What is the difference between Bevel Up and Bevel Down Planes?

A hand plane is used to flatten and smooth broad wood surfaces and are irreplaceable in a well stocked wood shop. However, deciding which ones to buy can be challenging especially as a beginner. One of the choices is deciding between a Bevel Up and Bevel Down Plane. Each style has its own advantages, disadvantages, and uses.

The fundamental difference between Bevel Up and Bevel Down planes is, as the name implies, the orientation of the blades bevel in association with the wood you are cutting. A Bevel up plane’s bevel is up away from the wood. A bevel down plane’s bevel is down facing the wood.

What is a Bevel?

The bevel of a planes blade is the slight angle on the cutting edge. It is formed by the manufacturer and can be honed to change the angle of attack on certain planes. The angle of the bevel can greatly impact the cutting characteristics of bevel up planes. This means one could adjust the bevels of irons and have different cutting experiences. On the other hand, bevel angle does not affect the characteristics of bevel down planes to the same degree.

Bevel Up

Description

A Bevel up plane positions the iron’s bevel up. This results in a different cutting angle compared to a bevel down plane. The angle of the bevel is 25 degrees and the tool increases this another 12 degrees. This results in a cutting angle of 37 degrees which is 8 degrees less severe than that of a bevel down plane. In addition, a bevel up plane does not have a chip breaker. Some users see this as an advantage over the bevel down plane as chip breakers have a tendency to clog if they are not properly tuned.

Good

Bevel up planes are great for those who are just starting woodworking and don’t have a large tool set yet. These planes do a great job in a lot of different situations. For example, they have a lower angle of attack which will make planing end grain slightly easier than with a bevel down plane. In addition, there is no chip breaker on bevel up planes. For those who have struggled with clogged chip breakers in the past this is a check mark on the pros side of things. However, some see it as a disadvantage. The tool also has a lower center of gravity which gives the operator a little more control. Finally, the cutting angle can be changed by honing since the bevel is up. This is in contrast to bevel down planes which have a cutting angle that is generally fixed at 45 degrees.

Bad

There is not a lot to complain about when it comes to bevel up planes. However, due to their jack of all trades nature there are some shortcomings. The finish, when compared to bevel down planes, is not as nice and smooth when working with broad wood. This is in part due to the lower cutting angle that makes the plane excel in other tasks. In addition, since the bevel directly affects the cutting characteristics if one were to not use a honing guide and unintentionally changed the bevel angle the plane would perform differently. This can be fixed with the right tools and a little time commitment but it is good to note. Finally, as I said before some view the chip-breaker less design as a downfall. The argument here is that the chip breaker prevents tear-out and splitting.

Pros

  • Jack of all trades
  • No chip breaker
  • Easy throat adjustments
  • Lower center of gravity
  • Adjustable cutting angle

Cons

  • Finish not as smooth
  • No chip breaker

Bevel Down

A bevel down plane is the classic style. They have been around for decades and are present in many woodworkers shops. This style of plane positions the irons bevel down and creates the cutting angle by the irons placement in the tool. The iron is generally set at a 45 degree angle. This kind of iron is great for specific jobs and, due to its longevity, there is a large used market for them.

Good

When it comes to a smooth finish bevel down planes are king. The higher cutting angle and chip breaker allow for the nicer finish. Going along with this a bevel down plane is far ahead of a bevel up plane when working along the grain. In addition, the blade depth adjustment knob is within finger reach while you are planing. This means that expert planers can adjust the plane on the go and stay in their rhythm. Bevel up planes require the user to stop and adjust the blade. The grip used when working with this type of plane uses three fingers with the index finger extended. Some users argue that this acts as a cue for the brain and allows one to more easily guide the plane.

Bad

Bevel down planes work in a lot of situations; however, they do not have the jack of all trades quality that bevel up planes have. They will come up short when working on smaller surfaces, as the plane is slightly harder to control. This is due to the higher center of gravity. In addition, they lack the adaptability of other planes and will struggle with certain woods. Like I mentioned before the chip breaker can go either way. It is a constant source of controversy and can be listed in every argument. Finally, while it is easy to make depth adjustments, adjusting the throat is a process that takes a while. Some users just keep a supply of planes with different throat openings in order to alleviate the time it takes to adjust them. In comparison, bevel up planes can be adjusted rather quickly.

Pros

  • Exceptional finish
  • Adjust blade depth while planing
  • Three finger grip

Cons

  • Not as adaptable
  • Higher center of gravity
  • Throat adjustments are difficult

Types of Planes Continued…

There are also different size planes meant to do different jobs in addition to the bevel up and bevel down variations. The three main types of planes commonly used today are the jack, jointer, and smoothing plane. The different bevel types have positive and negative effects on each process.

Bevel Down Jack Plane

First, fore planes are used to take off larger amounts of wood and begin the flattening process. This is one step in which the bevel down planes high center of gravity is an advantage. This is because the height exaggerates any discrepancies in the wood.

Next, jointer planes are used to continue smoothing the surface of the wood. This is the middle ground and most commonly found plane. It is also a great place to use a bevel up plane especially if it is your only plane. You can get away with using different irons to get different results. In contrast, the bevel down plane is more job specific at this point.

Finally, smoothing planes finish the surface of the wood. Like I mentioned earlier bevel down planes get a superior finish in most smoothing situations. However, if you are working with exotic woods or are just looking to try something different a bevel up smoothing plane can create some incredible results.

Maintenance

While both styles of plane have their pros and cons they both benefit from proper maintenance and tuning. Planes require very little maintenance aside from the occasional tuning; however, cleaning them can make a surprisingly large difference if you have put off the task. Cleaning a plane is a simple task. First, simply disassemble the plane, make sure to remove every screw and knob. Then with wire brushes clean all of the threads, both inside and outside. Last, assemble the plane using light machine oil on all of the threads and adjusters. This will result in a plane with exceptionally smooth actions for months to come.

Tuning

There are two main parts to tuning a plane. The first of which is the sole of the plane. If the sole is uneven than the tool will not work as well. To test the sole slide it across medium grit sandpaper. Any spots with excessive scuffing indicates a high spot. If there are high spots than some tuning is required. To do this lay sandpaper on a flat surface and wet sand the sole working down from medium to fine grit sandpaper. When you have completed this the sole should have a polished and smooth surface.

Next, it is important to maintain the iron or the cutting blade. A sharp iron will not only make the work easier, the results will general be of higher quality too. Before I start it should be known that there are dozens of ways to sharpen irons, enough for a separate article, and I’m only describing one that has worked well for me. There are three basic steps to sharpening an iron, polishing the backside, honing the bevel, and polishing the bevel. Start by polishing the backside, non-beveled side, of the iron. Using water stones, work to a fine stone until the iron has a mirror-like quality. Next, using a honing guide and a coarse stone begin to reshape the bevel. Using mineral oil is helpful here as it doesn’t evaporate and prevents rust from forming over time. Generally, you will have to touch up the backside again after honing. After you have finished honing you can polish the bevel in the same way as the backside working down to a fine stone until the iron is sufficiently sharp.

Cost

Both styles of planes can be found for very similar prices. The biggest difference is for those looking at the used market. Higher quality bevel down planes have been made for years resulting in a large used market. The same is not true for bevel up planes. So for the garage sale goer bevel down planes are going to be much easier to find.

What to look for when buying used

First and foremost, when buying used planes make sure that all of the parts are present and that they are in working condition. If you see split wood or broken metal pieces it is advisable to avoid the tool and find another. It can be difficult to source replacement parts for vintage planers and is generally not worth the trouble.

Another thing to look out for is rust. Surface rust is not an issue and with a little work it can be removed and protected. However, if the metal has began to pit than restoration to manufacturer quality is impossible. Also, be on the lookout for shiny pitting if the metal has no rust. Finally, the iron is not of the utmost importance modern irons are much better than vintage and even vintage ones can be honed and sharpened well. In general, when looking for a used plane remember that you can be picky. There are hundreds of planes on the used market and with a little searching a good plane will come up.

Conclusion

It is hard to say what plane one should purchase without taking into account a variety of outside factors such as the wood you work with, how you use the plane, and where you intend to purchase. For those who are looking to build a fully outfitted shop a combination of both is necessary. Beginners will benefit greatly from the versatility of a bevel up plane and can easily begin their tool collection here. Yet, if one is looking to find bargains at flea markets and garage sales than bevel down is probably going to be your best bet. Before making any purchase it is important to take a stock on what you want out of your tools and what your future goals are. After this it will most likely become clear which route you should take.

Article at a glance

  • The bevel of a planes iron is the slight angle on the cutting side 
  • The orientation of the bevel is what differentiates bevel up and  bevel down planes 
  • Each type of plane has a variety of pros and cons The used market is saturated with quality bevel down planes 
  • Be picky when buying used there are plenty to choose from 
  • Proper maintenance and tuning is paramount in the functionality of any plane

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