For centuries, skilled woodworkers and carpenters have relied on the hand plane to shape, smooth, and join boards with incredible precision and control. Before power tools became commonplace, hand planes were the go-to tools for any woodworking task.
Even with all the modern electric planers, jointers, and sanders available today, many professional carpenters and discerning hobbyists still keep a collection of tuning planes in their workshop. Why? Because a selection of well-tuned hand planes can produce results that are difficult or impossible to achieve with power tools alone.
While machines can rapidly hog away material, nothing beats the finesse and sensitivity of a hand plane guided by an experienced hand. The slicing action and whisper-thin shavings leave behind a surface that requires less sanding and little to no tear out. ether you’re preparing stock for fine furniture building or installing solid wood flooring, hand planes are indispensable tools.
In this guide, we’ll cover the top 5 hand planes that every carpenter should own, what to look for when choosing these essential tools, and tips for tuning vintage planes or buying new. Read on to step up your hand plane game!
Jack Plane – The All-Purpose Workhorse
The jack plane is the quintessential rough and ready tool designed to quickly flatten, straighten, square up, and dimension lumber. Usually 12-14 inches long with a 2 inch wide iron, a jack plane excels at hogging off stock and preliminary smoothing. This medium length bench plane can traverse wider surfaces compared to smaller planes.
Jack planes are real workhorses thanks to their weight which provides the needed mass for rapid material removal. Don’t let the name fool you – a jack plane is not just for rough carpentry work. In the hands of a master craftsman, the jack transforms rough sawn boards into glassy smooth surfaces ready for finish planing and joining.
With a cambered blade, the jack plane can also smooth small imperfections and flatten warped boards. The generous width enables edge jointing for joining panels or tabletops. For superior performance, look for jack planes with soles that are precision machined flat and blades that hold a keen edge. Quality planes give you better control and leave a cleaner surface off the tool.
While you can pay a premium for brands like Lie-Nielsen or Veritas, Anant and Woodriver make excellent budget-friendly jack planes for under $100. If buying vintage, look for Stanleys or Records with little rust and life left in the irons.
Smoothing Plane – Fine Finish Final Cuts
After the jack plane hogged away the worst roughness, it’s time to break out the smoothing plane for sumptuous final wispy shavings. As the name implies, these planes excel at finish planing boards prior to final assembly, joinery, or applying a surface finish.
At only 9-10 inches long, a smoothing plane’s short sole rides easily over minor dips and flaws left behind by the jack. The moderately open mouth behind the blade enables deep cuts while preventing tear out in fragile woods like cherry or walnut. Smoothers leave a surface that needs little to no sanding before finishing.
With practice, you can take see-through shavings and achieve a polished “glass board” surface. Look for tight manufacturing tolerances in the machined body and a tight mouth opening. Quality steel hold a keen edge, but watch for pitting or neglect with vintage irons. Premium smoothers from Lie-Nielsen or Veritas start around $300, or Woodriver makes an excellent budget smoother for less than $140.
Block Plane – Taming End Grain and Small Surfaces
For working smaller areas, nothing beats the control and simplicity of a compact 6-7 inch block plane. The small footprint and angled blade enables planing end grain and fitting tight joints. The blade bedded at a lower angle of 12-20 degrees makes it easier to plane tricky figured woods across changing grain directions without tear out.
Thanks to their small size, block planes excel at chamfering edges, trimming end grain, and fine tuning smaller workpieces. The short body fits in your palm for comfort and finesse. Unlike larger bench planes, you can easily work at any angle.
Many carpenters always keep a trusty block plane in their aprons for quick touch ups or fitting as they work. Look for a sharp blade you can advance with small adjustments, and low angle bevel for end grain work. Adding some grip tape to the sides improves comfort and control. You can find solid vintage blocks for $40 or premium new Lie-Nielsen for around $150.
Jointer Plane – Flattening and Edge Jointing
When you need to true up the edge of a board or flatten wide surfaces, reach for the jointer plane. At 18 inches or longer, its long sole travels over high and low spots to create a flat reference surface. This reduces rocking and material removal required by other planes.
The extra mass and weight of a jointer plane also improves blade registration for straight edges on panel glue ups or removing cupping and twists over long boards. Jointers excel at the initial flattening of rough sawn lumber up to the smoothing phase. Look for a machined steel or cast iron body with minimal flex.
Premium models from Veritas and Lie-Nielsen run $300+, but you can find solid vintage jointers from Stanley or Record for less than $150 if you hunt. Look for a tight mouth, a sole that isn’t twisted, pitted, or worn. And inspect the blade – is there life left or does it need extensive sharpening? Proper sharpening is key because jointers take deeper cuts.
Shoulder Plane – Precision Trimming and Joinery
When crafting fine furniture and joinery, the unique shape of the shoulder plane excels at trimming tenons, rabbets, and dadoes for an exact fit. Its purpose-built design guides the twin blades along the shoulder of the workpiece for controlled trimming.
The narrow plane body improves accessibility in tight spaces like drawers, allowing you to sneak up on a perfect fit. A sharp perpendicular blade prevents tear out while a skewed or curved blade creates a fine finish. Adjustable fences keep the thickness uniform as you trim the joint.
Look for a comfortable gripping area between the two blades. This allows you to steer the plane precisely as the blades make fine shavings. Premium shoulder planes from Lie Nielsen or Veritas cost $200+, but you can sometimes find decent vintage models on eBay for less than $100.
What to Look for When Choosing Hand Planes
Beyond the basic types covered above, keep these essential factors in mind when selecting hand planes for your workshop:
- Sole Flatness – A machined flat sole prevents rocking and skipped spots during planing. Check for twist, cupping, or hollows along the bottom.
- Sharp Iron – A keen blade requires less effort to make fine shavings. Look for pitting, chips, and neglect with vintage irons.
- Tight Mouth – The opening behind the blade determines shaving thickness. Tighter is better for final smoothing and finish work.
- Comfort – Your hands power the tool. Look for comfortable handles, control knobs, quality timber, and proper length.
- Traditional or Modern Styling – Personal taste plays a role. Choose classic vintage looks or modern precision manufacturing.
- Budget – You can spend anywhere from $50 to $500 on new or used hand planes. Buy the best you can afford.
Tuning Up Vintage Planes and Choosing New Ones
Bringing an old hand plane back to usable condition is deeply satisfying. With some elbow grease, you can save money on solid vintage tools. Here are some tips for tuning old planes or choosing new:
- Clean – Strip paint, disassemble, and clean thoroughly. Evaporust removes rust without damage.
- Flatten Sole – Sand out twists on glass or granite. Spot sand only where needed.
- Sharpen Blade – Lap and sharpen to 30 degree bevel, polishing backs to a mirror finish.
- Adjust Frog – Set for thin smoothing shavings or thicker roughing cuts.
- Lubricate – Lightly oil sole and blade components to prevent rust.
- Buy Brand New – Skip the restoration and buy premium new planes from Lie-Nielsen, Veritas, Woodriver.
- Try Before You Buy – If possible, test vintage planes for flatness and blade sharpness.
- Mix Old and New – No need for brand loyalty. Mixing vintage and new planes works well.
Hand Plane FAQs – Key Tips for Success
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about hand planes to ensure success:
- What bevel angle should I sharpen the blade? 25-30 degrees works well for bench planes. Lower 20 degrees on block planes.
- How can I flatten the sole of old hand planes? Sandpaper on a dead flat glass or granite surface works wonders.
- Should I get a low angle or standard angle block plane? Low angle planes have more versatility for tricky grain.
- How often does a plane blade need sharpening? Typically after 10-30 mins of use depending on timber hardness.
- Can hand planes be used on end grain? Yes, a finely tuned low angle block plane works beautifully on end grain.
- How do I stop a hand plane from chattering? Tighten the throat, hone a lightly curved blade, increase downward pressure.
- What’s a decent hand plane for beginners on a budget? A new or vintage #4 smoothing plane.
- How can I tune up an old hand plane? Check previous tips on cleaning, flattening, sharpening, lubricating.
- What sharpening supplies do I need? Diamond sharpening stones, extra fine water stones, a honing guide.
Start Building Your Hand Plane Collection
A selection of well tuned hand planes is a joy to use and can accomplish intricate woodworking tasks that are difficult with only power tools. Start building your collection with a medium jack plane and smoother for essential stock prep.
Add in a low angle block plane and longer jointer to complete the core bench plane foursome. Look for shoulder, rabbet, and specialty planes as your skills advance. Understanding what to look for when buying planes is key.
With practice and sharp irons, hand planes become an irreplaceable pleasure. You’ll achieve glassy smooth surfaces and airy gossamer shavings that would make any woodworker proud.
The soothing shhhhkk sound of a finely tuned hand plane cutting whisper thin shavings is music to a carpenter’s ears. As your tool skills grow, so will your appreciation and love of the hand plane – an exquisitely simple and effective tool passed down through the centuries.