How to Plane Wood: An Introduction to Hand Planes
The humble hand plane is another indispensable tool that epitomizes the craft and is a must for any beginner woodworker. Planing wood by hand can be incredibly satisfying when you get it right, but for the novice, getting it right can often be more difficult than it looks.
Many mistakes stem from using the wrong plane for the job or setting it up incorrectly. This can often do more damage than good. With that in mind, in this chapter we’ll look at how to hand plane wood, why you need to do it, and the many different hand plane types available to you.
What Is Wood Planing and How Does It Work?
You’ve probably seen a hand plane. Its iconic shape and efficient yet attractive style make it stand out as a unique woodworking tool. But what is wood planing and why do you need to do it?
In a nutshell, a hand plane tool removes thin layers from wood, rough lumber, and even manufactured boards. It works by using a razor-sharp blade set at an angle to peel away thin shavings of wood.
Woodworkers push the wood planer along the surface of their workpiece, applying downward pressure to allow the blade to bite a little into the wood and remove thin slithers. In doing so, they’re able to reduce the thickness of a wooden board, smooth a joint, and much more.
What Do You Use a Wood Plane For?
Throughout a woodworking project, there are several tasks that a wood plane can tackle. Dimensional, or rough lumber, is planed to the desired thickness by evenly removing layers of wood from the surface. At the same time, warped planks can be straightened and flattened. Planing is also used to create perfectly square edges, transforming a rough board into a workable piece of wood.
As your project comes together, you can employ a wood plane to smooth the surface and even out stepped joints. In addition, your plane can put a chamfered edge on your work to remove potentially dangerous sharp edges.
Another role of planing is to reduce the width of a board, piece of wood, or even doors and windows. With the right type of wood planer, you can even create rabbets and moldings. Meanwhile, a block plane is ideal for planing end grain, perfect for adjusting miters on the fly.
Hand Planes vs Power Planers
Traditionally, all planing was done by hand. Nowadays, however, you can find power tools and machines that do the job — to an extent at least. While few woodworkers rely on a handheld auger rather than an electric drill, most do keep and regularly work with hand planes.
When it comes to planing rough timber to thickness, squaring edges, and smoothing out longer boards, machine planers are far more efficient. On site, a handheld power planer is great for trimming doors and windows to the correct size.
But, for more delicate work, such as creating a smooth surface and evening out joints, the hand plane cannot be replaced. A sharp blade in the right plane can even out-perform power tools such as orbital sanders when it comes to finishing wood and smoothing out joints.
Different Types of Hand Planes and How To Use Them
As you can see, the seemingly simple hand plane is capable of performing many tasks. However, you’ll need a variety of different types of hand planes in order to perform them all. Here are the most common.
Bench planes come in various sizes but are otherwise comprised of the same parts and work in the same way. The name comes from the fact that they’re more typically used in the workshop rather than on site.
One of the main features that separate bench planes from other types is the chip breaker. This metal blade doesn’t have a cutting edge. Instead, it allows shavings to glide up it, preventing them from blocking the mouth opening.
The different types of bench planes differ mostly in length and width, but they each carry out different tasks. Here are the most common types, and what they’re used for.
- Scrub plane: While not technically a bench plane, it’s fairly similar. The scrub plane is the most aggressive hand plane and it’s used to quickly remove waste and create a flat, though not very smooth, surface. However, with machines doing the same job faster and more accurately, most beginners will never need one.
- Jointer plane: With a body up to 24 inches long, a jointer plane is the largest of the bench planes. It’s used early on in the project to smooth and flatten rough timber and long boards. Designed for long, straight strokes over a large surface, it’s ideal for flattening butt joints and boards that have been glued together.
- Jack plane: The jack of all trades, jack planes are the one plane all woodworkers should invest in. A mid-sized bench plane, they’re generally available in sizes between 12 and 18 inches long. With a little calibration, your jack plane can be used to perform the same tasks as both the jointer plane and smoothing plane.
- Smoothing plane: With the shortest base, the smoothing plane is the smallest of all the bench planes. You use it as a final step before applying a finish to your project. A smoothing plane removes very fine shavings, leaving a finish that is the equivalent of, or in some cases even better, than sandpaper.
How To Use a Bench Plane
From the jointer plane to the smoothing plane, bench planes are mostly used in the same way, with a few exceptions. First, the depth adjustment wheel sets the cutting depth. For rough work, choose a deeper cut, and for finishing work a finer cut.
Hold your bench plane by placing your dominant hand on the back handle, pointing your forefinger to the toe for greater control over the direction. Place your other hand on the front horn. Apply downward pressure to the toe and heel to ensure the body stays flat to the surface.
For a smoother cut, follow the grain direction as much as possible and avoid planing against the grain. This can cause the wood fibers to catch and split, leaving a rougher surface.
- Planing edges: Pushing down on the toe, glide the plane straight along the edge of the board you’re working on. As you near the end, apply more pressure to the heel to prevent rounding the end off. Finish straight and smooth, lifting up once the cutting edge has cleared the end of the wood.
- Planing chamfers: Work in the same way as described above, using an angle to put a beveled edge on your workpiece. Some planes have a notch in the base to ensure an accurate angle. Place the edge of the board into this notch and plane as above.
- Planing boards: To get a smooth finish on a board, start by planing at a slight angle from both sides of the board, following the grain direction. Use a straight edge to check your work, and finish by adjusting the cutting depth to take just a thin shaving. Push your strokes straight, parallel to the edge of the board. For thinner boards a jack plane is great, but wider boards will benefit from a jointer plane to speed things up.
- Planing corner joints flush: A jack plane or smoothing plane is great for flattening steps in your right-angle joints on frames. You only want to take a very thin shaving off here, so set the depth adjustment wheel accordingly. Start in the middle of the section of frame with high spots. Use a sweeping motion at a slight angle to take the step down, working from the middle to the edge. When it’s nearly flush, start as before and when you reach the corner, pivot your plane 90 degrees and work along the next section, sweeping off the surface halfway up the frame.
At three to seven inches in length, block planes are much smaller than bench planes. Designed to be held in one hand, they can be used to remove a sharp edge, plane end grain, and smooth out joints like dovetails. A versatile workhorse, it’s a handy plane to carry around.
The blade differs from a bench plane, in that the bevel faces up and there’s no chip breaker. This removes far less wood than a jack plane and even a smoothing plane. As such, it’s ideal for delicate work and a must-have for any jobs involving end grain. Many models have an adjustable mouth opening, which allows finer or thicker shavings to be ejected.
How To Use a Block Plane
Using a block plane is relatively easy. Cup the heel end of the tool in your dominant hand, covering the lever cap. With your other hand, hold the workpiece, or if you’re using a vice apply additional pressure to the toe.
To avoid splitting the grain when planing chamfers or edges, plane from the end of the piece, sweeping off at the middle. Then, repeat starting from the other end to match. Alternatively, clamp a shooting board (more on that below) to match the edge and prevent tear out.
Any joints that leave end grain exposed and not quite flush can also be easily fixed with a block plane. A low angle block plane is even better for the job and easier to use for beginners. With such work, always set your plane to remove just very thin shavings by adjusting the mouth opening.
- Making tenons and dowels flush: Trim mortise and tenon joints and wooden dowels or pins off with a saw. Any that are left standing proud can be planed flush with your block plane. Make short, sharp sweeps, lifting up at the end until they’re flush.
- Smoothing out dovetails: When making through-dovetail joints, you’ll often be left with the joint slightly proud. Block planes can bring them flush much quicker than sanding, and normally give a much better and more even finish. Work from the edge inwards to avoid splitting.
- Adjusting miters: This is another handy application for block planes, especially if you’re cutting miters outside with a miter saw and fitting molding or baseboard inside. If your miter isn’t quite right, you can easily trim it to ensure a snug fit using a block plane, saving you another trip back to the miter saw.
The introduction of power tools and machines such as routers and orbital sanders has seen many of the following planes become rather obscure. Most beginners won’t need to worry about using them, but it’s interesting to take a quick look, especially for the die-hard fans of hand tools.
- Rabbet plane: Traditionally used to cut rabbets into wood, the rabbet plane blade extends across the entire width of the base. This allows you to trim right up to an edge. The best models have a depth gauge and fence.
- Compass plane: Designed to plane curved edges, the compass plane has a flexible base. It can be adjusted to match the gentle curve of round table or chair tops that have been cut with a saw but need smoothing out.
- Combination planes: Before power routers and other machines, combination planes were used for shaping wood into moldings and decorative features. The blade is replaceable, allowing you to fit different blades for different moldings. They’re also capable of cutting grooves and rabbets.
Japanese planes are similar to traditional western models. The plane body is typically made of hardwood. The main difference is that they’re often used in the opposite direction, cutting on the pull stroke rather than pushing away. There are three main types:
- Kanna: The equivalent of a bench plane, the Kanna comes in several different lengths to perform different tasks.
- Krimen Kanna: Designed for planing chamfers, it has a pair of adjustable fences. These can be widened or narrowed to create different-sized chamfers while ensuring a perfect angle along the entire edge.
- Sakuri-Kanna: Similar to a rabbet or shoulder plane, they have a narrow body with a blade that extends across the entire width.
The Best Hand Planes for Beginners
If you’re just starting your woodworking journey, all these different planes can seem confusing. The best advice is to start with just a couple of decent-quality planes. To begin with, we recommend the following:
- Jack plane: For general purpose work, you can’t beat the jack plane. It’s capable of flattening small boards, producing a smooth finish, chamfers, and much more.
- Block plane: A low angle block plane is easy to use for a myriad of tasks, and is ideal for beginners. Besides planing end grain, you can smooth joints and remove the glue from them.
Tips and Tricks for Using Hand Planes
Learning how to plane wood by hand is a hands-on experience, no pun intended. It takes a bit of time to get a feel for what works best, and which techniques you prefer. However, a few tips and tricks can help you avoid the most common rookie mistakes. Here are our top picks.
- Practice with scrap: Spend a bit of time getting familiar with how to use a hand plane rather than potentially damaging your first project. Play around with different techniques, such as squaring an edge, creating a perfectly flat surface, and smoothing butt joints. Use scrap pieces of different types of wood to see the difference between planing on rough surfaces compared to already smooth ones. In this way, you can make adjustments to see how your plane performs best in each scenario.
- Use a shooting board: This simple jig is one of the best ways to prevent a tear out when planing end grain. By butting your workpiece against a sacrificial piece of wood, it prevents the fibers from splintering during planing. They can even be built to handle miters.
- Soak end grain with denatured alcohol: This works really well on particularly dense hardwoods like maple and walnut. Ideal for planing dovetails flush with a block plane, simply brush the alcohol on and let it soak into the grain for a minute or so.
- Lay your plane on its side: Never set it down on its base. This can damage the blade as well as the base, especially on rough surfaces.
- Use candle wax to lubricate the base: Not only does this improve the gliding motion during use, but it also keeps the base clean and protected.
- Beware of figured wood and irregular grain: While very attractive, it’s notoriously difficult to plane nicely. You can’t help but break the golden rule and go against the grain. For best results, a razor-sharp, high-angle blade set to create extremely thin shavings should be used. Find out more here.
Hand Plane Maintenance
Learning to service your plane is an important skill and can save you a lot of money in the long run. While it seems like a complicated tool with lots of moving parts, simply keeping it clean and lubricated will prolong the lifespan considerably.
A well-maintained hand plane can last for many years. In fact, many woodworkers prefer to buy old planes from flea markets rather than brand new ones. With a little servicing, a battered hundred-year-old plane can be made as good as new. Plus, you’ll often find a good deal of high-quality tools with low-price tags at flea markets.
How To Change the Blade on a Handheld Plane
Maintaining a sharp edge on your blade is the key to success when it comes to planing. Plane blades can easily be honed using sharpening stones for the most part. We’ll cover that in another chapter.
But first, you’ll need to take the blade out. On the vast majority of hand planes, this is done by removing the lever cap. Unscrew the locking nut and slide it off, along with the blade. Once sharpened, simply fit it back together and secure the screw.
Hand Planer Troubleshooting
Occasionally you might come across some issues with your plane. Often, sharpening the blade will do wonders, but sometimes that’s not enough. Here are some of the most common issues and how to fix them.
- Plane vibrates during use: Also known as ‘chatter’, this prevents a smooth action and can lead to ripples and tear outs rather than a smooth surface. This is normally caused by loose screws. Check that the lever cap screw is holding the blade securely first of all. If the problem continues, make sure there’s nothing trapped behind the blade and tighten up the frog fixing screws.
- Uneven shaving: A common issue caused by one side of the blade protruding further out than the other. This is easily fixed by using the lateral adjustment lever. Hold the plane by the front knob so that the base is facing you and you can see the blade. Move the lateral adjustment lever left or right until the blade is even.
- Ridges on the planed surface: If you’re left with raised lines after planing a surface, there’s a good chance the blade is chipped. You can either grind the edge back to normal if the damage isn’t too bad or swap it out for a new one.
- Dents or scratches on the planed surface: In case of dents and scratches, check the base of your plane. It may be damaged or have something stuck on it. This can often be fixed by creating a perfectly flat surface on the bottom of your plane. Find out how to do that here.
- Plane doesn’t glide smoothly: Sometimes resin can stick onto the base of your plane, preventing it from working as well as it should. Give it a quick clean with mineral spirits, then use a candle to apply a thin layer of wax on the base.
What About Power Planers?
Hand planing is immensely satisfying when it goes well and it’s a skill all woodworkers should strive to perfect. However, there’s no denying that power planers and machine planes have their own merits. We’ll take a closer look in the next chapter.