INTRODUCTION TO BUYING HAND PLANES
By Joshua Farnsworth
Traditional woodworking hand planes (often called a “hand planer” by new woodworkers) are the rock stars of hand tool woodworking. Tool lust oozes all over these historic tools. And rightly so! Hand planes make the most exciting changes to your wooden work piece. And that high-pitched Swoosh sound is music to an artisan’s ears.
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 all wood (wood plane), all metal (like Stanley planes), or a hybrid of both (Transition Planes). In my mind I divide hand planes into three general categories:
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.
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.
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.
HAND PLANE BUYER’S GUIDE
A. Urgent Hand Plane (Buy these First)
This is my list of hand planes (or “hand planers”) that I feel would be the first hand planes that you should buy to get started in traditional woodworking. Other woodworkers may have slightly different priorities and terminology (plane names can vary), but this is from my perspective. The majority of the planes that I’ll discuss are vintage and new metal “Bench Planes”, which include all the planes that are typically “on the workbench” or close by. I will be focusing mostly on metal Stanley planes, because Stanley planes were manufactured by the millions and are the most common. Metal hand planes are easier to find, easier to adjust, and are usually in better shape than a typical wooden plane.
Buy a Jack Plane
If you can only afford to start out with one bench plane, then I’d recommend buying a Stanley Bailey No. 5 Jack Plane. These Jack planes are the most common planes available, and were manufactured in the millions. The price ranges anywhere from $15 to $50 (I wouldn’t pay more than that).
A No. 5 Jack plane should predominantly be used for flattening boards via rough stock removal (i.e. “scrubbing” a board). If you use a cambered blade (8-10 inch radius) and open the mouth wider, then large chips can move through quickly. See my tutorial on four squaring a board here.
If you plan on also buying a dedicated smoothing plane and a dedicated jointer plane (the other bench planes) and this plane will only be used for rough stock removal (like it is for me), then there is no need to tune this hand plane up much. Just sharpen the iron really well.
But if you can’t afford all three bench planes at first (smoothing plane, Jack plane, and Jointer plane) then you could tune this Jack plane up nicely (use this video as a guide) and temporarily use it for all three tasks: rough removal, flattening, & smoothing. If used with a straight blade (or even just slightly cambered / arched), with the mouth closed down tight, it can also be used like a smoothing plane and it can also be used as a jointer plane, for flattening and truing the edges of boards up to three times its length (any longer and you’ll need an actual jointer plane). That’s all three bench planes in one! Of course, a short No. 3 or No. 4 smoothing plane is better for smoothing and a large No. 7 jointer plane is better for flattening & jointing. I’ll cover those further down on this page.
If you don’t feel the desire to rehab a Jack plane, then you’re in luck. I would recommend buying a new Lie-Nielsen No. 62 Low Angle Jack Plane (bevel up), which is a remake of the hard-to-find antique Stanley No. 62 Low Angle Jack Plane. It can be used as a Jack plane for rough stock removal (if you buy a separate “toothed iron” and also open the mouth wider), as a smoothing plane, and as a jointer plane (again, for boards less than three times its length).
The additional bonus of this low angle jack plane is that the low angle works great for planing end grain. And you can purchase another iron from Lie-Nielsen and sharpen it at a very high angle (around 50 degrees) for when you’re ready to start planing difficult, figured wood grain. It also works well with shooting boards. And it’s much more affordable than Lie-Nielsen’s other bench planes. Want to better understand bevel up vs. bevel down hand planes? Read this article by Christopher Schwarz to choose between Bevel up vs. Bevel down hand planes.
If I’ve convinced you to purchase a Stanley Bailey No. 5 Jack plane, then look for planes made prior to World War II, when the quality standards were higher. But if you go with the low angle jack plane, I prefer the new Lie-Nielsen No. 62 version over the antique Stanley No. 62 version because of a larger tote (handle) and lower price than the original rare antique hand plane.
* How do you know the age of a Stanley handplane? Check out my Stanley Bailey Handplane Type / Age Study (click here)
* Money Saver Tip: There’s no need to buy the more expensive Stanley Bed Rock No. 605 Jack Plane or the Lie-Nielsen No. 5 Jack Plane (based off the 605 Bed Rock plane). Spending a lot of money on a tool devoted to rough stock removal doesn’t make any sense. Save your money for a nicer smoothing plane and jointer plane.
Here are some Stanley Handplane searches to check out:
- View vintage Stanley No. 5 Jack Hand Planes on ebay
- View extra irons & chip breaker for No. 5 Jack Planes (to use as scrub plane blade)…same blade as No. 4 plane.
- View new Lie-Nielsen No. 62 Low Angle Jack plane (can also be used on difficult grain, end grain, and with shooting boards)
- View new Lie-Nielsen No. 5 Jack Plane
- View wooden jack planes on ebay
- View transition jack planes
If your budget allows for all three bench planes, then instead of buying a metal bodied Stanley Bailey Jack plane, I’d recommend buying an all-wood jack plane or even better, an affordable “transitional” jack plane like this Stanley No. 26 Transitional hand plane. This can save you some money. A transitional hand plane is a hybrid between a metal Stanley plane and a wooden body plane.
A good condition transitional jack plane shouldn’t cost you more than $25 and is perfectly suitable for rough stock removal. I don’t find transitional planes to work as well for precision work like smoothing or jointing, but for making ugly wood chips fly, they work just as well as any more expensive jack plane.
I also really love the feeling and light weight of an all-wooden jack plane or a transitional plane. Just look closely before you buy a wooden plane, because some of the older wooden planes are in poor condition, with splits, cracks, and missing parts. If you’re looking to purchase a vintage wooden hand plane, check out my blog post first: “How to Buy a Vintage Wooden Hand Plane“.
Now you can search below for some vintage and new wooden jack planes and transition planes:
Buy a Smoothing Bench Plane
Smoothing planes are the traditional “bench plane” of choice for leaving a finished surface that is usually vastly superior to sandpaper. The body is much shorter than a jack plane and jointer plane, which allows the body to move with any hills or valleys in the wood. There are several style options, including the all-metal body smoothing plane, all wooden body smoothing plane, or “transition” smoothing planes. In my opinion, the most superior bench planes are the Infill hand planes (i.e. “Scottish Infill Planes”), as seen here:
However, due to the high demand and low availability of these lovely hand planes, they are typically out of most woodworker’s budgets (especially those made by modern tool makers), so we won’t be diving into them much in this hand plane guide. If you are interested in learning more about antique infill planes, just know that the two most common makers were Norris and Spiers, and that the more sought after infill planes were made before World War 2. They are usually just referred to as “Pre-War”. But I’m sure the “Post-War” infill planes work great too. You can see this search for infill planes on Jim Bode’s store, as he has the largest selection that I’ve seen.
For woodworkers that don’t have a large tool budget, I recommend starting out with a vintage Stanley Bailey No. 4 or No. 4 1/2 smoother, a wooden coffin smoother (very inexpensive, but I love them), or (if your budget permits) a new Lie-Nielsen No. 4 smoother or 4 1/2 smoother:
The Lie-Nielsen No. 3, No. 4 or No. 4 1/2 planes are reproductions (with improvements) of the Stanley Bed Rock No. 603, 604 and 604 1/2 smoothing planes (the latter being wider and heavier). The “Bed Rock” design is superior over the “Bailey” design due to the more solid fitting and easier adjusting frog (the part that holds the blade at an angle). This design can better prevent “chatter”. The newer Lie-Nielsen plane also has a thicker iron (blade) and chip breaker than the old Stanley Bed Rock handplanes and Stanley Bailey handplanes. But to be honest, I’ve found that a highly-tuned Stanley Bailey plane works very well, without chatter. As I mentioned above, this video will help you to get a super-tuned handplane. It’s the rehab method that I use on most of the handplanes in my traditional woodworking school.
If you have small to medium hands, then the No. 3 or No. 603 smoothing planes will work best for you. But to be honest, I have larger hands, and have no problem using a No. 3 smoothing plane. If you have normal to larger size hands then the No. 4 or No. 4 1/2 will work better for you. If you like a heavier smoothing plane to give more power, then go with the No. 4 1/2 or 604 1/2 smoothing plane. Stanley or Lie-Nielsen No. 1 or No. 2 smoothing planes are very small, and are really not very usable for most people (except in special circumstances) and are mostly for collectors, as they are rare. Here are some searches for the planes I’ve talked about:
Buy a Jointer Bench Plane (i.e. “Try Plane”)
A jointer bench plane, or “Try” plane, is an essential bench plane for truing the edges of boards, especially for gluing them together or using as a reference face for marking & measuring. You can also certainly use it as a “Fore Plane”, to flatten board surfaces if you don’t want to purchase a dedicated No. 6 Fore Plane. Wood bodied jointer planes are excellent if you can find one in good condition and want to spend the time to make one or refurbish one sufficiently.
But I recommend that budget-conscious beginners start out with a vintage No. 7 metal jointer plane, and as I mentioned above I prefer purchasing Stanley or Record planes that were manufactured before World War II. Check out my Stanley hand plane age identification tool (here). For those who can afford it, certainly go buy the Lie-Nielsen No. 7 Metal jointer plane (here). It will come perfectly flat, sharp, and well-tuned out of the box.
Veritas and Clifton also apparently make good bench planes, but I just haven’t used their bench planes much. I did try out a student’s Veritas jointer plane, and though it worked nicely, I had one concern: the design would have prevented the jointer plane from being used on a shooting board.
And if you can help it, I actually recommend that you don’t buy a metal jointer plane with a “corrugated sole” (see below photo), even though they are slightly more rare and popular. Some people think the corrugations, or grooves, reduce friction, while others think the corrugated soles were a marketing gimmick.
Either way, I personally find that when jointing, the edge of a board occasionally catches on the corrugations (or ridges) and causes the hand plane to tip. It just doesn’t feel as stable as a flat sole jointer plane. Yes, it’s easier and faster to flatten a corrugated sole (due to less surface area), but that’s been the only benefit that I have discovered in my experience. One reader sent me a message notifying me that he discovered that resinous pitch pine is much simpler to plane with a corrugated sole, since there is not as much gum to drag the plane. If you plane resinous wood, then I guess you should get a hand plane with a corrugated sole! If you find a great deal on a jointer plane with a corrugated sole, then certainly don’t pass on it. I have several corrugated bottom jointer planes, and for the most part they work perfectly fine.
A flat soled type 11 (1910 patent date) Stanley Bailey jointer plane (or somewhere close to that patent date) would be an ideal jointer plane for the novice or expert. A Stanley No. 6 fore plane and Stanley No. 8 Jointer plane are pretty much unnecessary if you have a No. 7 jointer plane, but perfectly acceptable planes if you find a good deal on either of them (though the No. 8 is quite heavy).
If you want a step-by-step video guide for making a lovely traditional 18th century wood plane, then buy this DVD that I made, where Bill Anderson shows how to build an 18th Century Jointer Plane. Here’s a video preview: