Choosing and Using Hand Planes
Few tools are better for smoothing and shaping wood
Time was, a hand plane was an indispensable tool, used to smooth, shape, and straighten just about every piece of wood in a house. The typical carpenter lugged around a whole chestful of planes, each with its own special function. Today, power tools — routers, jointers, belt sanders, and power planers — do the same tasks much faster, relegating many old planes to the shelves of collectors.
There aren't as many types as there once were, but the hand plane is far from extinct. Because it can pare off just a thin slice of wood, no tool is better for shaving the edge of a sticking door, chamfering the corner of a board, or straightening one that is twisted or warped. That's why most carpenters still pack a hand plane or two in their toolboxes.
A decent new plane will cost $40 and up at the hardware store. Woodworking catalogs carry a more extensive selection. But don't overlook the many fine used planes for sale at flea markets and antiques shops. These vintage tools were built to last, and there's plenty of life in them still.
Planing with the grain
With the working edge facing up, examine the side of the board to see which way the grain rises (in this photo, it slopes up toward the right) and plane in that direction. If the grain tears out, try planing in the opposite direction or skewing the plane diagonally as you push.
Common bench planes range in length from 9 to 22 inches or more. The longer the plane, the better it will straighten an edge, because the long body bridges dips and rises in the board's surface. The blade, or iron, of a bench plane is pitched at 45 degrees, bevel side down. A cap iron stiffens the blade and directs shavings away from the mouth.
At 22 inches or longer, the jointer is the largest bench plane and the best choice for trimming, squaring, and straightening the edges of doors or long boards.
Before power planers, a jack plane smoothed and squared rough lumber. Good for truing long boards and removing warp or twist. At 12 to 17 inches, it's more versatile than the larger jointer plane.
Designed to flatten and smooth the face of a board, this 9- to 10-inch-long plane is ideal for leveling off high spots and for general planing. The best all-around bench plane if you have only one.
The pocket-size block plane is ideal for trimming small areas, but it's too short to straighten boards. The blade is positioned bevel side up; better models have an adjustable mouth for a super-thin shaving. Block planes come in two varieties: standard, with a blade pitched at 20 degrees, and low-angle, with a 12-degree pitch.
Low-Angle Block Plane
The low-angle block plane severs end grain easily and is comfortable in one hand, making it perfect for fitting shingles, quickly shaving down the corners of swelled doors, and fine-tuning miter cuts on trim.
Planes are meant to be used only on wood and can be dulled by other building materials. For shaping wallboard, plastic, or wood products containing adhesives, such as plywood, choose one of these alternatives.
The double-edged blades are disposable, so you can use them on plywood, particleboard, and medium-density fiberboard that will trash a good plane iron. They're also good if you don't want to bother with sharpening.
The blade resembles a cheese grater and files away material rather than producing long shavings. Good for fast shaping of drywall, PVC, or plastic laminates, but leaves a rough surface on wood.
The Fine Points
Sharpening the Iron
A plane won't cut properly unless the blade is razor sharp. Even a new plane needs to be honed before you use it. You don't need fancy tools to get an acceptable edge; a sharpening stone or sandpaper will do. The part that takes a little practice is holding the iron steady at a consistent 25- to 30-degree angle without rocking it, maintaining firm, downward pressure right over the bevel. (If all this is beyond you, buy a honing guide, which clamps the blade at the perfect angle.)
Sharpen first on a wet medium-grit water or oil stone or on 220-grit wet/dry sandpaper placed on a dead-flat surface, such as glass or marble tile. Repeat the process on a fine stone or a finer-grit sandpaper. Stroke with a circular motion until you feel a burr on the back of the edge, then flip the iron over to remove the burr by rubbing the back flat on the stone, leaving a clean, sharp edge. Finally, keep the iron sharp when not in use by storing the plane on its side and cleaning off resin from softwoods with a rag that's been dipped in turpentine or paint thinner.
Adjusting the Plane
Taking too big a bite with a plane will jam the tool or tear out the grain. Start with the iron set for a shallow cut and gradually increase the depth of cut until you can produce a continuous, unbroken shaving.
To set the cutting depth, turn the depth adjustment wheel (1) until the cutting edge of the iron (2) protrudes slightly below the sole (3). (If the wheel is too tight, back off slightly on the screw (4) that holds the lever cap (5) and cap iron (6) in place. Use the lateral adjustment lever (7) to position the cutting edge parallel with the mouth.
Some block planes have a mouth adjustment knob to vary the width of the mouth opening. A narrow opening produces a thinner shaving and is best for fine finishing. A wider opening allows for a deeper bite and faster wood removal, but increases the chance of tearing the grain.
Planing a long edge
Apply even pressure with both hands, pushing down on the front knob and forward with the rear handle. To make the cut easier, skew the plane so that diagonally opposite corners of the bottom, or sole, are aligned on the same edge. Periodically check the edge with a square, adjusting the blade laterally if you're off.
Where to Find It
Vintage bench planes: This Old House collection.
Low-angle block plane
060-1/2, Record Hand Tools
American Tool Companies Inc.
Stanley Tools Product Group
New Britain, CT
Smoothing plane with disposable blade
220 Pro by Rali Swiss Handplane
New Castle, DE