Sunday, November 30, 2008

Used Hand Planes part 3: your arsenal

Note: I realize this series is about buying used planes, but it was easier to post pics of new Lie Neilson planes for obvious reasons. Not that I have anything against buying a new plane, but this series was really about finding quality used planes to help get the average woodworker started in hand plane use without a big financial burden. Besides, it's the holiday season and I thought you all could use a little hand plane porn.

I didn't plan to get into this side of buying hand planes, but the subject seems to keep coming up every couple of weeks. So, since my selfish pursuits in the shop have been side lined by pressing family projects, I thought to discuss plane types and choices.

I can certainly relate to the perplexing cloud of wonderment that notoriously surrounds you when you first start looking at hand planes. There are way to many for most woodworker's liking at first. Fortunately, that variety can be broken down into particular classes of planes, and then the various versions within those classes give the user a number of choices so suit their need or preference. Now, I'm just going into basics here, but if you're thirsting for more and more knowledge on this subject then you need to go buy Garrett Hack's "The Hand Plane Book" (see my review in an earlier post).

Bench Planes

The typical plane you see everywhere and the primary subject of this series. these are used to prepare stock, plain and simple. And with stock prep in mind, I'm reviewing the model types in the order that you would use them rather than in the typical numeric order.

Let's say you have a nice piece of 8/4 cherry that is still in the rough. It's got a little cup to it. It's also 12 inches wide - too wide for your jointer. Now, you could build a jointer sled for your planer, but that would take up too much time. So, in order to joint the face of the board you are going to use your bench planes.

Jack and Fore planes:

so you rest the board with the cup side down so the outer edges are touching your bench and the board is higher in the middle. You clamp it down and look to your plane collection. What you're looking for is either your jack plane or fore plane. The jack planes (Stanley #5 for reference) are typically 14 inches in length with a 2 inch wide blade. The fore planes (Stanley model #6) are a little longer at about 18 inches long and with a 2 1/8 inch wide blade. These planes are designed to have the weight to take a thick shaving and to spot shave the high areas of the board. You want to continue to shave down the board until the top is relatively level across the width. if you're dealing with a very warped board and need to take some really big shavings, then a specialty plane called a scrub plane with a very thick blade would be used.

Jointer Planes:

Here comes the big boys. Once you got your board relatively level, you need to smooth out all the dips that the jack plane left. The jointers (Stanley #7 and #8) are 22 to 24 inches long with blades 2 1/8 to 2 3/8 inches wide. these long bed planes will skim any remaining high points and level the board. You take about a paper thin or slightly thinner shaving with these to get the board to a workable flatness. There. Your board's face is now jointed. The jointer planes also excel at leveling and jointing the edges - in case you don't have a power jointer. Now, you can either run the flat side face down through your planer to get the other side flat and parallel or simply embrace your inner galoot, turn the board over, clamp it down, and repeat the process for the other face.

Smoothing Planes:

These tend to be pretty versatile if you let them. You could set one for a coarse shaving and use it to spot flatten areas during the jointing process. I've even seen guys use them to chamfer edges like a standard angle block plane. their main use is obviously to smooth the surface from the jointer plane or power planer marks (Stanley #3, #4, #4 1/2). Their size ranges from 8 to 10 inches long with blade widths from 1 and 3/4 inches to 2 and 1/8 inches. These planes put the wispy in "wispy shaving". When set for a really light cut, they can smooth a board and remove the planer marks WAY, WAY faster than sanding - and with a glassy smooth surface when you're finished. In a power tool shop, a smoother would be one plane that could see a great deal of use if you give it a chance. These are the planes most galoots tuck in to bed at night on their own to their bed........much to the disgusted jealousy of their wives.

Now, I know Stanley used to make #1 and #2 smoothers and Lie Neilson still makes them. Keep in mind that these two are about as big as a block plane and are more about novelty then usefulness. They are rare because no serious woodworker a century ago would buy them. If you want to spend the coin on one, go for it. I'll even support your bench plane addiction by helping you to come up with a good reason to NEED one. But don't expect that they'll be able to replace some of the more common ones. that's why they're so uncommon to begin with.

Bench plane Recap:

#1 - toy

#2 - block plane that wants to be a bench plane

#3 - small smoother

#4 - average smoother

#4 1/2 - larger smoother, has a cult following

#5 1/4 - jack plane for junior high shop class

#5 - tried and true, the Jack of choice

#5 1/2 - between a jack and a fore

#6 - the quintessential fore plane

#7 - nice size jointer, most often used, I'm guessing

#8 - the beast jointer, that extra 2" in length and 1/4" in width makes some guys sweat on demand

Block Planes

This one is simple. The biggest difference between block planes and standard bench planes is the direction the bevel faces when in the plane. On standard bench planes, the bevel of the blade faces down. On a block plane, the bevel faces up. This can give you some versatility in the cutting angle with this option, and that is why bevel up bench planes have revived over the years.
You have two main types of block planes, standard bed angle and low bed angle. Standard angle blocks have a bed angle of 20 degrees. Combine that with a typical 25 degree bevel on your blade and you have 45 degrees - the standard bed angle for your bench planes. These planes do well for cuts with the grain, such as chamfering or rounding over an edge. Low angle block planes have a bed angle of 12 degrees. Combine that angle with a standard blade bevel angle of 25 degrees and you have 37 degrees. Sure, it doesn't sound like much of a difference - 8 degrees to be exact - but it makes a world of difference when cutting end grain and cross grain. End grain, especially, tends to bend and compress under the force of a cutting blade. this can result in an inconsistant cut across the fibers. When you lower the cutting angle, you achieve more of a shearing cut that does a much better job on those flexing fibers.

So, now you're saying, why not just use a low angle block plane for everything? Well, you can and many woodworkers do with success. However, in some cases the low angle blade can grab a few more fibers than you want it to when running it with the grain. It's lower blade angle can sometimes split the fibers like a wedge rather than shave smoothly. So, it's really all about the right tool for the right job. But, if you want to own only one block plane that could be the best of both worlds then here's another tidbit. By grinding a higher bevel angle on your low angle block plane blade you can achieve a standard angle or beyond. In other words, with one low angle block plane and two blades (one ground to 25 degrees and the other ground to 33 degrees) your one block plane can do double duty. Just install the 25 degree blade for your low angle jobs and the 33 degree blade for the standard angle jobs. Veritas has taken this a step further for their low angle bench plane line. They offer replacement blades ground to 25 degrees for a low angle (total angle = 37 degrees), 38 degree bevel for closer to standard angle (total angle = 50 degrees), and a 50 degree bevel for a high angle to use on figured woods (total angle = 62 degrees). Hell, if you have limited space and don't mind a larger plane, one low angle smoother with a collection of blades could do all of your smoothing and block plane tasks...but where would the fun be in only owning one plane?

You don't need a high end block to do the job, but buy wisely. Block planes are usually used near the end of a project when accurate cuts are important. The main things to look for are:
  • an adjustable throat
  • a lever cap that supports the blade down close to the bevel
  • a smooth blade adjustment system
  • a flat sole
  • a solid blade bed
You will not waste money on a nice Lie Neilson or Veritas block plane purchase. If those price tags are a little high for you, then you can look at used or lesser priced new blocks from Stanley, Anant, or Groz to name a few. I've been using a pair of newer Stanley block planes (#9 1/2 and #60 1/2) that have served me well, but I can say they've taken a bit of effort to get them tuned well. The blades hold an edge better than I hoped, but I do plan to replace them with Hock blades soon.

I hope this gets you on the right track. In the next post I will cover the more specialized planes, including shoulder planes, rabbet/fillister planes, router planes, scrub planes, scraper planes, and molding planes.


Jimmy "Handi" Warner said...


Pretty educational there.

I think that you may have covered all of the bases there. As boring as it was I managed to read threw the whole thing.

Kidding, it was pretty good, you did well on the markup!



Michael Marzullo said...

and ironically timely, wouldn't you say? :)

Actually Jimmy, that's just scratching the surface of bench and block planes, not to mention the future post of the specialty planes. Glad you found it informative. Now you see why it's a tough subject to get into in the chat room...

Doug said...

Nice return. I stumbled on your blog a while back and kept checking it periodically. Glad to see some action here. Lets see your actual family of planes. I know the proposed uses of all the planes,but it is nice to get some user feedback on their personal preferences.

For instance I rarely use my block plane. I just find that a no3 does a good job for most of the same tasks and it fits my hands more comfortably than the block.

Michael Marzullo said...

Thanks Doug. It's funny you mentioned using the #3 instead of the block. There's a Fine Woodworking video with Phil Howe in which he mentions that he prefers his smoother over his block like you do. I like using either, depending on the situation.

my latest thing is experimenting with back bevels. I bought a few used smoothers a couple of months ago for the experiment. I'm working on a project with some quilted maple currently, and my standard angle smoothers tore it up. I back beveled one of the new ones at 15 degrees to get a cutting angle of 60, and it really did make a difference. Granted, I'm sure most of the problems lie with the user and not the equipment. Thank God for card scrapers :)