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Woodworking 101/Planes

Introduction to Hand Planes

Bench planes are used to prepare the surface of timber before joints and other constructions are marked out. They are needed also for cleaning up finished work as well as cutting joints. Similar to bench planes, spokeshaves and drawknives are other forms of edge tools designed to prepare surfaces.

Planes can be divided into two groups: bench planes, used mainly for truing and sizing timber, and special planes, designed to make specific cuts and to shape timber for joints.

Anatomy of a Plane

Any discussion on planes must begin with a description of the cutting action. The essential part of any plane is a cutter or blade made of a material which keeps on a sharp edge. The cutter must be held squarely in the body and be adjustable, so that its edge always protrudes a hairline's thickness below the sole of the plane. The angle at which the cutter is ground and sharpened, and at which it is held in the plane body, is extremely important, if the best results are to be obtained. At the same time, care must be taken to control the quality of cut, so that the surface of the wood is left smooth and flat, and the shavings leave the plane without clogging it.

Bench planes are fitted with a cutting iron, which has a cap, or back, iron attached on the flat side. This breaks and rolls the shaving, which is then ejected from the plane escapement. The closer the cap iron is to the cutting edge, the sooner the breaking of the shaving begins.

The shaving is prevented from tearing ahead of the cutter by the closeness of the forward edge of the mouth.

The metal plane offers mouth adjustment through the repositioning of the frog, so that very fine cutting can be achieved even on the most cross-grained of timbers.

An extremely wide mouth will give a result similar to that of a plane working without a cap iron.

However, if the cutter is adjusted too far, a thicker shaving will only choke the mouth and stop the plane working.

Planes designed to cut end grain fall into two of the special categories: block planes and shoulder planes. In these planes, the cutters are set at a much lower angle with the ground bevel of the cutter on top, to give what is almost a slicing action, and the bevel itself rolls over the shaving. These planes have narrow mouths or mouth adjustments to ensure the quality of the cut.

The adjustment of cutters was a matter of trial and error in the old wooden planes, but in most metal planes and contemporary wooden planes, full and accurate adjustment fore, aft and laterally is possible.

Some of the present-day wooden planes are still without adjusting screws, the cutter being held in place with a simple wedge, and adjustment made by tapping the cutter with a hammer.

Most manufacturers supply metal bench planes with corrugated soles, which reduce suction between the face of the board and the sole of the plane. The corrugations allow just enough air to break the vacuum when the plane is in use.

Bench Planes

The first popular plane was the scrub plane, used for roughing down timber from the saw. However, most woodworkers prefer to use the jack plane for timber preparation. Its length of 14" has become the norm for schools, colleges, and the home craftsman. The metal jack is made of grey iron, with brass and steel components. the cutter is of tungsten vanadium steel, and the handles are beech. These planes are ground on the sole to extremely fine limits and produce a beautifully polished surface on the timber.

The traditional jack plane is 17" and has a 2" cutter held in place with a wooden wedge. It is usually made in red beech with white beech soles. A steel striking button has been substituted for the boxwood button which was used in earlier planes.

The trying plane is a long jack plane, and varies from 22 to 25-3/8" in length, with a blade 2-3/8" wide. It has a closed handle and steel striking button, with a red beech body and white beech sole.

The fore plane, 18" long, should be used when longer planing is required. The cutter is 2-3/8" wide.

When jointing long boards, edge-to-edge (sometimes called rub jointing), the jointer bench plane must be used. The 22" long plane has a 2-3/8" wide cutter, and the 24" long plane has a 2-5/8" wide cutter. The latter is the longest metal plane on the market. Both these planes have reinforced soles for stability. The long plane ensures lengthwise accuracy in planing, which is essential in jointing work.

The smoothing plane is used when cleaning up completed work. The plane is available in three body lengths and three widths of cutters, so that anyone, from schoolboy to skilled worker, can use it. The plane is sold in great numbers, and is probably the most used and abused of all the bench planes.

A reform plane is a slight variation on the smoothing plane. It has a adjustable front shoe for refined setting of the mouth. This smoother is regarded as the ultimate in wooden planes, and is essential for the craftsman who wishes to produce the best possible work.

The compass plane (or circular plane) is designed for use on concave and convex surfaces. The flexible steel sole can be set to any curve using the counter screw adjuster. The cutting unit adjustment is the same as that on other bench planes, but there is no mouth adjustment.

Block Planes

A tool closely related to the bench plane is the block plane, used for cutting end grain. These are small planes, from 6-8" in length, and are designed to be held in one hand. The cutting iron can be set as low as 12 degrees, and is used bevel-side uppermost. A traditional wooden block plane is coffin-shaped, and made of red beech. The double cutter is held by a wooden wedge.

A plane which has appeared on the market only recently is the edge trimming block plane, constructed in either cast iron or manganese bronze, with a very high-quality finish. The plane has a V-shaped underbody one side, which houses the cutter, and the other side acts as a fixed fence. The cutter is housed in a similar way to that of the side rebate plane, but is angled slightly forward to give an ideal shearing or slicing cut. As its name implies, the plane will trim edges up to 7/8" thick both with and across the grain, exactly square. Its superb cutting action also means it can be used on man-made boards like plywood and multi-board.

Rebate and Fillister, Plough and Multi-Purpose Planes

The bench rebate, or rabbet, plane is a bench jack plane with a blade modified for cutting rebates. With metal bench rebate planes, the blade extends the full width of the sole, whereas wooden bench rebate planes have an angled blade breaking through the body on one side.

Purpose-built rebate, rabbet, or fillister planes are also available with metal or wooden bodies. The metal rebate plane is particularly useful for the craftsman working constantly on rebates and fillisters up to 1.5" wide. It is made of cast iron, with two fence arms and two positions for the cutter - the normal position, where it is fully adjustable, and the bull nose position, where it has to be adjusted by hand before the lever cap is tightened.

The plane is fitted with a steel spur which severs the top fibers before the blade when cutting across the grain. The fence can be set across the cutter to limit its width, or it can be transferred to the left-hand side. Sometimes, this plane is called a moving fillister. With the fence removed, it can be used as a simple square plane. One version has a single fence arm and a lever-type cutter adjuster.

Wooden rebate planes are made of beech, with a wedged cutter and steel striking knob, which is the only departure from the traditional style. To improve cutting, the plane is fitted with an adjustable front shoe which allows the mouth to be set accurately. Improved handling is obtained when a curved block is set immediately behind the cutter.

The stop rebate plane, sometimes called the chisel plane, is a further refinement from the same manufacturer. It is cut off a the mouth so that the cutter extends in front of the body, making it possible to work right into the corner of a rebate or stopped chamfer. The plane is made of white beech and the cutter is held by a wooden wedge.

Whenever a housing or groove has been cut slightly too narrow, the unschooled worker will resort to using a chisel to cut the sides until the panel fits. This can be disastrous, because great care must be taken to avoid overcutting or uneven cutting.

The side rebate plane is designed to eliminate this hazard. The plane illustrated here has two cutters which enable the plane to be worked in either direction, but they have no adjustment screws and have to be set eye to eye. The plane can be converted to a side chisel or side bull nose plane by removing the nose pieces.

The plough plane is an essential tool for every serious woodworker. It is so simple to set up, that it is often faster to use than it is to assemble the supposedly quicker router or routing machine.

The traditional plough plane is made of wood and built in the style of those used in the nineteenth century. Usually, it is supplied with six cutters which are held in place with a beech wedge in a beech body. It is fitted with a steel depth gauge. The fence is adjustable along two fence arms made of pearwood and is firmly fixed at any distance up to 5" from the blade.

The combination plane is more advanced and not only offers all the features of the plough plane but has tonguing and beading cutters as well, making eighteen cutters in all. Spurs are provided on the body and sliding section to sever the fibers before the blade when making cuts across the grain. The plane has a bead stop to cut beads on tongued stock.

Shoulder and Bull Nose Planes

The best tool for finishing end grain, or tiny rebates, is the shoulder plane, and any craftsman working secret dovetails or lapped dovetails will need one. The thin cutter is set at a low angle, and is usually fully adjustable. The planes are made of cast iron and are finely and accurately ground on base and sides. The mouth can be adjusted by moving the body section forward.

A variation of the shoulder plane is the 3-in-1 plane, so called because it converts into a bull nose and a chisel plane. The front extension is removed and an additional nose is fitted to convert the plane into a bull nose. Without either of the extensions, it becomes a chisel plane. As in the shoulder plane, the cutter is set at a low angle, with bevel upper-most, and is fully adjustable.

The bull nose plane is used when planing up to stopped rebates, and in other work where extreme accuracy is required. It can be adjusted in the same way as the shoulder plane.


The router is one of the most useful of the special planes. It is designed to cut stopped, through and curved grooves. It is an ideal tool for cleaning ground work in low-relief carving and, at the same time, the perfecting of stopped and through housings, or dados, can be done as well.

The plane is controlled by two handles. The adjustable cutter is used in two positions- one for general use, and the other for bull nose planing. It is fitted with a fence which slides into grooves in the base to give both right- and left-hand positioning, and which has been designed to be used on both straight and curved edges. The depth stop can be used as is, running freely in its housing, with the depth controlled by a shoe in the top of the depth stop spindle or, with shoes attached, is reversed in its housing and converts the plane to a closed mouth. Narrow timbers can be grooved easily without the cutter digging in as the plane tips forward.

There are three cutters- a V-shaped smoothing cutter which has a spear-point to give a perfect slicing action, and two chisel cutters, 0.25" and 0.5" wide. It is not generally recognized that this is the only tool which cuts both curved and stopped grooves.

Planes for Special Trades

In any discussion on planes, those used by craftsmen making musical instruments must be included. This is usually extremely delicate work, and the removal of the thinnest shaving in a very small area is often all that is needed. In the past, violin makers made small planes to suit their particular needs, and had the blades fashioned by the local blacksmith. Many of the recognized manufacturers began to make these small planes in beech and boxwood.

The modern solution to this problem is the finger plane. Usually, this is made of brass, to a very high specification. The cutter is set manually and held in place by either a rosewood or ebony wedge and a steel crosspin. The soles are either flat or convex, and the body shape varies according to the manufacturer. These planes were designed to be held in one hand, with the forefinger resting on the front of the tool and the other fingers wrapped around it. Not only are these beautifully-made planes essential for the violin maker, they are also useful to the skilled craftsman.

A small number of miniature planes are available, made of exotic timbers. They do not conform to the strict specifications demanded by the present-day violin maker, but they are well-made and certainly will meet the needs of the model-maker.

The palm plane is another one-handed tool. This plane has a wooden handle fitted at the end of a steel rod, and looks particularly difficult to hold. However, if the body is grasped between the thumb and fingers, the handle fits perfectly into the palm of the hand. This tool is easily controlled and the sensitive work it produces will be appreciated by wood craftsmen of all kinds, but particularly the model- and instrument-maker.


There are many jobs which cannot be tackled with a plane because of size, accessibility, or peculiarity of design, but they can be done with a spokeshave.

A spokeshave is really a small plane, with handles set on both sides for control. The cutter is set in the same way as with the plane, but it has no cap iron. There are flat-faced spokeshaves for convex surfaces and round-faced ones for curves. Usually the metal spokeshave body is constructed of malleable iron to reduce the chance of breakage.

Combination spokeshaves have one flat and one round sole and do not cost much more than a single spokeshave, but they are not as easy to handle. A useful addition to the spokeshave range is one with an adjustable mouth.

Before buying, it is advisable to hold the spokeshave in order to judge its possible performance - the handles should fit comfortably into the palms with the forefinger at the front, alongside the mouth. Good spokeshaving is largely a matter of correct wristwork, with the front of the tool pressed down with the fingers.


The drawknife was the forerunner of the spokeshave but it is drawn toward the worker when using. It has no sole and therefore requires greater skill in use. This was and still is the tool of the wheelwright, but it is suitable for a variety of other uses.

Drawknives can be used by the woodcarver and sculptor for roughing down, and the cabinetmaker and the chairmaker in shaping seats. Fine work is best carried out with the bevel facing downwards, and roughing down is best with the bevel uppermost.

English, Continental, and American drawknives are all slightly varied in design, but the best examples have blades which taper from the back to the edge, with tangs passing through the handles and riveted over. Handles should be offset outwards for better control, and to allow the hands to clear the work safely.

A variation of the drawknife is the inshave, which has a tightly-curved blade and is designed for hollowing out. It is particularly useful for making chair seats and other in-curving work.

Shooting boards

Shooting boards are a useful addition to the plane kit, consisting of two boards, usually beech, fixed together to form a rebate. Two types are available - one for cutting at 90 degrees and the other for angles of 45 degrees. The wood which is to be planed is laid across the top board and rests against the stop. The end grain is smoothed with either a jack or jointing plane, which is held on its side against the board. Many woodworkers like to make their own shooting boards. The measurements can be adjusted to suit individual needs.

A useful mitre board for planing a mitre along the edge of the board rather than across the end is known as a donkey's ear shooting board. The timber rests on a table set at 45 degrees, the board itself being held in a vice.

Scrapers and Adzes


The cabinet scraper is used to produce a very smooth finish to wood. It is either a straight-edged sheet of steel, or one that has been shaped to fit a particular molding. This tool is held in both hands and flexed with the thumbs at the center. The edge has a minute raised burr which shaves the wood when the scraper is angled forward and pushed away from the worker. This can be achieved only with a perfectly sharpened tool, correctly angled to allow the hook to engage the wood.

To sharpen it, the scraper is laid flat on a bench and the back of a gouge is drawn across its edge to produce a burr. The scraper is drawn across its edge to produce a burr. The scraper is turned so it stands upright on the bench, and the gouge is worked over the edge to turn the burr outwards to the correct angle.

This is the craftsman's answer to that almost impossible piece of wood which will not plane to a smooth, flat finish because of its interlocking grain. A variety of straight-bladed scrapers will answer most needs, but the craftsman can always reshape an existing one to suit a job, if necessary.

A double-handed scraper looks rather like a large spokeshave, and has a wide, flat sole, with a double-ended scraper blade held in place by a plate. The curvature of the blade is adjusted with a centrally-placed screw. It can be seen as a refinement of the cabinet scraper. The blade is sharpened in the same way as the ordinary scraper. The tool is pushed away from the woodworker when it is being used, and should produce very fine shavings.

Double-handed scrapers are ideal for cleaning up veneered timbers or furniture which has been damaged through use. As the veneers are so thin, they would not withstand the use of a plane.


It is difficult to establish whether or not the adze was the earliest wood-preparing tool. However, it has been in use for centuries and is still used today.

The present-day adze has a head of steel and a tapered rectangular poll in which the hickory handle rests. The handle is curved so the adze edge is presented to the wood with complete control. Although the adze can remove large pieces of wood at a time, it can also finely shave timber when used correctly.

Traditionally, adzes have been used to reduce timber to size, and to trim and finish it. The results of their work can be seen on beams in houses and churches in many parts of the world. The modern two-handed adze weighs about 5 lbs. The sculptor's adze has a shorter handle and is lighter in weight with a blade of about 2" wide.

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