It is a common misconception that hand tools always take more time to do a job. There is also the notion that power tools deliver better results. First of all, on several occasions it is more convenient and faster to use a hand tool than it’s power tool counterpart.
Also, hand tools like hand planes are capable of delivering a superior finish, but the caveat is that one must learn the proper technique of using them. This probably takes more practice than learning to use a power tool. For example, it will not take as much time to learn to operate a table saw as it will to use different kinds of hand saws like back saw, rip saw etc.
Hand planes have a special place in a wood shop and are an extremely useful tool for smoothing and finishing. When used properly, they will give a better finished surface as compared to a power sander. They are also quicker to use on several occasions like fine tuning a mortise tenon joint etc. as compared to running back and forth between a table saw or a router.
One of the first things you might be questioning is why do you even need hand planes in your woodworking shop and for what all can you use them…
Woodworkers who use hand planes know how useful they can be. Inspite of being hand tools they are the preferred way to go for many kinds of jobs. Once, you get friendly with these tools and realise what they can do for a wood worker, you will find yourself reaching out for them instead of your table saw, belt sander and a planer, on many occasions.
Advantages of having hand planes in a wood shop.
They make detailing jobs easier. So many times a small correction is required that is so much quicker to deal with with a hand plane. The alternative of using a table saw, router or a belt sander is either impractical or unfeasible.
Better finish. I remember reading numerous times from professional woodworkers that there is no better finish to be had than what you get from a properly used hand plane. Sandpaper and belt sanders do not come close. I find that that statements to be very true. It is difficult to achieve the glass like finish that you get with a hand plane with any other power tool.
Great for quick tuneups. Hand planes are great for any kind of quick tuneup jobs such as honing down a tenon joint for a perfect fit. Same goes for rabbet joints.
Exercise more control. You can take your time with a hand plane. Let’s say you are trying to even out the surface. You are more in control with a hand plane as compared to a belt sander. You can check your progress with every pass and make necessary adjustments to your stroke. Such precision is often difficult to obtain with a power tools.
Therapeutic. There’s a reason why millions of craftsmen love their hand tools. No whirring motors, no noise, no rush, working with hand tools is a relaxing way of doing woodwork, except for the hard labour involved.
How many of us own hand planes at all? How many of us own hand planes and do not know what to do with them? Hand planes change the way one does woodworking and make you more of a craftsman. This actually applies to using other hand tools as well.
The three hand planes I am going to mention here or block planes, shoulder / rabbet planes and smoothing planes.
All these three planes are very commonly used and should be among the first planes that you get for your wood shop.
All the three planes have design and functional differences that make them better suited to a particular task although very often they can be inter-changed with one another. For example you can use a block plane for smoothing as well.
Let’s start by listing a few things that these planes can do very efficiently in any wood shop.
Shoulder Plane / Rabbet Plane
Tuning tenon joints with a hand plane.
How many of us use a table saw to cut out tenon joints, whether from our regular blade or a Dado blade? Probably a lot of us. A perfect fitting tenon joint is matter of getting it right down to a few millimetres. That’s difficult to get with a table saw.
If the joint is tight you can probably hammer it in with a mallet but then you risk splitting the wood. tenon joint should also have some room inside for the glue.
The advantage of using a hand planes is that many times they are a lot less cumbersome to use. Every time you make a couple of passes you can check if the joint fits or make a few more passes. This is a lot more convenient than running back and forth between your table saw or your router table trying to get the right adjustment.
There is no better and faster way to get a perfectly fitting tenon than by using a rabbet plane or a shoulder plane to hone it down. You can also use the same plane on the shoulders of the tenon joint to make it smooth and flush when you attach it.
The significant design element of a rabbet or a shoulder plane is the how the blade is positioned in the sole. The blade of a shoulder plane extends from edge to edge. You can get it into the corners which makes it easier ideal for cleaning any kind of joint.
The Bullnose Rabbet Plane
This hand plane is especially useful on small surfaces. It’s small and has the blade right at the front end rather than somewhere more in the middle like other hand planes. It’s nose part is completely removable which makes it ideal to really get into the corners. It is ideal for trimming the cheeks and shoulders of tenon, something that it was primarily designed for.
The bull-nose hand plane is also useful in rabbeted joinery. Because of lack of a nose you can really get into the corners and edges. It happens often that one end of a rabbet joint is a fraction too thick. The bull-nose plain can help with that. It can also ensure that the piece you are attaching is level and flush with the other.
1) You are going to need a good work bench with a solid and study work surface. Having a rickety or swaying worktable is highly distracting detrimental to work. Planing requires pressure to be exerted on the work-piece. If your workbench has any ‘give’ it is going to surface while you plane and interfere with your work.
2) The blades need to be sharp. This is imperative for smooth strokes and a good finish. Blunt blades will require more effort and tear out the wood instead of slicing through it.
Make a bench hook with a piece of plywood and two scrap strips of wood attached on either edge, one on top and one at the bottom. One edge will rest against the edge of the workbench, and you can prop your wood piece against the other edge while planing.
How much does a shoulder plane cost?
You can get these starting at about $50 while the more pro ones like Veritas, Lee Valley WoodRiver, Nielsen etc. will come at about $250 and above. One of the reason for the extra price on the pro ones is quality control and performance.
Hand planes you buy from Veritas are ready for use right out of the box. The ones that you buy for less than hundred dollars will need some tuning from your side before they are ready for use. It’s not much but you have to know how to work the bevel, sharpen the blade and adjust the assembly, also known as the ‘frog’ of the hand plane .
Sharpening is something you will have to do anyway if you use hand planes. You can use whatever method to suits you . Read this article on sharpening hand tools to learn more.
But that said the the cheaper planes are value for money. The steel of the blade is usually thick and good enough to last for a long time with proper upkeep. With a little bit of tuning they can be turned into great working tools.
If you don’t want to do the fine tuning then choose a plane from Veritas, Nielsen, Lee Valley and WoodRiver and also if you can still find any of the old Stanley hand planes. The latter are becoming more and more rare to find.
Block Hand Planes
These are the commonest kind of hand planes for the reason that they can serve many purposes around the shop. They can be used to remove saw marks, smooth end grain, make a chamfer or bevel specially in cases where it is difficult to use a table saw or a router. They are small hand planes usually upto 1 1/2 inch wide. They are great tools for smoothing, levelling and shaping end grain, which means against the grain.
You may have come across many kinds of gigs that promise to hold the router true on the edge while making a bevel or a chamfer. Well, it can be labour intensive but much simpler to do the same task with a hand plane.
A block plane comes in handy for trimming the hardwood edging on plywood to make it perfectly level. Same goes for squaring dados and dovetails in bookshelves and other furniture.
I will say this again. When it comes to working large projects hand tools cannot match the speed and accuracy of power tools. But properly tuned hand tools give superior results and don’t even take that much longer to get the job done for smaller projects.
How do you stop from going too deep when planing or gouging the plywood while squaring the hardwood edging?
The simplest way to do this is to take a pencil and mark the lower panel in a zigzag pattern, with some of the markings overlapping the joined edge. When you come to the point where you just about started taking the pencil mark off, you have gone deep enough.
NOTE: You can easily gouge the veneer of a plywood so extra caution is called for. Work from the outside edge and keep the blade balanced on that edge. Turn on the plane inwards on the plywood.
1) Try using a skewed action as opposed to going straight when smoothing. You will get a better slicing action that takes a clear shaving off.
2) Experiment with planing with and against the grain. You will find that you get smoother strokes and surface when you plane with the grain.
3) When planing towards edges and corners work your way inside from outside to prevent tear out. Keep the same thing in mind when working with Maple and Oak if the chips start flying.
Remember it’s mostly practice and trying things out. That’s probably the best way to learn to operate most of the woodworking hand tools. So take your time and just practice. As we mentioned already, it’s also therapeutic!
How to keep your planes sharpened
You definitely need to keep a sharp blade on the hand plane. That’s one of the prerequisites for getting good results. You can use whatever method you want to sharpen the plate. You can do it manually by using a sharpening stone and sandpaper, or use a sharpening machine.
TIP: The trick here is to never let your blades get badly blunt after it has once been sharpened. All you need to do is hone it every time you finish using it. Honing means running a few passes over a wet stone or a sandpaper and the blade is back to its original sharpness. That is perhaps the best way to maintain a sharp blade.
You are probably thinking at this point what is the difference between a block and smoothing plane. There are 2 major category of hand planes, block planes and bench planes. The first difference is the size, whereas the second main difference is whether the bevel of the blade faces upwards or downwards.
Block planes have the bevel facing downwards which makes them great for planing against the grain. Bench planes have the bevel facing upwards which makes them great for working on surface with the grain.
Smoothing planes belong to a category of bench planes that are typically larger and wider. Bench planes are numbered from #1 to #8 with each subsequent number being bigger in length or width or both. The smaller bench planes from #1 to number #4 1/2 are generally known as smoothing planes as the smaller foot area allows them to smooth the board.
Low Angle Smoothing Planes
There is a variation of a smoothing plane that has a blade set at a lower angle than is common. Usually the blades are tilted at about 45 degrees to the plane surface. The low angled hand planes are somewhere in the vicinity of 20 to 25 degrees. You might prefer these because they give more of a slicing action as compared to the regular angled ones. A low angled smoothing plane is also a must have in your shop because you will enjoy working with it on a great many occasions.
So that covers the 3 hand planes that every workshop should have. They are also the 3 hand planes that one should consider getting if they are buying their very first ones.
How to learn using hand planes.
Most of the time you can learn to use a hand plane by just practising with it. Basic principles of wood working apply. You know all about tear outs as well as working with and against the grain. It’s almost the same when you are using a hand plane. Going against the grain will be harder and result in a relatively rougher surface. If you plane straight towards the edge of a wood piece, you might get a tear out, so work towards the inside.
So its the best to just grab pieces of scrap wood and try your hand at using the various type of planes, trying different movements, different directions, different depth and blade angel settings, action on different types of wood etc. That’s really the best way to learn to get the results you want.
Change the way you work.
Including some hand tools in your work can change the way you do things. Hand planes are no exception. They are a great tool to get a great finish. Many time they beat using a sander. The kind of glass like finish you get from a hand plane is difficult to to achieve with a sander. Also, the kind of control you have allows you to get more precision.
Hand planes are not just invaluable for small projects. For example, you will build a 48 inch table. You have run the boards through a planer and jointed them. Now how are you going to finish the surface? You will not get a better result than using a hand plane to flatten out the surface, even out the joints and getting a glass like finish.