We tested four models of block planes for you – here is how they fared.
By Tom Fidgen
Designing and building custom furniture in a ‘hand tool only’ wood shop, I often get asked what I consider to be the most important hand planes in the wood shop. My answer to this question is always a bench plane first and a low-angle block plane as a close second. These two tools alone can cover most of the hand planing procedures in a work shop and in this article we’ll look at a few of the more popular low-angle block planes on the market today.
To begin, let’s look at why I consider the block plane to be an ‘essential.’
Block planes are small in size (usually around the 6 ½” range), making them ideal for one-handed use. The cutting irons are also unique with a bevel-up configuration and blades are bedded around 12°. This low-angle bedding, combined with a standard 25° iron, results in a 37° cutting angle, which makes it perfect for end grain planing. From shooting board applications on small cabinet components to chamfering edges and general wood shaping, the block plane is the workhorse in the wood shop.
Stanley SW No. 60 1/2
Length – 6 ½”
Width – 2 ⅛”
Blade Thickness – ⅛”
Price – $103
Stanley Tools have recently introduced their new line of ‘premium’ hand planes and the 60 ½ is their low-angle block. Labelled with the SW (Sweet Heart) logo, a trademark used in the 1930s to acknowledge the president William H. Hart; it paints a pleasant picture of a very distant past when planes were truly innovative and some of the best that money could buy.
When I received this plane in the mail opened the box to find a tool that felt didn’t quite deserve to wear that same great logo. Here’s why:
The first thing I noticed, and almost opened up my hand with, was the bottom machining. The sole seemed to be well flattened to the point where the edges, where it meets the plane sides, were sharp enough to cut me. Not a great first impression but a bit of easing with some fine sand paper and won’t need any stitches just yet. The plane felt pretty hefty in hand, which is a good thing, and went straight to the work bench for a test drive. Adjusting the plane was a little frustrating to say the least. Norris-type adjuster had quite a bit of backlash and needed almost a dozen full turns to bring the plane iron to depth. thought this may be for the sake of shipping and for blade protection, but after working with the tool again it took me far too many turns to move the iron back in.
Once the iron was out attempted to adjust it laterally and was again disappointed. In order to make the iron sit square to the plane sole had to move the adjuster almost all the way over to the left hand side. Not the end of the world but clearly not the way it should function. When did finally get the iron square and true to the sole, a simple turn of the front knob and a twist of the eccentric lever closed down the throat and was able to get a very acceptable shaving. The ⅛” thick blade was decent but like most new tools could benefit from some more honing after purchase. I suppose I could spend a little time adjusting and tuning the plane for an improved and more reliable set up, but I’m not so sure I’ll find the time. This plane was the least expensive in my review and suppose you really do get what you pay for.
Length – 6 ⅜”
Width – 2″
Blade – ⅛”
Price – $149
The second block plane I’ll look at is from Canadian-made Veritas Inc., the manufacturing arm of Lee Valley Tools.
This plane is slightly shorter and narrower than the Stanley but felt good in hand while in use. The lever cap is a little bit large for the size of the body, but after some use it didn’t pose any problems. Like the Stanley, the Veritas also has a Norris-type adjuster, but unlike the competition it was responsive and accurate. Alight turn of the rear knob gave almost instant feedback and the blade advancement took only a second or two. Squaring up the iron was easy and almost pre-determined thanks to two tiny set screws set into the sides of the plane body that register the iron and assist with any unwanted lateral movement or shifting while in use. The throat adjustment was almost instant thanks to a ‘one-step’ design. Veritas has eliminated the eccentric lever and the throat is loosened and positioned using the same front knob. Machining is above average and the iron came ready to go. These features alone made this plane worth the extra $46 in my book, but it didn’t stop there.
‘Innovation in Tools’ is the Veritas logo and this low-angle block is indeed innovative. They offer various accessories to maximize the use of the plane, making it a great investment for someone who’s on a budget (and who isn’t today?).
Some of the ‘additions’ you can make to this plane are optional irons, pre-ground with 38° and 50° bevels for working difficult wood as well as a chamfer guide that easily installs once the front throat plate is removed, which makes it easy to cut repeated and accurate chamfers in wood. You can also purchase a wooden front knob and rear wooden tote, essentially turning this plane into a small-size smoothing plane. For $149 at the time of writing this article, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better deal in a low-angle block plane.
Lie-Nielsen 60 ½
Length – 6 ¼”
Width – 1 ¾”
Blade Thickness – ⅛”
Price – $170
Lie Nielsen Toolworks in Warren, Maine have been setting the standard for quality hand tools over the past 25 years. While not the cheapest tools in the bunch they certainly are one of the best both in machining and function. When you pay the extra money for a truly ‘premium’ quality product, you end up with a lot fewer surprises and disappointments. Precise manufacturing leads to a low-angle block plane that can be taken straight out of the box and immediately put to work.
This plane is again slightly smaller in size than the previous two reviewed, but heft in hand is still present thanks to the heavy bronze cap iron. Finely machined and aesthetically pleasing, the generous size of the cap combined with the narrow body of the plane made this tool the most comfortable of the bunch. In use, the large blade adjuster nut at the rear of the plane gave positive feedback, with only about ¼ turn of back lash detected. Adjusting the thick, ⅛” iron laterally is accomplished manually with a small hammer due to the set up of the design. It has no mechanical element for lateral adjustment, which keeps things simple and means there is perhaps one less element to worry about. The throat plate, similar in design to the Stanley but far more receptive, functioned with ease and I was able to take extremely fine shavings in difficult maple end grain.
The Lie Nielsen block plane is an heirloom quality tool that doesn’t have many bells or whistles; just a solid, exceptionally well made design that will be the workhorse of your wood shop for generations to come.
Length – 7″
Width – 1 ¾”
Blade Thickness – 9/32″
Price – $189
At the top of the scale both in price and in function, the new line of block planes from Veritas are a true marvel of technology. The DX60 came out of the box ready to go and the first thing noticed was just how finely manufactured this tool really is.
Attention to detail is an understatement with this plane. From the knurled stainless-steel adjustment knobs to the full body casting wrapping the throat plate completely, Veritas left no stone unturned when designing this tool. The response in the Norris type adjuster is absolutely spot-on, the slightest turn of the blade adjustment mechanism and you’ll notice an instant response in the iron, making it easy to accurately set and re-set the cutting depth. Once you do have the blade depth set, you can tune in the throat opening for the finest shavings possible. Unlike the other planes reviewed here, Veritas has added a kind of ‘safety feature’ with the throat. A tiny set screw can be set as a ‘stop’ so you never accidentally bang the front of the throat into the blade while adjusting. When you’d like to quickly open the throat to remove shavings, you’ll know that when closed it’ll be back where you set it originally. It has the same side set screws as the lower priced Veritas block-planes so lateral shifting of the blade while in use is a non-issue.
The model they sent me for the review is listed at $189 at the time of writing. Do think the extra price is worth it? Well, let’s just say if you like buying premium tools, then this one is a must. For the home hobbyist or amateur woodworker then the extra cost may not be justified, but it’s well reflected in the high quality of this offering. The new DX60 is indeed setting a new standard in hand plane manufacturing and look forward to seeing what this Canadian company comes out with next.
So there you have it – four planes running the gamut from just over $100 up to $189. They all have advantages and disadvantages so it usually boils down to your own personal preference. I should mention that Veritas is also offering a ‘premium’ version of the ‘premium’ block plane reviewed above. The ‘NX60’ is essentially the same plane but a highly polished version made from a nickel-resist ductile iron. The manufacturing of this material is a little more advanced so that version retails at $299.
Are you ready to spend that much on a block plane?
Many woodworkers are and this new premium line from Veritas is definitely worth a closer look. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re watching your budget and perhaps just getting into hand tools then the lower priced tools still have a lot to offer.
So did I pick a winner overall? For the price, quality and optional accessories, I’d recommend the Veritas low-angle block plane at $149. For those who aren’t all that concerned about price range, then it’s hard to beat the DX60 or the top-of-the-line NX60. A more traditional style plane with a 25-year track record, as well as being the model I found the most comfortable in use, was the Lie Nielsen.
Try them for yourself at your local tool dealers and wood shows and let your own hands be your guide. Happy shavings.
Uber high-end – The Veritas NX60 has all the great function of the DX60 but with a sleek finish that is sure to please collectors and users alike.