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Hand Planes for Home Projects: The woodworker's favorite that never goes out of style
by Sally Anderson, Amazon.com
You can finally see the light at the end of your floor-refinishing project, but there's a stubborn gap between two floorboards that you can't ignore. Or perhaps the frame you painstakingly mitered for your neighbor's oil painting is just right except for one uneven joint. Or you have a perfectly good board of white oak, but you'd be much happier if you could give it a new surface to knock off a few nicks and bring out the beauty of its original grain.
Planes to the rescue! These handy tools can be as simple as their name or as complex as table saws. The key is choosing the proper plane or planer for your project.
Form and Function
The purpose of all planes and planers is to shave, shear, reduce, or smooth a wooden surface. There are several categories of planes, but this guide focuses on hand-held planes, with a brief detour into motorized portable planers.
In the case of floorboard gap, a length of veneer with glue on each side can be wedged into the space; after the glue dries, a simple block plane can shear off and level the extra wood. (The same system works for split tabletops.) For an unevenly mitered frame corner, a block plane or jack plane will repair small gaps; use it front-to-back. Wider planks can be refinished by using a succession of hand planes or by bringing out the big guns: a thickness planer, either table-mounted or "portable" (expect these to be heavy enough to warrant temporary mounting).
The change in planes falls mainly on their range. From hand planes, the main subject of this guide to floor-model heavy-duty planers, the range of size, price, and project scale is vast. The examples above can all be handled with hand planes that don't need to be table-mounted. In fact, hand planes will suffice for most medium-scale uses.
Assuming you've decided that a hand plane will suit your needs, you still have several choices ahead of you. The glossary below should help you get started:
- Smooth plane: As their name suggests, these planes are designed to smooth wide areas of wood. The finish you'll get by using a smooth (No. 4) plane following a jack plane is so clean that you can almost get away without further scraping or sanding. Like standard-angle block planes, smooth planes are often used to remove the marks left in milled lumber.
- Block plane: You could think of block planes as "starter" planes, since they're small and simple enough to be included in many a child's tool kit, but lots of pro woodworkers swear by them. Their size is an advantage (they can be used one-handed), and they're ideal for small jobs and finish work. Standard-angle block planes are best used on edge grain; the angle of their blade is about 21 degrees. Use these to remove saw marks or to chamfer (bevel) edges that are too crisp. Low-angle block planes have a blade angle of about 12 degrees; they're designed to surface end grain, which makes them great for miters, door frames, cabinets, and composition board.
- Jack plane: Also known as fore planes, 14-inch (No. 5) jack planes are the most versatile of hand planes in that they're good for small projects as well as for finishing wide, decent-grade wood surfaces. (The smaller block planes are used after the heavy-curl work of jack planes.) If you hope to manage with just one hand plane, you'll want one of these.
- Portable thickness planer: This is just what it sounds like and it's in a different league than what we're calling hand planes. These motorized planers are great for serious home woodworkers. They can be used for lighter jobs, such as evening out board edges, but because they're also designed for the heavier stuff (milling 6- by 12-inch surfaces, for example), they're weighty 53 to 80 pounds so you may need to anchor even some portable versions. Portables are easy to store and transport, have rotating knives, and can plane a lot of wood in a hurry.
Before You Buy
Price equals performance You can find a basic block plane for a little bit north of $10, but if its sole (the main portion of the plane's base) is far from flat you won't be happy with the results. You can also find hand-crafted, "suitable for framing" block planes for $150, though you may have to wait several weeks for the pleasure. (It's worth it.) Portable thickness planers range from about $150 to $2,000.
Shop and compare:
- Is the sole reasonably flat? If not, keep looking. You'll find performance analyses in online and print magazines.
- Is the throat (the slot through which the blade protrudes) adjustable or fixed? If you can't adjust depth and side-to-side movement, you'll end up compensating for work the plane should be doing.
- Are the handles wood or plastic? Plastic tends to slip when your hands get moist.
- How hefty is the sole? If it feels insubstantial or too heavy, it probably is.
- How thick is the blade? Thicker blades of good quality tend to cause less vibration, or "chatter."
- Is the blade firmly supported by the frog (the piece beneath it), and is the frog firmly supported by the sole? Yes to either question means less chatter.
- Don't forget the "new to you" market. Pre-World War II planes are of excellent quality, and it's not hard to find them secondhand.
Care and Feeding of Your Hand Plane
- Always plane with the wood grain, not against it. You, your plane, and your results will appreciate the difference.
- Be sure to store planes on their side to keep blades from getting dull.
- Blades should be sharpened, depending on the specifics of your project; check out sharpening tools and tricks designed especially for planes. (The Internet and woodworking magazines are both great sources.)
Sally Anderson moved to Seattle in 1987 after living on an island, where she first learned how to use an ax, a maul, and a propane tank. She is currently a Home Improvement editor at Amazon.com.