An unsung hero of a hand tool woodworker's kit, the shoulder plane can be used by every woodworker for a multitude of tasks. Although it's great for fine-tuning tenon fit, it's not a one-trick pony.
Photos by Rob Brown; Illustration by Len Churchill
Tenons are traditionally cut by hand, and their two surfaces are imperfect. To smooth tenon faces, and ensure a perfect fit into the mortise, a shoulder plane was used. Because the blade of a shoulder plane extended to the outer faces of the shoulder plane’s sides, they cut the full width of the plane. This allows woodworkers to get into the corner of a joint like a tenon. A shoulder plane can also help fine-tune rabbets, grooves, dados and the shoulders of some of these joints. There are typically three sizes of shoulder planes; small, medium and large. The main difference is in the overall width of the plane. A narrow shoulder plane can fit into more joints than a large shoulder plane, but it’s more unstable, and more passes are required to trim the entire cheek of a tenon. Some companies even produce miniature shoulder planes. The low bed angle of a shoulder plane allows it to slice more cleanly into end grain.
Common Widths: about 1/2″ (small), about 3/4″ (medium), 1 1/4″ (large); 1/4″ (miniature)
Price: $150 (small) – $280 (large); $50 (miniature)
Depending on the task, a shoulder plane can be used with one hand or two. It mainly comes down to comfort and the type of pass you’re making.
If your shoulder plane isn’t wide enough to dress the entire width of a joint, start against the shoulder of the joint and make multiple passes, overlapping each pass slightly.
It’s okay if a blade extends ever so slightly beyond both side faces of a shoulder plane, as this ensures the blade will cut into both corners of the joint.
Because a shoulder plane’s sole is machined perfectly perpendicular to its sides, you can more easily create square joints.
While every woodworker has different requirements, the medium-sized shoulder plane is likely going to be the best choice for most.