Farnbach

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Dan Farnbach

About Dan Farnbach

Dan apprenticed and worked in two professional shops during the years after college. But sweeping shop floors only goes so far toward learning woodworking. These days Dan is a former online editor for Popular Woodworking, and is learning new skills every day. He divides his time between Boston and Maine.