Hand Planes

An old tool finds a new place in today’s finest homes.

By Steve Maxwell

In a world where power tools rule the homebuilding scene, hand planes offer the chance to add quality and profits to your work in a way that most homebuilders never even dream of. The fact is, no matter how good power tools get, there will always be jobs out there that only a well-tuned hand plane can accomplish.

There are more than a few quality-minded people starved for drum-tight joints in stain-grade trim, hand-beveled raised panel doors, or hand-planed solid wood cabinet parts and fireplace mantels. Results like these can only be accomplished with a razor-sharp plane blade, though most of the trade has forgotten how to do it. They’ve even forgotten why. It’s vintage and it’s a missed opportunity almost everywhere.

All this is where a hand plane can help. Choose a good one, learn to keep it sharp and it will improve your homebuilding results more than any other $200 tool on the planet. As long as the world still has electrical outlets, hand planes will never replace power tools. That’s fine. But a good plane can supplement electric tools in ways that make you stand out as an exceptional craftsman.

Before you write all this stuff off as the wishful thinking of a guy trapped in a time warp, think again. More than once, a few swipes with a hand plane have made all the difference on modern, fast-paced jobsites I’ve worked on. To see how, you need to look at the first of three areas where a razor-sharp hand plane rules.

Block Plane
As wide, stain-grade trim regains popularity in new construction jobs and renovations, a low-angle block plane makes a whole lot of sense. It’s the tool of choice for finessing trim and moulding joints together when latex filler goop isn’t an option because paint can’t be used to hide the mess. When it comes to stained trim, you either get the joint right or wrong. There is no forgiveness.

Plan to spend at least $75 to $100 on a good block plane because anything cheaper is junk. The best low-angle designs have their blades set 12 degrees from horizontal. This creates a very shallow slicing action that’s ideal for trimming the kind of end grain surfaces you’ll be dealing with as you bring trim joints together.

Doors of Distinction
In a world where so many factory-made frame and panel cabinet and vanity doors all look like they came rolling off the same conveyor belt, a hand plane stands out as a tool that separates you from the crowd in a big way. And it all comes down to beveling the edges of raised panels by hand, instead of the usual router table or shaper-cut profiles. Sounds slow and labour-intensive, I know, but it isn’t. Tradespeople who market themselves correctly can charge premium prices for hand-beveled doors like these, without the need to tool up with fancy router bits or shaper cutters.

All frame and panel designs offer two things. First, they look terrific because of the texture and visual variety they present. But they also limit the troublesome seasonal movement that’s the hallmark of all wide expanses of solid wood. The inner panel gets larger and smaller with changes in humidity, while the outer frame remains more or less the same size.

Building your own hand-beveled frame and panel doors does all this in a format that looks better than anything available off the shelf.

Frame and panel work always begins with the horizontal and vertical members of the doorframe. You can use biscuits or dowels to connect these parts. Even pocket screws do just fine if you’re making raised panel wainscoting that’s destined to be installed permanently against a wall.

When it comes time to build panels, there’s a timesaving trick. Your plane doesn’t actually cut most of the bevel. Instead, use a tablesaw to hog off most of the waste with the blade tilted 15 degrees to 20 degrees from plumb. The plane comes into use afterwards for removing the saw marks while making the bevels all a consistent width and thickness.

Keep trying one of your grooved frame members periodically on the edges of the panel as you plane. The idea is to adjust the thickness of the bevel’s edge so it plugs nicely into the stile and rail grooves you prepared earlier. To help you get bevel width perfectly consistent, use a combination square and pencil to mark a line some consistent distance in around the perimeter of the panel. A two-inch-wide bevel is ideal for most cabinet doors. Expect to pay about $200 for the kind of smoothing plane that’s ideal for raised panel work.

Surfaces You Can See
If you really want to look like an old-world master, consider using a hand plane for smoothing solid wood cabinet sides or fireplace mantels. The subtle undulations left behind by a slightly curved blade is a hallmark of traditional work and much appreciated in a world where too much is accomplished by machine. This kind of work goes surprisingly quick, too. It takes less than half an hour to hand plane a rough-cut 4×10 pine mantel that’s eight-feet long. That’s $20 of labour time to create a one-of-a-kind home feature that can easily be sold for several hundred dollars.

Although you can use a smoothing plane for this kind of surface work, a scrub plane is better. It has a slightly curved blade that creates subtle and unmistakable undulations in the wood surface. You can get a good scrub plane for about $150.

The Blade
By now I hope you’re eager to give this hand-plane thing a try because it really is worthwhile. But there’s one more thing you need to know first. A razor-sharp blade is absolutely essential. And I mean razor-sharp. Without this nothing happens. The good news is that sharpening needn’t be the pain you probably think it is. Not if you have the right equipment, anyway.
There are two requirements behind every sharp edge: a correct bevel angle of 25 to 30 degrees at the tip of the plane blade, and a finely honed edge that’s capable of cleanly shaving arm hair or slicing curls of end-grain from softwood test blocks.

If your plane is brand-new, you can probably skip the first sharpening step altogether – the grinding. Top-quality, factory-fresh planes are usually ground correctly. But let’s say you’re dealing with an old plane iron that’s seen lots of brutal action, perhaps even opening paint cans or stripping furniture.

Successfully grinding a plane iron like this demands the same things needed for reworking the business-end of any edge tool: a stationary grinder capable of supporting the tool securely while reshaping its surface with minimal heat built up. Understand right now that heat is any hand tool’s enemy. If your plane iron becomes yellow or blue at the tip because of grinding heat, it will never hold an edge properly again – at least not until it gets re-tempered by someone who is an expert at working high-carbon steel.

When it comes to tool grinding machinery, you’ll find more than a few wet grinders that can do a great job for you. Trouble is, they’re usually more money than what you can justify for occasional tool grinding. The good news is that an ordinary inexpensive bench grinder can do a great job preparing plane irons, as long as you upgrade the tool rest and the grinding wheel. A generous size, easy bevel angle control, and a sliding tool holder are all features you’ll find on good ones.

Another thing to consider for your bench grinder is a cool-running, soft-bond wheel. Except for their white colour, these look the same as regular grinding wheels. But the softer consistency means that fresh, sharp abrasive particles are continually being exposed while grinding. These remove tool steel with less friction than the old, rounded particles that develop on traditional wheels. The result is a cooler grind, though the cool wheels do have a somewhat shorter working life.

But even with a cool-grind wheel on your side, you still need to be careful. Don’t make sparks for more than two or three seconds before dipping the tip of the iron in cold water for five seconds. Keep the grinding and cooling process going until the entire bevel shows an even, fresh surface, with a small burr of rough metal formed at the tip.

Honing comes next, but don’t worry. This is the fun part. Although I have an entire collection of Japanese water stones in my shop, I almost never use them because I’ve discovered something much, much faster. Instead of stones, I go directly from the grinder to a hard felt buffing wheel charged with a chromium oxide abrasive compound. All it takes is two minutes to impart a scary-sharp edge on any freshly ground plane iron. Buffing a slightly dull edge back to exquisite sharpness takes even less time. Just hold the edge of the plane iron tangent to the wheel as it spins, with the tip pointing in the same direction as wheel rotation. Buff the back surface first, then the bevel. When the surface shines like a mirror, you’re done.

When carpenters forgot hand planes in favour of power equipment, they turned their back on a tool that will always have a place in the best quality work. Rediscover this age-old fact and you’ll vault your work to levels that will turn heads long after the last piece of woodwork goes up.