How Hand Planes are used in Woodworking
Hand planes come in so many different sizes, shapes, and materials. A beginning woodworker might have a difficult time figuring out where to start. There are planes for flattening boards, planes for making moldings, planes for joinery, and planes for several other tasks. Over time, you’ll probably acquire dozens of these planes, but you don’t need more than a few just to get started.
There’s a specific plane for every task.
Each plane is designed to handle a certain job. Jack planes are handy for surfacing rough boards and trimming panels to fit an opening. Jointer planes—the longest of the bench planes—let you smooth out the edges of boards so you can glue them together. Jointer planes are the hand tool equivalents of power jointers. Smoothing planes put a glass-like surface on wood in preparation for finishing. Block planes are small and versatile. To get the most out of a plane, you need to know what it’s made for and how it should be used.
Bench planes turn rough boards into finished lumber.
Much of your woodworking time will be devoted to surfacing rough stock with what are called “bench” planes. During this process, you’ll flatten the faces and square the edges of a board. Most woodworkers use two or three planes for the job, but it is possible to use just one. Ideally, though, you should have a jack plane, a jointer plane, and a smoothing plane. The jack plane takes thick shavings and flattens out crooks, cups, and bows. For even more aggressive stock removal on particularly crooked boards, there’s the scrub plane. Next, a jointer plane removes any high spots along the length of the board. Finally, the smoothing plane creates a finish-ready surface. To save some money, you can start with just a jack plane or jointer plane. It’s possible to surface a board with just one of these planes.
Hand tool woodworkers often use bench planes to clean up saw cuts.
Woodworkers usually trim their saw cuts to perfection with bench planes. To do this, they build shooting boards, which are simple jigs that hold their workpieces in place during planing. A shooting board can be as simple as a few pieces of MDF or plywood glued and nailed together. It’s essentially just three layers of wood attached in such a way that the plane can ride in a channel on the bottom layer, while the workpiece rests on top of a platform. The platform is the second layer. Behind the workpiece, another piece of wood that’s attached to the platform keeps the work secure while the woodworker runs the plane across the end of the cut. During this operation, the plane is held on its side so its cutting edge can trim the end of a board.
Shooting boards work for straight cuts and for miters. It would be impossible to make gap-free joints without these jigs. A shooting board is a crucial shop fixture for so many projects, including cabinets, doors, picture frames, and furniture. Before you build any of these items, you’ll probably want to make one or more shooting boards to help you produce tight joints.
Specialty planes help the woodworker make moldings and joinery.
To carve profiles into table edges or produce decorative moldings, woodworkers turn to molding planes. The irons of these tools are ground into special shapes. It’s necessary to make many passes with a molding plane to produce a decorative profile. Molding planes are usually made of wood.
Fine joinery would be difficult or impossible to make without the shoulder plane. It’s useful for trimming tenons to fit into mortises. When you need to make a dado or groove in a board, the shoulder plane is often your best bet. Plane makers offer these tools in several different widths, and with metal or wooden bodies.
The router plane is an indispensable tool in the furniture and cabinet shop. Its l-shaped cutting iron flattens out dados and mortises. This tool looks quite different from most planes. A router plane has two handles and should be held much like its power tool cousin (the router).
You can use wood or metal planes.
There are two materials commonly used to make handplanes: wood and metal. Most planes incorporate both, but a wooden plane is one with a solid wood body and sole. The bodies of metal planes are cast iron, or sometimes steel. Any of these materials can produce excellent results, so the choice between wood or metal is purely about personal preference. Wood planes can crack and warp over time, but a skilled woodworker can easily get them back in working order with another plane. The soles of metal planes may also need occasional tune-ups, but a flat surface and wet-or-dry sandpaper can do the job quickly.
Wooden planes are lighter and don’t usually have handles, or totes. To use one, you hold the plane by the body and push across the surface of a workpiece. When using a metal plane, you put one hand on the rear handle and the other on the knob at the front of the tool.
Almost all metal planes have the same basic components.
With a few exceptions, any metal plane will have the same essential parts as any other. The body should be one solid piece of metal. The bottom of that piece of metal is called the sole. At the front and back of the plane are handles. The front handle is usually just a simple knob. Next to the rear handle you’ll find an adjustment dial, which sets the depth of cut. The plane iron, or blade, sits right in front of the adjustment knob, and the cap iron—sometimes called the chipbreaker—sits on top of that. A clamp keeps the chipbreaker and iron in place. The big piece of machined metal in the middle of a plane, under the iron and chipbreaker, is called the frog.
A metal plane also has a lateral adjustment lever under the iron. The opening on the bottom of the plane is called the mouth. For proper cuts, the iron needs to be set in the mouth just right. As a general rule of thumb, you usually want no more than 1/32” between the front edge of the mouth and the cutting edge of the iron. If you have more than that, you’ll get a rough-looking surface and excessive tear-out. Set the opening narrower and the plane will clog with shavings, which will cause it to get stuck.
Pushing a plane shouldn’t require much force.
Planing by hand might be one of the most satisfying activities you’ll ever do. When your plane is set just right and you have a fresh coat of wax on the sole, it glides almost effortlessly across the surface of a board. The shavings peel and curl away from the wood as you make your way from one end to the other. It’s a soothing process, but the tool must be properly adjusted to work this way. If you find yourself struggling to push a plane forward, it’s time to stop and make some tweaks.
The first thing to consider is the blade depth. If you have the iron set too deep, you’ll have a hard time pushing the plane. For optimal performance, you want the iron to stick out just below the sole. The best way to achieve the proper depth is to first back the iron off so that it doesn’t stick out of the sole at all. Then turn the plane upside down and sight down the sole. Turn the depth adjustment knob until the iron starts to peek out above the bottom of the plane. Now move the lateral adjustment lever until the iron sticks out evenly from side to side. The cutting edge should be parallel to the sole across the entire width of the iron. Test the depth by running a 3” long piece of scrap wood across the sole of the plane. The iron should take a small shaving across the full length of the wood.
To get a plane to glide smoothly over the surface of stock, apply some paraffin wax to the sole. You don’t need much. Just draw a zig-zag pattern over the sole with one corner of a block of wax. Go all the way from the front of the sole to the back. As you plane, you’ll notice when the wax begins to rub off. At that point, it’s time to apply a bit more.
Proper technique is essential.
To get good results with a handplane, you need to use the right technique. Think of the motion of a hand plane like the arc of the pendulum on a clock. Instead of simply pushing the plane in a straight line, start by putting downward pressure on the front of the plane. Then transfer that pressure toward the back as you glide the plane forward. Almost all of the downward force should be at the back of the plane when you get to the end of the stroke. Lift the plane off the workpiece and repeat. If the blade is sharp, the cap iron is set properly, and the sole has a fresh coat of wax, you shouldn’t need to use much muscle.
To keep things simple, you can start with a single plane.
To get used to sharpening the iron, adjusting the plane, and taking proper shavings, you may want to start with one plane. When you feel comfortable with it you can start expanding your collection. For a first plane, consider a jack plane or a block plane. The former will get you accustomed to using bench planes and might be the better choice. If you can use a jack plane, you’ll have an easy time transitioning to any other bench plane.
Alternatively, you can buy an inexpensive block plane and learn to use it well. A block plane has no handles and is a simple device. It’s also extremely useful. You can use it to trim a door to fit an opening. It’s also handy if you want to put a chamfered edge on a project or trim dovetails on a drawer. Because a block plane is small and light, you may find yourself grabbing one for a variety of tasks, even some you would normally handle with a bigger plane.
Practice using hand planes before taking on an elaborate project.
You will need practice to use your hand planes well. For this reason, don’t plan to build a project until you’ve mastered the necessary planes. To get comfortable planing, you can purchase some inexpensive rough pine for practice material. Pine is a good choice because it’s soft and easy to plane. Grab your jack plane, jointer plane, and smoothing plane. Try to surface a rough board into a flat, square piece of lumber. Then do it again and again until you’re good at it.
Do the same whenever you acquire a new plane. After you buy a shoulder plane, cut some tenons and practice trimming them down. Rough out a few dados and perfect your technique when you bring home a router plane. And before you do any planing at all, make sure you know how to sharpen the iron.
Nick Lieurance has made a career out of helping people build stuff with wood. He spent 12 years a cabinetmaker and devoted much of that time to drafting and engineering. Now he produces a variety of instructional content for hobbyists, including articles, videos, and online woodworking courses. When Nick isn’t involved in a woodworking project, he’s fishing the rivers around his northern Colorado home, or spending time with his wife and their two dogs.