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Hand Planes: Unlocking the Mystery

by J. Norman Reid
Delaplane, Virginia

Like many other woodworkers I decided early on I would be a "Normite" and bow to the superior precision of power tools. Hand tools seemed just too imprecise and hard to master. But somewhere along the way, I developed affection for hand planes and began to unlock the mysteries of their use. Now, their secrets solved, they are a regular part of my woodworking practice. They can be for you too.

Although a wide variety of planes is available on the new and used markets, most applications involve what are known as "bench planes." The most practical of these, as denominated by the Stanley numbering system, are numbers 3, 4, 4-1/2, 5, 6, 7 and 8. Together with a block plane, these make up most of the planes you'll ever need. And you won't even need all these. At a minimum, you can do perfectly well with one jointer plane (a #7, 7-1/2 or 8), one smoothing plane (a #3, 4 or 4-1/2) and a block plane.

Three Essential Planes
Although it’s possible to build up a large stable of planes designated for specialized purposes, you can do everything you need to do with just three essential planes—a block plane, a jointer and a smoothing plane. My recommendations are a low-angle, adjustable mouth block plane like the Lie-Nielsen #60 ½; a #7, #7 ½ low angle or #8 jointer; and a #4 or #4 ½ smoother. Though you can find restorable planes on the used market, you won’t go wrong by spending a little more for the best quality, like Lie-Nielsen. Once you have these basic planes, you can fill in other, more specialized planes as your needs require and your budget permits.

Bevel Down vs. Bevel Up Planes
Traditionally, hand plane blades were mounted in their bodies with the bevel facing down, toward the wood. Recently, however, a number of planes have been introduced with the bevel facing up. Aside from some advantages in how the effective blade angle can be changed by the angle at which the bevel is honed, the chief benefit of a bevel up plane comes in setting it up for cutting. A bevel up plane has fewer parts, no chipbreaker or lateral adjustment lever and is easier to set up. However, bevel down planes look more complicated than they really are and they can be easily learned. Both types of planes work well. So, the choice is yours.

How They're Used

To plane rough boards smooth, start with the jointer. Its long bed rides over the board’s hills and valleys and knocks them down as it goes. Continue planing until the board is dead flat. Once you're there, switch to your smoothing plane and give it a few light passes to get everything nice and, well, smooth. When any ridges left by the jointer are gone, you're done. If you are taking your boards from a power planer, using a smoother is the only step you'll need to do.

Reading Your Board

The direction you plane matters if you want to avoid tearout. You want to plane with the grain, but on a rough board, how can you tell what that is? One method is to look at the edge of the board to see which way the grain lies. You want to plane in the direction the grain is rising. The usual analogy is to treat the board as you would the fur of cat--plane so the grain lies down. Another method is to look at the end grain and identify the heart side of the board. It's the side toward which the rings are bent. The outer side of the rings is the bark side. With the heart side facing up, orient the board so the bottom or open side of the grain’s cathedral is facing you. Then plane from the bottom of the cathedral toward its top. When you flip the board to the bark side, reverse the board so you are planing into the peaks of the cathedral. This will ensure that you are always planing in the right direction.

Flattening Uneven Boards

Unfortunately, rough boards don’t always come flat from the lumber yard. They may be cupped from side to side, bowed from end-to-end or even twisted so adjacent corners are uneven. Check for these conditions before you begin to flatten your board. Place cupped boards with the concave side down. Then plane a valley down the middle of the convex side until it is even with the sides or a bit lower. After that, plane the board diagonally until it is level on that side.

For boards that are bowed from one end to another, place the concave side facing down and, with your jointer plane, make successive passes down the length of the board until you've achieved flatness. You will get best results if you cut the board into shorter pieces before planing. This reduces the amount of bowing that has to be removed. If the board is severely bowed, you may need to start by planing crosswise to reduce the high spot to the level of the rest of the board before planing along its length. Once you have one face flattened, turn the board over and work on the ends, which will be thicker than the middle, to bring them down to the desired thickness.


Twisted boards present the biggest challenge. You may need to shim opposite corners so they will be stable on your benchtop. Sight along winding sticks--perfectly flat sticks positioned at different points on your board--to see where the high spots are. Mark these, then plane them down until your winding sticks are in perfect alignment all along the length of your board.

Once you have one face flattened, plane the edges flat and perpendicular to the first face. This is not as hard as it appears. Hold your plane as close to 90° as you can and take a few strokes. Once the edge is smooth, test it with a square at several points. If one side of the edge is high, center your plane over that side and take a couple more strokes. Repeat until the side is square.

Final Thicknessing

With one face flat and the sides square to the face, use a marking gauge to scribe a line indicating the thickness on all four edges. Then plane the board down to that line. If you have a lot of material to remove, consider starting with a scrub plane, a narrow plane with a deeply curved blade that excels at fast stock removal. Used Stanley scrub planes are widely available; Lie-Nielsen also manufactures one.

Planing the Ends

The final step is to plane the ends square to the rest of the board. Because you'll be cutting end grain, extra care is needed. A low-angle block plane works well here. Work in from the leading edge and plane to the center of the board, but avoid planing all the way across the board. Otherwise, you risk tearout (spelching) at the trailing edge. You can aid cutting by moving the plane with a circular motion, which slices the grain at an angle. Above all, keep your blade extra sharp for the tough end grain. Best results are obtained by using a shooting board, which holds your board against a stop and lets you take small shavings at exactly 90° to the rest of the board. You can make your own shooting board.

That's all there is to it. By following these few rules and keeping your blades honed, you'll be planing like a pro after only a couple of boards.



J. Norman Reid is a woodworker specializing in 18th Century and Craftsman furniture. He teaches hand planing in northern Virginia where he lives with his wife, four cats and a basement woodshop full of tools in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He can be reached by email at nreid@fcc.net.




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