I am on the road Woodworker shows this winter and one of my seminars entitled “Hand Electric Tools Woodworking Aircraft.” I chose this topic because there are a lot of power-tool-centric carpenters who feel no need handplanes in their stores. Of course I have to try to correct this misunderstanding so that the non-believers handplanes are not just another reason to spend countless hours cruising on eBay.
Before I took the seminar together, I surveyed a considerable number of friends and colleagues to let them assume what a basic plane should be. A plane, everyone mentioned a low, adjustable-throat block plane. I often put these little gems into an open adjustable wrench handplane family.
The bevel-up, low-angle plane (25° bevel plus 12° bed creates a 37° cutting angle) works incredibly well for trimming end grain, refining edges, and fitting doors and drawers. It can even be an effective smoothing plane on smaller pieces of highly figured wood. The ability to adjust the throat is essential for making fine finish cuts in difficult wood, the same as its larger cousins the bench planes. These planes are readily available on eBay and from antique tool dealers, but watch for cracks on either side of the throat (heel side, typically caused by overtightening the blade cap).
Another plane that was almost universally recommended is the No. 5 jack plane.
Stanley started producing the all-iron Bailey No. 5 sometime around the end of the Civil War and it quickly became a favorite of cabinetmakers and carpenters. It has a sole that is long enough to be a fairly good jointer but still short enough to be a competent smoother. It was considered a “jack of all trades,” which led to the name. I have used my jack plane for flattening one side of stock too wide for my jointer before feeding the board into my planer. I’ve trimmed passage doors, cabinet doors, and used it for a host of other wood-removing shop chores. Because of the high cutting angle (45°), it’s not a champ at trimming end grain like the modern bevel-up jacks, but its general utility makes it a must-have for any shop. Good pre-World War II Stanley Bailey No. 5s are cheap and plentiful, and if they have their original blades they require nothing more than a good sharpening and general tune-up to become a stalwart of the shop.
The third plane I’d recommend is the Stanley 78, a multi-purpose plane that was originally called a fillister plane. The plane was immensely popular from the late 19th century through WWII as an essential for creating rabbets, cross-ploughing for bridle or lap joints, creating and trimming tenons, and a host of other chores. A rod that threads into the plane body allows the use of a fence for setting the width of a rabbet, and a shoe mounted on the opposite side of the body creates a consistent depth of cut, a perfect combination for creating quick, accurate rabbets.
On the side of the plane that holds the depth shoe is a three-lobed device referred to as the nicker. The nicker can be rotated to expose a sharp spur that extends slightly below the sole of the plane and effectively shears the grain of the wood immediately in front of the blade, creating a suitable cross-grain plough plane. The blade and cap can be moved to a forward position, creating an OK bullnose plane. It’s quite a versatile little plane, and because the Stanley 78 was so popular in the day, it’s still plentiful and inexpensive.
That’s my take on a basic set of handplanes. Now let me hear what you’d include in an entry-level handplane set.