In this video I take a look at the different types of bench planes, and discuss options such as whether to have wooden or metal hand planes, which lengths of plane I prefer for different tasks, and generally have a good rant on the subject.
Choosing & Using Bench Planes.
Bench planes are one of the most fundamental parts of your hand tool kit.
They’re used for dimensioning your wood; hogging it down to thickness or width, flattening the surface, and planing edges straight and square.
This introduction is focusing solely on the bench planes.
There are hundreds of different options out there, but you don’t need them all.
In fact when you get started you can cover all of your needs with only one. I’ve done another rant about the one hand plane I’d choose for getting started with. You can learn which plane it is, and how to set it to use throughout your woodworking here.
Whilst bench planes have always been named with a reference to their intended use, for example the ‘smoother’ is for smoothing, and the ‘jointer’ is for straightening edges to be joined, it’s not actually necessary to have all of the different types of plane to do your work efficiently.
Understanding what jobs you’ll need your planes to do will help you decide which route to take when setting up your kit.
From Rough to Smooth.
Obviously it’s the depth of cut that will dictate how heavy your shavings are, but there are other factors to think about when optimising for either very heavy stock removal, or very light polishing shavings.
Iron camber – this is where you put a radius to your iron’s cutting edge. Generally, for heavy stock removal you’ll want a heavy camber, whilst for smoothing, or edge jointing, an almost straight cutting edge, with just the very corners removed is best.
We’ll cover iron cambers & how to set them up in more detail shortly, so remember to check back to learn more.
Mouth Width – For thick shavings to clear the plane you’ll need a fairly wide mouth, but this can actually be a problem on a smoothing plane, where a wide mouth will cause tear-out and prevent you from getting a clean finish.
Tear out can actually be controlled in other ways – by using a high angle plane, or, if you have a double iron / cap iron on your plane, then this can be set as a very effective tear out control.
Flattening & Straightening.
Sole flatness and sole length are two factors that determine how well a hand plane will flatten a board or straighten an edge. The other factor is the skill of the user, and generally the longer and flatter a plane is, the less skill will be required for straightening and joining edges.
For general board flattening, a Jack plane, or Stanley style No 5 is a good length to go for.
A longer jointer plane isn’t essential, however I do recommend one if you’ll have a lot of long boards to straighten as it’ll make your life so much more satisfying, and so much less frustrating.
I prefer a small smoothing plane if I’m choosing a dedicated plane for this job. I explain all of my reasons for that here, but even if you don’t want to go tiny, your smoothing plane will be the shortest of your bench planes, as it requires no straightening properties.
New, Old, Wooden or Metal Planes?
There’s no denying that metal planes over took wooden planes for a reason, but I remain a massive wooden plane user and always will.
The video at the top of this page offers some insight in to the reasons why you might choose to go one way or the other with your own bench planes.
Below are some of the practical reasons that make it likely you’ll consider a combination of both wooden and metal planes as you get started with hand planing.
Hand planes can be one of the most expensive parts of your tool kit, and so for a lot of people getting started, buying second hand will be best for the budget.
Wooden planes make an obvious choice here, particularly when it comes to the longer planes.
If you buy an old metal plane and the sole’s out of flat by even a little, then you’re going to need some expensive kit to get it true, and it’ll take a lot of rubbing back and forth to get there. That’s going to take a lot of time, and also gives plenty of opportunity for error – you could easy rub a curve in to the plane’s sole.
Wooden planes on the other hand can be flattened using shorter bench planes, and this process is extremely fast compared.
Bear in mind that a flat sole is essential on a long jointer plane, whose job is to straighten edges, but it’s not a problem if it’s out a bit on a shorter bench plane intended more for roughing work.
Versatility & Ease of Use
Metal planes make a better option for versatility, as one metal plane can be set up to take a wide range of shaving thicknesses. This is why if I could only have one plane, then my choice would be metal.
Metal planes are also easy to adjust. You can set them up on the fly whilst planing, using the lever to straighten up the iron, and turning the dial to alter the depth of cut.
Wooden hand planes come with a much steeper learning curve, and this is why I think they’re far less popular today than the metal. When learning to use wooden planes, I’d recommend starting out with a plane set for roughing, with a heavy camber. This makes it much easier to set the depth of cut, and allows you to get a feel for how they work, and using wooden planes is very much to do with feel. You have to position your hands, put weight in different areas and set the iron with taps from a hammer.
Helen’s recently learnt to use wooden hand planes, so if you’re interested in getting started this way, have a look at this account of how she learnt to set the iron and get the plane to take perfectly even shavings.
The video at the top of this page goes through a few more insights for when choosing bench planes.
If you’re ready to get started with some hand planing, then have a read though some of my initial thoughts for my process of flattening a board.
Or if you’re really serious about learning, consider one of our Premium Video Series. We go through each project in full detail, and always go from beginning to end using only hand tools, right from rough sawn boards.