Thursday, May 26, 2016

Woodworking on $1.50 a day -- Part 4.5: Hand Planes, Part 2

In Part 4 of the "Woodworking on $1.50 a day" series, I wrote about an inexpensive "Hong Kong" style wooden plane.  I did so largely because it's really nice, as a beginner, to buy a tool and start working, especially when you don't exactly know what "well set up" feels like.

If you're not into the "tap it with a mallet" school of plane adjustment, you do have one other option that can (if you're lucky) be even less expensive, which is to buy used.  If you luck out you may find a nice old plane for $10-25 at a yard sale or flea market.  The problem is that it's not going to look very nice at that price.  It's going to be rusty, the handle or tote may be broken, and the cutting edge may be more of a mashing edge, with big nicks in it.  This may be something you can fix.

If you're going to buy an old plane -- and I certainly have, and will again! -- here's what you should look for.

1) Size.  The common sizes are usually referred to by the numbers Stanley gave them.  Here they are:

  • #4.  The most common, used primarily for smoothing.  9" long, 2" wide.
  • #3.  A smaller smoother.  8" long, 1 3/4" wide.
  • #5.  A jack plane:  you'll mostly use it for removing a lot of material quickly.  14" long, 2" wide.
  • #7 or #8.  A jointer, 22" or 24" long.  Use it to make the edge of a board straight.

2) Brand.  There are hidden gems in every brand, but there are also brands where you can pretty much rely on the tool having once been excellent.  I'd trust anything made by Stanley before the second world war, and anything made at any time by Millers Falls.  How do you tell if it was made before World War 2?  Good question!  Sadly, there's no easy answer.  There's a flowchart here that may help, but may not.  Record also made some good planes, as did Sargent.  Just to add to the confusion, all of those companies made planes for Craftsman at various points.

2) Condition.  This is more likely to matter.  Here's what you want to see on a smoothing plane.

  • A smooth sole.  Rust is fine, pitting is not.
  • Mostly smooth sides.  A little pitting won't hurt anything, but make sure it's not too extensive.
  • A smooth cutting iron.  Say it with me:  Rust is fine, pitting is not.  (At least within a half inch of the cutting edge.)
  • A long cutting iron.  Some of the older planes had a short piece of hard steel welded to a long piece of either softer steel or iron.  If the iron is too short, there may not be any hard steel left, which means it won't cut.  EDIT:  As TaDaMan points out in the comments, overall length is fairly irrelevant.  What really matters is the distance between the cutting edge and the slot for the cap iron screw.  
  • A cap iron that fits closely.  Again, some rust is OK, but the end closest to the cutting edge should fit tightly against the blade.  You can fix it if it's a little off, but it should be pretty close.
  • No missing parts.  A tote (handle) or knob (front handle) that's cracked can be glued together.  One that's missing entirely will have to be replaced somehow.  On most of these planes there's a lever that lets you move the blade a little bit side to side.  If it's missing, you're likely to have trouble.
What planes would I recommend?  I most commonly use a #3, #5, and a transitional (wood body, metal adjustment knob) 24" jointer.  Most people prefer a #4 to a #3, but I'm weird.

I'd recommend starting with a #5 or a #7, and I'm well aware that that's an unusual recommendation.  Here's why:

Smoothing with a plane takes a lot of skill and a well set up tool, and sanding is easy.  There's no way around it.  A really good tool will compensate for only a little bit of skill, but first you have to get it really well set up.  That's hard to do if you only have a little bit of skill.  For me, at least, my first year or so working with a #4 was infuriating.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get it to work.  I eventually went to a class and found out that part of the problem was the tool, and part was technique.  It drove me nuts until then, and still does, occasionally.  So I don't think you should start with a smoothing plane.

A jointer, on the other hand, is relatively easy to use.  You put a board on edge (I'll talk about workholding in my next $1.50 a day entry, I think), and you run the plane from one end to the other.  You'l need a little practice in keeping it square and not creating a bow instead of a straight line, and a lot of people find that a fence helps a lot, but that's pretty much all it does.  It's easy to learn to use, and the initial setup isn't as fiddly.  Conveniently, it also solves the problem that ripping a board (cutting it to be narrower) with a handsaw leaves a rough edge that isn't always straight.  I realize it's counter to what just about everyone else says, but I think you should start with a jointer.

A #5 can do a lot of things.  On boards shorter than about two feet, it can make a pretty good jointer.  On large boards, it can make an OK smoother.  If you curve the cutting edge, it can take out big chunks of wood if you go cross-grain, which is nice if you have a thick board and want a thinner one.


Once you've bought a plane, it's probably going to need some work to make it usable.  There are a LOT of sources on how to do the repair work.  Almost all of the ones I've seen are good.  I'm going to include a pointer here to one video, by Paul Sellers.  Why this one?  A few reasons.

First, it's long.  He covers pretty much the whole process over the course of the video, including a lot of conversation about how much perfection is necessary.  At the end of the video, you'll know a lot about how a metal hand plane functions and how to clean and assemble one.  Still not much about how to use one, but at least you should have a decent picture of how to get started.

Second, I enjoy his no-frills approach.  He's spent something like 50 years as a professional woodworker, and has stripped a lot of the craft down to bare essentials.  I like that in a teacher:  give me the critical, no add-on skills first, and THEN I can learn the more complicated ways to do things.

Third, I like his accent.  He's British, and I like listening to him.  It's a minor thing, but it doesn't hurt.


  1. One thing to note on plane iron length, in most cases the overall length is a good indicator of how much life is in the iron it is not always the case. The distance from the cutting edge to the slot for the cap iron screw is the real measure. I have an older Stanley iron that is longer than a no-name iron but only has 1" of blade before the slot and the no-name has 1 7/8" left.

    1. Good point! And that's why it's hard to write for complete beginners... things we think are obvious may not be.

  2. I started out with a #5 Jack plane and bought some extra irons. I have two irons that are honed straight with beveled corners just like Paul Sellers describes in the video above. I set the cap iron closer on one for finer work. And the third iron I cambered like Paul Sellers shows in this video.

    I did not open the mouth as Paul describes.

    This one plane did all my planing jobs for more than a year, so I could by wood to work and not tools to fettle.

    1. A #5 with multiple irons is a great way to start. As you say, it'll do anything once you figure out how.