Help me understand the Handplane

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Forum topic by RichardDePetris posted 12-11-2013 07:02 PM 3402 views 1 time favorited 20 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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61 posts in 1684 days

12-11-2013 07:02 PM

Topic tags/keywords: handplane question planer joining milling

As a new woodworker, I am trying to learn as much as I can about hand planing as I don’t have the means right now for a jointer/planer. I’ve read as much as I can about hand planing and watched many hours of videos, but there’s still lots of unanswered questions. I have a few here and I hope it’s not too much for a single post.

First, why does the sole of the plane have to be perfectly flat? For longer body planes like a jointer, I’ve read that it doesn’t have to be perfectly flat only for shorter ones like a No. 4. There’s lots of information on flattening the sole but no discussion as to why it has to be done and how it helps.

Second, why isn’t the front of the sole inset like a power jointer. On a power jointer, the infeed end of the table is set lower than the outfeed end. It works the same way on a router table when you want to use it for jointing and even the power hand planer. With the hand plane, however, the front and back of the soles are pefectly planar with the tip of the blade protruding. The jointer’s mechanism makes a lot more sense to me than the hand plane.

Third, how much of planing success is technique and how much is due to the mechanics of the tool? I’ve watched experts explain how to plane a perfect 90 degree edge and how to plane two opposite sides of a board to be perfectly parallel and consistent in thickness end to end. When I tried to do it, I was able to get a flat surface and a perpendicular edge to it, but discovered that the board became an unusable trapezoid. Was I pressing too hard on the front knob or was my blade off?

I’m even more confused when I see other woodworkers using edge guides and shooting boards. Obviously, it shows a limitation of human technique and mechanics in getting accurate results. It makes me wonder whether success with the tool is really just about look, feel, listen and feel. The idea of depending on your senses for critical precision scares me. I would hate to ruin a nice piece of mahogany because my senses were “off.”

I sometimes wonder whether this whole hand planing is just a futile exercise in elitism and machismo. The folks at Popular Woodworking spend an inordinate amount time extolling the virtues of hand planing with Schwarz as its highest guru. The whole thing reminds me of the cheesy heavy metal videos back in the 80’s where every band had to have an acoustic guitar ballad to appear sophisticated.

Perhaps, the whole hand plane thingy is just a waste of time. Should I just wait for an affordable jointer/planer to make itself available on Craigslist before attempting to build anything elaborate?

20 replies so far

View Tim's profile


3807 posts in 1960 days

#1 posted 12-11-2013 07:18 PM

1. There are strong opinions on it out there, but the sole of the plane doesn’t need to be that flat except for a smoother, and I suppose a longer plane used as a try plane to get very flat surfaces. Someone else can explain it better than I but flat means there is no gap between the wood and the plane sole so the cutting edge can cut smoothly all the way across.

2. I think the reason the sole doesn’t need to be inset is the hand plane typically takes finer shavings than a power jointer. If you’re taking thicker shavings than you’re doing rougher work and aren’t as worried about it. Without the inset hand planes actually cut an arc with a very large radius. But it’s so large and can be compensated for by technique that it doesn’t really matter.

3. I would say a lot of it is due to technique and it basically just takes practice. Edge guides and shooting boards help you get better results with less skill. A shooting board can help get a higher degree of accuracy than is possible by hand. Practice on some less valuable hardwood before you ruin anything expensive and it shouldn’t take too long if you have time for practice.

Hand planing can be a little frustrating, but it can be enjoyable and a lot of fun too. No dust collector, no dust. Only you can decide if it’s worth your time for you to learn and practice. Don’t worry what other people think.

View alohafromberkeley's profile


257 posts in 2403 days

#2 posted 12-11-2013 07:22 PM

Have you read Garrett Hack’s “The Handplane Book”. It gives the answers to all your questions.Sorry for the short reply but there are many others who are way more knowledgeable about this topic than I am…also I’m heading out the door for work…... (cheesy heavy metal ballads= redundancy)LOL

-- "After a year of doing general farmwork, it was quite clear to me that chickens and I were not compatible"-George Nakashima

View CharlieM1958's profile


16274 posts in 4217 days

#3 posted 12-11-2013 07:26 PM

I’m not going to address all your questions, because there are a lot of hand plane experts around here and I’m not one of them. As someone who has restored a number of planes and toyed around with them, but doesn’t really use them on a regular basis, I can say that it is definitely a combination of art and science. Feeding a board into a power planer does not require any real skill, but using a hand plane does.

There can be a great deal of satisfaction in running a well-tuned plane across a board and watching whisper-thin shavings stream out the top. But if your only motivation for hand-planing is that you can’t afford an electric planer, you will probably find it a frustrating and tiring experience.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View bandit571's profile


20000 posts in 2682 days

#4 posted 12-11-2013 07:41 PM

There is a video out there on

In it, Roy Underhill , and Chris Schwarz talk all about almost every hand plane to use on a project, starting with the fore/jack plane. Maybe 30 minutes of your time…

-- A Planer? I'M the planer, this is what I use

View jdh122's profile


1012 posts in 2816 days

#5 posted 12-11-2013 09:44 PM

Others can give you much better advice than me on the physics of a handplane. One thing, however, is that unless you are really hard-core dedicated to handtool work like they used to do in the past, a handplane for most of us is not a substitute for a jointer and planer. Dimensioning rough stock by hand is doable but a lot of work. Personally I use powertools for dimensioning and ripping, and do crosscutting and finishing (as well as all shaping if it involves curves) by hand.

-- Jeremy, in the Acadian forests

View PurpLev's profile


8535 posts in 3647 days

#6 posted 12-11-2013 10:01 PM

there really isn’t a “one setup fits all” – it all depends on what you are doing.

if you mostly do smaller projects, and your rough stock is cutoffs, or otherwise short boards, then a power jointer/planer would be the last thing you want to use as they rely on longer boards to be effective and safe to operate.

if you mostly plan on building long/larger pieces like beds, standalone cabinets and the likes, then you will work with really long boards in which case a power jointer/planer would make your life much easier and more efficient.

a hand plane is a joy to use – I think this is why many are attracted to it. I myself flatten and joint rough stock by hand, then thickness it with a power planer/thicknesser. for finishing I use a combination of hand planes/ scrapers and sanders. like I said – no one setup fits all. it’s all personal. I do use mostly smaller boards.

a hand plane does not have to be perfectly flat all across the sole – only some critical areas in it must be on a single plane for the handplane to operate properly – not wiggle/tilt and cut precisely where it needs to.

a handplane take very fine shavings as opposed to a power jointer which is why it also does not need an inset on the infeed.

There is a bit difference between achieving a “handmade look” of jointing/flattening boards by hand (which does not need to be all machine-perfect all across) and making perfect miter joints which have no room for error which is why you see people use shooting boards.

there is a lot to learn about hand planes, but the best advice I can give you is get one and start using it – many things will “make sense” once you actually start using it. and used handplanes are to be found around for not a lot of $$$ compared to their power equivalents… they do not require a lot of storage space, no electricity, – so very little risk in getting one.

-- ㊍ When in doubt - There is no doubt - Go the safer route.

View JayT's profile


5631 posts in 2209 days

#7 posted 12-11-2013 10:21 PM

Handplane—a woodworking device for flattening and smoothing lumber. Acquisition and use of one properly set up and sharpened plane leads to addictive collecting and restoration behaviors, characterized by inordinate amounts of time spent at flea markets, antique stores and on ebay, followed by a reduction of bank account. Use with caution!

I do not currently own a powered jointer or planer—all my stock dimensioning is done by hand planes. I am planning to purchase a thickness planer to reduce that time, but will continue to joint by hand, as I get as good or better results than a machine that I don’t have the space for anyways. Successful hand planing depends on 1) setting up the plane correctly (fettling) 2) having a sharp iron and 3) technique. The first is easy to learn, the second not much more difficult, but the third takes quite a bit of practice.

Even with practice, shooting boards are used to ensure accuracy and make small adjustments not possible with machinery or measurable by human eye. For instance, cutting miters. I can hand cut pretty close to a perfect 45 degree miter joint, but for picture framing , it needs to be exact. A shooting board can give that kind of accuracy. Why not just use a miter saw? Because I both enjoy the hand tool process and also because for one frame, I can have it done by hand in less time than it takes to set the miter saw to 45 degrees, do a test cut, check, adjust, test again and have it perfect. If a minute adjustment to angle needs made, a shim on a shooting board can take an angle from a perfect 90 degrees to 89.5 in a heartbeat for a job like doing moldings.

As far as flat, I agree with Tim and PurpLev. My plane soles do not have to be perfectly flat, as long as they are flat immediately in front of the mouth, are straight front to back and are not convex side to side. A slightly hollowed sole is no big deal, but a rounded one is difficult or impossible to work with. Since you are only taking shavings of a couple thousanths of an inch with a smoother and slightly more with a jointer, there is just no need to try and offset the sole in front of the iron. This also comes back to technique. As you plane a piece of wood, you adjust where you put the pressure (knob or tote of the plane) to achieve desired results. Most wood will deflect more than the thickness of the shaving due to the pressure.

I’m definitely not an expert, just have some strong opinions, but will say that it wasn’t until recently that I understood all the fuss about handplanes. I was taught on power machinery and that was what I knew and used for the longest time. The first time I used a well tuned plane, however, the light bulb went on. There are some things that hand planes do either better or faster than machines, especially for a hobbyist that isn’t batching out large orders of identical products. Additionally, to quote DonW, there is just something about the sound of a well tuned hand plane. It adds another element to woodworking. I can engage my hearing and touch, in addition to sight, to help read the wood and achieve better results.

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

View bondogaposis's profile


4727 posts in 2350 days

#8 posted 12-11-2013 10:27 PM

I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you. The best approach I think is to get yourself a used Stanley jack plane and rebuild it and use it. You’ll soon see whether it is for you or not, watch out though, acquiring planes can become a goal in itself.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


15353 posts in 2617 days

#9 posted 12-11-2013 10:28 PM

—First, why does the sole of the plane have to be perfectly flat?

It doesn’t have to be. Only if it’s widely out of flat should you worry about it; problems in performance are typically due to many other things besides out-of-flat unless you’re trying to make a piece-o’-crap tool do great things.

—Second, why isn’t the front of the sole inset like a power jointer.

Finer setting , as Purp said.

—Third, how much of planing success is technique and how much is due to the mechanics of the tool?

The problem you described is technique.

—I’m even more confused when I see other woodworkers using edge guides and shooting boards.

No worse than having a crosscut sled on your table saw.

—I sometimes wonder whether this whole hand planing is just a futile exercise in elitism and machismo.

Hand planes are vital to my work. Call it what you will.

—Perhaps, the whole hand plane thingy is just a waste of time. Should I just wait for an affordable jointer/planer to make itself available on Craigslist before attempting to build anything elaborate?

The question appears tongue-in-cheek, so the answer is too. Yes, don’t do anything until you have the ‘right’ machines in your shop. Oh, and good luck with that…

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

View funchuck's profile


119 posts in 3056 days

#10 posted 12-11-2013 10:32 PM

I switched from all power tools to all hand tools about 18 months ago.

If I were still using power tools, hand planes would still be very useful. I much prefer using a smoothing plane than using a sander. I can also flatten and true any size surface, and the wood doesn’t need to be run through a machine. Instead, I take the plane to the surface.

Personally, I think in order to use planes effectively, you will probably need some instruction. The David Charlesworth video on hand planing is really good. I also had a 30 day trial of Rob Cosman’s online school. I think Rob Cosman’s school is pretty good in that the videos show every step he takes, including all the mistakes. It really showed me that even highly experienced pros makes mistakes, and it shows how he takes rough lumber and makes it into nice, surfaced lumber. Every step is shown, which is important, because the Charlesworth DVD doesn’t show every step in real time, so you may not be sure how long something should take. Anyways, that’s my take on it.

If you’re going to be using 100% hand planes to dimension lumber, you’ll definitely need either a foreplane or scrub plane. These planes have a highly cambered blade that lets you take thick shavings. It seems most people prefer the scrub plane, but I prefer the foreplane because of it’s longer sole.

After that, you’d need a jointer and a smoother and you’re all set.

You’ll also want a block plane as well.

As far as flat soles, I think it needs to be reasonably flat. I’m not sure about the different tolerances out there, but for me, my planes are Veritas (BU Jointer and LA Jack) and WoodRiver (#4 and #6). I never tested any of their soles, never lapped them, but they seem to work good.

Shooting boards are used to get a 90 or 45 degree angle on the end grain of a board. They are easy to make and very useful. Use a jack with a straight blade and you should be all set.

I know some people use edge guides, and I bought one for my jointer too. But, I am just too lazy to keep attaching it everytime I have to true up an edge. I haven’t used mine for a long time. Nowadays, I have a cambered blade on my jointer and use the blade’s camber to true up the edge. One disadvantage to this method is that you really have to pay attention, using a square to check it every few strokes.

Dimensioning boards using only hand planes takes much longer to do and it is pretty tiring, but if you don’t mind it, then I say go for it. If you just want to get your projects done quickly, I would save up for the power tools.

-- Charles from California

View sikrap's profile


1121 posts in 3357 days

#11 posted 12-12-2013 03:03 AM

I agree with Smitty in that a plane sole does not need to be perfectly flat. If they did, the planes with corrugated soles would not be around. What is important is that they are flat and in plane (no pun intended) for the first inch of the sole, about an inch before and after the mouth, and the last inch or so and this is only really important (IMHO) for smoothers and jointers. Scrubs and other planes that are used for “dimensioning” aren’t trying to put a final finish on, but smoothers are and jointers need to be relatively flat for flattening a board. That said, I have been known to spend an inordinate amount of time flattening a sole, especially if its a plane I’m selling.

-- Dave, Colonie, NY

View unbob's profile


810 posts in 1902 days

#12 posted 12-12-2013 05:17 AM

For the flatness on the sole of a hand plane, the eye opener for me was trying a few LN planes. Those are very flat.
The problem being on older planes, getting the sole as flat as a LN plane, not an easy task.
A plane with an out of wack sole can still be used, but needing constant compensation, and more time wasted doing the same job.

View exelectrician's profile


2327 posts in 2426 days

#13 posted 12-12-2013 05:44 AM

I mostly use power tools but there are certain things that a power tool just can’t do, that a good plane can do with ease.

-- Love thy neighbour as thyself

View Don W's profile

Don W

18715 posts in 2566 days

#14 posted 12-15-2013 05:20 PM

Perhaps, the whole hand plane thingy is just a waste of time.

I’m not sure how that’s even possible. All of the questions have been answered, but keep in mind its doesn’t need to be and either or. I have more hand planes than I’ll ever need or use, but I still flip on the planer a lot. There is a place for both, even in a power tool shop.

I use hand tools more than power, but that’s me. Learn to use them and decide how much you “want” to use them.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View Kent's profile


157 posts in 1794 days

#15 posted 12-18-2013 08:37 PM

On Mafe’s blog Japanese tools #1: Japanese hand plane KANNA setup he has this pretty good picture to describe the ideal plane sole profile for a wooden plane. Ii’s about 2/3 down.
He suspects, as do I, that a metal plane sole does not need to be perfectly flat, but that making it “correct” would be a machining nightmare.

I recently started tuning derelict old planes, mostly inherited. After some minor truing of the soles and major work on the rusted and pitted blades, these are now working better than any other plane that I’ve ever tried. That’s not saying that they’re great, it’s saying that my experience with hand planes has been limited. I hadn’t pursued using hand planes until now because I’d never had a chance to use one that was properly adjusted and sharp. I know that I can improve my technique a lot more, but the improvements in my ability to create shavings has been remarkable after even my crude attempts at plane tuning. Here`s a picture from Fine Woodworking showing about how flat I make the soles on my Stanley Bailey-type planes.
You can see that the front and rear of the plane’s sole are flat all the way across its width. Also notice that the edges of the sole are also flat for most of their lengths.

Refering to Mafe’s drawing, this makes sense. Imagine Mafe’s ideal plane being passed over a wavy board; If that board is curved up at the ends, then the blade of the plane won’t touch the board until the ends of the plane drop over the ends of the board. This would make the board flatter. Hmmmm?

Now, if that board were curved down at the ends, then the middle would stick up between the ends of the planes sole, and the middle (the high point) would be cut. As the plane reached the end of the board, the high point at the middle of the board would lift the blade clear until the end of the plane cleared the end of the board. This would also flatten the board.

If a plane is longer then it cannot react to small changes in the height of the surface being planed, but it will also make the surface flatter because of that. Alternatively, if the plane is shorter, it can react to smaller changes in height, but at the risk of creating a surface that is not flat (just think of Luthier's planes

As to technique, my experience is limited. What I have learned is that with hand tools, just applying more pressure to one side or spot will increase the effect your tool is having. The trick is to use this, coupled with patience, to achieve the desired effect. Remember, your power jointer or planer is spinning quickly, making thousands of cuts per second; they must be set right because of that. When hand planing, you have the option of stopping and checking after one or two passes. When the work gets down to the fine details, use this to your advantage; it lets you know immediately what your technique is doing and it gives you time to think about it and adjust. If you want speed or to do 100 bd ft, go and fire up the power tools. If you want fine control and fine cuts, then relax and enjoy the plane.

-- If I knew then what I know now, I'd have made a completely different set of mistakes.

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