Handplanes #2: First Handplane

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Blog entry by OSU55 posted 02-11-2014 09:59 PM 5152 reads 7 times favorited 1 comment Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: Rust Removal & Rust Prevention Part 2 of Handplanes series Part 3: I Want A Better Plane »

First Handplane
A very common question – “What planes do I start with?” – and a plethora of opinion out there to answer it! So, I thought I’d throw mine out there as well. It’s possible you are at the stage I was when I started – I didn’t know brands, sizes, types, uses – basically zip. I spent months researching – in part because I like to research and understand something I’m interested in, and because there is a lot of information and opinion about handplanes and what they’re all about. Perhaps I will provide something unique to your handplane quest.

I tend to be a pragmatic type. I got started with handplanes because I had a need that handplanes addressed that typical machines couldn’t address. As such, I’ll approach the question from a use perspective – not nostalgia, historical correctness, exact identification (type), etc. This blog entry is my opinion about which handplanes to start with (and why) to help you in woodworking, opinion formed from my personal experiences. I am not associated with any companies, experts, etc.
Handplane Categories
Bench planes – primarily used to dimension, flatten, and smooth lumber, and can be used to do other operations, such on a shooting board to square up ends. You may have heard of the Stanley #4. This area will be our main focus.
Block Planes – kind of like a utility knife or utility infielder – master of none but used for a lot of things. For planing with one hand. Great for trimming pieces to fit.
Joinery Planes – for making the joints to put boards together, like mortise and tenon (shoulder plane), rabbet joints (rabbet plane), grooves (router or combination plane), etc. Not the place to start unless that’s your only area of interest.
Specialty Planes – all sorts of more specialized stuff – moulding, circular, compass, luthier, the list is almost endless. Not the place to start unless you’re making instruments or just work with small items.
I will assume you know little to nothing about handplanes. There is a need to delve into a little history just to put things in perspective. If you don’t know what a Stanley Bailey #4, #5, #7, 60-1/2 are (too many to list), go to this site, the bench plane page of Patrick Leach’s “The Superior Works: Patrick’s Blood and Gore” Planes #1 – #8C. Start with the 4, 4-1/2, 5, & 7. Navigate around and find the 60-1/2 block plane. These are the mainstays of handplanes. Spend some time here (it’s easy to get lost and/or confused – Stanley made a lot planes). Next find his entries on the #602-608 Stanley Bedrock series (I agree with Patrick’s opinion of bedrock planes). All of the other types of planes are included in Patrick’s site. Gaining an understanding of the different planes, their parts, uses, etc. will be helpful to you.
I have nothing against other brands, many are as good, it’s just that Stanley was the most prolific manufacturer with the most complete catalog, and therefore the easiest to find and buy. We will discuss buying old vs new later.
I will attempt to take you through a selection process. If you haven’t done so yet, now is a good time to visit Patrick Leach’s website and familiarize yourself with planes by the numbers. You’ll need to answer two questions to help guide the process:
. 1. What do you want to do?
. 2. How much money do you want to spend?
“What do you want to do?” – anticipated responses:

Period Woodworking / Historical Collecting / Plane Typing

Umm, this blog is not the place. Many of the folks wishing to do this want to cover all aspects and be historically correct. While I do enjoy the history of it all, I don’t concern myself with historical accuracy. I “collect” handplanes to use, not for the sake of collecting or trading, etc. I’m not too concerned with which type I own, other than to stay away from the expensive stuff.

What’s a handplane? What’s this handplane business about?

A handplane is a hand tool that provides a way to hold a sharp edge at a set cut depth to provide controlled material (wood) removal. A couple of generations ago the smaller planers and jointers many have today weren’t as available. Handplanes were used to work wood. They come in many shapes and sizes, especially once you delve into the more specialized types. The following information may help explain what they are about.

I want to woodwork with all hand tools like the old days

Knock yourself out! Dimensioning lumber by hand in this day of relatively cheap power planers and saws is not my cup a tea – it’s a HELL OF A LOT OF WORK! But…..maybe you want to use some very wide slab lumber and not cut it down to pass through a typical 12”-13” bench planer. For whatever reason you want to do this, you’ll need a scrub plane and a Stanley #5 jack plane to start. A #5 with the front of the mouth opened up with a file and a heavy cambered blade will work as a scrub. The #5 is used to clean up after the scrub plane. These are your cheaper and easier to tune planes. There are bevel up jack planes (I have one) and I do not recommend them just for rough dimensioning of lumber – they are expensive and their real benefits are elsewhere, but they will do dimensioning. A Veritas Low Angle Jack will do about all things needed, but I wouldn’t recommend you start with one unless you’re just flush with cash.

Using handplanes to do all the work will be cheaper, right?

Yeah…….not really. You’ll need a Stanley #5 jack plane ($75) and a #7 jointer plane ($140) at a minimum. I’ve given some average prices of what I’ve seen these planes going for (including shipping) on ebay over the past couple of years (Feb 2014 now). On top of this you will need a way to sharpen the blades razor sharp. There are lots of methods but probably $200 minimum realistically, maybe more. Since you’ll be using the planes a lot, you really need something other than the “scary sharp” method. Another $25-$50 for some decent files, sandpaper, and glass or granite to tune the planes with. You really need a jointer fence, another $55 or so shipped. Up to about $500. This can take the place of a planer and jointer, which you could get for $500 and up, depending on what you buy. You will still need a smoothing plane or random orbit sander. Time to complete a project will go up 10x. I highly recommend a planer and table saw if you want to do furniture/cabinet woodworking.

There are good ways around not having a power jointer. A #7 plane is needed to flatten large panels and table tops, and is a “jointer” plane. With a fence attached, it joints boards almost as quickly, and at least as accurately, as a powered jointer. I straighten cupped and twisted boards in my planer by laying the board on a “moving bed” board and shimming the high spots. Get one side flat, flip the board over and plane normally.

I want to hack down really rough lumber before I run it through my planer

The best choice might be a drawknife, depending on the width of the lumber. They will remove a lot of wood quickly (faster than a handplane), and provide enough control for the task. About any old scrub plane not cracked and with a decent blade will do. The same with an old Stanley #5. A Stanley 12-404 can be had for under $20 new and will function well as a scrub plane.

I just want to check it out

The toughest part of this category is that to really “check it out”, you need a way to get the blade truly razor sharp. The typical “scary sharp” method will work up to a point. Check out my blog entry here for what I consider the best sharpening method. Once over the sharpening hump, there’s no question in my mind a Stanley #4 (or 4-1/2) is the place to start. The reason is simple – it can be used for about anything, the design is available from many manufactures, as such they are cheap, and work the same as the other bench planes – so they make excellent “learner planes”. I still use the first one I bought, a no-name knock-off. Visit my blog (see above) for how to performance tune a handplane.

I fooled around with a few planes and different sharpening methods for several years “just checking it out”. It was a fairly frustrating experience, one that led me to write these blogs to help others shorten or possibly bypass that frustration.

What can handplanes do that machines can’t?

I’m speaking to the typical weekend wood warrior (not professionals) who have a 12”-13” planer, an average table saw, etc. Planes can provide very flat surfaces, even large dining room table sized ones. They can eliminate or dramatically reduce the amount of sanding required. With a proper shooting board, they can square up the ends of stock. They are great for cleaning up machined features – router plane for dados & grooves, shoulder plane for tenons, etc., and trimming parts to fit. Yes, there’s some skill involved to get good results, obtained through practice, but you don’t have to be an artisan.

I had a need. I was struggling with how to get wide glued up panels, like table tops, truly flat. I had tried various sanding routes – not flat. Planing with a router – flat, but lots of grain tear out and still a lot of sanding to remove the cut lines. It worked, but not to my satisfaction. Handplanes solved the issue. They have also dramatically reduced sandpaper use. I typically only use P320 before staining/finishing, and depending on the project and/or wood type, sometimes none at all.

So where should I start?

Augment your power tools with handplanes. Use them where machines fall a bit short. If you’re satisfied with the work your machines produce, then possibly one of the “typical responses” above answered your question.

I recommend a Stanley Bailey #4 or 4-1/2 bench plane (or equivalent) and a low angle Stanley 60-1/2 block plane (or equivalent). My reasoning is anyone remotely interested in handplanes can use a smoother to clean up machining marks and level a panel glue up, and a block plane to break sharp edges and trim a bit here and there. That’s a start, and with experience one can branch out in many directions.

I throw the 4-1/2 in because it uses a 2-3/8” width blade, the same as the #7, which is the next plane I recommend. This way you can have several blades that will fit both of your primary planes and not have to stop to sharpen during a project. I recommend a #7 instead of a #8 because of availability, blade size (#8 is 2-5/8” wide), and a #8 is BIG & HEAVY. The #7 is for jointing boards for glue ups or getting straight edges and flattening large panels.

If you do only small work – small boxes, knick knacks, etc. the planes above are way too large. I have a set of small “bench” planes, about 3” long with ½” wide blades, a set of small brass spokeshaves, and a small Kunz “squirrel tail” pocket plane (~3-1/2” long) appropriate for this work. There are many others. There are many luthier (musical instrument) tools that you should research. The plane should not be longer than the board you are planing.

If you don’t have much strength, you might start with a #3. I’m a little hesitant on this recommendation because plane sizing is determined by the work to be done, not the worker (The “rules” are not absolute – a #4 can be used as a jointer, etc.). Working with handplanes can be strenuous, so you may need to think about building strength up by using the “standard“ sizes (and other activities). While different sized planes have different weights, I find cut depth (shaving thickness), cutting angle of the blade, and blade sharpness actually drive the level of exertion more than plane weight. I’m in the camp of heavier planes provide momentum to power through tough areas in a cut.

Block planes – standard angle block planes aren’t needed, today anyway. Perhaps years ago there were manufacturing issues with the 12° beds of low angle planes causing the mouth or bed to crack. A low angle block plane blade can have any bevel angle put on the blade to handle a given task, from 25° for a cutting angle of 37° (end grain) up to 50° for a cutting angle of 62° (unruly grain), or more. A standard angle block (20°-21° bed) can really only go down to a 45° cut angle, which will work but is not the best for end grain. For this reason I have multiple LA block planes with varying bevel angles.

What about wooden planes? I have several and I use them, however for the novice I recommend the “gold standard” cast iron planes because they are easier to adjust, cheaper, have better ergonomics for hands and wrists, and don’t “move” with temperature and humidity changes. I find woodies especially hard to adjust for very fine (0.0005”) smoothing cuts. ECE makes some very fine wooden planes with screw type adjusters, but they are 3-4x the cost of a Stanley #4.
Who wants to spend several hundred on one plane and decide handplanes ain’t for them? Especially when the low end planes can perform very well?
You can join the fray on ebay and pick up old ones, or you can buy lower end new ones. Both will need similar tuning to perform correctly. You might luck into one at a garage, estate, or farm sale, or antique store, but in Missouri and Oklahoma (my brother lives there) stumbling across good ones is very rare these days. Another alternative is tool dealers, online and locally. When I’ve looked at dealers, I’ve found what I considered very high prices – as high as the “mid-tier” new planes we will discuss later. The dealers are selling nostalgia, history, collector’s items, and they have to make a buck. Several folks on Lumberjocks repair/restore and sell planes, and are a good source, but it may take a while.
You’ve probably read a lot of comments that the 1910 up to WWII planes are the ones to have, and all the newer Stanley stuff is junk. Well, I disagree – that the newer Stanley stuff is junk. I have the following “newer” Stanley planes that with proper tune up, work perfectly well with the factory blades and chip breakers:
• standard angle block 12-920 ($36)
• low angle block 12-960 ($30)
• type 20 #7 Stanley Bailey (with the stamped skew lever) ($145 with shipping, ebay)
• no name #4 Stanley Bailey knock off from Grizzlies (~$50)
Each of these required significant time to tune up. These were my test beds to learn how to tune. Guess what – all the older Stanley’s I’ve purchased required the same tuning. Throughout time Stanley planes were manufactured to a low price point, so it would’ve been a surprise if the older ones had been better. I really don’t see a big difference in manufacturing quality or performance. The plastic handles on new ones aren’t attractive, but with a little sanding of the mold lines they are serviceable (all of mine have been replaced with my own design now). If a friend asked me what the best value is for a first plane, I would steer them to the current Stanley 12-904 contractor grade smoothing plane ($50-$60) if I couldn’t find a cheap one on ebay, and then coach them through the tune up process. Stay away from the Stanley “handyman” versions.
As a side note (and you will read this in my other blog entry), properly tuned planes with properly sharpened “thin” blades and chip breakers will work very well. If you get significant improvement with an aftermarket blade and or chip breaker (other than edge life), something is not properly tuned (or broken). I know all the magazines and “experts” (except Paul Sellers) recommend thick aftermarket blades and new planes that come with thick blades – just remember they are in business to sell magazines and product.
ebay – can be hit and miss. I don’t see the $20 good plane deals as some folks claim – prices have probably doubled in the last 5 years. Three of the planes I purchased were useless – cracked mouths, and I had to deal with the sellers and prove I didn’t crack them. I believe the sellers didn’t know they were cracked, but that they didn’t know what they didn’t know about planes. Now, I also got some good deals, and so it evened out.

To summarize – don’t be afraid of newer planes (post WWII to now). They are cheaper and can be tuned to work very well with factory thin blades and chip breakers. This will probably be the most budget friendly route unless you luck into something.
I don’t want to tune, I want to go to work
My opinion is: Learn how to make a standard Stanley style #4 or 4-1/2 (or equivalent) sing, and you can probably get about any plane to sing. It provides excellent handplane education and you will continue to use it if this handplane thing is for you. Even the high end planes need to be re-sharpened, should have the chip breaker bevel properly dressed, and will need the sole touched up occasionally.
If you have cash and little time, maybe handplanes aren’t for you. It takes time to learn how to use them and keep them working well. Maybe a drum sander is a better tool for you? You can go the tool dealer route for an already tuned older plane, or go the premium plane route. I would not recommend the mid-tier planes because they do require some time to tune them in.
If you have cash and time, I still think learning about tuning with a #4 (or 4-1/2) is the place to start. You haven’t spent much money, and you will get an education. Follow my tuning blog (or others), and if you can’t get one to work, send me a PM on Lumberjocks and I’ll help you.
Quick Word On Bevel Up Bench Planes – There aren’t any low cost bevel up bench planes. If you can find one, the Stanley #62 will probably go for more than the Veritas or LN versions, which for actually using are far superior.

If you just have to have a top of the line plane for your first one, more for finishing type work and not dimensioning, I’d recommend the Veritas Low Angle Jack Plane, with all three blade angles, and the magnetic jointer fence (it will work with the LAJ with minor modification). You now have an excellent shooting board plane, a long but extremely good smoother that can handle tough grain with a steeper bevel, and a somewhat short but good jointer.


Low end planes will perform very well when properly tuned. Premium planes are easier to use. The premium advantages are: less tuning time (a one-time thing per plane), tighter manufacturing tolerances that result in easier adjustments (blade depth and skew, mouth opening), and extended sharpening intervals due to better blade materials and the thicker blades and chip breakers let you plane with a duller edge. Once you learn your way around a Stanley Bailey, the premium version won’t really give you much better results.

Where the premium planes stand above is in their ability to deal with tear out in unruly grain, however this is limited to LN high angle frog bench planes and Veritas or LN bevel up bench planes with high angle blades. I would not include high angle wooden planes because this concerns a first plane purchase, and as I’ve mentioned woodies are a little more difficult to deal with.

Some are concerned that if they buy a low end plane, it will be made obsolete by better premium planes they might buy in the future. Even though I have premium planes, including bevel up bench planes, I still use my Stanley Bailey bevel down bench planes. As you get further down this slippery slope (easy to do), planes can be set up for particular tasks to make your work go faster. One thing I’ve noticed: Once folks figure out how to get a plane to work, they go through an exponential growth period. Low cost planes allow this phenomena to occur at a lower financial stress level.

The next blog entry will cover mid-tier and up planes.

1 comment so far

View TerryDowning's profile


1153 posts in 3454 days

#1 posted 02-11-2014 11:19 PM

Not a bad blog.

I would add that bench planes typically fit into one of three sub categories

Fore Planes – Heavily cambered large mouth jack (Stanley #5) planes and scrub planes used for rapid stock removal. Minimal sharpening and maintenance is required on these (mostly rust prevention), the soles don’t need to be terribly flat either.

Try Planes – (AKA Jointers) 22” (Stanley #7 and #8) and longer slightly cambered to flat iron honed very sharp with small mouth and set to take small shavings. These are used for flattening and edge jointing.

Smooth Planes – (Stanley #3 and #4) with an extremely sharp iron, and very narrow mouth used for final smoothing and finishing of a board.

any size planes can be coerced into any of these categories by tuning the mouth adjustment and how the edge is sharpened.

For example I have 3 Jack planes all setup completely differently
Miller Falls 14C I have this setup as a large smoother with a narrow mouth setting a very flat sole, iron is very sharp with just the corners eased. This great for smoothing and finishing large panels and boards.

Lakeside Jack is setup as a fore plane it has an 8” radius camber on the edge, wide open mouth and I could not get the sole lapped flat (so I turned into a fore plane) This thing can take 1/16th divots out of a board with very little effort when cutting across the grain and leaves it flat enough for the Try Plane. If you’re working with rough stock and planning on dimensioning I highly recommend setting up a fore plane.

My WW II era Stanley is set up as a Try Plane with a mild camber on the edge sharpened very sharp and the mouth is adjusted about medium. The sole is flat enough as far as I’m concerned, most importantly NO TWIST and it is co-planar front to back and around the moth opening. It does have some hollows but no big deal. This this is great for flattening smaller stock that my Millers Fall 22” Jointer has a hard time fitting on.

I also have an old mid 70s Stanley Handyman 1203 set up as a fore plane, also great for rapid stock removal and removing bow and twist. Really great on smaller stock.

Learn the purpose of these three sub categories and how to tune the plane and you won’t get all twisted up in all of the numbers and such. It’s the operation you are performing that matters not the number on the plane.

The size of the stock you are working has as much to say about which bench plane you use as does the operation to perform. It’s a balancing act of picking the right tool for the job to achieve desired results.

This is my opinion born of my personal experience and research on the subject. I’m just trying to add to the conversation.

-- - Terry

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