Design & DIY

Expert advice for getting the most out of your hand plane

hand plane

This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Cottage Life magazine

Why do hand planes rarely come down from the tool shelf? A plane can shape and smooth wood quietly, accurately, and without electricity or dust. But badly adjusted and handled, a plane is so frustrating, you’ll soon be reaching for the sandpaper.

Good vs.perfect

First, adjust your attitude: The common smoothing plane isn’t just for cabinet makers crafting Chippendale-worthy fine furniture. And a plane doesn’t need to be perfectly tuned and sharpened—it needs to be good enough for the task at hand.

A plane does need a sharp iron (that’s the blade). First, lap (flatten and polish) the iron’s back—the side with no bevel—especially the 1/2″ or so at the tip. Using spray adhesive, secure automotive wet sandpaper (one sheet each of 400-, 800-, and 1,000- or 1,200-grit paper) on thick glass or a flat piece of MDF. Press the iron flat against the paper and make side-to-side passes. Move from coarse grit to fine.

Bevel best

Sharpen the iron’s bevel next, using the same series of grits. A smoothing plane needs a 25°—30° bevel angle, with a slightly less acute “micro-bevel” at the very tip. Holding the iron at the proper angle, draw it backwards against the paper, lift, and repeat. After the bevel is established, tip up the blade slightly and shape the micro-bevel with a few strokes.

Start shaving

Read the grain first, and then plane in the same direction, for a smooth finish with little effort. Planing against the grain is jerky, splintery work. To explain why, every shop teacher describes stroking a dog from nose to tail—and back again. 

Try your first pass with a light cut, with the blade barely peeking out of the sole. If it’s too heavy, back up the blade a smidge; if it’s skating on the surface, offer up a tiny bit more.

When the iron projects from the throat unevenly, the low side will gouge the work. Sight down the sole of the plane and straighten the blade with the lateral adjustment lever.

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