Hand Planes - Why?

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Forum topic by BoxJoint posted 03-08-2013 02:43 AM 2746 views 0 times favorited 54 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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3 posts in 3902 days

03-08-2013 02:43 AM

Topic tags/keywords: plane

I’m a little embarrassed to show my lack of understanding but I figure I won’t be able to hear you laugh at my silly question.

What I want to understand is with the power tools I have in my shop (planer, jointer, table saw, etc.), why do I need a hand plane? I am able to remove stock, smooth wood, & flatten high spots with my various power tools. So I am really trying to understand what I am missing without any kind of hand plane in my tool repertoire?

I apologize in advance for what may seem a silly question. I am sure the experts here can set me straight!


-- "You only live once - but if you work it right, once is enough" - Joe E Lewis

54 replies so far

View ShaneA's profile


7052 posts in 2796 days

#1 posted 03-08-2013 02:47 AM

The finished surface a hand plane is capable of leaving behind is far superior to any mechanical device or sandpaper. You are also able to get precision fits with less effort and set up. They are not noisy, nor do they cause dust. These are a few reasons.

View Ripthorn's profile


1458 posts in 3182 days

#2 posted 03-08-2013 02:51 AM

As someone who until recently was in your shoes, here are the things that I have noticed that hand planes do that your power tools won’t or aren’t as good at:

- Sneaking up on a measurement. Trying to fine tune something on a miter saw is not all that easy, but taking off a couple thousandths at a time lets you get a perfect fit.
- Quick chamfers. A block plane will let you chamfer something quicker than setting up a router.
- The finish of a smoothing plane. I like to sand projects up to an obscenely high grit, but no matter how high you go, you can’t match the glossy shine of a nicely planed surface.
- Knocking down high spots to save stock. I just took of a weird high spot on the edge of a board that was going to go through the jointer. Knocking off the high spot save probably 1/4-1/2” on the finished width of the board
- Getting rid of twist. This is similar to above, but twist is a killer. You can get it out with a jointer, but you will waste a lot more stock.
- Working small pieces. You can’t do anything shorter than about 6” in a jointer or planer
- Keep in mind that jointers and planers are not finish tools. They still require something after them. It can be various grits of sand paper, but a plane will not only leave a better finish, but will leave the surface flatter as well
- Working with really large pieces. Try running a 15” board through your 13” planer. Nuff said.
- Flushing up mating pieces and removing burn marks. A block plane will trim up things like plugs in a piece really easily.

Those are just the ones off the top of my head. They are totally worth it. Start with a block plane and see how much you use it.

-- Brian T. - Exact science is not an exact science

View sikrap's profile


1121 posts in 3556 days

#3 posted 03-08-2013 03:05 AM

IMHO, using hand tools (planes, spokeshaves, chisels, etc) is just more fun. I don’t have to turn on the dust collector, I can listen to music or TV, I don’t have to wear safety glasses, and I can relax and not have to worry about losing a finger or 3. Yes, you can still hurt yourself using hand tools, but you have to work at it. The other aspects that have already been mentioned are also part of it, especially the sanding. I hate sanding. There are also times when its just quicker/more efficient. I can make some really nice molding using a couple of planes in less time than I can set up a router table.

-- Dave, Colonie, NY

View shampeon's profile


1879 posts in 2381 days

#4 posted 03-08-2013 03:05 AM

Lack of noise and dust, for one.

Let’s look a little more closely into why a hand plane gives a better surface than rotary power tools (jointers, planers) and sanding.

With a rotary power tool, the multiple blades are spinning, digging into the wood, then exiting, creating very small “waves” in the surface of the wood. This is even more pronounced with helical head cutters. You can get a good surface just with power tools, but the small waves will still be there.

With abrasives, as you work your way up the grits, you’re creating scratches that are knocked down and replaced.

A hand plane cuts off a thin layer of wood, often in a long strip in one pass. The wood fibers are cut in a single plane, not chipped out (power tools) or scratched (abrasives).

-- ian | "You can't stop what's coming. It ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity."

View LukieB's profile


966 posts in 2527 days

#5 posted 03-08-2013 03:08 AM

All those machines leave behind their marks…all of them. Tablesaw, jointer, bandsaw….even the planer. Marks that have to be removed to get a fine finish.

Sanding works, and did for me for a lot of years. But with sanding comes dust. Dust that I find hard to control.

I was skeptical that a hand plane could do that kind of finish work, and leave behind a surface ready for finish.

But the first time I got my hands on a truly sharp plane and realized I could eliminate sanding through 3 grits of sandpaper (at the least) and all the dust and noise that comes along with that, with one swipe of the hand plane…..I was hooked.

Don’t get me wrong they’re not the answer for everything, and I still have a full arsenal of sandpaper in the shop. But lately it’s only purpose has been sanding down knobs and totes on my plane restorations.

Edit…sorry if my post is a little redundant, I type real slow and am easily distracted. There was only 1 reply when I started typing, LOL

-- Lucas, "Someday woodworks will be my real job, until then, there's this"

View lwllms's profile


555 posts in 3479 days

#6 posted 03-08-2013 03:19 AM

Hand tools are more accurate and often more efficient than power tools. I remember building jigs and going through tedious setups to do simple things I can quickly do with hand tools. It’s a matter of trusting yourself and learning accurate layout. Of course you need to be able to work to layout lines.

I do some of the work I do on metal type machines where I can dial in settings in thousandths. Still, the most accurate work I do is by hand.

While I make planes, I don’t subscribe to the better finish stuff. I hand sand and sanding is one of the most highly skilled tasks I do. It’s too easy to wipe out crispness or even fine features with sloppy sanding. The stuff I produce is hand sanded unless there’s a reason to avoid sanding.

I can easily produce most any molding I design and can design to fit the scale and proportions of a project. You can’t do that with a shaper or router unless you’re willing to pay high dollar for custom ground cutters/bits and wait for delivery. Machines can’t undercut but I can undercut by hand, this is because of the linear travel of the material over a cutter or bit.

I’ve always gotten by with a 6” or 8” jointer. I can quickly and easily flatten wider stock on the rare occasions I need wider stock without laminating. I can also produce a better butt joint on long glue-ups with a hand plane. You don’t get the inevitable scalloped surface with a hand plane that you get from a jointer or even a planer.

View DocBailey's profile


584 posts in 2557 days

#7 posted 03-08-2013 03:31 AM

The substance of your question has already been more than adequately addressed.
I just want to say something regarding “dumb” questions.
No one is born knowing the answers to these kinds of things. More importantly, don’t ever let the fear of looking silly get between you and the answers you need.
I guarantee you that no one whose opinion matters finds the asking of questions anything except admirable.

View JayT's profile (online now)


5957 posts in 2408 days

#8 posted 03-08-2013 03:43 AM

Definitely not a silly question. I think most machine based woodworkers do not understand the advantages of a hand plane—I know I didn’t for a long time. My school shop teachers taught us to use machines and it wasn’t until learning to tune and use a plane last year that I began to understand the benefits. The guys above have covered the reasoning very well.

Even if you stay using mostly machines, having a good block plane and smoother will allow a lot more flexibility and precision in your woodworking.

-- In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock. Thomas Jefferson

View waho6o9's profile


8516 posts in 2774 days

#9 posted 03-08-2013 03:45 AM

“I guarantee you that no one whose opinion matters finds the asking of questions anything except admirable.”

Well said Doc!

View BoxJoint's profile


3 posts in 3902 days

#10 posted 03-08-2013 03:56 AM

LJocks rock! What a great variety of answers!

Thank you very much for your time in responding and your support.

-- "You only live once - but if you work it right, once is enough" - Joe E Lewis

View vipond33's profile


1405 posts in 2695 days

#11 posted 03-08-2013 04:04 AM

They exist to soak up your disposable income.
Buying just one is a metaphysical absurdity and three irons are required apiece.
And let’s not talk about sharpening stones/systems until your line of credit is approved.

-- gene@toronto.ontario.canada : dovetail free since '53, critiques always welcome.

View mcase's profile


446 posts in 3326 days

#12 posted 03-08-2013 04:18 AM


I think its a great question. I often ask myself the same thing. To me it also involves the question of am I sculpting wood or just machining it? So is there a practical productive place for hand planes in a modern machine based shop? By this I mean not just because they are good for us mentally or emotionally which in fact they are. They are for me anyway. Planing wood by hand in a quiet shop is soothing, where as buzzing sanders combined with howling vacuums is not – in fact its nerve jangling. Stickley, which has been making outstanding furniture of uncompromising quality for over a hundred years still hand fits each drawer box – sculpting them to fit each individual bay. I can’t think of a better tool for this than a hand plane. Another good example of practical application has already been mentioned – removing milling marks. Hand planes can be a great practical additions to machines for this reason alone. When I joint a board on a 78” long jointer its straighter than any hand plane is going to make it, but its has milling marks. I keep a #3 bevel up with a straight ground blade just for smoothing jointed edges. Its both practical and satisfying. I also use hand planes to smooth and shape drawer fronts to fit flush on inset drawers. Yeah, there are a whole lot of practical uses for hand planes in a machine based shop. I suppose ultimately keeping the woodworker calm and happy is also a practical idea – hand planes are real good for this too. Start collecting them and Enjoy!

View BTimmons's profile


2303 posts in 2682 days

#13 posted 03-08-2013 04:22 AM

In addition to the other fine answers here, I’ll give another reason for using hand planes.

I really enjoy it. The tactile sensations, the feel of the wood as it travels through the plane to my hands tells me a lot of information that would be lost with power tools. Information that says whether you’re pressing down too hard or going too fast, or when it’s all dialed in and it all feels right.

Then there’s the sounds. Oh man, the sounds. At the risk of sounding like a hippie stoned out of his gourd, the wood, it like, talks to us, man. It makes such happy sounds when the tools are sharp and moving like they’re supposed to.

Can’t forget the visual component. Seeing beautiful smooth ribbons of wood fibers appear, leaving behind a glassy surface that was nowhere near that nice just a few seconds ago.

And some woods smell great when they’re being worked. Although I don’t favor pine for nice projects, the smell of it freshly planed adds years to your life, I tell you.

So yeah, it’s a feast for the senses. The fact that it bombards you with so much to process at once, makes it very easy for me to quickly work myself into Zen-like focus, and all the mundane daily toils cease to matter, at least for a while.

-- Brian Timmons -

View gfadvm's profile


14940 posts in 2887 days

#14 posted 03-08-2013 04:27 AM

It’s a very slippery slope (see Gene’s post #12 above)!

-- " I'll try to be nicer, if you'll try to be smarter" gfadvm

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


15690 posts in 2816 days

#15 posted 03-08-2013 04:29 AM

How about an example that addresses your question as to ‘why a hand plane?’

Say you want to build a small side table with tapered legs. If you’ve built one before, you may have a tapering sled, or jig, of some sort to use with the table saw (or even band saw) to cut the angle you want. And while that gets you close, it’s still over to the jointer, then the spindle sander or ROS to get each angled leg ‘done.’

With hand planes at your disposal, and a solid bench in which to hold the work, cut the leg angles ‘just kinda’ up to a line that’s you’ve drawn. Then clamp the legs in the bench and plane to the line. When you’ve hit the line, you’re done. No jigs, no jointer, no sanding. The first time you do this, you’ll be hooked. It’s incredibly simple. :-)

Hope this helps. Oh, and it’s the method used as I was goofing around with this table build in an afternoon.

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

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