Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Woodworking on $1.50 per day -- Part 4: Hand planes #1

So here we get to the first of the really iconic tools.  Almost everyone involved in woodworking, even if they're mostly a power tool woodworker, seems to see the hand plane (specifically, a Stanley-style metal plane) as one of the major symbol of fine woodworking.  I'm not really convinced of that for a power tool shop, but whatever.

This is not the post I intended to write.

The post I intended to write talked a lot about how you just can't get decent hand planes for a low price, and how you were going to have to either accept a dramatically sub-standard tool or resign yourself to lots of saving and lots of watching flea markets.  And if you were going to stick purely with European ("Western") style planes, that would still be true.  However.  I wrote a review last week of the Mujingfang 11" Jack Plane, and I've been forced to change my mind.

So what do I think now?

In the Stanley numbering system, there are are lot of oddities.  However, from #1 to #8, the planes get progressively longer, wider, and heavier, starting from the cute little #1 smoother to the #8 jointer.

The most common planes in the middle of the range are probably numbers 3, 4, and 5.  Three is a small smoother:  I happen to prefer it for most things, but that's personal preference.  It runs about 8" long and 1 3/4" wide.  The number four is also a smoother, running 9" long and 2" wide.  The number five is the first one that's usually called a "jack" plane, and is 14" long by 2" wide.

The Mujingfang Jack is sort of an odd size by that standard, since it's called a Jack but is 11" long with a 1 3/4" wide blade.  So the blade is the width of a #4, with a length halfway between a #4 and a #5. The mouth is relatively small, and it's never going to be a fantastic plane for removing a ton of waste.  So why do I like it?  It's sharp out of the box - sharp enough to take the hair off my arm --, and adjusts more easily than any other wooden plane I've used.  I finally (FINALLY!) get why people say adjusting wooden planes isn't as hard as it looks.  Now I know what I'm shooting for with my older tools.  It's very light weight, and it leaves a good surface behind.  Honing it a bit will probably make that even better.


So for month four, I suggest one of two options:

1) Buy the Mujingfang 11" jack.  It runs a little bit over the budget, but I'll try to come in under for month 5 to balance that out.  It can be pushed to remove a significant amount of stock, or you can take off very fine smoothing shavings.  And it's long enough to act as a jointer for short boards, which is nice.  I've read that a plane should be able to straighten a board twice as long as its sole, which means about 22" for this plane.  With practice, you can extend that significantly.  If you really can't swing $51, you could try their shorter 7" smoothing plane.  It's $44, but my guess is that it will be significantly harder to use to get a straight edge on a board.  I also haven't tested it, so I can't make an informed recommendation.  Or you could wait one more week.

2) Head to flea markets, yard sales, antique stores, and the like, and find a Stanley #4 or #5, or equivalent from some other brand.  Buying used is always tricky, and it may take some work, but you may find a gem of a plane for a lot less than $45.  I would suggest avoiding eBay, at least in the beginning:  it's hard to judge whether things are really in as good condition as the ad copy says.  Maybe they are, maybe they aren't.  I've had some good luck, and some really bad luck.

What can I do now?

This is where things get really neat.  Now you can smooth and straighten boards that you've ripped.  You can resaw small boards and wind up with half- or quarter-inch stock, which you can smooth with the plane.  So all of a sudden small boxes are possible, and you can build things that aren't limited to the dimensions of commercially available lumber.

You now have a set of tools that can realistically build a nice workbench, a long-lasting toolchest, or quite a lot of furniture.  You'll still have some trouble with housing dados and grooves, but they're doable.  Mortise and tenon joints should be possible, at least in sizes matching your chisels.  With the addition of a plane, you can now chamfer edges, reduce the thickness of table tops, or a lot of other things.

I'm going to try to make a few quick projects over the next few weeks to demonstrate what can be done, but for now, just start practicing.  Rip a 1" wide strip off a board (along the grain), then use the plane to smooth and straighten it.  Once you're done, do the edge of the original board, and strip another piece off.

Keep practicing, make some boxes, and enjoy!


  1. If you buy a plane from a yard sale, flea market or eBay, I highly recommend watching Paul Sellers' YouTube video on restoring a hand plane.

    Not only will it show you how to get your new plane clean, tuned up and working right, but the process of doing so will give you a much better understanding of how a plane works and how to use it.

    1. Darren, Paul's videos are all worthwhile, and thanks for the comment!

      In all honesty, I think buying used CAN be the best route. There's one real problem with it, though: if you don't know how a plane in good condition feels, it's really hard to bring it up to spec. I found myself stuck in that position for eight or nine months until I took a "tune up your handplane" course at Woodcraft, at which point it all clicked.

      Because of that, I'm trying really hard not to recommend buying used. It is a potentially cheaper route, but it can be a much more frustrating one.