The Problem with Hand Planes Today

Hand planes can be divided several ways. One of the more common ways is by length. There are of course block planes, which are the shortest, at around 6-7″. Then come smooth planes, which typically measure 9-10″. They are followed by jack (fore) planes at 14-15″ and finally jointer (try) planes which are about 18-22″ long, though they can reach up to 30″ long.

These sizes and associated names have been passed on through generations, however the use of one particular plane, the jack, has not fared so well.We still use block planes like block planes and jointers like jointers. And for the most, we still use smoothers like smoothers. However, I feel that somewhere along the way, the proper use of a jack plane has been lost. When preparing stock from a rough board, this is the traditional sequence of steps:

  1. Use a scrub plane to get the board roughly flat by planing down the high points as shown with a straight edge as well as winding sticks. The narrow blade, about 1-1/2″ wide, with a tight radius takes a narrow chip, about 3/8″-3/4″ wide. This makes it easy to take deep cuts, quickly removing high points. However, the curvature of the blade leaves severe scallops which are usually undesirable;
  2. Next comes the jack plane, which is used to reduce the scallops left by the scrub plane. The length of the sole helps keep the work flat. The jack plane traditionally had a moderately cambered, or curved blade installed to make the job go quickly. Like the scrub plane, it was not expected to leave a finished surface, but the jack does leave a more refined surface than the scrub. If the work were really large, say, a table top, the jointer plane would be used before the jack to make it easier to achieve a flat surface. I like to start working almost perpendicular to the grain, working from one end to the other, then work back going diagonal, diagonal the opposite way, and finally with the grain. This procedure helps eliminate creating any valleys or missing any hills; and then
  3. Finally comes the smoothing stage. The blade in the smoothing plane may have a slight camber in it or a straight edge with the corners taken off. Either profile eliminates plane tracks – tell-tale grooves left in the work by the corners of the blade. A smooth plane is set at a fine cut to take the final shavings off. It is short because the work is already flat and having a longer sole only means more weight to move. I believe that having a shorter sole also allows the user to exert more PSI with the plane against the wood, preventing the plane from skipping. Therefore, it is easier to make a difficult cut.

You may have noticed that when I talked about the jack plane blade, I used the word “traditionally”. Traditionally, a moderately curved blade was used to produce a cut between the scrub plane and smooth plane, because that’s when it was used. It is not designed to be as coarse as a scrub – it is longer than is practical to do so and has an overly wide blade (around 1-3/4″), nor is it designed to work as a smooth plane, because it is more unwieldy than it needs to be thanks to its length and is would be slower too, thanks to the narrow blade.

Now let’s talk present. Do some research into the different types of planes and their uses. Most sources will talk about the length of the sole, and how the longer soled planes are better than short ones because the ride over the valleys and remove material only from the peaks until the peaks are even with the valleys. Wonderful. It really is.

But it also leads the reader to believe that the longer the plane, the better it is – so why not just get one really long plane and call it a general purpose tool. There are two issues with that theory. One, do you really want to use a 2-foot long, 10 lb plane all day? I didn’t think so. Secondly, you may recall that each of the three stages used a different profile of blade, starting with a tight radius, then a moderate radius, and finally a slightly curved or flat blade.

I think that the loss of this practice is due in a large part to the advent of the power jointer and planer. These two tools which are now common in small shops have largely replaced the jack plane. There is still use for a block plane for trimming. And for most of us, there is still need for a smoother plane to produce that nice, smooth, almost polished surface that we can’t trust the machines to do. Jointer planes are handy for times when it is easier to bring the tool to the work, rather than the work to the tool as the jointer and planer both require. Like when straightening the edge of a 12′ board in your 16′ long shop.

But where hand tools really shine is when working with wood beyond the capacities of these machines. Table tops and natural slabs come to mind. That’s when my hand planes get a real work out, and I would not want to be without them.

3 thoughts on “The Problem with Hand Planes Today

  1. Interesting, but I think you are forgetting the fore plane and jointer as well as the origin of the name ‘jack’

    You should watch Chris Schwaz’s coarse, medium, fine – it is the best explanation of plane sizes I have thus far found.

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