Bench Planes: Intro

Adapted from the book
How To Choose and Use Bench Planes & Scrapers
(Linden Publishing)


A hand plane is a great addition to the toolbox because it's cordless, creates shavings instead of fine airborne dust, and is quiet. Best of all, used bench planes are widely available and very inexpensive. Most can be tuned for free, and upgraded for the cost of a decent iron (blade).

A bench plane’s length is its most important feature, as it determines both how the tool is used and what task it is most suited to perform. There is a distinct relationship between the length of a plane body and its width, so standard sizes have been developed over the past few centuries. There's another relationship at work with planes, too: the largest plane, called a jointer, is usually used on the thin edges of boards, while the smallest smoothing plane is used on the wide faces of boards.

Bench planes make boards flat, square and straight. Their primary function is to make stock ready for joinery. Bench planes, especially the smaller ones, can also be used to finesse a joint, chamfer or round over an edge and help in many other ways, but their primary function is simply to ready stock. Boards that come directly from a sawmill have rough surfaces, meandering edges, maybe a twist or a bow, and bench planes traditionally have reduced these characteristics to deliver straight, flat boards with parallel surfaces and edges. Today, a jointer and a thickness planer handle much of this process. Boards come to the workshop already planed and straight-lined (where at least one edge has been ripped straight), or the woodworker owns the machines and he or she can joint and plane stock as needed.

Bench planes range in size from short block planes used to trim end grain and chamfer edges, to long jointer planes that can be more than two feet long. Affordable machinery has most certainly lightened the workload for hand planes, but it will never eliminate them. For example, boards with figured grain tend to tear out when planed by a machine, especially if there’s any exposed end grain. A hand plane can follow the grain. More often than we care to admit, a board needs to be shaved, coped or scribed for a perfect fit. It’s diffcult to rig a machine to make such a cut, but a hand plane can fix the problem in a few seconds. When a single part needs to be worked, it’s quicker to reach for a plane than to set up a machine. And at other times, a part is too short to be run across a jointer or planer safely, and a hand plane is the perfect answer. One can even lock a hand plane upside-down in a bench vise and work very small parts. When a woodworker has sharp, well-tuned planes available, they will present themselves as the solution to a thousand small challenges. Without them, we tend to fluff a little, or reach for a sander. With hand planes, our work becomes precise, crisp and professional.

Size Matters
In the first half of the twentieth century, bench planes were widely available in a full range of sizes: block, smoothing (No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4), jack (No. 5), fore or try (No. 6, halfway between a jack and a jointer), and jointer planes (No. 7 and No. 8). They range in length from about 4" to 24", depending on the manufacturer. One other plane should probably be included here. The scrub plane removes a lot of material quickly because it has a narrow, curved blade. It is usually used before the smoothing planes.

Some of the bench planes are available in in-between (1⁄4 or 1⁄2) sizes, too. These generally are the same length as their whole number peer, but the iron is a different width. For example, the cut made by a No. 5 is 2" wide, but a No. 5-1⁄2 leaves a 2-3⁄8" wide track, while the iron on a No. 5-1⁄4 is only 1-3⁄4" wide. Today, the more affordably priced lines are restricted to just block planes, No. 4, No. 5 and No. 7, with some manufacturers adding a No. 3. The numbers are from an old Stanley system that has been adopted by most of the industry, and the smaller array of choices reflects the way in which woodworking has become more mechanized. A good starter set for the modern woodworker would be a couple of block planes (one standard and one low angle), a No. 4 smoother, and a jackplane.

From block to jointer, the length of a plane is all-important. A long plane rides on the high spots and doesn’t dip into the valleys, so it does a much better job of truing a board than a short plane. A short plane will follow contours, while a long body tends to level out the highs and lows. Each has specific applications.

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