Five Handplanes You Need
Words: Vic Tesolin
Photos: EK Bowell
If you are new to the world of handplanes, it can be difficult to figure out what you need or what you should start with. There are countless options spanning from new tools to vintage and everything in between. The five planes shown above are the most used in my shop. The first three are in my eyes essential regardless of whether you are a machine person or not. The last two are for people who can’t/ don’t run machines or don’t enjoy the dulcet tones of a power router.
The low-angle jack
In my workshop, there isn’t a plane nearly as versatile as the low-angle jack. This plane is a real workhorse and its size is the secret to its versatility. It’s long enough that I haven’t missed having a power jointer for the last eight years. I’ve flattened boards up to 500mm without an issue and that’s not where it ends, the plane also isn’t so long that it can’t be used as a smoother.
I’m inherently lazy, and I’ve been known to simply dial back my jack from a heavy flattening cut to a fine smoothing cut, thereby foregoing my smoothing plane. Also, the fact that the plane is a bevel-up allows me to hone the angle I want on the edge of the blade to get optimum planing results for the timber I’m working with.
1. While the surface may look rough from the toothing, a quick smoothing will get this timber looking great.
Dimensioning stock is another task that the jack is good at, especially if you add a toothed blade. The toothed blade enables you to remove a lot of material quickly while all but eliminating any tear-out. Once you have the board where you want it, simply switch to a regular blade and smooth out the corduroy surface (photo 1).
2. You won’t have the training wheels on for long – a little practice will have you going unaided in no time.
The low-angle jack is also great for jointing edges. Glue lines can all but disappear by using this plane to joint the two mating surfaces. There is no doubt there is a bit of learning curve involved with jointing by hand, but I can assure you it’s well worth the practice. You can invest in a detachable fence that acts as a set of training wheels to teach your body how to hold the plane perpendicular to the edge. Before you know it, you’ll be doing edge work with the best of them (photo 2).
3. There aren’t many machines that can remove 0.02mm in a single pass to sneak up on a dimension.
Add a shooting board to the mix and you have a great way to trim endgrain surfaces to be straight and true. The low-angle jack slides along a platform on its side while the fence of the shooting board holds the work. You can even make multiple fences to rest against the main fence to work with angles. A sharp blade and some practice is all you need to get great results (photo 3).
The low-angle jack plane is a bench plane, and bench plane blades almost always have some camber to the edge. It’s easy to apply this gentle camber when sharpening by gently rocking the blade back and forth as you make your strokes on the abrasives. This camber will prevent dastardly plane tracks from appearing on your boards. This is the secret to finishing off the plane, eliminating the need to fire up the sander.
4. The shoulder plane lets you tweak the endgrain for a gap-free fit.
This plane is useful for both hand and machine woodworkers. Regardless of the technique you use for cutting the shoulders of tenons, there is always a bit of tweaking required to get the reveal looking good (photo 4).
5. The cheek of the tenon acts as the guide for the shoulder plane to do its thing.
Shoulder planes, like the low-angle jack, are bevel-up planes with a blade angle of around 25°. This low-angle blade combined with the 12° bed angle gives you a low, 37° cutting angle, ideal for endgrain which is what the shoulder plane is working with (photo 5).
6. The over-wide blade makes it a cinch to adjust the plane for left or righthand use.
You may notice on shoulder planes that the blade is slightly wider than the body. No cause for alarm here. In fact, it’s supposed to be like this. When setting up this plane, you simply have to place the body of the plane on a flat surface, loosen the lever cap slightly and push down on the body and the blade at the same time, then tighten up the lever cap again. This will ensure the blade is lined up with the side of the plane, allowing you to working right into the corner of the joint (photo 6). This also allows you to easily work on either side of the plane.
The block plane is a handy little plane that gets used for all matters of woodwork in my shop. Its small size makes it a tempting plane to buy as a first ‘good plane’, however that same small size makes it suitable for only small tasks. The low-angle jack is by far a more versatile plane making it a better ‘first’ plane.
7. The low angle cutting angle makes easy work of difficult to cut endgrain.
The block plane is a bevel-up, though they can be found with the usual 12° bed as well as a 20° bed. I find the 12° bed to be the most useful because it allows the user to get the low 37° preferred for endgrain work (photo 7).
8. Shaping your pencil to a chisel-point makes it easy to run against a surface for marking.
In my shop, this plane gets used for tasks like trimming endgrain, removing arrises from boards and even sharpening pencils. Pencil sharpeners are nice and all, but I like being able to put a custom shape onto a pencil to make it better suited for some referential marking tasks (photo 8). I also put a small camber on my block plane blade so that I can use it like an eraser; allowing
me to work on a small trouble area mid-field.
This is by far my favorite plane to use and I think that stems from it being a simple plane to set up. The plough plane cuts grooves with the grain, a common task in woodworking, and it couldn’t get any simpler with this tool. Some of these planes are not limited to grooves. Some models also have blades that can cut the tongue of a tongue-and-groove joint in one pass as well as cutting beads and rebates with the grain.
9. A simple tool for a simple task. The plough can cut a groove faster than you can set up a machine.
The blade registers against the body so there is no need for lateral adjustment. Once the blade is installed, the fence and depth stop need to be set in the desired location and you are a grooving machine (photo 9).
While it is a simple tool to use, there are some pointers that will help you along. It’s essential that your straight blades are sharpened 90 ̊ across or you will get an angled bottom to your groove. Also, start the cut at the front of the board and work your way back with subsequent passes until you get to the other end. This will create a tapered track that will help guide the blade but no worries, the groove will lose its taper once you’ve finished.
10. No need for an all around kung-fu grip. You only need to push the plane forward with your dominant hand.
Most importantly, don’t hang on to the handle with a death grip, doing this will result in the plane tipping and creating a mess at the top and bottom of the groove. Instead, guide the plane with your one hand on the fence while simply pushing the plane forward with an open grip to avoid tipping it (photo 10).
The router plane
11. After removing the bulk of the waste with a chisel, the router ensures the bottom of the joint is flat.
Last but certainly not least is the most versatile joinery plane of them all – the router plane. Like the modern screamer, the router plane is suited for doing many jobs for the cabinetmaker. Everything from dados and grooves to rebates and hinge gains can be cut with this plane (photo 11). Although, if you’re doing a lot of one particular task, like grooving, it makes sense to get the dedicated plane.
12. A handmade tool is as much a joy to behold as it is to use.
The router plane also excels at inlay work, carefully and quietly letting in a pocket for the inlay to fit. Some models sport a fence and depth stop which only add to their usefulness, and they can be artisanally made from wood or factory made from metal (photo 12).
This is certainly not the end of the list when it comes to planes, but I feel this is a good starter for a woodworker looking to go into the world of hand tools. I know that I would have difficulty doing what I do without them.
Vic Tesolin is a furniture maker and woodworking/technical advisor for Veritas/Lee Valley Tools. Vic’s book ‘The Minimalist Woodworker was published in 2016. See www.minimalistwoodworker.com