A Guide To Basic Hand Planes

The Basic Three Hand Planes You Need For Woodworking

We’re Here For You: A Little Helpful Direction

If you’re looking into woodworking with hand tools, the first thing you probably did was search for, well some hand tools. And maybe it was a little overwhelming. The community of hand tool woodworkers (or unplugged woodworkers if you prefer), is passionate and meticulous. No tool spec or detail is too small to escape mention.

Hand tool users are about working intentionally and deliberately, even if it means working a little slower. Choosing your hand tools can require a little more know-how than purchasing power tools. So, naturally that has spurred the growth of communities like this one to share insights and guide newcomers through the (at first) intimidating world of hand tools.

What’s The Deal With Planes?

Yes, hand tool users are pretty serious about their hand planes, and if you’re looking to go unplugged you’re going to want to know about them too. Hand planes can be basic tools, advanced detailers, and prized collector’s items.

Here are the three types of basic hand planes:

The Basics

Okay, let’s start with the basics. These are hand planes you should have in your shop. Nothing fancy, just the hand plane you’ll be reaching for most of the time. I’ve chosen three that follow a common order from roughest to smoothest. When planing one begins with a cruder bench plane that can handle unruly or raw stock. Then comes a block plane, which can handle general to more detailed planing work. Finally a smoothing plane is used to create a finished, smooth surface.

The Jack Plane

Jack planes are a hardier type of bench plane made of metal. Named for its “jack of all trades” qualities, the jack plane is a general-use bench plane.  They are good at rougher work like sloughing off big pieces to even out unworked wood you’re preparing for a project. As the name suggests, they adapt (within reason) to most general planing work.

Uses

The jack plane is longer than other bench planes, usually measuring around 15 inches long. Due to its length, jack planes are good at eroding away the highest points of waves in uneven wood. Jacks are sturdy, heavy planes that look pretty formidable and are reliable against stubborn wood.

The jack plane isn’t the most delicate of tools, but it boasts some degree of accuracy because of its metal construction and handles. It doesn’t leave a perfectly smooth finish because its purpose lies more in removing stock. That’s why most hand tool users own more than one plane. When you’re working a piece of wood you usually begin with the more rugged tools and work your way towards the daintier ones.

You can’t go wrong with an easy-to-use, sturdy plane like a jack plane—particularly when you’re only just starting out. I imagine almost every shop in the US has a few jack planes lying around.

Build

Most jack planes are made of metal since the 19th century. The central part of the plane is called the body and the bottom of the body is called the sole. The sole is where the block makes contact with the surface of the wood. In metal jack planes the body is made of ductile cast iron.

The central part of the plane is the body or block and the bottom of this is the sole, which is of course where the block makes contact with the surface of the wood. In a metal wood plane, which is most common and what we will be discussing, the body is made of ductile cast iron.

Generally jack planes have a cam lever, a lever cap, and a cap iron with a yolk depth adjustment notch. One adjusts the depth of the iron/blade according to how fine or course the work is going to be. A chip breaker is screwed to the blade for support and to clip the shavings during planing. This also helps to avoid chattering. The lever cap holds the chip breaker and the iron/blade in position. It’s screwed through the chip breaker and blade into the frog.

The “frog” is a metal piece that supports the blade assembly and prevents chattering (jumping around like a frog). The frog sits right below the iron (blade). The blade is made of hardened carbon steel and rests on the frog (or “bed”) in the “mouth.” The plane iron/blade is on the back of the cap iron and held together by the cap iron screw. Jack planes also have a rear handle and a rounded front handle called a knob that are usually made of wood. The rear handle is sometimes called a tote and comes in two forms: open and closed.

Cost

Jack planes range from decently cheap to very expensive. Hand tools generally don’t come cheap, they’re real tools and to some they are beautiful objects themselves.  Sometimes, they’re even more expensive than power tools. If you own a good hand tool, it can serve you well all your life. A good quality tool can be handed down for generations.

I would recommend buying somewhere in the middle if you can. You are buying a tool that you will be using all the time and you want to make sure that it’s good quality and as safe as it can be. I found a jack plane on Amazon for $32.99 and the reviews are questionable to say the very least. A few people even said the plane arrived broken already. If your jack plane can’t handle shipping it probably isn’t as sturdy as it should be.

Realistically I don’t want to put this at the lower end of the price spectrum because it seems to be such bad quality, but each woodworker has to choose their tools according to their personal budgets and priorities. I’d recommend saving up for something a little higher quality, these seem to be around 60 dollars. I found a Stanley jack plane online for 60 dollars. Stanley is a brand with a good reputation that’s been around a long time so I trust that it’s good quality and I feel good about recommending it.

On the more expensive end there are jack planes for 200 dollars and up. I wouldn’t recommend buying one of these if you’re a beginner, but if you’re in the market for a beautiful jack plane that’s reliable and aesthetically pleasing—go for it. But don’t think you need to buy a 200 dollar jack plane to be a “real” hand tool user. If you love the work and devote your time to it a solid mid-range jack plane will be just as good.

The Block Plane

Block planes are smaller and lighter than bench planes. A bench plane evens out unruly wood and the block plane hits the wood next. It is used with only one hand. The block plane was (supposedly) named for its traditional use for cleaning up marks from butchers’ blocks. It’s good for trimming and will come in handy on just about any project.

The blade is bedded at low angle, making it efficient at pairing end grain. It is often held at an angle, sometimes as much as 45 degrees in order to more efficiently slice through end grain. It’s a good little tool for cleaning stuff up, and can also be handy for angling square edges (also called beveling or chamfering), erasing marks left from mill marks on lumberyard stock, and planing smaller pieces (when held upside down with a vise).

Build

The body is metal and comprised of: a front nob, mouth adjuster, throat, a lateral adjustment lever, a lever cap screw, an iron/blade of course, and an iron cap. Block planes are compact precision tools and you’ll probably be reaching for it many times throughout a project.

Cost

There is a Stanley block plane on Amazon for 39 dollars. This seems like a good inbetween  According to the reviews this bench plane requires a little tinkering to be ready to use. Apparently the sole needs flattening with sand paper.  After a little work though, it seems to earn quite a few five stars. I found some cheaper one’s for as little as 15 dollars, but their composition seems a little dinky to me. Block planes are used with only one hand, so the plane must be sturdy and well put together. You don’t want it slipping or chattering with your hand so close. Feel free to buy something cheaper as long as you’re willing to put in a little work. Adjust it a bit, see how it feels in your hand, and make sure it’s heavy enough to move smoothly.

On the very expensive side are lovely planes that cost around 280 dollars. These have a high quality wood handle, bronze body, and a fine steel blade (which in some cases boasts being cryogenically treated). If you’re a seasoned hand plane user looking to upgrade definitely treat yourself. It would also make a beautiful gift any woodworker would cherish.

The Smoothing Plane

Following the order: bench plane then block plane, smoothing plane would be next. A smoothing plane is type of bench plane and is more of a finishing tool. It leaves a much finer surface than sandpaper, and  is around 9 inches long. The smoothing plane is held with both hands. The blade is either sharpened to be very straight, with a slight arch, or with rounded corners. This is to prevent any grooves or waves as its purpose is to create the smoothest, finest surface for a finished project.

Build

The build of a smoothing plane is: metal, a lever, a lever cap, a lever cap knob, a mouth adjustment screw, a depth adjustment nut, a handle and a knob (sometimes made of wood), and of course the iron/blade. As in all hand tools, some models may have more or less of these bits and bobs mentioned above, but for the most part there won’t be a huge difference among them.

Cost

There are some plasticky looking lime green models on Amazon for as low as 17 dollars. At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll just say again that buying the cheapest model isn’t always the way to go. If something is loose the plane can chatter and ruin stock or possibly be a safety issue. There are some sturdier looking planes that run around 40 dollars. These have nice wooden handles and a heavy metal base.

A good hand plane can be expensive it’s true, but even power tool users find themselves reaching for them as they allow for a greater precision and accuracy. However, there are some ways that a higher quality smoothing plane can end up being cheaper than power tools in the long run. For one, if you own a good hand plane, you can own it for your whole life. Save up for a decent quality plane-they last longer and will serve you well.

On the other end of the spectrum there are smoothing planes in the mid-300 dollar range. A smoothing plane determines the final look and feel of the wood. Hand tool enthusiasts online often marvel at a very fine plane shaving.

The Smoothing Plane Part 2: The Japanese Kanna Smoothing Plane

This is a two-parter. I’m making a case for the Japanese smoothing plane, also called “kanna 鉋.” The kanna requires a pull-stroke as opposed to the push-stroke used with a Western smoothing plane. One may find one motion or the other less strenuous, you’ll simply have to try both out and see what works best for you. The kanna has an elegant design and much fewer bells and whistles than the western model. No unnecessary frills.

Despite its simple design, it is still a complex tool that packs a real punch. When adjusted and held correctly a good quality kanna has minimal contact with the surface of the wood. This allows it to achieve its famous paper-thin shavings. The design of the kanna is purely for smooth planing. Many woodworkers swear by its ability to create such fine surfaces and thin shavings. I thought that I would mention the kanna as a second option. Some think of it as a more advanced plane, and it’s true it is a little more difficult to use than the standard western plane which has two handles to the kanna’s zero. The kanna is a precise tool that planes with ease.

Build

Kanna has only four parts: the body of the plane or kanna-dai, the blade or kanna-ba, the chip breaker or oase-gane, and the chip breaker holding pin or osae-bou. The kanna prioritizes function and adjustability. Kanna, like many hand tools, require careful adjustment and attention by the user.

My other article is a full look at the kanna: What’s The Difference Between a Japanese Wood Plane and a Western One? If you’re interested in investigating the differences between the kanna and western models I recommend reading it.

The kanna-ba (blade) is thicker and heavier than that of a western plane, in order to lessen chattering. The kanna-ba is a thin layer of hard steel forge welded to a large layer of soft iron to allow for easy sharpening.

Cost

The type of iron used affects the price of the plane. More expensive models use wrought iron and cheaper models use mass-produced low carbon iron. Now Kanna are definitely more expensive than their western counterparts. They are truly beautiful tools if I do say so myself. They have a simple design with no unnecessary frills.

A cheaper kanna runs at around 75 dollars. I’d say there’s no need to worry about quality here. Even the cheap models are well-made and sturdy tools.

At the more expensive end of the spectrum a Japanese smoothing plane can run as high as 650 dollars! No doubt these planes are beautiful objects. I imagine that using them is just as pleasing as looking at them.

If you are looking for a luxuriously smooth planing experience and are in a position to pay more for it, the kanna smoothing plane is the way to go.

Get Yourself Some Hand Planes!

Hand planes are probably the most apparent example of the hand tool information overload. There is even a section of this very website devoted solely to hand planes —you’re in it right now! Hopefully this guide to the basic three (four really) types of hand planes will get you started and help you choose the hand planes you need to start woodworking in your shop.

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