My Favorite Tools: Hand Planes (part 1)

About twenty years ago, I inherited some power tools from my grandfather, who had died several years before. After his retirement, he bought and turned houses that needed refurbishing and had a nice shop for that purpose. I received a Delta contractor table saw, a Porter-Cable router and circular saw, a Bosch belt sander, a Craftsman reciprocating saw, and a 15-inch Hitachi miter/cut-off saw. It was a great group of tools for a wood shop foundation. There were a few hand tools, but no hand planes. As I started some very rough projects, I realized that some hand tools were necessary in many different places that the power tools were not suited for. So when we got into our house in Redding, I made the rounds of yard sales to pick up hammers, saws, measuring devices, a grinder, and other stuff for the shop. One day I saw some hand planes—a Dunlap #4 smoothing plane and a Shelton #5 jack plane—though I really had no idea what I was getting. They definitely needed some TLC, so I did some reading, then cleaned and tuned them as best I could. After some research I realized that though serviceable, these were not top-line planes. But I still use them to this day for rough work and they do the job well. The key is a razor sharp blade, but that took a few years. The first time I used them, though, I was in love with hand planes. Even though they were not yet tuned for fine shavings, the act of processing wood with a plane made my heart sing. 

A while later I bought some cheap Bailey knock-offs from India. They never worked well and I could not figure out why. The chatter was off the charts no matter how sharp I got them. I knew I needed some better quality. Since then I have added a range of planes, not a lot mind you (unlike the shops in the You-tube videos with 50 planes on the wall!), but enough to do anything I need. Yard sales were still the go to place to find them, but I knew that Stanley planes were what to look for. I got a Stanley #8 jointing plane, a Stanley 220 block plane, a Stanley scraping plane, a Stanley low angle block plane, and some cheap no name block plane where the blade simply wedges in. Later, I picked up a Stanley #5 jack plane, and a friend gave me a Stanley #7 jointing plane. Together this suite was good, though I still needed a good quality smoothing plane and a shoulder plane. One Christmas, I asked for a Lie-Neilson #4 and, to say the least, it does the job and does so superbly. Since then I have added a Veritas large router plane and a new series Stanley Sweetheart #92 shoulder plane. I am happy with the overall combination. A fore plane would be nice, but the jack planes and the #7 fit the bill ok. Except for the new planes, all the others took a lot of elbow grease to get in good working shape.

Stanley 220 Block Plane

So what are my favorites? I actually use all of the planes I have (I gave the knock-offs away), but I go to several more often. The Stanley 220 block plane is one of them. What can I say? It is as far from sexy as you can get, but it does the job well over and over again. The 220 I have was likely made in the early 1960s from its maroon paint color. Over the years I have used it more and more. From chamfering, to rough end grain planing, to taking off glue lines, to evening up rail and stile intersections, to simply flattening small imperfections, the 220 does it all. It does a great job cleaning up the top of my workbench from glue, paint, and other materials that inevitably get stuck to the surface and can even shoot the sides of smaller pieces. And it is comfortable. The rounded end on the cap makes it easy on the hand. This is a hefty block plane—one of the largest of the block plane family— and so I often add a few fingers from my left hand to the front knob since I have small hands. The heft helps its effectiveness in all of its useful tasks. To be sure, the 220 is not a replacement for my low angle adjustable block plane, nor for my L-N #4 smoothing plane when it comes to the need for fine adjustments and whisper thin shavings, but I have those when I need them.

Lie-Neilson #4 Smoothing Plane

Speaking of the #4, I did not know what a truly well-made plane could do until I acquired this beautiful plane. The Lie-Neilson design is a Bailey reproduction, but with unmatched machining and quality control. I purchased the brass version which is very cool looking. Another key feature to this plane is the very thick stock blade. The mouth adjustment mechanism is the easiest of any bench plane I have used, and the horizontal adjustment has virtually no play, unlike most bench planes. It is like rack and pinion steering as opposed to the steering of so many old American vehicles that took a quarter of a steering wheel turn before the car began to follow suit (I owned a ’70 Nova for about a decade; the most egregious I experienced was my granddad’s Lincoln town car). Especially when needing very small adjustments in squaring up an edge, this feature is very helpful. And, of course, this plane makes incomparable translucent shavings that maintain their integrity instead of turning to dust, which is to me the most fun part of using a hand plane.

Though these two are at the top of my list because of function and versatility, I have some other favorites, but they must wait for another post.

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