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Hand Planes Buying Guide

As with many woodworking tools, the hand plane dates back thousands of years. Examples of wooden bodied planes have been found in Roman excavations and some believe that a form of hand plane may even have been used by the ancient Egyptians. The basic design of a wooden body supporting an iron blade changed very little from Roman times until the 19th century when the first iron bodied planes were produced. Both types of body remain popular today with the iron bodied planes being favoured in North America and the UK and the wooden bodied planes more prevalent in continental Europe and Asia.

Anatomy of a Hand Plane

Anatomy of a Hand Plane

Although very simple in its concept, the modern hand plane is quite complex in its construction. Understanding what the individual components are and how they affect the performance of the plane is key to successful tuning up, use and maintenance of the tool. The body of the plane is the large piece of wood or metal to which all other components are attached.

On metal bodied planes, a large cast wedge is fitted to the body. Known as the frog, this acts as the main support to the blade and this normally slides backwards and forwards to open and close the mouth of the plane. The mouth is the rectangular opening in the sole of the plane through which the blade protrudes and the shavings emerge when planing. The blade or plane iron, as it also known, is seated on the frog.

On top of the blade and fastened to it is the cap iron or chipbreaker. As well as giving extra rigidity to the blade, the cap iron causes the shaving coming through the mouth to curl and break. Holding the blade and cap iron assembly to the frog is the lever cap.

The depth adjustment knob controls how far the blade protrudes through the bottom of the mouth and therefore the depth of cut of the blade. The skew or angle of the blade in relation to the body of the plane is controlled by the lateral adjustment lever. Bench planes feature a large handle at the back, sometimes referred to as the tote and a knob at the front. The very front of the plane is known as the toe with the back of the plane called the heel. ©

Types of Hand Planes

Block Planes

Measuring around 150mm in length, block planes are sized to be used with one hand and excel at making fine finishing cuts and trimming end grain. The blade is seated at a lower angle than that of a bench plane and the blade is usually set with the cutting bevel upwards rather than downwards. This shallow cutting angle means that the blade is better able to slice through the wood fibres in the end grain leaving a fine, smooth finish. Other examples of block planes are apron planes, so called as they are small enough to fit in to an apron pocket and trimming planes. ©

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Smoothing Planes

The shortest in length of the group of planes classified as bench planes, the smoothing planes are sized and weighted to take final finishing cuts when flattening and smoothing boards. Normally the last plane used when taking a board from rough to smooth, the smoothing plane is only used when the board is flat. A properly sharpened and set smoothing plane will leave a far finer finish on wood than can be achieved by sanding. Classified by length, the No 3 smoothing plane is shorter at around 175mm and lighter than the No 4 smoothing plane which usually measures around 200mm. ©

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Jack Planes

The jack plane gets its name from being the "Jack of all trades" plane in the workshop. Often the starting point for any plane collection the general purpose Jack plane or No 5 plane, as it is classified, can be used for both flattening and smoothing boards making it the most versatile bench plane in the workshop. Measuring around 350mm in length, the Jack plane is noticeably longer and heavier than the smoothing planes. ©

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Fore Planes

Used for flattening tasks, the fore plane or No 6 plane is the shortest of the range of bench planes used for flattening boards. Measuring around 460mm long, the fore plane has a sole long enough not to follow the peaks and troughs found on an unflat board. Instead, the plane rides over the troughs and takes shavings from the peaks only, levelling the board before smoothing. The fore plane can also be used for squaring stock prior to edge to edge jointing. ©

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Jointer Planes

The longest planes produced are the No 7 and No 8 jointer or try planes. As the name suggests, their primary function is to straighten the sides of boards prior to jointing. With the No 7 measuring around 510mm and the No 8 measuring around 600mm, these planes have long soles allowing them to glide over peaks and troughs in the surface of the board cutting away from the peaks until the edge of the board is perfectly flat. Jointer planes can also be used to flatten the surfaces of boards. ©

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Shoulder Planes

Unlike the bench or block planes, shoulder planes have blades that extend the full width of the plane. This allows the plane to cut across its entire width. Used primarily for cutting rebates like those found on tenon shoulders, it is also ideal for trimming and cutting right against a corner and shoulder planes feature flat sides to allow this to be done. Shoulder planes are available in a range of sizes to suit all sizes of work. ©

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Bull Nose Planes

A shorter version of the shoulder plane, the bullnose plane is used for finer work such as taking finishing cuts when fitting tenons as well as small scale work. Some bull nose planes have removable fronts allowing them to convert in to chisel planes so the blade can work into corners. The blades on these planes are usually slightly wider than the body to prevent the body from binding against the wall of the rebate. This ensures a straight, square cut. ©

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Rabbet Planes

Similar in function to the shoulder plane, the rabbet or rebate plane has a number of physical differences. Like the shoulder planes, rabbet planes have blades that extend the full width of the body of the plane allowing them to cut flat to the side of the work. Unlike the shoulder planes, rabbet planes have fences which reference the face of the board being rebated keeping the cut perfectly parallel. An in built depth stop on these planes ensures that the required cut depth is not exceeded. Some rabbet planes also feature a sharp spur which cuts through the wood fibres ahead of the plane blade to give a clean cut when rebating across the grain. ©

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Plough/Plow Planes

The plough plane is used for cutting long grooves and dadoes in boards such as those used for the fitting of drawer bottoms in to drawers. To ensure the cut is parallel to the side of the board, plough planes have adjustable fences that use the edge of the board as a reference. Usually, these planes are supplied with a selection of blades, each one capable of cutting a specific width of groove. Often used in favour of a router when it is essential the groove is cut accurately. ©

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Router Planes

Looking almost like a cross between a hand plane and a spokeshave, the router plane is used primarily for cleaning out grooves, dadoes and very shallow mortices. Sometimes supplied with a fence for straight work, the router plane can also be used free hand. The router plane offers two cutting positions for the blade. The first in board position has the blade encompassed by the plane body. The second position sees the blade in the out board position with the blade exposed at the front. This second position allows the router plane to cut right in to corners. ©

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Japanese Planes

The Japanese hand plane is a simple yet extremely efficient concept of a sharp iron blade held in a wooden body. This assembly is pulled towards the user rather than pushed and because of this, the plane is more accurate and less fatiguing to use. The wooden bodies are less likely to mark or damage the surface of the work than metal bodied planes and are ideal for delicate work as well as more heavy duty planing. These planes all feature bodies made from Japanese white oak, a hard, straight grained wood favoured for use in woodworking tools. Blade adjustments are made by tapping the blade with a hammer or mallet. ©

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Features to Consider When Buying a Hand Plane

Features to Consider When Buying a Hand Plane

1. Type of Frog

The frog is an important consideration when buying any bench plane as it is the one part of the plane that supports the blade. How well designed the frog is and how well it fits onto the body of the plane will ultimately determine how well the plane performs. There are two main styles of frog common today, Bailey and Bedrock. The Bailey frog is found on most hand planes and sits on top of a machined surface on the plane body. Fully adjustable, this type of frog is held in place with two screws which can only be accessed when the plane iron assembly has been removed. Once the screws are loosened, a fine adjustment knob at the back of the frog can be used to change the position of the frog to open or close the plane mouth. In comparison, the Bedrock style frog, which also sits on a machined surface on the body of the plane, features a recess at either side which positively locates the frog on to two ridges in the plane body. This keeps the frog square to the body. The Bedrock frog can be adjusted to open and close the mouth of the plane, without having to remove the plane iron assembly, using two screws at the back of the frog. ©

2. Angle of the Blade

The angle of the blade in a plane has a considerable effect on how and what it can cut. Blades presented at a lower angle to the wood, such as block planes, are perfect for cutting end grain as the blade slices rather than scrapes. Blades presented at very high angles like the scraper planes and some of the Chinese planes are ideal for working exotic timbers and burrs with complex grain patterns as they minimise tear out. Most bench planes, unless otherwise specified, will present the cutting edge at an angle of 45 degrees to the wood which will allow the plane to work most hardwoods and softwoods efficiently. It is worthwhile considering the types of timber and the type of planing you will be doing before choosing a plane. ©

3. Thickness of the Blade

The thickness of the blade determines how rigid the blade is. If the blade is particularly thin, then the blade can flex slightly during cutting, causing chatter. This will leave a poor, almost ridged finish on the surface of the wood. Thicker blades are more resistant to this flexing and give a noticeably smoother finish. ©

4. Metal or Wooden Body

Both metal and wooden bodied planes have their advantages and disadvantages. Metal bodied planes are considerably heavier than their wooden counterparts and are much more wear resistant, especially when working with more abrasive woods. The lighter weight offered by the wooden body is beneficial when planing for long periods and the wooden sole will not mark or damage the work like a metal bodied plane may do. Metal bodied planes are the workhorses of the workshop, while wooden planes excel at leaving a particularly fine finish on any wood. ©

Tips From the Experts

1. When planing, it is best to vary the location of the exerted pressure throughout the length of the cut. Start the cut with most pressure at the toe of the plane, centralise the pressure through the main length of the cut and exert more pressure on the heel of the plane to finish the cut. This gives the best, most even result. ©

Pressure

2. Set the edge of the chipbreaker no more than 0.8mm above the cutting edge of the blade. As well as breaking up the wood shavings as they emerge through the mouth, the chipbreaker gives support and added strength to the cutting edge to prevent chatter. ©

Chipbreaker

3. To eliminate the risk of gouging when using a smoothing plane, round the sharp corners of the blade to prevent them digging in. ©

Round Corners

4. Take the time to tune up your plane before first use. If required, flatten the front and back of the blade and the front and back faces of the chipbreaker. If these fit perfectly together with no gaps, then the blade is getting full support from the chip breaker. Also make sure there is full contact between the blade and the frog, filing down any high spots in the casting. Full contact between these three items will ensure the blade gives its best performance. ©

Brands

Qiangsheng

Based in China, Qiangsheng are experts in their field. Using modern techniques and tried and trusted design, they produce planes that offer exceptional quality for their price. Since their arrival a few years ago they have quite simply taken the market place by storm and offered a much needed wake up call to many premium plane manufacturers. An exceptionally popular choice with our customers.

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Anant

Started in India by a mechanical engineer, Anant have been producing woodworking planes since 1949. Known the world over for producing good quality, serviceable hand planes for a reasonable price, Anant planes are to be found in many home woodworker's tool collections. With the focus firmly on functionality rather than good looks, Anant planes have performed consistently well in magazine tests and reviews both in the UK and in America.

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Sharpening & Maintenance

Sharpening

Plane irons may be sharpened by hand using waterstones, oilstones or diamond stones or mechanically with a grinding machine. ©

Always flatten and polish the back and the cutting bevel of the plane blade before its first use. ©

To save time when sharpening plane irons, hone a micro bevel on the edge of the cutting bevel. This is a bevel that is 1 or 2 degrees steeper than the main bevel and becomes the primary cutting edge for the blade. As it is much shorter than the cutting bevel it is much quicker to hone and maintain. ©

Maintenance

With use, the soles of both metal and wooden bodied planes will wear and become slightly uneven. Occasional flattening of the sole of any plane should be part of the maintenance routine. Use a lapping plate and abrasive compound on metal bodied planes and a fine abrasive paper mounted on to a lapping plate or other flat surface for wooden planes. ©

A regular, light coating of tool oil on all machined faces and moving parts will protect cast iron and steel bodied planes from rust. ©

Keep all components clean and free from wood dust and shavings. ©