Anyone paying attention the past few years has noticed that there is a hand tool resurgence among today’s woodworkers. Thanks to many inspiring blogs, books and magazines, woodworkers are seeing the beauty of digging out their grandfather’s rusty old hand plane and tuning it up for serious use. This renewed interest in working wood rather than machining it has had a transformative impact on many aspects of the craft.
When you ask the average woodworker to envision the quintessential hand plane, they will likely describe to you a Stanley-type #4. Everyone’s seen one of these in action. They’re readily discovered in yard sales and abundant in antiques stores. While most think of metal-bodied planes, far fewer minds will immediately jump to a wooden-bodied plane. If they do, it’s probably screwed to the wall of some restaurant.
Why aren’t people flocking to wooden bodied planes like they do to old Stanleys? Is it because they are too crude to do fine work? Are they too tricky to use? Are they simply antiquated technology left in the dust of their metal bodied counterparts? Are these things even worth messing with?
Why not to use metal-bodied planes
When I started woodworking, I was trained on metal-bodied planes. They worked well for the minor use I needed and they were readily available on the market. It wasn’t until later when I began building period furniture by hand, however, that I came to realize the tradeoffs of this design.
First off, if you are prepping your rough-sawn stock by hand, it gets tiring pushing that heavy metal plane around for a long session. Weight is inconsequential only when you’re taking a few light passes, but as soon as you start efficiently removing the bulk of the material, you will wish you had a lighter tool. Friction is also a problem. Metal does not glide on wood like wood glides on wood. In order to help this, one has to consistently lubricate the metal sole. Using a lot of beeswax or tallow is a must if one insists on wielding these behemoths.
If you can get over the weight issue, then you have the hurdle of learning the complexity of the gadgetry involved in the plane’s design. Unless you already have some knowledge in this area, it can be daunting for those starting out. “Where is the frog supposed to be set? What is that lever under the iron for? How tight does the cap need to be? Etc.”
And there are additional reasons to consider like ease of repair. All repairs and re-flattening of the sole will be metalworking. Working metal is harder than working wood. And we’re woodworkers, aren’t we? And what if you drop the plane and break it? Who’s going to fix it when it shatters or cracks in half? Not you.
The benefits of wooden planes
I love wooden hand planes and I cannot imagine trying to do my work without them. If you also are looking to work wood by hand, I highly recommend you consider the following:
Wooden hand planes are much lighter and require little (or no) waxing of the sole to work quickly and efficiently. I have found my endurance to be more than twice what I had using metal-bodied planes for stock prep. It’s not about being superman. It’s about being smart. Besides the endurance factor, wooden hand planes are easy to understand (they’re just a jig to hold a blade at the proper angle by a wedge). Their simplicity makes them easy to repair especially because they’re made out of wood. Any necessary flattening of the sole is quickly taken care of with another plane or adhesive-backed sandpaper on a flat surface.
Despite the trepidation some have about adjusting cutting action on a wooden-bodied plane, I have found it incredibly straightforward. A few gentle taps in the right places and the iron is sent right where it needs to be. It’s genius, really.
Last and (certainly) not least, by choosing to use wooden planes, you are standing in a long line of men from ancient Rome to the end of the 19th century who built their cities, houses, and furniture all with wooden hand tools. Metal-bodied tools came into the woodworker’s arsenal as mechanization ramped up in the industrial revolution. When you have machines doing most of the work for you, you needn’t be concerned about which plane style you choose, but if you are looking to work by hand, there is no comparing to a well-tuned wooden plane. So give it a shot. I bet you’ll agree.
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