No single tool personifies woodworking and craftsmanship like the hand plane. Understanding it's purpose and function can make your woodworking both more enjoyable and productive.
As a studio furniture maker, I’m fortunate to spend my days in a woodworking studio. I’m surrounded by machines that cut, trim, bore, bend, flatten, shape, mortise and size. However, I’m most content when I’m out of the machine room and into the bench room, with a hand tool, finishing off what the machines can’t do. I have many hand tools, some would argue too many, but the tools that occupy the most amount of space in my tool cabinet are my hand planes.
Hand planes have been around for thousands of years and their basic configuration hasn’t changed substantially since their invention. Essentially a plane consists of a sharpened iron that is held at a specific angle by the plane body to result in shavings being cut. Over the years, planes have been made with different materials including wood, metal, bronze, brass, and combinations of wood and metal. In the early 20th century, there were many companies, including Stanley, Millers Falls, Sergeant, and Record, which produced comprehensive lines of hand planes. Many of these companies either no longer exist or have moved away from making high quality hand planes. Fortunately, companies like Veritas (veritastools.com), Clifton (clico.co.uk), and Lie Nielsen (lie-nielsen.com) have continued the tradition of producing high quality tools for professionals and amateurs alike. As well, there are specialized toolmakers like HNT Gordon (hntgordon.com.au), and Sauer & Steiner Toolworks (sauerandsteiner.com) making beautiful, high quality infill planes for discerning clients. These planes are not only extremely functional but are individual works of art.
Many people feel that hand planes are slow, cumbersome and inefficient, but this is simply not true. With an understanding of how planes work and some time practicing, hand planes can substantially increase your efficiency as well as reduce both noise and dust in your shop. Many tasks in my furniture studio can be completed faster with hand planes than they can with machines. For example, putting a chamfer on the edge of a board with a router or table saw involves setup time, making a series of test cuts, and finally making the cut. Usually I still have a surface full of milling marks that need to be removed. And, with a router bit spinning at 30,000 rpm, there is always the risk of tearing out wood fibres or burning the wood. Conversely, I could have picked up a smoothing plane, placed it on the edge of the board at approximately 45º and made a series of judicious passes that would result in a flat chamfered surface as smooth as glass and ready for finishing. Not only would my results be visually superior but also I would have completed the task in a fraction of the time.
In the case of surface preparation, using smoothing planes instead of sanding greatly reduces the amount of airborne dust, which your lungs will be thankful for. As well, using a plane to remove machine milling marks will result in a better quality surface in a fraction of the time compared to an orbital sander. The surface will have more clarity because the surface has been shorn cleanly with a sharp plane iron instead of excoriated into smoothness by sand particles.
However, the best reason for using hand planes is the absence of a universal motor. There is nothing better than the soft sound of a hand plane passing over a surface compared to the unpleasant din of an electric sander.
Smoothing planes come in a variety of styles, and are only one type of hand plane that can be utilized in the work shop. Block planes are can be used for dimensioning both long and end grain. A low angle version of the block plane makes it easier to sever the more difficult end grain. The shoulder plane is used to adjust the shoulders of a tenon or rabbet and comes in a range of sizes to tackle any sized joint. Using the shoulder plane allows you to sneak up on the fit of a tenon where a machine may take off too much material. Sometimes 1/1000 of an inch is the difference between a snug fit and a loose joint.
Then there is a host of specialty planes that can handle tasks like mortising hinges, plowing groves for panels, and cutting dados into case sides. As well, there are planes that shape complex mouldings for cabinets or edge profiles for tabletops. There are also specialty planes that can handle convex and concave surfaces allowing you to shape curves with relative ease.
This is the first of a series of six articles on hand planes. In this series, I’m going to shed some light on the perceived ‘mysteries’ of hand planes and provide you with another set of options for your woodworking challenges. I’m going to show you how to set up and sharpen all of the aforementioned tools and give you tips on how to use them. Hand planes are a large part of the workflow in my studio and I honestly couldn’t imagine making furniture without them. Hopefully, after reading these articles and practicing the techniques within them, you too will begin to use hand planes more often in your woodworking. Your eyes, ears, and lungs will thank you and your finished pieces will be the better for it.