Understanding Handplanes – Part One – Benchplanes

Sweeping, sharpening, sawing to the line, planing – the first four lessons of the traditional apprenticeship.  So why do I meet so many experienced woodworkers who do not understand and enjoy handplaning?  The simple answer is that power tools allow us to “cut to the line” and “square up” our workpieces with ease and speed.  That being said, it must be asked why we should know how to use handplanes?  There are a number of reasons why handplaning is a “gateway” skill that all of us should possess.  Let’s take a look at them:

1.  Snipe is the enemy.  On both power joiners and planers, snipe, or the undercutting at entry to and exit from the machine, wastes as much as 6 to 8 linear inches on each board processed.  Scarcity and/or high cost of a particular species may make such waste unacceptable.  Handplaning is the obvious solution to this problem.

2.  Some workpieces are simply too large or too small to process with available power tools and must be planed using handplanes.

3.  Some workpieces are highly figured and cannot be processed with power tools, other than sanders, because of tear-out.

4.  Handplaning creates a surface that requires little or no further work before final finishing.

5.  Therapeutic value; there’s simply no more satisfying task in woodworking than tuning a handplane, running it over the wood’s surface then seeing long, even, continuous shavings spill out, onto the bench, then to the floor below.  It is an elemental experience.

IMG_1545

L-R: 26" Wooden Jointer; Stanley No.8 Jointer; 22" Wooden Tryplane; Long Jack; English pattern Jack, Stanley No.5 1/2

Smooth plane – used for polishing and smoothing.  Double iron may be ground with very slight crown (1/64 to 1/128 of an inch) to prevent lap marks on finished surface.  Bedding angles range from 40 to 60 degrees.  Stanley smoothing planes bedded at 45 degrees.  English smoothers like Norris and Spiers are usually bedded at 50 degrees (York pitch) or 55 degrees (Middle pitch).  This allows for more control while working figured wood.  However it severely limits the thickness of the chip that can be removed, really forcing them to dedicated use as a smoothing or polishing tool.  While most English and American wooden bodied planes are bedded at 45 degrees, many continental planes were set at 50 degrees.  English and American coffin patterned planes are often bedded at 50 degrees, as well.  (Stanley numbers 3,4,4 1/2)

Smoothing plane - Swiss pear wood

Smoothing plane - Swiss pear wood

Jack plane – the “jack of all trades” plane, can be used for heavier stock removal, truing up datums, joining shorter boards and smoothing.  Usually a double iron setup with the cutter being crowned from 1/64 to as much as 1/16 of an inch (depending on use).  It is an “all around” tool that would have been in the toolkit of all carpenters and joiners.  Typically between 11 and 17 inches in length, 1 3/4 to 2 1/2″ in width and bedded at 45 degrees.  (Stanley numbers 5, 5 1/4, 5 1/2)

Panel plane – a subdivision of the jackplane category, the Panel plane was used to true and smooth panels used in frame and panel joinery.  Spiers, Norris and other regionalized English planemakers are famous for their infilled panel planes which today can cost thousands of dollars.  Most panel planes are set at 50 degrees, with the exception of the Stanley 5 1/2 which is set at 45.  Lie-Nielsen company offers a choice of frogs that provide bedding at York (50 degrees) or Middle (55 degrees) for their 5 1/2, making it a true panel plane in every sense of the word.

Norris Infill Panel Plane - England

Norris Infill Panel Plane - England

Try plane –  A much misunderstood plane.  Some folks percieve it to be a long jack plane others think of it as a short jointer.  The tryplane was used to create the first datum or flat surface when planing.  The “trysquare” was used to indicate squareness of two intersecting surfaces.  The tryplane was used to insure that the initial datum was flat and without twist or “wind”.  “Winding sticks” would have been used by the craftsman to insure that there was no twist in the surface.  Tryplanes typically are between 17 and 22 inches in length and between 2 and 2 1/2 inches wide.  Irons could be single (wooden planes) or double (iron planes) and are well crowned (radiused), usually between a 1/16 and 3/32.  This crowning explains the gently undulating grooves that be felt on the non-visible surfaces of many pieces of antique furniture.  Tryplanes were popular for truing the edges of tongue and groove or butted flooring in the days before power planers and floor sanders.  (Stanley No. 6)

Tryplane - Maple & Amboyna burl

Tryplane - Maple & Amboyna burl

 Jointer Plane – The biggest of the handheld benchplanes.  So it must be used for taking off the biggest of chips, right?  Wrong!  The jointer is made long to provide a base that allows the craftsman to create the straightest edge possible thereby allowing two pieces to be “jointed” together with a nearly invisible “seam”.  The other important use for Jointers is to smooth critical surfaces after they were initially flattened with a tryplane.  Jointers range in length from 20 – 36 inches, with some wooden jointers having irons well over 3″ wide.  Single iron plans are not uncommon.  Irons are honed dead straight and mouths are kept as tight as possible.  (Stanley Numbers 7 & 8 )

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