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A hand plane is a woodworking tool used to flatten or shape wood.
In its basic form, it consists of a long, flat wood or steel base (called the sole), which has a slot across its width (mouth). Through this slot, a blade extends about a sixteenth of an inch from the sole. When the plane is pushed across the wood, it shaves off thin, paper-like shavings and smooths the wood.

Types of handplanes

Planes can be classified by their design and use :
  • Basic, flat soled planes
    • Jointer - Long and heavy plane ( 16 - 28 inch ) used for truing ( flattening ) edges or surfaces of long boards.
    • Jack - Medium sized plane ( 10 - 16 inch ) for beveling and lighter work.
    • Smoothing - Small plane ( 6 - 10 inch ) for smoothing and finishing work.
    • Block - Tiny plane ( 2 - 6 inch ) which is held in one hand and used to smooth edge or cross-grain.

  • Specialty, flat soled planes
    • Rabbet plane - for shaping wood into an L-shaped cross-section.
    • Grooving plane - for cutting lengthwise grooves.
    • Bullnose plane - the blade is at the very front of the plane , so it can reach the inside corners of window frames etc.
    • Spokeshave - for shaping gentle concave or convex surfaces.
    • Scraper - hardly a 'plane' but nonetheless it is used for final surfacing before applying a finish.

  • Molding planes having soles with various cross sections.
    • Rounding planes and
    • Hollowing planes named for the shape of their sole rather than the shapes that they cut.
    • Skew soled planes with a trapezoid blade angled in both planes, used for smoothing dovetail grooves.
    • Molding planes used to make fancy shapes ( with names like ogee, roman ogee, cove, beading etc ).
    • Hand routers used for cutting inlays in boards.

Design of handplanes

Hand plane design is quite complex and there are many choices to make:
  1. Metal or wood?
    Wood planes are lighter and easier to use but unless carefully made can warp due to humidity. Metal is more stable and resistant to abuse, but more tiring to use because of its weight. Wooden soles get slick and glaze over with use, reducing friction, while green woods and weather can ruin smooth iron soles. Wooden plane builders solve the warpage problem by using lighter and more stable hardwoods for the body with a thin sole made of extremely hard woods like lignum vitae or purpleheart joined to the body with a castellated joint.


  2. Blade mounting angle
    The angle that affects the behavior of the plane is that between the wood and the upper surface of the sharp edge. Plane blades are flat on one side and beveled on the other. Most are mounted with the flat side up. Lower mounting angles cause digging in and tear out chunks in hardwoods, while high angles cause the blade to chatter and blunt faster. The best angle for hardwoods is about 50 degrees, and 35 - 40 degrees for softwoods. Most general purpose planes compromise on 45 degrees which works quite well on most woods. Block planes would be unwieldy if the blade is mounted flat side up, so it is mounted at about 10 degrees with the bevel up. This, added to the 30 degree angle of the blade gives a cutting angle of about 40 degrees which is right for softwood. There are low angled block planes with an angle of about 15 degrees used exclusively for edge-grain.


  3. Blade sharpening angle
    Smaller angles give better finish but blunt faster, so for planing hardwoods, the blade is sharpened to between 30 and 35 degrees and for softwoods, 25 to 30 degrees.


  4. Blade dimensions
    Wider blades give flatter edges, but require more force to be applied. Thickness, again is a choice between ease in sharpening for thin blades and edge retention for thicker blades.


  5. Sole length
    Longer soles, produce straight even cuts, while short soles allow planes to remove wood more rapidly.


  6. Blade adjustment The simplest design is the one in which a wooden wedge holds the blade, but it requires more skill to adjust accurately. Modern planes have screw mechanisms to adjust cutting depth and some have mechanisms to adjust the width of the mouth.


  7. Handles
    The early planes didn't have handles ( the plane itself was the handle ). Gradually the D shaped handle evolved. The steel Bailey plane has a knob, while the Primus has a rear grip with a horn shaped front handle ( In the past they were made of horn ).

History of handplanes

Hand planes were first used in Egypt. With crude copper blades lashed onto bent pieces of wood, they looked like this:

Egyptian plane
                       ___
                      / __\
                     / / _/
               _____/ / / 
       _______/\_____/ / 
       \______\/______/    -- Bent piece of wood
       ^
       |------ Crude copper blade
I don't see how this would work but you can't argue with archaeology!
As civilization progressed , planes began to look like this:

Traditional wood jointer plane
                             /\              _________
                          _ /  \ --- Blade  /\ _______\
                Wedge ---/\ \  /           / / __    /
      __________________/  \_\/___________/ / /  |  |_
     |\             ---/   / /           / / /   |  | \
     | \            \     / /            \/ /    |   \ \
     |  \____________------- ___________________________\
     \  |   _________________________________________   |
      \ |  (_________________________________________)  |
       \|_______________________________________________|
During the industrial revolution, Heavy metal was cool, so the Bailey plane came into being and nearly wiped out the wooden planemakers:

Bailey jack plane
                                 _  
      Lateral blade adjuster -- //
                            ___//    ------ Blade depth adjuster knob
                           / _ |    |  ______ 
                 Blade -- / // /    | (______)
           ___           /_() /     |   \   /
          /   \      ___//  |/      |   |   |
       __|     ) ___//  /()//\__||--____|   |
     //  \    /        ___//  --||  ___/    | \
     \    ___________//    \___\   (________\  \
      \  //                 \===================\ ---- Cast Iron base
       \||______________________________________|
However, real craftsmen would still keep the market for wooden plane alive and one day, Primus planes, the very Rolls-Royce of planes were invented, combining traditional design with modern technology:

Primus smoothing plane
        ___                        ... --- Blade depth adjustment screw 
       |   | ---  Horn (shaped)  __//
       \   \      handle        /  |
       \    \                  /  / ____
      _-\    \________________/  / (____) --- Short comfortable rear grip
     \   \     \        -----/  /  /    /
    |\     _==_         \   /()/ /     _|   
    \  \_-     -_________------__________\|| --- Blade holder knob
    \\ |                                 |||
     \\|__/\__/\__/\__/\__/\__/\__/\__/\_| --- Castellated Joint 
      \|________________________________/   --- Hardwood sole
Tips for using planes
  • It's never too soon to resharpen the blade!
  • Avoid planing green wood.
  • Keep the bite less.(Use minimal cutting depth)
  • Use the longest plane that's practical.
  • Use long even strokes, it's a great arm and upperbody workout. Try to beat a two foot long shaving.
  • Wax the soles generously.
  • Make sure your workbench is the exact height for you. Too high = back / shoulder ache, Too low = murder on the wrists.
  • If woodworking is a chore for you, use an electric power planer.
  • Heavy jobs can be done by two people : one pulling, the other pushing. You don't see much of this in the west but in India it's all the rage!

Now go plane some wood!!

A hand plane is a device for gouging up beautiful pieces of wood and causing general frustration among amateur woodworkers.

Seriously.

Desire

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.

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!

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