Five Must-Have Planes for Every Shop

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This article is from Issue 7 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Quiet, efficient, and startlingly precise, the planes on this list often give better, faster results than machines. 

Planes are the quintessential tools of woodworking. They make possible all the things we strive for in our work: finely fitted joints; flat, smooth surfaces that cry out to be touched; lines that spring with life and draw the eye into a smile; and a deep physical connection with the wood that comes from having your hands on it for much of the building. 

Our woodworking forebears made frequent use of dozens of specialized hand planes, but most woodworkers today can get by with only five. Every shop needs these planes: an adjustable-mouth block plane, a smoothing plane, a jointer plane, a shoulder plane, and an edge-trimming plane (or pair of edge-trimming planes). 

Master these five, and you’ll see a huge improvement in your woodworking output. You’ll do better work in less time, and you’ll have more fun in the bargain. 

As you acquire and use your planes, you’ll also acquire a set of skills. With your first block plane, you’ll learn the importance of balance, rhythm and cadence. Your smoothing plane will teach you about hand position and how to begin and end a cut. The jointer plane will reveal the secrets of flatness, something that can’t help but improve just about every aspect of your woodworking. The shoulder plane demonstrates the incredible degree of precision planes are capable of. A few strokes with the right plane can save hours you’d otherwise spend setting up a machine. Finally, edge trimmers initiate you into the world of specialized planes, where a common theory unites a body of oddball tools. 

Buying a plane is like buying anything else – price matters, but only to a degree. As with cars or computers, you’ll find that the simplest, least expensive plane can do the work, but sooner or later you’ll run up against shortcomings in design or construction. It’s better to buy in the middle- to upper-middle price range where you’ll get better fit and finish, and greater comfort. At the high end you’ll not likely see a quantum leap in the quality of output, but these well-made tools delight the eyes and feel right in your hands. 

Block plane

This is the first plane most people own, because it’s probably the most versatile. Small and light enough to fit in one hand, you can use it to trim small items too awkward to clamp in a vise.  You can also use it (either one- or two-handed) on a workpiece held tightly to the bench with a vise or clamps. Work held in position is easier to plane – you can focus on making shavings, not on keeping the work from shifting. 

Practice planing with a piece of wood 3/4" thick and slightly less than 3' long. Position it in a vise, or clamped or dogged near the end of the bench that’s opposite your dominant side – at the left end if you’re right-handed (right-handers plane from right to left). Stand about 8" from the bench with your dominant hip a little less than one plane length toward the middle of the board. With your feet shoulder-width apart, point the front foot roughly parallel to the bench, and position the back foot 90 degrees to that, toes  pointing to the work. Rotate the back foot about 45 degrees and flex the knees so you’re in comfortable balanced position.  

The planing starts with the tool just a little behind your hip. At this point, your shoulders are twisted toward the bench, and you’re standing with more weight on your back leg. 

Find a stable stance whenever you plane. Without it, you can’t generate enough power to consistently cut the full length of the surface. 
A block plane can be used one-handed on pieces that are difficult to put in a vise.  

Always begin a planing session by sighting down the sole of the plane to check lateral blade adjustment and depth-of-cut.

As the plane moves down the board and toward your centerline, the shoulders rotate, and the weight comes onto both legs. At the end of the shaving, more weight is on your front foot and your shoulders are parallel to the work. 

Build your planing skills by making a pile of shavings. Start out with a light cut, and just get a feel for the movement. Shift around incrementally until you feel stable, especially at the end of board for the all-important follow through. When you find your place, plane until you reach a steady rhythm. 

You have a lot of latitude for the depth-of-cut on a good block plane. The blade goes in and out, and if you get one with an adjustable mouth, you can alter the opening as well. Wide-mouth/deep-blade equals thick shaving. Narrow-mouth/shallow-blade makes a thin one. Really thick shavings are practical only where the cut is short; it’s hard to maintain balance and power for a lengthy one. In most cases, you want a thin shaving because it’s easier to keep your rhythm. 

Planing rhythm is a lot like cadence on a bicycle. The shape and form of the human body is such that it operates most efficiently when the pedals spin at 80-90 rpm. Skilled cyclists keep their feet moving at a steady cadence and shift the gears up or down to maintain the rpm. In planing, you want to find your rhythm and increase or decrease your depth-of-cut to maintain it. 

I’m always making incremental adjustments to blade depth. I start with a thin cut and increase it slowly to see how the wood reacts. If I’m having some trouble, I decrease it so I can figure out what’s up. When things are fine, I go to a thicker shaving; as I tire, I back off. I always take very light cuts at the end, so I can really feel the quality of the cut left behind by the plane. 

Once you’re moving comfortably, check to see if the planed edge is square to the face of the board. Most people have a biomechanical bias that causes them to plane one edge more than the other. Figure out your own bias and how you should tilt the plane to get the edge perpendicular. It probably won’t feel right at first, but use a square to double-check and practice until you’re both comfortable and consistently square. This is an important skill you should spend time developing.

Then you can move onto longer boards. Start in the same position relative to the end of the board, and stay there until your weight is on both legs. As the weight starts to go to the front leg, slide the back leg towards the front and lean back to put your weight on it. If you need to take another step, plane until the weight moves onto the front leg, then slide the back one up again. Shift as many times as necessary, with the final step about 3" from the end of the board. There’s a lot going on here, so practice until you can maintain your stability and balance while moving. The goal is to make full length shavings while leaving a square edge.

Start PLANING with your front hand pressing down firmly enough to cantilever the plane in place. Keep both hands on the plane (my back hand is waving around in this photo to make a point). Position the plane enough forward to gain momentum before the blade makes contact. 
Once the plane is moving, press down and forward with both hands. Note the index finger extended onto the frog. Curling it around the lever cap and iron can skew the blade. 

Keep weight firmly on the back of the plane to keep sole in contact with wood. Front hand removed to make a point – in real life you’ll keep both hands on the plane and follow through. Imagine planing past the end of the workpiece. 

Smoothing plane

The smoothing plane is one of the classic two-handed bench planes – comfortable tools designed for long work sessions. Smoothers are the mid-sized planes; they’re easy to grasp, heavy enough to provide some inertia, and short enough to follow a gentle contour. Their job is to smooth a surface without being much concerned with flatness.

The convention for sizing metal planes gives each size a number based on length. The numbers aren’t absolute, as lengths vary a bit among makers. However, in all cases the smallest – the No. 1 planes – are a little less than 6" long, and the largest No. 8 planes can be 24" long. Smoothing planes are the No. 4 size, about 91/2" long. 

Smoothers are just the tools to use for removing tool marks or light oxidation from a surface, leveling out a small face frame or subassembly, or leaving a perfect glassy-smooth surface that needs no finish other than a little linseed oil and wax. Doing these jobs well requires a well-adjusted plane and some technique on your part.

Most people can happily plane in the middle of a board, but find the ends problematic. The first and/or last couple of inches are too high, too low, or too rough. You’ve got to pay attention when starting and stopping. 

When smoothing a surface wider than your plane, tuning is vital. If the blade isn’t sharpened correctly, the frog is crooked, or the bottom or sides of the plane are rough, no amount of planing will leave a glassy surface. 

A sharp blade goes without saying, right? Once you move up to planing wide surfaces, you reach a whole new level of sharpness. Make sure the backs of your blades are flat and polished, and then hone the bevel with at least 6,000-grit, and the finer the better. These days I consider 8,000-grit a bare minimum, and I also use 15,000- and 30,000-grit stones.

Make sure the cutting edge of the blade is a straight line parallel to the sole – no corners sticking out. Achieving this requires stones that are perfectly flat, and a honing technique that works the entire edge of the blade evenly. Once your edge is straight and honed, you should consciously favor the corners equally (one after the other), giving the blade a slight crown – further insurance from snagging the corners. If you still have problems with snags, make sure a cockeyed frog isn’t skewing the blade. 

When the inner workings of the plane are fine but the surface is not, have a close look at the bottom of the plane to see if any of its edges or corners are mashed over and scratching the wood. Touch them up with a file if necessary. 

Practice with your smoother until you can plane any surface to a glassy sheen. This may take a while since you’ll probably have to file and polish your plane, adjust the frog, become intimate with the depth adjustments, and establish new routines for sharpening. Practice on edges as well as surfaces wider than your plane, and spend some time taking only light cuts to work on refining your sensitivity about the way your plane is cutting. 

Flatten panels by planing cross-grain with a jointer plane. Smooth it later, using a shorter plane with the grain.

A shoulder plane excels at removing thin shavings right into a corner. Hold the plane vertically and take light cuts, test fitting the joint frequently.

To widen dadoes, nothing works like an edge-trimmer. These give the best results if you keep the blade sharp and are careful about perpendicularity. 

Jointer plane

Most people underestimate the importance of flatness in woodworking and the difficulty of achieving it. Joints won’t fit tightly if one of the pieces is cupped or bent or bowed, nor will a chair sit without wobbling. It’s visually important, too. A bookcase with bowed shelves looks slack-jawed; a table with an uneven surface seems slovenly.

True flatness can only be achieved by tools with a big flattening surface – the long bed of a stationary power jointer being the perfect example. The larger the reference surface, the flatter the result. A 22" long No. 7 jointer plane does a pretty good job, too. It’ll take down high spots over a wide area, whereas a shorter No. 4 can plane up and down any gently rolling hills. The No. 4 leaves a surface that’s smooth, but not necessarily flat. A 6" random orbit sander has a smaller reference surface and is even less likely to produce flatness. No matter how careful you are when you sand a high spot away, you can end up with an eye-catching valley. 

Your No. 7 will see the most use for truing up the edges machined on the stationary jointer or table saw. Powerful though they are, neither one of these tools (or a planer for that matter) leaves a surface good enough for joinery. A few swipes with a sharp plane will remove the jointer knife marks and flatten out wobbles you made feeding the work by hand. It’s also the best tool for truing up face frames or subassemblies, assuming the work is large enough to support the plane. 

You’ll also use your No. 7 for flattening panels too wide for your planer. It’s not that hard, and even easier when you start with straight, even-grained boards that are flat in both length and width. Machine joint, plane and rip the narrow boards, leaving them slightly greater than final thickness, and glue them up into a wide panel. 

Secure the panel to your bench top, and set your plane for a light cut. Work across the grain, starting at an obvious high spot. Keep the plane moving, never hitting exactly the same spot, until the plane cuts a swath all the way across the board. Then use that flat area as a reference surface by skewing the plane slightly so the front end cuts a new swath while the back end remains on the old one. 

This technique yields a surface that’s flat, but not smooth. Switch to a shorter smoothing plane, and move with the grain. Set your plane for a light cut, and be mindful of grain direction. It may be different on adjoining boards, requiring you to plane them in opposite directions. 

A nice sharp plane leaves a glassy-smooth surface that may be too smooth for some stains or finishes so you’ll need to scuff the surface with sandpaper. Use the grit recommended on the finish’s label, and scrupulously maintain flatness by holding the sander fully facedown on the surface. When hand sanding, wrap the paper around a felt or cork block. Whatever you do, don’t sand the corners or edges, or your piece will lose its visual crispness. 

Shoulder plane

Machines are wonderful for joinery. They’re fast, accurate, and will endlessly repeat their tasks. Anything is possible with the right setup. But you can lose a lot of time and material trying to get your machine setups absolutely perfect. Just when you think you’ve got it, small variations in the wood, a slight wobble when feeding the material or the difficulty of making fine adjustments on fairly crude machines makes a perfect result all too rare. Better to use the machine to get the piece so the joint is just a little too tight, and then refine the fit with a plane. 

In some cases you can use a bench plane or block plane to sneak up on a close fit, but most of the time you’ll use a shoulder plane. These specialized planes have flat sides machined 90 degrees to the bottom. The blade extends all the way out to the side of the plane so you can cut right up to an edge and leave a nice square corner.  It’s perfect for removing a little material from a batch of tenons so each one fits perfectly. 

This precision is one of the great virtues of planes. Just about anyone who knows the rudiments of sharpening and tuning can make a shaving less than five ten-thousandths of an inch thick, and with a little practice one significantly thinner. This makes for incredible precision because you can inspect the surface, pinpoint the high spot, and remove the shaving in comfort and safety. You approach perfection one tissue-thin shaving at a time, always in complete control. Try that on a router or table saw!

Getting a thin shaving from a shoulder plane is a little more difficult than with a bench or block plane. The full-width blade requires you to set the iron for a much lighter cut than you think. Keep working with it until you get the feel, and remember to hold the plane tight against the corner. Don’t tilt.

A  3/4" wide plane will serve most purposes, but in time you may find you want wider or narrower ones as well. Whatever size you choose, look for a plane that feels comfortable in your hand. An adjustable-mouth plane is easier for most people to set up, and you may find it worthwhile to get a plane with a removable front for getting right up into corners. 

Edge-trimming planes

Sometimes you need to remove a little material from the edge of a dado or groove, and these specialized planes let you get into tight places. Rarely used, but nothing else will do when you need them.  

There are several types of these planes, and while the outward appearance differs, the theory is the same: A fence supports the plane on the face of the board, and a skewed blade skims the surface perpendicular to the fence. Not a lot of metal here to guide and support the tool; the operator must pay attention. Sharpen carefully, install the blade so it cuts evenly, and lock it down tightly. If the fences are adjustable, set them to full depth; and, before you go very far, check to make sure the corner of the blade isn’t gouging. Focus on keeping the plane perpendicular; it’s easy to tilt a plane with so little contact area. 

If everything’s set up properly, flattening or smoothing should not be hard work. If you feel like you’re fighting the work and not having fun, something is wrong. Most likely the blade isn’t sharp enough or it’s not installed correctly. Practice with your tools until you achieve both consistency and comfort. 

Take the time to get to know these five essential planes, and many of the problems that used to plague you will no longer arise. You won’t waste hours on noisy trial-and-error machine setups only to end up with sloppy joints. You’ll be safely and quietly removing shavings you can see through, and all your joints will end up just right. Your projects will feel better because the surfaces are silky smooth. You will spend less time sanding. Your work will look better because things are flat and straight, the edges are crisp, and the wood glows as from an inner light. The right planes and the skill to use them will get us right to the heart of woodworking, where everything is good. 

Aimé Ontario Fraser

Aimé Ontario Fraser, contributing editor to Woodcraft Magazine, is a woodworking instructor and author of  “Getting Started in Woodworking” (Taunton Press, 2003). Her shop is located in an old factory converted to artists’ lofts in Bridgeport, Conn.


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