Introduction to Buying Hand Planes

By Joshua Farnsworth

Traditional woodworking hand planes (often called a “hand planer” by new woodworkers) seem to be the most popular tools in traditional hand tool woodworking. Hand planes make the most exciting changes to your wooden work piece. And that high-pitched swoosh sound is music to a woodworker’s ears!

Scottish infill hand planes for sale at the Mid-west Tool Collector's Association sale

Below I’ll talk all about different types of hand planes, and share advice on buying handplanes. You can either read straight through or use this table of contents to skip to a particular section:

What is a Handplane?

New woodworkers might be wondering what a handplane is. A handplane is basically a sharp chisel that’s held at an angle, in a wooden or metal body, that allows you to flatten, smooth, or shape a board for furniture making. Handplanes come in many different shapes, sizes, and materials. Heck, I’ve got well over 100 different handplanes. So I know it can be really confusing to understand which handplanes you need. But don’t worry, in this article I’ll try to simplify this for you and show you which handplanes to get first, which ones can wait until later, and which ones you may never need.

Workbench planing stop with a stanley handplane

Below I’ll start off by briefly introducing you to the three main handplane categories: Bench Planes, Joinery Planes, and Molding Planes.

Different Types of Hand Planes

In this woodworking hand tools buying guide article I’ll be discussing the hand planes that you need when starting out in traditional woodworking. Hand plane bodies can be made of all wood (wood plane), all metal (like Stanley planes), or a hybrid of both (Transitional Planes). I’ll elaborate on that later in this article. But first, in my mind I divide hand planes into three general categories:

1. BENCH PLANES

Stanley planes sitting on a woodworking workbench next to a wood plane

Bench planes are hand planes that are used so often that they usually “sit on the bench” and are used for flattening, dimensioning, & smoothing wood. Examples include Jointer Planes, Jack Planes, Smoothing Planes, and Block Planes. 

2. JOINERY PLANES

No. 71 Antique Stanley Router Plane with patent date Oct 29, 1901

Joinery hand planes are specialty planes used for creating or finishing joints. Examples include rabbet planes, plow planes, shoulder planes, tongue & groove planes, router planes, etc. 

 

3. MOLDING PLANES

Close-up of Bill Anderson's hands holding a wood plane called a moulding plane with shavings

A molding plane (or “moulding” plane) is a wood plane that is used for cutting decorative profiles on a board. Examples of molding planes include dedicated molding planes, hollows & rounds, snipe bills, beading planes, etc.

1. Buying Bench Planes

Scottish infill smoothing plane on a woodworking workbench

Bench planes are hand planes that are used so often that they’re often sitting on your workbench. Bench planes are used for shaping, flattening, dimensioning, and smoothing boards. As I showed in my video & article on squaring up boards with hand tools, the basic set of 3 or 4 bench planes would be these:

Jack Plane / Fore Plane / Scrub Plane

Joshua Farnsworth using a Stanley 5 jack plane or fore plane to rough flatten a board while squaring up a board for woodworking on a woodworking workbench

A jack plane (or a “fore plane”) is used for the initial rough flattening of a board. This handplane is sharpened with an extreme camber, or “arc”, and has a wide open moth, which allows for easier and faster rough removal of the wood, especially when planing across the grain. This is called “scrubbing”. These handplanes excel at getting the twist out of the board, and getting it more-or-less flat. Dedicated scrub planes are smaller than a jack plane, but are used for the same purpose.

Jointer Plane / Try Plane

Joshua Farnsworth using a Stanley 7 jointer plane or try plane to flatten a board while squaring up a board for woodworking on a woodworking workbench

The next hand plane to touch the wood is a jointer plane (or a “Try plane”). This very long handplane is ideal for precision flattening of a board (after the jack plane rough-flattened it), and it gives a nearly finished surface. It skips along the high spots and gradually brings them all down together. It’s also used for “jointing” the edge of a board, or creating a precise 90 degree edge to the flattened face. This is essential for when you need to glue up boards for a table top.

 

Smoothing Plane

Joshua Farnsworth using a 4 1/2 smoothing plane to smooth a board while squaring up a board for woodworking on a woodworking workbench

The last plane to touch the wood is a shorter plane called a smoothing plane. It’s job is mainly for finishing the surface of the wood. A highly-tuned smoothing plane with a tight mouth can give a sheared surface that’s superior to what sanding can do.

Block Plane

Joshua Farnsworth using a Lie-Nielsen rabbet block plane to square the end grain of a board while squaring up a board for woodworking on a woodworking workbench

I also throw block planes into the bench plane category, because I use them so often. Block planes haven’t been around as long as the other bench planes, but they’re certainly useful for a lot of smaller detail work, especially for trimming the end grain of boards.  

 

The 6 most common styles of bench planes:

In addition to the four different types of bench planes, you also need to consider what style of bench plane you want to buy. This is not to be confused with the brand. The style largely determines the price, and sometimes the performance. Here are the 6 most common styles of bench planes:

Wooden Bench Planes

Wooden planes are the oldest style of handplane. Most of the finest furniture in history was made with wooden handplanes. And some of my favorite planes fit into this category. Wooden planes are also usually the most affordable bench planes. I could easily put together a good set of antique wooden bench planes for under $100.

The oldest style of wooden bench plane has a simple metal iron (i.e. blade) that’s held tightly in place with a wooden wedge. Later wooden bench plane models introduced a chip breaker onto the iron, to reduce throat clogging. Wooden planes take a little more work to adjust than metal planes, but it’s not difficult to learn. And it can be fun. You advance and laterally adjust the iron with some taps on the top and side of the iron, and you set the iron in place by tapping the wedge. If you’ve gone too far, then you can loosen the iron by smacking the heel of the plane with a mallet, by whacking the strike button, or by smacking the top of the handplane. I actually find it quite enjoyable to adjust wooden planes.

Wooden smoothing planes and jointer planes can be finicky to get rehabbed & tuned up just right, but the planes aren’t expensive, so it’s worth the experiment. And once they’re tuned up, they’re sweet to use. And they have a great historical look!

Bailey Bench Planes

Now we’ll jump into metal handplanes by talking about the most common style you’ll encouter: the Bailey patent style. The Bailey style planes were patented by Leonard Bailey in the mid 1800’s, and his revolutionary design really influenced most handplanes that followed. Because of his design that featured an adjustable cutting depth and lever cap, the Stanley Rule & Level company purchased his manufacturing company and patents, and manufactured millions of these planes. By the early 1900’s Stanley was casting the “Bailey” name into the body of the planes. These handplanes are the most common type of metal bench plane, and relatively affordable. However, the prices of Stanley Bailey planes have jumped in recent years. But you can still find some good deals. These Stanley Bailey planes range in size from a baby-sized #1 plane all the way up to a monster #8 jointer plane, with some fractional sizes in-between. When shopping for vintage Stanley Bailey planes you’ll notice a “type” number. That refers to the version. Every time new advancements were made, they would be released as a new “type”, ranging from type one all the way up to type 20. Opinions vary, but most people feel that the quality peaked between type 11 and 13, and that the quality sharply declined during and after World War 2.  You can visit my type study page to see how old your Stanley Bailey handplane is. Some modern manufacturers make planes in this Bailey style, though I haven’t tried any that I’ve found to be as good as the vintage planes.

Bed Rock Bench Planes

Stanley Bed Rock 604 smoothing plane

Bed Rock handplanes were a superior line of bench planes manufactured by Stanley, based on patents from some other ingenious people. The Bed Rock planes get their name from the solid and smooth machined casting that the frog sits on, which leads to less chance of vibration while handplaning a board. In my opinion this is the most important feature of the plane. This style of plane also features an easier mechanism for opening and closing the mouth; using adjustment screws on the rear of the frog, without having to unscrew the frog, like you do on the Bailey style planes.

Bed Rock planes follow a similar sizing system, though the number start with a “60”. For example, the Bed Rock version of a Bailey number 4 plane would be “604”.

The price of vintage Bed Rock style planes are astronomical compared to the Bailey style planes, due to the superior design and the comparative scarcity. However, a Bailey style plane will work great for you.

There are a couple higher-end modern manufacturers who produce Bed Rock style planes. The price tag is high, but not a lot higher than vintage Bed Rock planes. And you don’t have to refurbish them. I’ve listed the names and models of these planes that I recommend later on in this article.

Transitional Bench Planes

Transitional hand planes are a cross between a wooden handplane and a metal handplane. They have metal parts with a wooden body. You may think that they were the evolutionary link between wooden bench planes and metal bench planes, but they were actually released after the initial metal bench planes. From what I understand, it was to appeal to people who liked the adjustability of metal planes, but missed the wooden soles and bodies of the all-wooden bench planes. It could also have been a way for tool companies to offer a more affordable line of bench planes. 

Transitional handplanes are a lot more affordable than all-metal handplanes…usually under $25 if you shop at the right places. Sometimes I find transitional planes challenging to get tuned up to the level required for a smoothing plane or jointer plane, but the risk of trying them out is low because the price is so low.  And they work wonderfully as a jack plane, because Jack planes are used for rough work, and don’t need to be highly tuned. But I’ll discuss that in the next section, which is on jack planes.

Bevel-Up / Low-Angle Bench Planes

A less common vintage bench plane design that originated from Stanley, is the low angle bevel up handplanes. Stanley originally sold a couple jack plane sizes (62 & 64) and a smoothing plane size (164). They’re essentially a hybrid between a bench plane and a block plane. This style of handplane doesn’t have a movable frog, but uses an adjustable mouth opening mechanism instead. It also doesn’t use a chip breaker like bevel down planes use. The solid iron simply sits firmly against the low angle plane casting. This style of plane has gotten some traction in recent years as several modern plane makers have tried to resurrect the style. It has some nice flexibility because, depending on how you sharpen the iron, it can be used as a low angle plane for cutting end grain, as a normal bench plane for standard handplaning, or as a high angle plane for planing difficult figured wood grain. But buying two extra blades can get expensive.

The vintage bevel up planes have some design flaws, and are also so rare that the prices are way too high. So I tend to prefer the modern versions from a couple different plane makers. But I’ll talk more about bevel up handplanes in a few minutes.

British Infill Bench Planes

Scottish infill smoothing plane on a woodworking workbench

If you’ve got a large tool budget and want the nicest and most lovely handplanes available, then look at vintage British infill planes, often called Scottish infill planes.

These incredibly well-made metal planes were usually made to very high tolerances. They are very rigid & heavy (to avoid vibration), they have thick irons and chip breakers, and have tight mouths, which are all ideal for making fine shavings on hardwoods. Many of these planes are sought by collectors at very high prices…I’m talking in the thousands of dollars. But you can look for relatively inexpensive user-grade planes, which aren’t in mint condition, and are priced to be used in your workshop rather than being stored in a case or a vault. You can opt for a nice infill plane, like the one shown above, that lacks a brand name, which further lowers the price.   

An assortment of antique bench hand planes under a woodworking workbench

Now that we’ve gotten the handplane classification out of the way, let’s move onto advice about buying specific bench planes: jack planes, jointer planes, smoothing planes, and block planes:

Buying Jack Planes / Fore Planes / Scrub Planes

Stanley Hand Plane number 5 jack plane planing shavings on a board on a woodworking workbench

As I mentioned earlier, a Jack Plane or a fore plane or a scrub plane is the first handplane to touch your rough-sawn board. These handplanes are typically used across the grain for rough wood removal, or “scrubbing” with a highly cambered (i.e. “arched”) iron. I prefer a larger Jack plane or an even larger Fore plane over a dedicated scrub plane. Because it’s used for rough work, I typically don’t tune these planes up as much as I do with the other bench planes.

Cambered iron on a stanley #5 jack hand planer

Precise features that may be desirable on a smoothing plane or a jointer plane, like a tight mouth for example, are usually not desirable on a jack plane. See (above) how the plane has such a wide open mouth to allow rough wood shavings to exit? This is great news for woodworkers who are on a budget, because I don’t recommend that they spend a lot of money on a jack plane. Spending hundreds of dollars on a jack plane just doesn’t make sense to me, no matter how big someone’s budget is.

Wooden jack plane with shavings while flattening an oak roubo workbench top

In fact, some of my favorite jack planes are the most affordable planes on the market. The antique wooden plane pictured above is my favorite jack plane. Click here to see similar wooden jack planes on Ebay. Yes, wooden planes can take more time to adjust, but because I don’t use this plane for anything besides scrubbing, I rarely have to adjust it. This plane cost me around $15.

 stanley planes: # 26 Transitional wood plane hand planer on a woodworking workbench

Another fantastic candidate for scrubbing are vintage transitional jack planes (pictured above), which  I mentioned earlier. As I said, transitional planes work fantastic as a jack plane, because Jack planes don’t need to be highly tuned. Also, if used as a jack plane, they don’t require much rehab work at all. Just avoid buying a plane that has obvious major problems, like cracked metal parts, major cracks in the wooden body, badly broken totes or knobs, or missing parts, because buying replacement parts are often more expensive than buying the plane itself.

Stanley transitional hand plane with a split on the wooden body

A transitional jack plane in good condition shouldn’t cost you more than $25 and is perfectly suitable for rough stock removal. It won’t likely give you gossamer shavings, but for making ugly wood chips fly, they work just as well as any expensive jack plane. Here are some of the models that I own and enjoy using:

If you’re on a tight budget, these wooden planes and transitional planes will save you a lot of money. And if you combine them with a good wooden smoothing plane and a good wooden jointer plane, you can keep your bench plane budget under a hundred dollars. Not bad considering some new metal bench planes cost over $400 for one plane!

Wooden bench planes on a woodworking workbench

I’ll talk more about finding a good, affordable wooden smoothing plane and jointer plane in the next sections. But let’s look at some other options for Jack planes:

What if you want a metal bench plane, but can only afford one to start with?

Stanley No. 5 jack plane hand planing wood

If you want to eventually acquire a set of metal bench planes, but can only afford one to start with, then I’d recommend buying a metal number 5 jack plane.  These Jack planes are the most common planes available, and were manufactured in the millions. Stanley was the largest producers of metal bench planes, and this was their most common size. The prices range anywhere from $15 to $50 for jack planes that need rehab work. I personally wouldn’t pay more than $50 (no, I didn’t pay anywhere close to $56 for the No. 5 jack plane pictured below).

Stanley Planes: No. 5 Jack Plane with a $56 price tag

If this will be your only handplane at first, then you’ll need to spend extra time tuning it up to the level of a smoothing plane, because you’re going to use it for all three jobs: rough-scrubbing, flattening & jointing, and smoothing.

Stanley Planes: No. 5 Jack Plane flattening a board on a woodworking workbench

This option won’t work as well as having three dedicated bench planes, but it can work fairly well. This is how it can work: When you buy a metal number 5 jack plane, also buy a second iron. Sharpen one iron with an extreme camber for scrubbing a rough board:

sharpening a cambered handplane iron on a water stone with a honing guide

And then sharpen the other blade with a barely noticeable camber for smoothing and jointing:

Sharpening a woodworking hand plane iron or blade on a surgical black Arkansas sharpening oil stone

And then you can just swap the iron out depending on the work you’re doing.

A jack plane can actually work perfectly as a jointer plane, as long as your board is less than three times the length of the jack plane. For example, the number 5 jack plane pictured below is 14-inches long, so it would technically be a jointer plane for any board under 42 inches…give or take…so it’ll will work great for flattening and jointing along the length of the board. Many furniture parts are under this length, so a jack plane is quite flexible as a jointer plane.

Stanley Planes: No. 5 Jack Plane jointing a short board

And the jack plane can work somewhat well as a smoothing plane. However, it would be difficult to get into small areas of difficult grain to smooth it, with such a long plane. When you switch from the smoother or jointer setup to a scrubbing setup, you would just switch out the blade and adjust the frog mechanism to open the mouth to allow the big wood shavings to exit.

Stanley Planes: No. 5 Jack Plane flatting a board

Here are some good Jack planes to search for on Ebay:

lie-nielsen #62 low angle jack plane hand planer with wood shavings on a woodworking workbench

If you want to go the route of a single bench plane, but don’t feel confident with rehabbing a handplane, then I’ve got another option for you to consider, though it’s quite a bit more expensive than the previous options. A few companies make these low angle jack planes (pictured above and below).

As you can see, the design is different than the normal bench planes; the bevel of the iron faces upward rather than downward. I touched on this earlier. Also, the bed of the plane sits at a lower angle. The cool thing about this type of plane is that it can be used in multiple configurations in addition to the main use as a low angle plane. For those who don’t know, a low angle plane is best used for handplaning end grain, like if you’re making an end grain cutting board, for example. The iron comes sharpened from the factory at a 25 degree angle. Add that to the 12 degree milled bed, for an effective low angle of 37 degrees.

Two Lie-Nielsen bevel up irons for a number 62 low angle jack plane sharpened at different angles

But you can also buy a second iron and sharpen it at around 35 degrees, and it’ll give you an effective planing angle of around 45 degrees, which is the same as a traditional bench plane. This is great for general purpose handplaning. And if you planned on handplaning figured wood, you could buy a third iron and sharpen it at around 50 degrees, which would give you an effective high angle of around 62 degrees.

Three Lie-Nielsen bevel up irons for a number 62 low angle jack plane sharpened at different angles

And if that isn’t enough you can lastly buy a toothed iron dedicated for scrubbing. These toothed irons are especially designed for flattening difficult, figured wood.

Adjustable mouth Lie-Nielsen 62 low angle jack plane

The mouths on these planes are easily adjusted so you can open and close it for different planing purposes: a tight mouth for smoothing and a wide mouth for scrubbing. I also find that this type of handplane works great with a shooting board.

Lie-Nielsen 62 low angle jack plane on a shooting board on a moravian workbench

I personally own two different number 62 low angle jack planes (both inspired by the vintage Stanley No. 62 plane): one made by Lie-Nielsen (find it here) and one made by WoodRiver (find it here). Both of these planes work great. The Lie-Nielsen No. 62 has a bit more attention to detail, but is about $25 more expensive than the WoodRiver version.

Lie-Nielsen 62 low angle jack plane next to WoodRiver 62 low angle jack plane

I would recommend against buying the vintage No. 62 Stanley low angle jack plane; the plane that the above planes were modeled after, because the handle is very small, there are some weak parts that tended to break, and the price is higher than buying a new reproduction plane. Stanley has also made a reproduction Stanley Sweetheart No. 62 Low Angle Jack Plane (see it here). I have not tried it out, so I can’t give my opinion on it. But from my experience with other modern Stanley reproduction tools, I haven’t been impressed compared with other brands (like Lie-Nielsen). Lee Valley also sells their Veritas Low-Angle Jack Plane, but I have not used it or heard anything about it, so I can’t share an opinion on it. And their handplanes are only sold on their website, so you won’t find any user reviews online.

If your budget allows for buying three separate bench planes (jack plane, jointer plane, and smoothing plane), then just buy an affordable vintage transitional jack plane or a wooden jack plane, and spend more money on a nice smoothing plane and jointer plane.

What about a Metal Scrub plane?

Recently the metal scrub plane has become popular with hobbyist woodworkers for flattening the faces of boards. However, these little planes weren’t traditionally used for flattening boards, and weren’t even manufactured until after power thickness planers & jointers started to emerge.

The traditional choice for scrubbing was a Fore plane, a Jack plane, or a smaller wooden scrub plane. The narrow metal scrub planes were apparently manufactured for house carpenters who needed a fast method for narrowing the width of a board (or door) when there wasn’t enough wood to be removed to require the use of a hand saw. I personally like using these scrub planes on the edges of thinner boards, but I find them too narrow for quickly flattening board faces or using on the edge of wider boards. So my recommendation would be to not purchase a metal scrub plane,