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Handplane Primer: What's the difference between bench and block planes?
“You need hand tools to produce your best work,” says furniture maker Michael Pekovich (he’s also the Fine Woodworking art director). So, even if you’re just getting started, eventually, you should to learn a thing or two about hand tools. But learning the lingo can be a little overwhelming.
In this short video, hand tool guru Matt Kenney demystifies hand planes describing the differences between common varieties and explaining what each is used for. He also gives tips on what planes to buy first.
Video with Matt Kenney, Video produced by Gina Eide and Valerie Cathcart
Bench or block?
Hand planes fall into two major categories: bench planes and block planes. The difference is whether the bevel faces up or down. On bench planes, the bevel always faces down while on block planes, the bevel always faces up.
The bevel angles mean that bench planes excel at cutting with the grain while block planes are good for cutting end grain or against the wood grain.
The plane size and shape also effects function. Short bench planes like a smoothing plane are good for smoothing the wood to create a glassy, finish-ready surface. Jack planes are slightly larger. They’re used in the early milling stages to remove the hills and valleys on the surface of a board. Jointer planes are the biggest of the bunch. They feature long flat soles to straighten or “joint” the wood.
The most basic type of block plane is a “block plane.” They’re small little tools that work well for chamfering or trimming end grain like you would for dovetails. Shoulder planes are another type of block planes. They excel at fine tuning joints since the blade runs across the full width of the body to help you get into the corners of joints like tenons and rabbets.
In recent years, a new type of block plane has arrived on the market. They come in a variety of lengths like a bevel-up jack plane or a bevel-up smoother, but they basically use the body of a bench plane with the iron of a block plane. They work well in conjunction with a shooting board to shoot end grain making it square to the long grain.
Which plane should I buy first?
Kenney recommends buying a small block plane first because they’re very handy for a wide variety of tasks. Kenney likes the small-sized apron planes (named because they’re so small you can carry them in your shop apron all day long) but you could also get a standard size block plane. An adjustable mouth is a nice feature so you can close the opening to take really small shavings if needed.
Next, buy a smoother because hand planes can create beautiful, glassy, finish-ready surfaces. Next Kenney recommends a shoulder plane to help you clean up joinery and make joints fit together well.
Once you buy these three tools, things start to get a bit more esoteric and specialized and you may never need to go beyond these tools.
How much do I need to spend?
For Kenney’s first hand plane, he went the economical rout and purchased a second-hand plane for about $15. It’s not something he’d recommend to beginners because he ended up spending for ever trying to tune up the plane. He suggests that beginners save up their money to buy a nice, quality new hand plane that’s ready to use right out of the box.
Short of that, try to find a good quality used hand plane. That’s a more difficult proposition but the key to a good plane is in the sole. Make sure it’s flat the length and the width of the plane. Also check the condition of the handle, the blade, and things like that to make sure they’re in good condition too.
Once you get your hand plane home, the next challenge is learning how to sharpen the plane iron. That’s the real key to success with hand planes. Read other content on this site for more details on sharpening.