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3 Essential Hand Planes For Any Woodworker

Whether you’re a beginning woodworker crafting a few pieces for your home or a seasoned professional making furniture for a living, you’ll experience tasks that a plane—with a sharp blade, mind you—can do better than any other power or hand tool. And you don’t need a fleet of planes of every size to tackle those jobs. For most situations, this trio will do nicely.

1. Start with a block plane

Chamfering with a block plane
Use a low-angle block plane to quickly and easily chamfer the bottoms of table legs to prevent grain splintering. Cut upwards at about a 45° angle.

Buy this one first. It’s the smallest, least expensive (less than $170 for quality makes), and most versatile of all planes. You can use a block plane to trim just about anything: easing sharp edges, flush-trimming dovetails or wood plugs, or chamfering elements, as shown above, quicker than it takes to set up a router. It fits snugly into your hand for comfortable, intuitive use. Standard block planes feature a cutting angle of 45°, but the 37° angle on low-angle models cuts end grain cleaner without sacrificing performance in edge and face grain.

Block plane cleans uneven drawer sides
Clean up uneven drawer sides with a few swipes of a block plane. Reverse the cutting direction if you tear out the wood.

Block plane with adjustable mouth
Some block planes feature an adjustable mouth, allowing you to better control the depth and smoothness of the cut.

Recommended models

Low angle:
Veritas no. 05P22.71, $167; no. 05P70.06, $209;
800-871-8158, leevalley.com
Lie-Nielsen no. 1-60-1-2, $165; no. 1-102 apron plane, $115; 800-327-2520, lie-nielsen.com.

Standard angle:
Veritas no. 05P22.81, $167.
WoodRiver no. 151124, $100, Woodcraft, 800-225-1153, woodcraft.com.

2. Take a load off your shoulders and cheeks

Or, more accurately, pare away thin shavings from the shoulders and cheeks of your tenons. Granted, a shoulder plane (sometimes also called a rabbet or rebate plane) serves a specialized purpose, but one can be invaluable if you work regularly with mortise-and-tenon joints. Because the plane's blade and body match in width, you can cleanly remove material right into 90° corners. This makes shoulder planes perfect for trimming tight-fitting tenons and rabbets. Some also trim dadoes and grooves if narrow enough to fit in the channel. Small shoulder planes measure 58 " to 34 " wide, while larger ones go up to 114 " wide. Cutting angles vary from 40°, where the tool acts like a block plane peeling off ultrathin, curly shavings; to 85°, paring off stubble-like whisps like a scraper plane.

Shoulder plane shaves tenon thickness
Use a shoulder plane to shave away tenon thickness on each cheek until it fits snugly into its mortise.

Recommended models

Veritas no. 05P43.71 (large), $247; no. 05P41.71 (medium), $209. 
Lie-Nielsen no. 1-073 (large), $250; no. 1-042 (medium), $195.

3. Get a jack of all trades

For jobs that require a steeper cutting angle (figured wood, for example) or even a little more oomph than a block plane can handle (such as tapered table legs), you’ll want a bench plane. Commonly designated with numbers from 1 to 8 (and some fractional sizes in between), bench planes range in length from about 5" (no. 1) to 24" (no. 8), with the weight and price increasing with size. The most versatile bench planes measure about 12" to 15" long and are referred to as jack planes. With this length you can flatten and smooth faces and edges of boards and glued-up panels. Cutting angles begin at 45°, but optional accessories can increase it to 50° or 55° for those instances when you work with tear-out-prone wood species.

We recommend a no. 5 jack plane because it has a 2"-wide blade, which will fit most sharpening systems, and is light enough that it won’t wear you out quickly. A no. 512  jack is an inch or two longer and has a 238 "-wide blade, which might not fit in some sharpeners. But that extra size adds a couple of pounds, which can be a benefit because it increases momentum for powering through cuts, although it does require greater exertion at the beginning of a stroke. Choosing between these two really comes down to your preference and strength

Replacing the frog on a hand plane
Add degrees for difficulty. By replacing the frog, as with these two no. 5 1⁄2 planes, you can increase the cutting angle while still using the same blade.

Steeper cutting angles on a hand plane
Steeper cutting angles, as on this 50° no. 5 1⁄2 jack plane, better cut figured wood or difficult grain without tear-out.

Recommended models

No. 5:
Veritas no. 06P05.71A, $329.
Lie-Nielsen no. 1-5, $325.
WoodRiver no. 150875, $170.
No. 512 :
Lie-Nielsen no. 1-5-1-2, $375.
Veritas no. 06P15.71A, $339.
WoodRiver no. 158002, $195.

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