A hand plane is a device for gouging up beautiful pieces of wood and causing general frustration among amateur woodworkers.
Amateur woodworkers read books about carpentry and fine woodworking and see beautiful pictures of antique planes. The authors of these books extoll the virtues of planing wood by hand, describing the beautiful smooth surface created by the hand plane - the surface that looks perfect and doesn't require any additional work before finishing. The authors go on about the versatility of the plane - how it is such a useful device for making parts fit, for finishing, and for so many different projects.
The woodworker is entranced. The old hand planes are so sexy - rosewood, brass, bronze, steel or iron or wood, all with a lovely patina - and yet still functional. The books show pictures of these planes on workbenches, making paper thin shavings, trimming a piece of wood perfectly - how could one resist?
The woodworker goes to the local home improvement store and purchases a plane, probably a Buck Bros. if he goes to Home Depot or a Stanley if he goes to Lowe's. The plane looks nice and shiny and new, perhaps more appealing than the scratched up old ones that he has seen in the books. So he takes it home and tries to use it on a scrap of wood. Invariably, the plane skips along the surface of the wood, gouging it. The woodworker tinkers with it a bit, usually generating only slightly better results, before giving up on the whole idea.
New planes and their faults
Hand planes, at least those sold at big box retailers in the United States, are not really so much tools as kits for the possible creation of tools. For a hand plane to work properly, all surfaces must be perfectly flat. Many of the tools sold today, especially the lower end ones, are made with low quality castings. The fit of the parts is not flush. They wobble and chatter and infuriate.
How to obtain a usable plane
A couple possible solutions to this problem exist.
- One could purchase a plane made by Lie-Nielsen or one of the other high-end producers of such tools. Lie-Nielsen's planes are among the best ever made. They take old designs and produce them with all of the advantages of modern technology. All surfaces are machined flat so that parts fit together perfectly. The blades are made using exceptionally high quality steel which will hold a sharp edge. Their blades are thicker than many other manufacturers, which makes for easier work and less chatter. Many of their planes are avaible in manganese bronze, which will not crack if accidentially dropped, unlike cast iron. These planes are expensive, but probably worth the money for the amount of frustration that they will save. I own a Lie-Nielsen No.4 smoothing plane and can attest that it is absolutely amazing. It worked perfectly, right out of the box. I have no regrets whatsoever.
- One could purchase a cheap new plane and do the work required to turn it into a usable tool. I tried to do this. Maybe if I had understood better just what I was doing from the start I might have achieved something usable. As it is, I've put a lot of time into this piece of junk and haven't made much progress.
- One could purchase a vintage plane made by Stanley or some other company and do the work required to make it into a useful tool. These older planes were manufactured to higher standards than many modern planes. The designs are often more solid, the quality of the casting is better, and the steel that is used in the blades is frequently better. The designs are often more comfortable to use. These planes can usually be found on eBay for $25 to $50, if you are willing to avoid the most popular models in the best condition. I've been working on a Stanley No.7 jointer plane that I bought on eBay. I've finally gotten the sole flat. The frog mates rather nicely with the body. It took quite a bit of work to get the blade usable, because of chips that existed in it. It's been a lot of work, but I seem to be getting a very usable tool as a result.
Making your plane into a usable tool
Whether you buy a new or used plane, you will want to get a waterstone and a honing guide, to sharpen the blade. I also highly recommend The Handplane Book by Garrett Hack (Tauton Press, 1997), which gives an excellent history of planes as well as explaining how to tune and use them. It's the best book I've yet seen on the subject.
Much sanding and filing is required to get make a handplane into a usable tool. The blade, if of decent quality, should be flattened by rubbing the back of the blade against a whetstone or waterstone. This is because the back of the blade is half of the cutting edge, and it is often ignored in the sharpening. The cutting edge should be sharpened. If the blade is of low quality and dulls quickly, it can be replaced. Lie-Nielsen offers replacement blades for many handplanes.
The frog, the piece of metal that holds the blade and the chip breaker also needs to be flattened, so that the blade can sit flush against it. Flatness is most important on the bottom half to two thirds of the frog. Most sources recommend using a waterstone or file to flatten the frog, though for extreme cases, one can begin by using sandpaper attached to a flat surface. Most suggest using sandpaper attached to plate glass using spray adhesive, but I've had satisfactory results with stapling sandpaper to a flat board. Once the frog is flat, progressively finer grits should be used to ensure a smooth surface.
The frog must fit flush and square against the body of the plane. To accomplish this, small amounts of metal may be filed away from the bottom of the frog. This should be done carefully, as it is easy to file away too much metal and permanently damage the frog.
The most time consuming part of the project is flattening the sole, or bottom, of the plane. Flatness is critical to ensure that the plane moves smoothly over the wood. To flatten the plane, use sandpaper on a smooth surface and draw the plane back and forth over it. To gauge where the problem areas are, draw a set of lines parallel to the mouth (the hole that the blade comes through) on the sole of the plane. When the plane is perfectly flat, sanding the sole will remove all the lines evenly at the same time. Flatness is not so critical at the ends of the plane, but is quite important around the mouth. Scratches, though ugly, should not significantly affect performance. The most common problem is for there to be a depression in the center of the sole, running the length of the plane. As with the other steps, one should work to progressively finer grits of sandpaper or abrasive, to create a smooth surface. In my experience, this can easily take a couple hours.
For new planes, the user may also want to shape the handles, which tend to be more square than on older planes, to make them more comfortable to use.
Having followed the preceding steps, the plane should be ready for use. To create a thin, smooth shaving, the mouth opening should be small. For a rough, deep cut, the mouth opening should be wide. Fuss around with your plane until you're satisfied with it. It is possible to make these things work!