What is a hand plane?

Essentially, a hand plane is a chisel wedged into a solid body. It is a cutting tool that is designed to cut consistent shavings from wood and in the process flatten and smooth the surface. Etymologically a plane is a tool that makes flat surfaces.The term plane comes from the Latin word “planum” which means “flat surface.”

A hand plane is moved by muscle power over the wood surface. The flat sole of the plane rides over the hollows and cuts down any mounds or humps. The longer the sole, the flatter the surface it produces.

Hand Plane Parts Diagram
No. 4 Bench plane parts diagram

Hand plane construction materials

Hand planes can be divided into three different types according to what materials they are made from: Wooden bodied, metal (most often cast iron) and hybrid (a combination of the two).

Wooden bodied planes

A wooden bodied plane is quite simple. It has a one-piece body with a throat, a mouth and a blade bed cut into. Wooden plane usually has a single tote fastened in the rear part (heel) of the body (Japanese and Chinese planes do not have any handles). There is usually no front knob, but the plane body is shaped so one can easily grab hold of. The blade can be single or double iron held with a wedge. In an end grain at the heel and top of the toe of the body, there could be “start” buttons. They are used to adjust blade cutting depth with a hammer.

Wooden bodies are and were commonly made by beech and white birch because of its stability, toughness, and density. Apple, boxwood, ebony and lignum vitae are also used especially on premium models.
Benefit and disadvantage of the wooden plane are its sole; It slides smoothly and lightly when planing, but it wears out quickly. However, it is easy to hone straight or even resole if needed.

Metal bodied planes

Anatomy of the cast-iron plane is basically the same as in wooden, although it looks different. Body is single casting with the sides and the sole machined squared and true. A Mouth, a throat for shavings to pass through, rear handle (tote) and front knob bolted on, and machined faces for a frog to attach on.

Cast-iron is stable, heavy material, which dampens vibration well. A good material for a plane. The only drawback is its shock resistance, if a plane is dropped to concrete it will break beyond no repair.

The frog is a separate casting machined to mate well and secure with a body and to form a bed for a blade to lean on. For plane performance, it is important that the frog mates firmly and tightly on the body and the blade stays tightly on the frog so there is no play with the connection.

Most frogs have some sort of adjustment screws to move its position. Adjustable frog allows the throat opening to be fine-tuned by moving the frog forward and backward. Another way to adjust throat opening in some planes (usually block planes) is movable throat plate.

The most important difference between wooden and metal bodied bench planes is a built-in adjuster on the back of the frog that regulates the depth of the cut and the alignment of the blade. Lateral adjustment is done with a steel lever with its lower end engaged in a slot in the blade pivoting side to side. The depth of the cut is adjusted with adjuster wheel mounted on the back of the frog. There is y-shaped fork captured by the adjuster wheel and which engages with a cap iron; when turning the wheel, y-shaped fork pivots and moves the blade in or out.

Hybrid or Transitional planes

Stanley started to offer transitional planes same time when it started to sell cast-iron Bailey planes. A transitional plane is a combination of a wooden body and the upper half of the cast-iron plane. It offers the smooth action of wooden sole and convenience of easy depth and lateral adjustment of a metal-bodied plane. It was cheaper to produce although it contains the same working parts as its all metal counterpart. Limitations for these planes are the same as all wooden bodied planes; the sole wears faster and humidity changes can warp it out of true.

Essential hand plane characteristics

A hand plane is a cutting tool that is designed to cut consistent shavings from wood and in the process flatten and smooth the surface. To say it simply, a hand plane is a jig that holds a chisel at given angle. Features that are considered important with the bench planes are flatness and the length of the sole, shape and the angle of the blade, weight, and the ergonomics of handling.

Length of the sole

The length of the sole is an important factor when determining the typical use of the given plane. The longer the sole, the flatter it will plane the surface. The longer plane can’t follow the hollows of the surface but ride over the high spots flattening it.

Shorter planes are used to flatten smaller areas or to smooth already flattened surface.

The flatness of the sole

Bench planes are designed to flatten wood. This function requires a flat sole or sole that is flat in critical areas to work properly.

The weight of the plane

Heavy bench planes maintain the momentum better which is a good thing when cutting thick shavings. Prolonged use of heavyweight bench planes tires the user more than using lighter, wooden planes.  Some woodworkers prefer the lighter wooden hand planes when taking thin shavings, where the weight of the plane is not so important factor.

Blade/cutting/pitch angle

Cutting angle of the plane is called pitch. Standard pitch (common pitch) of the bench planes is 45°. In the low angle block planes, the blade cuts at 37° angle.  Higher pitches are called York Pitch (50°), Middle pitch(55°), and Half pitch(60°)

Cutting angle of the blade determines how well a plane work with a given woods. For softwoods and end grain cutting the lower angles tend to work well. Higher angles work best with hardwoods. For really tricky, tear-out prone woods (curly, burl, birds-eye, interlocked grain, etc.) higher pitches can be used to reduce tear-out.

Cap iron / chipbreaker

Cap iron is used to stiffen the blade and more importantly to broke and deflect the shaving sharply away from the surface. Well-set cap-iron helps to reduce or completely remove the tear-out. Breaking the fibers right behind the edge decreases the levering action that tries to tear the fibers out in front of the blade.

Tight mating cap iron reduces also the blade chatter.

Hand plane mouth

Size of the mouth is important to the proper function of the bench plane. In a smoothing plane, the tight mouth will help to prevent tear-out. The fibers are held down by the sole, preventing them to tear-up until the very fine opening and the edge is reached. The tight mouth will, however, cause jams if the thickness of shavings is too much. I prefer lightly larger mouth and closely set cap iron as a prevention for tear out. For a basic bench plane cuts mouth should be left relatively open.

The mouth of the bench planes can be adjusted usually by moving the frog back and forth. In block planes and some bevel-up planes, the opening of the mouth can be adjusted with an adjustable throat plate.

Choosing the right hand plane for the job

Bench planes – what are they used for?

Bench planes are used to size, to straighten and to smooth surface of the wooden objects. With bench planes you remove wood to cut a piece to exact size, you straighten pieces for example for jointing them together, and finally, you do final smoothing to surfaces. Bench planes are named as is because you tend to use them on a bench, not on site.

When straightening a wood you need to use longer planes and when smoothing you use short ones.
Pitch of the bench plane iron is normally 45 degrees. In some models, you can change the frog for a more steep angle.

A Veritas small bevel-up smoother (Hand Plane)
A Veritas small bevel-up smoother

Bevel up or down bench planes?

A bevel is an angle on cutting end of any blade. Plane blades are with a few exceptions almost always beveled on only one face. Until recently bench planes were always bevel-down planes – that is, when the blade is secured in the plane, the beveled edge is on the reverse side of the blade, facing down towards the work-piece. Only block planes have been bevel-up –type planes.

Lee Valley Veritas and Lie Nielsen are nowadays offering many bevel-up bench planes. The bevel-up configuration lets you vary the cutting angle by altering the blade bevel angle. The same plane can be used for end grain when used with a low cutting angle (12° bed angle + 25° bevel angle = total 37° degrees) With higher cutting angles e.g. 50° resulting from 38° bevel blade, are suitable to smoothing.

As good as bevel-up planes look on paper they are still not “The one plane to rule ’em all.” My experience with them is that they are solid planes for certain tasks. They work well for every task where you can use straight (not cambered) blade edge. Examples include, shooting edges, using with shooting boards, and trimming.

One big drawback is the significant difficulty in grinding a camber to bevel. The low angle configuration dictates that you have to camber blade to a more tight radius to get the same results as bevel-down planes. You really need to remove lots of steel to get the same effect.

Advantages of the bevel-up hand planes are:

  • Easier set-up compared to bevel-down planes
  • No chip-breaker
  • Low center of mass – planning narrow edges is easier
  • Mouth size is easier to adjust
  • Excels cutting the end grain

Disadvantages of the bevel-up hand planes are:

  • Blade adjuster knobs that are out of reach when planing.
  • Lacking a chip breaker. Sometimes the chip breaker helps with hard to plane woods.
  • Lower total mass

What are the different types of hand planes?

Bench planes are divided into four types:

  • Jack plane: No. 5 and 5 1/2. Usually, the first plane used on the wood for rough sizing and surfacing. 
  • Fore plane: No.6. 
  • Jointer plane: No.7 and 8. The longest plane that excels at making a straight and level surface.
  • Smoothing plane: No.1 to No 4 1/2. Last of the bench planes used on wood. Function is to smooth and polish the wood.
My beautiful wooden 24" jointer plane.
My beautiful wooden 24″ jointer plane.

Jointer plane: Leveling and squaring long edges

Another name for jointer is Try Plane. The jointer plane is used for leveling and squaring long edges and working with wide boards. The longer the plane, the better it is for leveling wood. Longer planes are also heavier.

Personally, I like wooden jointers more than metal ones. With a long plane, you really don’t need weight as much as when using smoothers. If you need to level lots of wood, the wooden jointer is so much lighter to use. Thumbs up for wooden planes.
The jointer’s blade is usually honed straight for cutting perfectly flat edges.

Stanley/Bailey type metal jointers are numbered as No. 7 and No. 8. They are 559mm 22” and 610mm 24” long. No. 7 comes with 60mm (2 3/8”) wide iron and No. 8 with 67mm (2 5/8) wide iron.

Vintage Stanley No. 5 Hand Plane
Vintage Stanley no.5 jack plane

Jack Plane: The general workhorse of bench planes

In my opinion, Jack Planes are most general of all planes. So much so that if people ask me what plane should I buy first, my answer is to get a Jack Plane. You can joint with it, albeit not very well, but you can manage with it. You can also smooth with it, again it’s not perfect, but it is adequate to get the job done.

What is a Jack plane used for?

Traditionally jack planes were used after the scrub plane, leveling and smoothing undulating surface left by scrub plane. It is also used when needed to “size”, aka shaving off smaller amounts of wood to reduce a piece to the desired size.

Fore, Jointer and smoothing planes are used after the jack plane.
It is longer than the smoothing plane, therefore better suited leveling the high points along the length of the wood rather than following any undulations, giving a straighter edge.

When using the Jack as a multipurpose plane its blade’s cutting edge is honed straight with slightly rounded corners. It is thus suitable for jointing work and smoothing. The rounded corners in the blade prevent “tracks” being left in the surface that is broader than the blade.

Length of the Jack plane is usually between 292mm (11½”) and 380mm (15”)

Read more about the jack plane usage from my article: Jack Plane – The Most Versatile Bench Plane

Vintage Stanley No. 6 Fore/Try Plane
Vintage Stanley No. 6 Fore/try plane

Fore Plane: Midway between jack and jointer planes

The Fore plane, my go to jointer when shooting guitar top edges on a shooting board. I really think fore planes as a short jointer. Sufficiently long to make good, straight, invisible joint. Small enough not to weigth a ton.
Technically it sits midway between jack and jointer planes. Fore planes are designed to further straighten the wood’s surface after the scrub plane and jack plane have sized and leveled it.

It performs a dual role between sizing and truing up long edges or leveling wide boards.
Fore planes are about 457mm (18″) long with blades usually between 50mm (2″) to 60mm (2 3/8″) wide.
You might need two irons for a fore plane. If used for jointing edges then a straight cutting edge is best. But if used for flattening wide surfaces then blades edge should be slightly cambered to not to leave tracks on the surface

Vintage unrestored Stanley no. 4 Bench Plane
Vintage unrestored Stanley no. 4 Bench plane

Smoothing Plane: Achieving superior surface quality

The Smallest hand plane of the bench planes is Smoothing plane. It gives a superior finish when used properly. Sandpaper is no match for it. Smoother is typically used last of the bench planes. Number 4 and 4 1/2 are the best hand planes for smoothing.

What is a smoothing plane used for?

The smoothing plane is used to smoothen and polish the surface of the wooden object. It is usually set up to cut whisper thin shavings without tear-out. It is used last of the bench planes. 

Smoothing planes are numbered from No.1 to no. 4 ½. No. 1 is so small that it is a generally a kids plane. Adults hands are too big for it. Most common sizes are no. 4 and no-. 4 ½. Blade widths range from 32mm (1 ¼) to 60mm (2 3/8). Smoothing plane lengths are from 140mm (5½”) to 254mm (10”).

Choosing size depends on how big pieces of wood you are going to plane. If you do small things go with a smaller model, but the bigger model is perfect if the size of your work size varies.

Smoothing planes cutting edge is slightly cambered, that enables to plane surface without visible tracks. Overlapping cuts slightly is the best way to get perfect results.

If interested in smoothing planes, read my in-depth article about choosing a great smoothing plane.

Green Kunz no. 100 pocket plane "Moppel", Stanley 60 1/2 block plane and vintage Stanley 102 block plane
My current block plane collection.

The Block Plane: A versatile, one-handed tool for many tasks

Nothing beats a little block plane for simplicity and ease of use. Removal of milling marks left by machines is a piece of cake. Need to square or “true” some small stock? A small block plane is up to the task. Clamp the block plane upside down in your vice and you can plane the tiniest pieces by running them across the sole. A block plane can chamfer or round over an edge in less time than it takes to install a router bit. Got some binding doors or drawer fronts? A couple passes with handy little block plane is the remedy! And there is still more; It will fit in you workshop apron pocket!

Read more from my in-depth article:  What are the block planes used for?

The family of the block planes is big, sizes vary, a pitch of the blade varies. The Low angle block plane is primarily intended for end grain trimming and smoothing. The Block plane got its name for its use to resurface butcher blocks.

What’s the difference between a block plane and a bench plane?

Three main differences compared to bench planes are: A Blade with no cap iron, the blade is bedded at a low pitch and the blade is bevel-up. All these attributes improve the dynamics of cutting end grain. There is also higher angle block planes which are for more general tasks.

Japanese bench planes are also known as a Hira Kanna

Kanna’s are as a minimalist form of the plane as it gets. They are usually constructed from Japanese red or white oak. Bodies are rectangular blocks with iron positioned near the heel of a plane. What differentiates them most from western planes is the direction of the cut. They are used on the pull stroke. Blades are short and thick laminated steel.

Other types of Japanese planes are:

  • Kiwa ganna – A shoulder plane.
  • Mizo ganna – A Groove cutting plane
  • Sori Kanna – A convex soled plane for scooping out curved surfaces
  • Dainaoshi ganna – a Plane that is used to surface other planes soles.
  • Yari ganna – A spear-like plane used by a carpenter in ancient buildings
  • Nankin Kanna – a Spokeshave with two handles
A Lie Nielsen Scrub Plane
The Lie Nielsen makes a beautiful scrub plane for modern traditionalists. Image by: Lie Nielsen Toolworks Inc.

Scrub Plane: The sledgehammer of planes

Once common tool but the nowadays increasingly rare sight in the modern workshop.

What is a scrub plane used for?

A scrub plane is designed to quickly remove large quantities of wood. It is traditionally used in the first stages when preparing a rough stock. It is got wide open mouth and a curved blade that cuts quite deeply. It leaves distinct gouges in the surface which are afterward removed with a jack plane.

Use of scrub planes has been replaced by power tools such as the jointer and thickness planest.
A scrub plane is used diagonally when planing face of the board.

Generally, scrub planes have short narrow soles and narrow but thick blade. The blade is “single iron” type. It doesn’t need cap iron/chip breaker because of the coarse work it does.

Scrapers: The master of gnarly grain

“One of the most useful of hand-tools is the steel cabinet scraper” –Ernest Joyce, The encyclopedia of furniture making, 1978
Scrapers are ancient tools. The simplest scraper is a shard of glass or piece of steel cut from an old handsaw. Believe or not scrapers are one type of plane. Some scrapers come fixed with a plane body, others are only a piece of flat steel held in your hand, but then your hands are the body of the plane.

Card scrapers are available in a range of shapes and sides.

So what’s so different about scrapers that they can cut curly shavings where other planes tear out? You need a microscope or sensitive fingertips to find out. The biggest difference is the cutting edge. Unique cutting edge has a tiny burr, or hook rolled on to it. Quite different from the cutting edge of an ordinary bench plane.

Creating an edge that cuts well is probably the hardest thing to learn about scrapers.

Read more about scrapers from my articleCabinet scraper – a tool with a cutting-edge technology 

Lie Nielsen Shoulder Plane
Lie Nielsen Small Shoulder Plane. Image by: Lie Nielsen Toolworks Inc

Shoulder Plane: Master of shoulders, rabbets, tenons, and grooves

A shoulder plane is a specialist plane with low-angle blade flush with the edges of the plane. The low angle is ideal for the end grain cutting. a Rebate plane is similar but with a higher angle of the blade. A Full-width blade can cut right into the corners of shoulder and the tenon.

Rebate (rabbet) Plane – For cutting rabbets along the grain

A simple tool with a long history. Rebate planes iron extends the full width of the sole. It enables the plane to cut a deep rebate without the sides of the plane interfering process.

Rebate planes usually have adjustable depth stop and guide fence which allows precise setting of the depth and width. Some rebate planes have two positions for the blade; One for normal use and other for planing for the stopped rebate.

Rebate planes are also commonly equipped with a nicker (spur) which scores wood before the main blade cuts it. That way rebate is cut cleanly
There are also many rebate plane variants based on bench and block planes. In them, the blade goes full width of the sole.

Specialty planes

A Collection of Tiny Finger Planes
A Collection of my tiny finger planes

Finger planes – For precise work with delicate pieces

Luthiers, other instrument makers, and carvers use very small planes called finger planes. They are usually made of brass or wood and their size and shape vary according to the task they are made for. They are made with soles ranging from flat to varying curvatures along and across the sole. The width of the blade usually varies from 6mm (1/4”) to 18mm (3/4”). A typical luthier will have a collection of different sized and shaped finger planes.

What is a finger plane used for?

Finger planes are used for final smoothing and trimming of small parts in instrument and toy making. Flat soled versions work well with external curves whereas the curved soled finger planes are for concave surfaces. Violin and archtop guitar luthiers use them to fine tune the top and back surface curvature.

Finger planes are not very adjustable. Usually, the blade is held with a wedge and the mouth of the plane is fixed.
Luthiers usually make their own finger planes from offcuts of dense wood.

Spokeshaves – Specialty planes for shaping curved pieces of wood

What is a spokeshave used for?

As the name says, spokeshaves are used for trimming and shaping spokes, chair legs, bows, arrows, and canoe paddles.

Spokeshaves come with different soles: There are flat-bottom, concave and convex sole versions. Choice of a sole depends on the type of job needed. Spokeshaves are made in both wood and metal. They can be pushed and pulled. Shaped handles are in line with the blade edge and they offer lots of precise control when planing curved shapes.

A Sharp blade makes hand planes really sing

No plane will ever work well without a sharp and well-honed blade. If you encounter any problems with your plane, a first thing is to check is the blade really sharp anymore? My experience is that most problems arise with a dull blade.

Learn to sharpen plane blades well and your struggles with planes will diminish.

There are many great ways to sharpen blade: Water stones, oil stones, diamond plates, a Scary Sharp method, a Tormek system… Any of those will get your blades sharp in no time.

Workpiece holding is important

The need for sturdy workbench

If you’ve ever tried to plane a piece of wood that wasn’t secured steady to your workbench, you know how difficult it can be to get a smooth shaving with the piece wobbling and moving around.

A Good workbench is as essential tools as is a good plane. It is a heavy and rigid enough to stay put when planing piece. It offers a couple of ways to hold workpieces in place. They include holes for planning stops (dog ears), holdfasts, different vises such as front and end vices, shoulder vise, hybrid vise and so on. Its height is comfortable for the woodworker to plane for extended periods of time.

Workbenches are made mostly with solid wood. Almost any wood is suitable for workbenches. Sometimes they are partly made with plywood, Masonite or hardboard. Bases are made of wood or steel.