I am an advocate of hand planes, I use them all the time. I seldom resort to a sander and only then for final smoothing with 180 grit or finer. My reward for this is crisp edges and level surfaces. A side benefit is that I breathe and chew a lot less dust and stay fit for planing is an aerobic exercise at times. Admittedly, I am a plane freak, I have about 500 at last count. In my lifetime campaign to share my enthusiasm for these wonderful instruments, I sometimes feel like Don Quixote tilting at wind mills. Most people find planes hard to use. This is entirely understandable because few modern planes will work from the box, but rather requires "tuning." The chances are an "as found" flea market plane made before 1960 will perform far better than a new plane. That is why I comb flea markets and yard sales for planes.
While volumes have been written about bench planes, I have seen little in the woodworking press about the multitude of highly useful special purpose planes made over the years. Such planes can be exceptional aides in specific situations and are worth considering even if you do not use bench planes. I thought I would share some of my favorites with my recipes for sharpening them.
Shoulder Rabbet Plane and its Bull Nose Children[b1]
While few people cut tenons by hand these days, a shoulder rabbet plane is extremely handy for squaring up machine made tenons. As the name implies the main purpose of this plane is in cleaning up the shoulder of a tenon. With the best of machinery it is common for the shoulder to come out less than perfect. Most often the shoulder on one side of the tenon is not square with the shoulder on the other side. The shoulder rabbet plane allows slicing out these errors in squareness to end up with a tenon shoulder that is square all the way round to the rail.
The router plane is still made and can be purchased new for about $80. I find them at flea markets regularly for $15 to $45, however, finding one with all three blades and both fences is difficult. The router plane was once used extensively by stair builders. I use mine when I need to cut one or two dados. With only one or two to produce, making two cross cuts with my table saw and planing out the waste with my router plane is quicker than setting up a dado blade. This plane is also wonderful for inletting hinges and hardware. I chisel the outline of the hinge then use the router plane with the pointed blade to plane to exactly the depth of the hinge. The result looks like the wood grew around the hinge. When used with one or both fences, the router plane quickly slices a groove parallel to an edge. A router with a spiral bit generally does this job better and faster, though. Sharpening the router plane is very easy. I whet the bottom of the iron on a medium grit bench stone and progress to a fine stone, then whet the bevel with a series of small slips.
Stanley Catalogues variously list the Bailey #97 as a Cabinetmakers plane or a Chisel Plane. My mint example is quite rare and worth about $250. Fortunately Lie-Neilson makes an exquisite reproduction. Lie-Neilson is an exception to 'my modern planes are generally worthless' rule. All planes from the Lie-Neilson factory are tuned and ready to work right out of the box. I hope they keep expanding their offerings.
Chisel planes are not needed often, but they are invaluable when that time comes. They get into corners where no other plane can go. Every time I use mine, I am glad I own it and return it reverently to its storage cabinet.
#78 Rabbet Plane[b1]
The final plane in my handy plane review is the Stanley #78 Rabbet Plane. They are abundant at flea markets, and usually are very reasonably priced at $15 to $45. Be careful that the fence, rail and spur cutter are all there. Those parts are usually missing on the ones offered in the $15 range. There is only one blade, which is normally installed in the back throat and adjusted via the thumb lever. For bull nose work the cutter is paced in the forward throat and hammer adjusted (taps, please: you're not driving nails). The #78 cuts small rabbets faster and better than a router.