What Is A Hand Planer?
A Hand Planer is an amazing tool that allows you to remove wood material for the purposes of leveling, joining, and even smoothing rough lumber. It is one of the more critical tools that a novice woodworker may not think of but soon orders after realizing its importance.
Why Not Use Electric Hand Held Options?
When I speak of an electric planer in this context it pertains to the hand held versions often seen on construction sites. These tools are great for taking a bit of material off the bottom of a door so it does not stick on flooring.
Aside from this purpose there is little else they are good for. One of the major issues from their use is a poor finish that is left in the lumber. Within fine woodworking this is a really bad idea.
As I pause to think of other woodworkers that I know, I cannot think of one that has an electric hand held version in their shop. If they do it is in a drawer somewhere and rarely sees the light of day.
Another major issue that comes to mind is the lack of control one would have in attempting to use this tool. If you were to attempt leveling a larger piece of lumber it would most likely create more problems than solutions.
There are two different types of planes that an offer better choices for working lumber down. The benchtop plane, or larger stand alone, that is designed to process down large boards by feeding the board into the machine. Then there is the hand plane with old fashioned elbow grease.
Why Use A Hand Plane?
The old school Hand Plane simply works best as a wood shaping tool. Its results are measurable. When tuned and the right size is used for the scale of job there is no better finish you can achieve.
Beyond the finish is the fine control which the woodworker has throughout the process. This can be achieved by aspects of use such as angle of cut, angle of the blade, and pressure applied to the plane while cutting.
In hand held powered options you lose all tactile control and feel. For those who have not experienced this it can be somewhat likened to hand sanding vs an electric belt sander. While both tools can have a place unfortunately the electric hand plane is far less useful overall.
The Hand Plane also comes in a variety of sizes and designs for many purposes. Some are made for joinery, cross grain cuts, then also for leveling and smoothing. They can remove a lot of material with one cut, or make small fine adjustments for a perfect fit.
It really is the ultimate tool for the woodworker when it comes to making all the parts fit together just right.
The Best Hand Plane For Beginners
There really are four planes you need but traditionally there are three which are essential. If you read Bob Villa’s blog he names three essential hand planes instead of four.
Of the three he names one of the most essential planes is left out. Instead he recommends a selection that real woodworkers consider to be optional. So here I will give you all four as each hold great value.
A Smoothing Plane does exactly as its name implies. A #4 is common and is typically around 9 inches in length with about a 2 inch blade. Its purpose is for smoothing rougher lumber.
Also the Jack Plane is nice for leveling what most hobbyist shops would consider to be large pieces of lumber. The #5 is typically about 14 inches long and still uses the 2 inch blade.
This next plane is the one Villa left out. The Jointing Plane is absolutely critical in fine woodworking. Many attempt to use the Jack Plane as a replacement for this. Let me just say no other tool on earth can create a perfect edge for joining wood as a plane that is made for it, trust me.
Then there is the Block Plane which is much smaller. This tool can be used for smoothing smaller portions of wood. Yet it can also cut cross grain due to its low angle of blade and bevel.
If you hear someone talking about how everyone needs a Bench Plane this is commonly the Smoothing or Jack Plane as I have already referenced. There are different options which can fall under the common umbrella of what is called a Bench Plane.
What About A Specialty Wood Plane?
The only other Hand Plane I would suggest considering would be something like the Stanley Small Trimming Plane. It is a variation of the already mentioned Block Plane. Yet its design allows for a bit more finesse and control.
You may find the need for something like a Mortise Plane or a Dovetail Plane. These though are not really where a beginner often starts. There are a lot of options out there which allow for other ways to create what may be needed.
Most other planes you will choose to grow into or not depending on need. Modern machinery can give a lot of solutions. When perfection is not needed a well tuned table saw can create a joinable edge. Yet this is not the preferred option for high end fine finishing.
As your woodworking continues to expand eventually you will discover the right scenario or project where these other specialty planes do the job better. If you for example plan on making items such as violins, guitars, or other delicate projects, then you definitely will have need of these tools.
Japanese Hand Plane
The Japanese woodworking philosophy will offer a unique perspective on using this tool. It is worth learning more about the why behind its use within woodworking.
The Japanese Hand Plane is called a Kanna. If you are curious about whether or not to go this route it really depends on your style.
I will very briefly give you the key differences here between the Eastern and Western Plane.
The Kanna is designed to work with a pull cut. The Western Hand Plane is designed to work with a push cut.
Another note of difference is the blade itself. Japanese blades are thicker and of harder steel. The thickness reduces chattering when under pressure.
As for sharpness, well few blades can get as sharp as what Japanese steel can offer. The Kanna can be tuned to where the blade has minimal contact while allowing paper thin cuts consistently along a pull.
The body of these planes are also wooden as compared to the Western versions being often steel. Additionally the Kanna traditionally does not have a mechanical blade depth adjustment. The depth is controlled by placement or a mallet that is used to tap in order to adjust.
I would not say that the Japanese version is better than Western variations. It simply is a different style. While I do believe their chisels are far superior, the Hand Plane really is about personal flavor and choice.
The Cheap Hand Plane
There is nothing wrong with having a cheaper Hand Plane especially as a hobbyist. No one is going to persecute you because yours came from Lowes. I might laugh a little though if it says Amazon Basics, at least I will laugh on the inside.
Here is the reality. A Craftsman will get the job done for a lot cheaper but it will not look as pretty. If that is what you need or can afford, do it.
Let’s get to the rub on whether or not to go with cheaper options. How often will it be used? Is this really a hobby or is your work something that generates your income for the family? Questions like that is what should determine what you buy.
In the world of all things being relative to need vs want, or must have, we do not always need the best tools. Seriously if I needed the best on the market for some of my cnc equipment I would need a 2nd mortgage to pay for the parts. Sometimes it just is not possible.
The Hand Plane which you expect to get the most service out of I would pay more for that one. In the long run as it is used the value of it will pay for itself just in being serviceable to you.
What Brands Of Hand Planes Are Best?
Know that I am not paid for anything I recommend. So this is purely my opinion and there will be no referrals for places to buy. I will allow you to research your own choice beyond here.
Yet among brands I will say that if money is truly tight then often having something that works is better than nothing. As a wood artist, personally I would never want anything with the brand Amazon Basics stamped into the tool. Call me crazy but that is just me.
Higher Quality Brands: Veritas and Lie Nielsen is what most dedicated woodworkers tend to gravitate towards. The difference in cost between these and the “mid tier” brands is usually around 100 dollars for more common Hand Planes.
Mid Tier: You will see a lot of online marketing pushing WoodRiver and Stanley. The guys over at Woodcraft carry their stuff. They are not bad, but they are not the best. Read some forum posts from guys who use them in order to get a broader opinion.
Personally I would not mind buying either of the mid tier brands but I do have one big issue with them. When you look at the price tag it can often be in range of making me willing to step up to the Lie Nielsen. This is not always the case, but often can be.
Between these is where the biggest brand fights take place. There are others such as Clifton but at their price point I would say no. They are “newer” to the market and have had some historical issues. They may be fine now but its just my personal feel and opinion.
Learning How To Use A Hand Plane
There literally is no way for me to even begin describing how to use one of these tools through words on a screen. Having said that I will not even try.
I will say that some do like using a marking knife when preparing to plane. It aids in giving a line for the intended path of the cut.
The best way to learn how to use a Hand Plane is by using it. I would advise to watch some videos on how they are made and assembled. This will help you understand the mechanics behind the design.
Some local woodworking classes can still be found across the country that allow you to experiment and practice. Understanding how the tool is designed and works helps get the feel in the hand.
Often the design is tailored for it to be more efficient in how it is used, or rather what it is used for. Know that most planes are used with a wood vise to keep the material safely secure while working.
I would advise in learning how to properly care for your blades. Sharpening is an essential must.
Get a kit designed for this and do not try freehand sharpening. Yes I know there is some guy out there right now that is saying he just rubs some sand paper over his…. Okay whatever floats your boat.
In terms of consistent cuts across the surface of the wood the Hand Plane depends on a few key fundamentals. A consistent edge is one of those fundamentals. A clean sharp edge is essential.
The Japanese way is to sharpen before a blade is used. If needed sharpen again while using the tool. Then you also sharpen once again after the project is done and before the tool is put up. It is a good philosophy.
Learning how to care and use this tool will eliminate problem issues like chatter, or the planer slipping, or maybe stopping dead in its tracks.
Long Term Storage And Care
Keep them in a place that is as dry as possible. In the real world our shops are often not in climate controlled spaces. Those that are still have issues. My shop only has climate control when I am in it otherwise its off.
Nevertheless you can get things like protective socks, or old socks from your dresser to wrap around them. Store them where they will not fall or get banged up. Doing simple things like this can help even the cheaper versions to last a very long time.