Hand Planes: How and Why You Do (and Don’t) Use Them

In the last eZine, Rob asked about eZine readers’ use of hand planes, and what challenges you’ve experienced in using them.

Some readers just aren’t very fond of using hand planes. – Editor

“I just have a block plane.  When I need it, I have to have it, but there are so many ways to smooth and flatten wood without the sweat. My go-to flattener is my drum sander.” – Phil Zoeller

“I am 78 and in my shop almost every day and I can’t remember the last time I used a hand plane. I have three (different sizes), and I don’t even know why I bought them many years ago. There are other tools in my shop that do the job better, faster, and less tiring. Hand planes do seem to be fascinating for collectors.” –  Ron Dvorsky

“I have not touched mine since my grandfather gave them to me. I will be 70 in October. It has nothing to do with results. With all the other toys I own, why bother with the plane?” – Neal Schwabauer

“Unless I have a lot of time and need a particular profile, I almost never use a hand plane.  1. I’m not good with them. 2. I [stink] at sharpening anything. 3. My joiner and my planer are within five steps in my shop.” – E.J. Eiteljorge

“First, I am primarily a turner, so my use of hand planes is limited. Part of my limitation with planes is in tuning, getting the blade position just so. It’s sharp, but often high on one side. The other part is laziness. I have a 22/44 surface planer, and it’s so easy to just run a board through there.” –  Barry Saltsberg

“Been doing hobby woodworking for more than 40 years. Seldom ever use a hand plane except to finish a lip on a drawer or box. Seems a sander does a better job for me. A hand plane (I have four different planes) nearly always chips out or tears out a chunk, even as sharp as I keep my planes. Perhaps I am using the planes all wrong. Never had any formal training; just picked up on what others are doing along my learning curve.” Reg H.  Langley

“Your qualification about surfacing wood assumes that the woodworker is going to prepare the stock by hand.  While I know how to do that, it would not qualify as one of the fun aspects of woodworking.  A good powered jointer and planer are much faster and probably more accurate. I do have a number of planes that I don’t use, or use very seldom – but I’m not ready to get rid of them yet.” – Mike Henderson

“I find it easier and sometimes quicker to grab a plane for small jobs or even joint a couple of small boards easier than using a powered jointer at the other side of the shop, not to mention it’s a lot quieter! However, I love my thickness planer and won’t try to do that job by hand. I will deal with the noise and dust/chips instead of wear my arm/shoulder in a sling for a day afterwards. I have effectively wore my joints out as a FF/EMT-A for 15 years, so I tend to lean towards easier means of woodwork.” – Kevin Hanes

For some, there is a learning curve associated with hand plane use, whether it’s sharpening or another aspect. Some feel they’ve mastered it; others, not so much. – Editor

“ I have a couple of small planes I inherited from my father, but I do not use them. Sharpening anything but a pocketknife or my wife’s cutlery is the only thing I feel competent doing. My attempts at sharpening my wood chisels have not been successful, so sharpening my plane blades would not be pretty.“ – Dave Rice

“I use hand planes for almost every phase of a project: block plane about 90 percent of that, and my bench chisels even more often. Challenged by keeping them sharpened.” – Dale Smith

“My biggest plane challenge was to switching from plug-and-go mode back to shop class basics. So I watched several videos on plane tune-ups.  It took all of about 30 minutes to tune a very off-brand tool.  Now this HF tool is my go-to plane.” –  Steve Boyle

“Put me with the majority who do not use a hand plane for finishing. However, I do often use a hand plane to remove glue, level edge banding on plywood panels, make small changes in joints for a better fit and other ‘cleanup’ work. I don’t own a long plane for finishing. Also, I never feel confident that my hand plane is set up optimally. I keep my irons sharp using the marble tile/sandpaper method. I usually take them to 5,000-grit. I also use a holder to keep the irons at the right angle. I experimented with different angles, but again, wasn’t sure if the effort was worth it or not. I enjoy the sound and feel of the hand plane, but just not enough to commit totally.” – Rich Franks

“You hit the nail on the head for why many of us don’t use them more often.  Before I splurged for the Worksharp 3000, I didn’t use my hand planes very much at all because I never got good results from them.  And I hated sharpening them, because I never had a system that I felt comfortable with for sharpening beyond a mediocre result.  With the WS3K combined with a few buffing wheels & compounds on a bench grinder, I get Jimmy Diresta ‘arm shaving’ sharp blades in very little time.  Resultantly, I find a use for my hand planes on nearly every project now.  As the saying goes, ‘When you have a hammer, there is a tendency to make everything a nail.” – Andrew Thiessen

.“My problem was getting a super sharp blade.  My old No.4 was carefully tuned, and I thought the blade was well sharpened, but it didn’t perform as well as I expected.  So it wasn’t used often. Then I got a new Veritas low-angle smoother, and it was great out of the box.

“Along the way, I started to experiment with sharpening and honing with ceramic stones, primarily Shaptons, and WOW!  My old No. 4 now is as good as the new Veritas.  So the answer is you really need to sharpen.  I now use the planes a lot.” – Bruce Wedlock

And some readers use their planes and, in fact, are quite fond of them. – Editor

“When I was a lad (Don’t stories that start that way make you feel elderly?), I rarely used a bench plane. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to because that was my father’s tool. Moving into a smaller shop limits the power tools and necessitates tools-on-wheels to get things done. The hand plane does an excellent job, quiet and with little dust. All good qualities, but the real difference came when I built a decent workbench with end and leg vises. It made a huge difference and led to actual quality finishes with hand tools.” – Doug Walkey

“I tend to use my hand planes (Nos. 4, 5, 6, plow, block and shoulder) for the tasks of squaring, surfacing and trimming smaller project work, particularly for pieces where using my planer/thicknesser would be dangerous. The use of my planes therefore depends very much on my projects at the time. There always will be tasks for which only a hand plane can do the job, e.g. preparing the cross-banding inserts for cribbage boards!” – Glenn Hunt

“I love to use my hand planes and look for ways to use them on every project. I give credit for this to Paul Sellers’ sharpening method which I find fast, convenient, and non-messy.” – Thomas Wilson

“I don’t do anything without a hand plane next to me, and it may be a bench plane, block plane, rabbet plane, etc. Sounds like I am one of the bottom eight, or top eight, or a minority in other words. I don’t have power tools, space or desire for more noise, and, while good tools are expensive, sometimes no cheaper than powered tools, I think of them as things that will outlive me. That’s my justification for having them and the space and noise is my justification for using them.” – Sam Zaydel

“I use mine on every project: an old Stanley #7 to true and square up edges after table saw sizing; every surface is planed with a smoother even after running through my Powermatic 15” helical head planer.  You just can’t beat hand planing or hand planed surfaces, but then I’m 66 and have been doing hand work for decades” – John G. Eugster

“I use my hand plane often. Especially when I work on edges and so on. I am sure that it is an ‘age’ thing. I am 63 and still find that the best results for me is to use my hand planes to get the best result on edges. Whenever I need to [work on] bigger flat surfaces I will make use of my electric planer/thickener.” –  Dan Pienaar

“Count me in; I’m using hand planes (and hand saws as well!), and really enjoy them.  But I do understand about their using having a pretty big learning curve, both the basic use for surfacing and other functions, but also in terms of maintenance (sharpening, etc.).” – Jim Amos

“I use machinery to take roughsawn boards to dressed face and edge, or
DAR; after that I use hand planes almost exclusively. There would not be
a day in the shop when I am not using a plane, and my favorite planes
are those I have made using the Krenov method.” – David Gunn

“I am primarily a model maker: wooden ships and boats and other boats that wood is either the primary material or a lesser material.  I use a plane quite often, but it’s a small finger plane.  It’s only 1-1/2″ long and 5/8″ wide with a brass body and the only marking on it is ESE on the left side.  Have used it for years.

“Recently I started to use a #2 Lie Neilsen plane in the shop on some pretty small parts where I needed a bit longer tool surface.  It works wonders in bringing a solid block to a hull shape that can then be worked with gouges and the finger plane.  I am not using it to level the surface but to make parallel cuts to bring the gently curved sides closer to size.  Just like working a flat board, I need to work with the grain, not against it, but this plane really does the job.” – Kurt van Dahm

“Hand planes are something that have more recently (in the last couple years) come into my shop out of my desire to learn more about using hand tools and developing the craft and skill necessary to shape wood without relying on loud, dusty machines that take up space most of the time. I enjoy the solitary pleasure of shaping and forming wood by hand. While it’s often not as fast as the machines, and while my skill definitely needs improving, I prefer the minor imperfections of my skill over a ‘perfect’ surface that I feel like I had little to do with.

“More and more I am relying on hand planes, along with other hand tools.  The big drawbacks for me are having enough time to develop the necessary skill, and the budget to acquire the high quality of tools that really make the results so much better.  The big advantage is that the work is much quieter, cleaner, and satisfying. The quiet part is important for two reasons beyond my hearing: I live in the city and my neighbors appreciate it, and I have baby at home, and I can work during naps!” – Robert Jack

“Perhaps I can put it in perspective. Do I take the cover off the jointer/planer machine and roll it out into the working environment? Then plug it in and attach the dust collector? All for one edge that somehow didn’t get machined when I machined 30 or 40 board feet for a project. I’ll dig out the hand plane to do the job. Or when I need to break/chamfer an edge of a piece rather than setting up the router table. Generally, I try to plan my work so that it is one machine operation at a time.” –  Rich Flynn

“I don’t normally respond to these questions. I have spent 28 years playing at woodworking. I cannot imagine doing any of my projects without my hand tools complementing the power tools. They work to make each other more enjoyable and fast. To me there is nothing like an early morning, a sleeping household, a fresh cup of coffee and using my finish plane on the project at hand. There is truly something soothing about the sound of curls of coming off the plane. Those saved plane shavings are saved for fire starter in the fire pit when it’s chilly.” – Bill Perez

“I use my planes more and more all the time. In my 75 years, I’ve always had at least one in my set of tools.  I’ve now got six planes that occupy space at my bench. Although I do most of my work with machines and power tools, I can’t remember a project done without a hand plane. Most woodworkers don’t know the capabilities of them and so don’t see the value in learning skills necessary to sharpen, set up, and use them.” – Bill Needham

“I use mine almost exclusively. I have a handheld power planer as well as a Dewalt 12″ surface planer but probably use them once a year combined.  A good, sharp hand plane leaves a finish that is not even attainable with sandpaper in a fraction of the time.  It does take a little time to get one sharp and tuned up but, once you’ve done it, you never need to do anything but touch up the blade now and then.  Most of mine are old Stanley Bailey models that used to belong to my father or grandfather.  They still work like brand-new.  Properly sharpened, you can shave a strip off the side of a piece of 1-inch lumber that you can read the newspaper through.  Nothing like it.” –  Chuck Chall

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