What is a woodworking hand plane?
Woodworking hand planes are hand-held, hand-powered tools with blades fastened into metal or wooden bodies, that are used on all types of wood.
Repeatedly pushing a hand plane across the wood cuts off curly shavings, eventually achieving the woodworker’s aims of trimming to size, levelling or putting a silky smooth finish on the wood that cannot be matched by sandpapering.
There are also some specialist planes that are useful for cutting and tidying up shapes when making joints – joining pieces of wood together – and cutting decorative shapes and curves.
Metal vs. wooden hand planes
For practically every hand plane made of metal, there is a wooden equivalent. Some woodworkers like the look and feel – and the lighter weight – of wooden planes, although metal planes are the most popular today as they are generally easier to adjust.
Wooden planes are made of hardwood – usually the wood from broad-leafed deciduous trees. This has a more complex, harder structure than wood from most coniferous trees, which is usually much softer, and generally referred to as softwood.
Blades and angles
Hand planes combine a cutting blade – usually referred to as the iron, but also known as the cutter – and a very firm body, usually made of cast iron or very hard wood.
The iron is fastened into a metal plane with a kind of clamp – known as the lever cap – and into a wooden plane usually with a wooden wedge.
The iron's cutting edge protrudes slightly from a rectangular opening or slot, known as the mouth, in the bottom of the plane's body, which is called the sole.
The iron is angled according to the type of cutting being done. For instance, smoothing planes, used for smoothing wood, as their name suggests, and jack planes, used for removing excess wood and straightening or ‘truing’ edges, usually have their blades angled at 45 degrees to the sole of the plane.
The bevel on the iron's cutting edge usually faces downwards.
Some other planes – such as block planes and low-angle bench planes – have their blades fixed at a lower angle, as little as 12 degrees. On these planes, the iron's bevel faces upwards rather than down, which adds to the overall cutting angle, so it is only 7 or 8 degrees more acute than the cutting angle of standard planes.
However, this does make the plane better for planing across the ends of pieces of wood – known as the end grain.
See, and for a more detailed explanation.
Push or pull?
Cutting on the push stroke
Planes that have their design origins in the western world cut on the push, or forward, stroke.
The plane is then lifted slightly from the workpiece – the piece of wood currently being worked on – before being returned to the starting point for the next forward stroke.
Not lifting the plane – that is, sliding it backwards along the workpiece – may blunt the iron quicker.
Cutting on the pull stroke
Japanese planes, which have gained in popularity, are used the opposite way. The starting point is the end of the workpiece furthest from the woodworker and the cut is made on the pull stroke. The plane is then lifted slightly and returned to the starting position.
Seefor further information about these.
Hitting the high spots
As a western plane is pushed, or a Japanese plane pulled, over the surface of the workpiece, shavings are cut from the wood's "high spots" – the tops of any undulations – until the area being worked on is the desired size or depth, or flattened, or smoothed.
You'll need to set it up first
All types of woodworking hand plane need setting up properly prior to use to ensure smooth and effective planing. The general consensus of woodworkers is that planes rarely work perfectly even “straight out of the box”.
See the sections called How to set up a . . . plane for guides to setting up scrub, bench and block planes.