A commercial promoting woodworking bench planes would simply have to show me with an random orbit sander hooked to a screaming shop vac, wearing goggles, respirator, and hearing protection in a cloud of sawdust. Then, cut to a paper-thin curl of wood whispering off an antique Stanley bench plane, revealing iridescent grain patterns as birds chirp in the background.
This was close to my recent experience using my grandpa’s Stanley No. 10 plane to refinish several windowsills & built-in tops in my 1920’s Craftsman home. My parents gave me these planes a few years ago. I’ve long revered them but only recently started to use planes in my woodworking projects.
When I started using planes, I needed to quickly learn about them: how to adjust and use them, how to check and sharpen the blades, what the different parts are called, and how to clean and reassemble the plane. This took quite a bit of time, and I thought to share the most important bits with you, along with some general encouragement and observations.
Hand planes can save you time and money while making woodworking more enjoyable. With great confidence I can say that if you have some older wood with finish, varnish, and grime on it, a bench plane is a great tool to start the stripping and refinishing job.
I’m not saying to dive at all old gummy paint and varnish projects with a nice antique plane. However, I’ve burned through quite a lot of 60 and 80 grit sanding disks, which can easily get gummed up and clogged with old varnish and grime residues as they heat up. There’s a dry sort of old varnish which will shave off fine without becoming gummy. Yes, in some circumstances hand plane can simply peel that old stuff off wood as shavings with minimal dust, noise, and cost!
This windowsill refinishing project was my first major application of grandpa’s hand planes. Now I am eager to use a variety of planes to make rabbets, refinish surfaces, and chamfer edges. If I had learned to use planes earlier, I probably would have done much more cabinetry and box-making in my youth, as I enjoy using a plane more than my loud, jumpy router. Fortunately it’s never too late to learn, and I’m off to a good start.
Parts of a Woodworking Plane
Did you know a bench plane has a frog in it? That’s the metal part which supports the blade. The bottom of the plane’s body, like your shoe, is called a sole, and it also has a toe and a heel. It is often recommended to rub a thin coat of beeswax on the shoe to help it slide over wood. Some planes have a wooden sole, but most are a nice grade of steel or cast iron. The typical Stanley plane has a wood knob at the toe (usually rosewood), and a wood handle (called a tote) at the heel.
The blade itself, technically called an iron, is mean to be easily removable for sharpening or replacement. The iron rests on the frog and under a cap iron. The cap iron increases the rigidity and stability of the thinner blade. Most cap irons hold down a curved piece of metal over the iron called a chipbreaker, which helps break up the removed shavings to reduce the chances of a split developing along the grain (as well as add more stiffness to the thin iron).
Join me on this breakdown of my No. 10 Stanley rabbet plane after using it for several hours on my old windowsills.
It can be a little bit of a puzzle removing the paired chip breaker and iron from the frog on this
type of rabbet plane where the bottom of the blade is as wide as the plane’s shoe.
There is a short screw with a wide, knurled head holding the chipbreaker and iron together. Make a not of how they are pieced together before taking them apart!
I used compressed air, then rubbing alcohol on paper towels to clean up each piece before lightly oiling the top metal parts with 3-in-1 oil and rubbing the shoe’s sides and bottom with beeswax. For the abuse I gave it, the blade is still remarkably sharp, so I’m remarking on it. I’ll touch it up on my wet stone sharpener next time I soak my wheel.
Why isn’t hand planing more popular if it is so much more pleasant than sanding? There is an unspoken popular notion that if a tool isn’t running on electricity, working with it is too hard for modern people. People look at the beautiful curves of a Stanley bench plane and think of the Amish and buggy-whip manufacturers. Planes are recognized as having beauty and collector’s value, but their modern utility is underrated.
Planes remain a great choice in a modern woodworking shop for accomplishing a lot of tasks that a sander or router would often be used for. It can do them with equal or better results, often in a similar amount of time, and without having to don hearing protection and a respirator. After the hours and hours I’ve recently logged in full protective gear, using a nice, quiet plane is a welcome relief.
Similarly, I have a planing attachment for a Dremel. I’ve used it on the top of sticky doors. It works but tends to chatter, hardly smooth precision. Dealing with the weight and hazard of an extension cord is an added challenge on a ladder while trying to keep the cut perpendicular. I wish I had used a “cordless” antique block plane for fixing doors instead.
All hand tool planes can be called ‘bench planes’ and they are broken down into more specific categories by size and use. At first I thought block plane and bench plane were interchangeable terms. But a block plane is a specific style, with the iron at a lower angle and the bevel on the top of the blade instead of the bottom. It is used, often one-handed, to shave the hard end grains off the ends of a board. This is called ‘blocking’ a board. Similarly, they are used to touch up a butcher’s block, which traditionally was made with the end grains up. This helps me remember the definition of a block plane now.
Short planes (under 10 inches) are usually called smoothing planes, then as they get longer they are jack planes (around 14″), fore planes (18″), and finally jointer planes at 22-24 inches. Another short type of plane is the scrub plane, which takes a lot of wood off quickly due to its convex blade and wide throat (opening for shavings to come through). Usually a project starts with a shorter plane which can remove more variety of materials on an uneven surface as it can go up and down the hills and valleys whereas a longer plane ‘averages’ the hills and valleys. As the workpiece gets closer to being truly flat, the longer planes are used to gently even things out and match them (joint them) to other boards.
My parents let me take my grandpa’s Stanley planes and jointer a few years ago, but they stayed safely stored while I was busy with other projects. My dear wife has gifted me many woodturning tools, including a great Jet slow stone wet sharpener. It produces superb results on my chisels, gouges and kitchen knives. It is ideal for sharpening and crowning the irons of my planes. Crowning a plane is when the sharpening produces a small curve, especially near the edges of the iron, to let you plane a wider surface and avoid trenching gouges with a squared blade corner.
Now that we are in the process of moving to a new town, our cats and furniture are gone and I am free to make a dusty mess while refinishing our old wooden windowsills, built-ins, and floors. I’ve long dreamed about these projects, and realized years ago that I would be staying in my camper van while I redid the floors–the smell of the oil-based Varathane is quite strong for days. It’s not good to sleep in a house right after sanding and refinishing the floors. I was loopy enough after days of Varathane that I came up with the rhyming term “Varathane Brain.” I love the stuff— it’s top of the line and produces great, durable results. It can also make you feel kind of funny, and not in a humorous way.
It seems I can handle 4 or 5 days of intense work before needing to “be removed to fresh air.” I was shooting video of this latest project, but by the last day (just another light sanding and coat of Varathane), I was just too loopy and exhausted to handle moving the tripod on top of the refinishing work. When I go back for the next phase, the Varathane will have cured and I’ll be free to make a new dusty mess with the next level of planing and sanding.
I appreciate YouTube and Wikipedia as a source of learning new things, but am still a fan of books for deeper research. Most libraries have at least one good book on planes, and many have great selections of woodworking DVDs and books. Check it out at your local library, you may be surprised at the experts you find there! My library has “How to Choose and Use Bench Planes and Scrapers” by John English, which I found invaluable for the lingo, history, and instruction. An in-person instructor or good video is best for getting the gist of the movements and adjustments, though.
When I selected my tools for this trip, I took the Stanley Number 10 plane, as it has good heft and a nice iron, but isn’t as big as my Stanley “Bedrock” 606 fore plane. At first, I didn’t realize it is known as a rabbet plane, as it doesn’t have a fence or a nicker (a small, sharp metal piece which scores a line before the blade reaches it, to sever grains on the edge). It’s main rabbeting feature is that the blade is the same width as the shoe. This lets it cut a recessed notch at the edge of a piece of wood (a rabbet) for joinery, such as insetting a panel in a cabinet’s frame pieces.
The No. 10 worked most excellently for the oak and pine windowsills I refinished. It first made them level again by reducing the cupped edges, then proceeded to make short work of the cat claw scratches, etc. While there was plenty of dust in the shavings, the air stayed relatively clear of fine dust. Because it is a rabbet plane with the iron at the edge of the sole, it was able to run right along the edges of the windowsill. My other planes would have left a 1/4″ untouched strip where the horizontal window stool meets the vertical casing of the jambs. Isn’t woodworking terminology great? I thought I was refinishing the window’s sills, but I mainly worked on the stools!
As I did this project, I reflected on the differences between using a power tool and a hand tool. There is a certain pressure I feel when using an electric tool (especially a power-hungry, noisy one like my shop vacuum). It is tied to not wanting to be wasteful of electricity, as well as being aware that the sooner I get done, the sooner I can turn off the damn noise. When switching to a hand tool such as a plane or even a simple piece of sandpaper, the unpleasant pressure is gone. While I still work efficiently, I can take my time, go at my own pace, and even hear myself think. Hey, I could even use a plane in a campground, where power tools are banned!
I am so glad that I have finally unlocked the mysteries of my grandpa’s Stanley bench planes. Hopefully I have also motivated you to keep a plane in your kit and look for chances to use it!