Hand Planes for Woodworking
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4 min read
1 month ago
Hand planes are versatile tools that have been used for centuries to smooth, shape, and straighten wood. While power tools have largely replaced hand planes for many tasks, these classic tools are still prized by woodworkers for their ability to create precise, silky-smooth surfaces and to fine-tune the fit of joints.

The Enduring Utility of Handplanes

Hand planes remain invaluable tools in the modern woodshop for several key reasons. They allow for precise control and finesse when fitting joints, trimming surfaces flush, and smoothing wood in a way that power tools and sandpaper cannot replicate. Hand planes can handle tasks like flattening wide boards or long edges that are too large for power jointers and planers. They are also useful for working on assembled pieces and curved surfaces where power tools cannot reach. Specialty planes like shoulder planes excel at fine-tuning the fit of tenon cheeks and other joints for perfect glue-ups. Using hand planes is also quieter, cleaner, and less prone to mistakes than power tools, making them ideal for small shops. Perhaps most importantly, many woodworkers find the process of working with hand planes to be immensely satisfying and meditative, feeling more connected to the wood than with power tools alone. favicon favicon favicon
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Choosing the Right Plane for Your Project

The type of hand plane you need depends on the specific tasks of your woodworking project. Smoothing planes like the No. 4 are ideal for final smoothing of surfaces before finishing. Jack planes and fore planes (No. 5 or 6) are the most versatile and can be used for rough stock removal, flattening, and general purpose work by varying the blade camber. Jointer planes (No. 7 or 8) with their longer soles are designed for accurately flattening large surfaces and straightening edges for joinery. Block planes excel at trimming end grain and fitting joints. Consider what capability your existing power tools don't provide and choose a plane to fill that gap, whether it's final smoothing, jointing edges, or milling rough stock. favicon favicon favicon
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Maintaining and Sharpening Plane Blades

Maintaining a sharp blade is critical for a hand plane to function properly. The process involves flattening the back of the blade, honing a primary bevel around 25°, and then adding a secondary micro-bevel at 30° or slightly higher. Honing is done on progressively finer grit stones until a burr can be felt on the back, which indicates the edge is sharp. The burr is then removed by lightly stropping the back on the finest stone. For the sharpest edge, finish by stropping the bevel and back on leather charged with honing compound. To maintain the edge, touch up the micro-bevel frequently on a fine stone or strop. When the micro-bevel gets too large, regrind the primary bevel and start again. With practice, this process quickly creates a razor sharp edge for effortless cutting. favicon favicon favicon
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Modern Handplane Makers

Several modern manufacturers produce high-quality hand planes for woodworkers. Lie-Nielsen Toolworks and Veritas are two of the most well-regarded premium plane makers, offering a full range of bench and joinery planes that are ready to use out of the box. Wood River and Clifton also produce quality planes at a slightly lower price point. For the budget-conscious, Luban planes offer good value and are sold under various brand names like Juuma and Dictum. The new Stanley Sweetheart line aims to recapture the quality of their vintage planes. At the highest end, Bridge City makes collector-grade planes with premium materials and craftsmanship. For more specialized work, HNT Gordon in Australia manufactures a range of wooden-bodied planes for cabinetmaking with high-angle frogs to handle difficult grain. With both new premium options and vintage planes available, woodworkers can find the right balance of quality and value to meet their needs. favicon favicon favicon
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Low vs. High Angle Planes

The bed angle of a hand plane affects its cutting action and performance on different types of wood grain. Low angle planes, with bed angles around 12°, have an effective cutting angle of 37° when combined with a blade bevel of 25°. This low cutting angle works well for end grain and softwoods. In contrast, standard bench planes have a 45° bed angle, and bevel-down blades, resulting in a 45° cutting angle regardless of blade bevel. Higher cutting angles over 45° reduce tearout on challenging grain but require more force to push. The chipbreaker on bevel-down planes also helps reduce tearout. While low angle planes excel at end grain and shooting, a standard angle is often better for smoothing to avoid tearout. Bevel-up planes offer more versatility to vary the cutting angle by changing the blade bevel, but bevel-down planes with the chipbreaker are generally superior for smoothing. Ultimately, having different planes dedicated to specific tasks is optimal rather than constantly readjusting one plane. favicon favicon favicon
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Restoring Vintage Hand Planes

Restoring a vintage hand plane involves several steps to remove rust, clean the parts, and get it back into working condition. First, disassemble the plane completely. Soak the metal parts in a rust-removing solution like vinegar or Evaporust overnight. Then clean off the grime and rust with a wire brush, steel wool or Scotchbrite pad. Dry the parts thoroughly. Use a brass wire wheel to further clean small parts, being gentle to avoid damage. Flatten the sole and sides of the plane body using sandpaper on a flat reference surface if needed, but test the plane's performance first before assuming flattening is necessary. Reapply the japanning finish to the plane body with high-temperature engine enamel if desired for appearance, though this is purely cosmetic. Finally, carefully sharpen the blade, mate the chipbreaker to the blade, and reassemble the plane. With some patience and elbow grease, you can restore a neglected vintage plane to be a functional and beautiful tool again. favicon favicon favicon
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